August 2015 Convention
Washington, D.C.

Improvisation Methodology in Indian Classical Music

Deepak Ram

photo by Alice Dade

South African bansuri player Deepak Ram led an interactive workshop on the similarities and differences between the Indian flute dialect and other types of improvisation. According to Ram, improvisation is the principal idea in Indian music. He said that in Indian music, it is important to “extract all the nectar one can from each note” instead of quickly changing harmonies as is done is some Western improvisation. That said, jazz musicians were some of the first Western musicians to embrace classical Indian improvisation. He talked about the scales, or ragas, and how different ones are used depending on the time of day of the performance.

Specifically relating to the Indian flute, or bansuri, he explained that the bansuri has no keys to play the ornaments that are so important in Indian music, such as sliding between notes or playing quarter tones. He also doesn’t use vibrato on that instrument (though some flutists do). He said that when he breathes in and out, he doesn’t shake, so he chooses not to shake when breathing out on the flute.

Deepak Ram with Pepe Gonzalez

photo by Brian Covington

There were several opportunities for participants to volunteer to play or ask questions. The highlight of the class was when attendees stood up and practiced improvising in the Indian style, even in a meter of seven beats per cycle!

—Karen Large