Finding a Tablā Teacher

Today, a young man and his father came to my music school. The son wanted to take tabla lessons at our institute because he had been referred to me by a music friend of mine. At Rhythm Riders, we take very few new local students as a measure of quality control. I told him this, yet the father persisted in saying that his son wanted to learn more seriously. His son had been learning from someone else for 4 years, but now, finding a tabla teacher who could take him forward was very important. I could see that the boy was talented and very interested in music, so I conceded and gave him a chance to play.
Once our general class had thinned out, I called the boy to me with a pair of Tablā. On one hand, what happened saddened me, yet on the other hand, invoked no response, as I had seen this so many times over the years.
The boy’s basic hand was incorrect, meaning that his hand placement and movement to play basic bols was incorrect. Four years of carelessness or incompetence on the part of his teacher, and now, the boy had potentially formed bad habits that were irreversible. If I were to have taken this boy as a student at our school, we would first ask him to forget everything he has been taught and start from the absolute basics. But even with that extreme measure, it wouldn’t guarantee the development of a perfectly set hand (like those of students who start their training with us), as it is near impossible to forget what has become ingrained in the hands over the course of 4 years.
This scene is not new to me. I have experienced it time and time again. The lack of effort and research that is put into finding a Tablā teacher both saddens me and angers me.
Indian classical music has the potential to spiritually uplift the musician and the listener. It is a vidyā (art/ knowledge) whose learning is said to carry forth from one birth to the next. It has the ability to heal and empower and do so much more, yet when someone seeks to learn this art, they often spend less time on finding a teacher than they do on buying a shirt.
For example, I have seen people start learning from a particular teacher simply because their neighbour also learns from them. They start without asking any questions and doing any research. When we choose what school to send our child to, we look at the quality of the education, the caliber of its graduates, etc, so why don’t people do the same for training in Indian classical music?
Quality should not be excused for the sake of convenience. I understand that in today’s day and age, time is viewed as an increasingly limited commodity, but does that extra 30 minute drive take precedence over you losing the opportunity to reach a certain level of mastery? (Recall the young boy I mentioned at the start, who now has a very low chance of learning from a genuine Tablā teacher because his hand is damaged).
The caliber and qualifications of a teacher are crucial considerations. One does not necessarily have to begin learning from a maestro. (In fact, most maestros do not take beginner students. They only take on new students once a certain level of competency is displayed). Maestro or no maestro, one has to look at the level of competency the teacher has in their own playing and/or knowledge. The caliber of a teacher can be gauged by the caliber of his students. If a teacher does not have any (or very few) students that play well or have a good grasp of the art, this is clearly a reflection of the teacher’s poor skills.
An often overlooked question – How long have they been learning?
In my years abroad, I have seen countless Tablā players come to me who learnt Tablā? in India (or elsewhere) for a few years (most likely, not seriously but as a hobby) and then migrated abroad. One of the first things they do upon migration is teach Tablā. Why? Because with a few hours of work in the evening, they can cover their basic expenses at the least. To me, this is an absolute crime. They are not necessarily even qualified performers, let alone qualified teachers. But they do it and get away with it because they can find the students – people who did not do their research and decided to learn from the person closest to them.
How long have they been teaching? If they don’t have many years of experience, do they have someone who is monitoring their teaching? Teaching Indian classical music is not an innate capability, but one that has to be developed.
Who did they learn from? If they have learned from 5 unrelated teachers in a period of 3 years, a question should arise in terms of the teacher’s grounding in the art as their own learning has been “all over the place”.
Is there a potential for growth? Once you have reached a certain level, can you access a more knowledgeable teacher – for example, the teacher of your teacher? This question is particularly important if you are considering learning Indian classical music seriously. The concept of lineage loyalty, while diluted, still exists to a certain degree.
It is important to note here also that a great performer is not necessarily an equally qualified teacher. Teaching and performing require different qualities to be successful. For example, the smartest student in the class may not be the best tutor. Well-renowned artists also pose a general disadvantage to the student with regards to time.
Time and level of attention or love are also important considerations. How much face to face time will your teacher give you? A frequent performer may not be able to sit with you every week, but when they do sit with you, do they give you their full attention with love and affection? The feelings of love and affection are very important in Gurū- śiśya paramparā, which is the way that Indian classical music is supposed to be taught. Also, if the teacher is not able to give you regular attention, does a senior student of his/her sit with you on a regular basis? Regular contact/supervision is important, as that is the only way to prevent bad habits from developing. I know of many people who took lessons for some time and then practiced on their own for a period of time. That unsupervised practice led to damage in their hands because no one was correcting them.
The level of supervision must also be considered. Even if you sit with a teacher regularly, are you being corrected or simply given more and more material and minimal corrections? By watching videos of maestros, even a beginner, without understanding the complicated patterns, can get a sense of basic practices. You can see how basic notes are played, where hand placement is, etc. For example, in terms of tabla, you can get an idea of how Tīntāl is played, as it is played with similar movements by all maestros, regardless of gharānā. You can make out the difference between tin and tun just by watching videos.
For Tablā students, you can find countless videos of maestros in order to get an understanding of basic bols and hand positioning. I call this “standard playing”. Some names include: Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji), Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Swapan Chauduri, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Sharda Sahai and many more.
There are many other things one can consider, but I have covered the major points here. In short, learning Indian classical music or any vidyā is a lifelong journey that can open up many beautiful worlds. When embarking on this journey, your guide or teacher is of utmost importance, so do take the task of deciding upon a teacher seriously. Please do your research and find a good teacher. A good teacher can unlock the doors to these beautiful worlds. A bad teacher can potentially bar the chances of the doors to these worlds opening. If a good teacher is not available to fit your convenience, I would not suggest learning that instrument or art form at that time from a substandard teacher. At the same time, once you have found a teacher, it is your responsibility as a student to follow their instructions very carefully. Carelessness on the part of the student also leads to poor or slow results.