In part-2 of How to Practice Carnatic Music with a Metronome, I described some beginning exercises for the vina that combine meditation with practice of basic right hand plucking techniques that need early mastery. I described five such exercises for anchoring the flow of musical time in the body through breathing.
One problem with having so many exercises is that it isn’t clear to beginner students which one to pick that’s right for them .. and, to be fair, neither did I have a clear idea of which one would be good for beginners – if I were to pick one. Now that some time has passed since I came up with those exercises and some students have had the chance to try them out, I do have a better idea and I can suggest one.
My recommendation would be what I’d written in that post as “Exercise 2 - plucking with talam”. I’ll re-describe that exercise here for completeness. “Exercise 0 - preparation” remains the same. I’ve made some subtle, but important changes to the exercise, so this recommendation is quite different in character.
Hold your vina in the playing posture with the right hand in the playing position, resting your left hand on your lap. Sit relaxed, in a quiet environment, at a quiet time, for this is going to require a lot of concentration. If possible, do not have humming or ticking noises in your room such as fans, air conditioners and clocks. Yes, turn off your beeping devices.
Keep a 25-minute timer. You’ll need one to tell you when to take a 5 minute break. Do not think “I have a clock and I can glance up quickly”. You’ll soon find that to be a great source of distraction. Having a timer that goes off at the end of your practice session lifts the burden of keeping track of time off your shoulders.
New: If possible, use a firm cushion to give your lower back some additional support so that you can keep your spine erect with ease.
After adjusting your breathing by taking a few deep inhalations, sit relaxed, with the vina in the playing position (the left gourd on your left lap) and rest your left hand on your lap.
Resume normal ordinary breathing. No special effort to breathe deep or shallow is required. Just normal breathing. Unless you are a newborn, your body has already been doing this for many years ;) So it knows perfectly well how to breathe. Just breathe.
New: Rest your right fore finger on the main string of the vina in preparation for a pluck. During an inhalation, gradually increase the force applied on the string. At the moment you begin an exhalation, release the string (your finger should move below the string) and simultaneously lift your right-middle finger, and counting “one” in your mind. This gradual increase of force is like an archer drawing the bow string in preparation for a shot and it gives a strong anchor for a “pluck”.
Wait for your exhalation to complete. Just at the start of the following inhalation, bring your right-middle finger to rest on the string, thus stopping the sound. Now your right-middle finger is ready to pluck.
New: During the following inhalation, gradually increase the force you apply on the string. Once your inhalation completes, just at the start of your exhalation, release your right-middle finger, simultaneously lifting your right-fore finger in preparation for the next pluck, and count “two” in your mind.
Again, on the start of your inhalation, bring your right-fore finger to rest on the string. Continue this alternating cycle. Count from 1 to 8 and start again from 1. You’ll thus be counting in cycles of 8 breaths, which is intended to help anchor the “Adi tala” cycle in your breathing.
New: On the counts of 1, 5 and 7, play the tala in conjunction with the pluck. The preparation for the “tala pluck” involves bringing your plucking finger to rest on the main string while simultaneously bringing your little finger nail to rest on the bottom-most of the tala strings - the higher octave “Sa” string. As with a normal pluck, gradually increase tension on the strings during your inhalation and “let go” just as you begin to exhale.
Warning: It may appear easy to force your breath to be regular, but do not do so. You want your mind and plucks to be anchored to your breathing and not the other way, which is counter productive.
If, at any point, you lose count, simply start from “one” again at the next exhalation, plucking with your right-fore finger.