I was sitting on the floor of a small home in Kolkata, northern India, where I’d be staying for the next three months. I had my tabla ready in front of me.
I had no idea what to expect. Jayanta, my new tabla teacher, had just seated himself opposite me. He didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t speak a word of Bengali.
He gestured for me to play.
I’d been having regular lessons in the UK for two years, I’d been practising pretty diligently. So whilst I was nervous, I was also looking forward to showing him that I wasn’t a complete newbie. I played.
After a few seconds, he winced and raised his hand to stop me. He looked like I’d insulted him.
He took a long look at me, said forcefully, “Na!” and hit the tabla once with the index finger of his right hand. Effortlessly. The walls rang with the sound.
There are seven sounds you make with your fingers on a set of tabla. They’re combined to make incredibly complex rhythms which sometimes don’t repeat for many beats. Rhythmically, Indian classical music is much more complex than western classical music.
“Na” is the most basic sound of tabla. It’s like a word, the first one you learn. You make it by snapping your index finger down and hitting the rim of the tabla. Done right, it rings.
He said “Na” and gestured to me again. I did my “Na”. It was more of a soft, fluffy “ping”. He shook his head and hit his “Na” again. Again, the walls rang.
Then he left me alone to work on my “Na”.
As uncomfortable and humbling as that experience was, I think of it now as one of the pivotal moments in my life. It has affected how I approach any kind of learning. When I’m trying to develop pretty much any complex skill, I work on my “Na”.
Working on my “Na”
I practice drawing pretty much the same way as a musician practices.
Most people approach improving their drawing and painting by drawing and painting. It seems obvious, right? And that will work, probably. But for most people, it’s a really inefficient way to improve.
A much more efficient way is to take out a specific skill, even a specific part of a specific skill, and practice it repeatedly until it improves. To work on your Na.
Then, when you come to perform, the walls will ring.
My daily practice routine
So every morning, at the beginning of each working day in the studio, I work on my na.
First, I warm up with an exercise I call breathing lines. It’s pretty simple. I get a charcoal pencil and I draw a bunch of easy, slow, straight, parallel lines. I’m not drawing anything, I’m just warming up. Feeling the contact between the charcoal and the paper.
After this, I do an exercise from a superb drawing skills program available from Ani Art Academy, The Language of Drawing called “origin – destination”.
A line has to start somewhere and it has to end somewhere. This exercise entails marking a series of random dots on the paper and then joining them with as straight and controlled a line as you possibly can. It’s much harder than it looks! Try it.
Once I’ve done two or three of those, I do another exercise from the same program called shape replication. This is kind of like a simplified version of sight size. The way I do this is to draw a square, subdivide it with three lines using a ruler, and then draw out another square the same size and attempt to replicate the divisions free hand. Again, harder than it looks. Try it 🙂
If you draw your original squares on a clear acetate sheet (use OHP slide pens) you can then lay your original over your copy to see how close you’ve come. This feedback is really invaluable in helping you improve and gauge your progress. Especially if you’re learning by yourself.
All this takes me about an hour, maybe a little more. It’s not too much out of my day, and it guarantees me that every day, I develop or at the very least maintain some basic drawing skills. I’m just working on my “Na”.
What do you hope to gain?
Someone once asked me this when I posted an image from my practice on facebook. It’s a reasonable question. I assume the inclusion of the word “hope” infers that the poster wasn’t convinced there was much much point to what I was doing, or at least was a little bemused by it.
If you’re used to think about just drawing or painting stuff to improve your skills, then I guess it does look a little odd at first. Well, here’s what I get from it:
- Firstly, I get a sense of achievement from it. Every day, and that’s not to be sniffed at.
- Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I know I’ve developed my skills. By a minuscule amount, yes, but over years, over a lifetime, those minuscule amounts add up to something big.
- I also get the knowledge that I’m moving forwards. Even if I don’t paint on a given day, I know I’m not lapsing. I’m still working on maintaining my basic skills. I’m still improving my “Na”.
The one thing I don’t get though, is anything worth showing. What I end up with on my paper is tracks in the snow. A record that I showed up and practiced, and perhaps an indication of whether I did better than usual today or not.
No one would even consider questioning a violinist about why they practise basic scales and intonation to improve their technique. Because everyone knows that they’re doing it so that when they come to perform, they will have the skills that they need at their fingertips.
I believe that it’s the same for any complex skill, and that certainly includes drawing and painting.
A lot of the time, I don’t really feel like doing it, although I enjoy it once I’ve started. One thing that helps me on the days when I’m struggling to get started is to remember Jayanta sitting across from me. I remember his disdain.
And I get to work on my “Na”.
Just in case it’s useful to see, here’s a short clip from my drawing practice session this morning. I didn’t film this for a demonstration, though, I just started the camera running and whatever came out, came out. But this is me, pretty much every morning. In my new studio at home. I do it standing up 🙂
How is your “Na”?
If you like the idea of this kind of practice but worry that you won’t be able to find the time or have the commitment to keep it going, I think I may be able to help you.
I’m currently putting together a free short course with a few really powerful but simple drawing exercises, and a simple system of daily email reminders to keep you on track. It should be ready just in time for the New Year.
It’s free. If you’d like to get it in your in box in the new year to get your 2018 off to a good start, just fill in the form below and I’ll send it to you when it’s ready.
What might change if you started the new year by working on your “Na”?