The Body Mechanics of Playing Tabla

By David J. Yovino – Student of Swapan Chaudhuri at the AACM, San Rafael, CA

As it holds true with all activities and especially the arts, body position and the
interaction therein plays a vital role in performance, consistency, and injury reduction.
Now whether this is done with full awareness or not by the most accomplished
practitioners changes nothing for the novice. The more we can emulate our teachers, the
easier it will be for them to mold us. The end result will not and should not be a carbon
copy, but will provide the foundation for us to reach our own potential and style while
minimizing bad habits.

Muscle memory: Crawling, Walking, Running, Jumping, Riding a bike. All taken for
granted, but use hundreds of muscles that were once seemingly impossible to have
cooperate. Muscle memory is best achieved by consistent repetition of the intended task
we are asking the muscles to perform. In music, we are required to link muscle memory
to the desired production of specific tones. This is a much more difficult task than say
typing on a keyboard, which in itself takes years of practice to be proficient. In order to
achieve a rich and balanced “terekitetaka”, we must practice it slowly, with only the
required movement to produce the correct sound, and do so the same way, through each
repetition of the phrase. In no way confuse this with sounding monotone. One example
is accenting the bol like “TErekitetaka” the first cycle and moving the accented Bol ahead
like “teREkitetaka” with each repetition. Rather than trying to force through muscle
resistance when you feel it creeping in, slow it down a bit until comfortable. After you
build stamina at the comfortable speed, then move up in speed gradually, always backing
down when resistance is felt. Eventual muscle fatigue is unavoidable, but in this way you
will more efficiently work through the tightness caused by imbalance of muscle
coordination and reach proper technique sooner.

Before I came over from Indiana to study tabla, my friend and musician Travis Ellison
who introduced me to the instrument, was very hesitant to show me any strokes on the
drum, which I was later very thankful for. Travis explained that he himself hadn’t been
properly trained. (the sound still sounded amazing to my ears) and so taking heed to his
advice I asked him to only show me “Tete” so I couldn’t go wrong…or so I thought.
Turned out, of course I was practicing it wrong, and I had to “unlearn” before I could
learn. In my opinion, avoiding having to unlearn is best accomplished by acquiring
knowledge and explanation of something as soon as you start to doubt it being correct.
So if your “dhenetage” just doesn’t have that same ring to it, ASK someone you trust to
check it for you. In this way you will be communicating to your muscles more accurately
from the very beginning, and then not have to spend years later making bad technique
sound good.

Just as an athlete would thoroughly stretch before performing, the musician must do the
same. For any Bela Fleck fans out there, on his album “Perpetual Motion” he had a
massage therapist at the studio to completely work his hands and fingers between tracks.
This comes from the need to conserve energy. You will need to relax some muscles in
the body while contracting others in a precise manner. My High School football coach,
Mo Moriarity commented once on how unnecessary gruesome faces and strained neck
muscles were while weight lifting. He said, focus instead on the muscles you need for
the job, and that energy will be better served. What this means for us tabla players is
that, we should first be 100% comfortable in our seated position and our alignment with
our drums. Ensure a straight as possible back, and if necessary, use a cushion to shift
your height to a better playing angle, or just for comfort and back support. The arms
should not be overextended which can limit movement and cause early fatigue. When
the proper position is achieved, you will have created an energy efficient platform from
which to play your Tabla.

If we closely observe masters such as Swapan Chaudhuri, we have all noted the upright
and relaxed manner of his body regardless to what he is playing, or at what speed. Upon
further examination, his hands are smaller than most, and fall on his drum differently than
might yours. After at least 6 months of training, I would recommend playing on a larger
or smaller head than the one you started with to find what feels best, then stick to that
diameter and develop tone. Of course this means that when comparing drums, they are all
of equal quality and at their intended pitch. You might discover that by increasing the
diameter of the tabla you can more easily play in the direct center of the drum, where the
best tonal qualities are achieved. Note those old-school photographs of Thirakwa
Khansahib (Huge hands) playing on those enormous tablas.

Try jumping on a trampoline out of rhythm with its natural rebound. What happens? On
a different scale, the same physics are at work on your fingers when striking the Tabla.
So now, zoom in on the above-mentioned visual and replace the trampoline with a Tabla
head. A finger falls in slow motion down on top of the tensioned skin. The finger is
falling into the drum, now compressing the head, and rebounding on a vector determined
by the angle and speed of approach. We can at this scale, understand why the center of
the drum is so important. If you jump on the edge of a trampoline, you will get nowhere
near the rebound of the center, or in other words, more energy will be returned to your
hand when playing in the center. This happens to be a symbiotic relationship in that the
tabla head will also receive the greatest percentage of energy from your hand and
translate that into sound. Furthermore, due to this balance, your drum will stay in tune

From the same visual as before, the importance of “weight” and balance in your hand can
be understood. Stomping on a trampoline will not produce the same effect as jumping,
and likewise, picking up your hand early will not allow the drum to rebound naturally,
much like jumping into a trampoline and then picking your feet up. Think of closed bols like “tete” and “terekite” as resting strokes. Direct your hand to fall completely into the
drum center and allow the Tabla to take on the weight of your hand, wrist and arm. For
strokes like “Na” the idea of weight in your first finger is the same, but with different
mechanics and muscle groups involved.

There is no shorter path to faster speeds than practicing slowly and with full weight in
each stroke. In this way, you will develop the unique relationship of your hand with your
tabla, then your two hands as one. Balance between your individual hands and their drum
is reached by playing with the appropriate weight according to the speed. This will allow
you to take full advantage of the rebound effect. Your stamina and comfort increasing is a
positive sign that you are on the right path. Likewise, tightness, cramps, pain, blisters,
and even calluses are signs that you should seek guidance with the bols you are working
on. This is not to say Tabla is not hard work, it just shouldn’t cause injury.

Thirakwa Khansahib, occasionally would soak his hands in very cold water until they
were numb and then begin his practice. I believe this allowed him to gain a better feel of
how his body was involved in producing clear sound from the Tabla. Because his hands
were numb, his senses would shift to his forearm to see how the muscles there were
involved in commanding his individual fingers. Then undoubtedly, the awareness of his
shoulders and entire back were noticed, and trained to play Tabla.

This again illustrates the importance of good stretching prior to practicing. It goes
directly toward enhancing your muscle memory and therefore the quality of your

In closing, all of the skeletal aspects of playing are useless without proper tone and the
pursuit thereof which can only be guided by a master. Slow and clean sound is favored
more than fast and unintelligible.

-Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice, makes perfect