How to Play Flute (Bansuri) For Beginners
BASIC LESSONS FOR THE BANSURI
This section does not aim to teach Indian music, but instead aims to give you some useful tips in order to help you get used to your flute. If you have just begun to play the bansuri, it must be pointed out that it can take up to 6 months – 1 year or more for you to be fully comfortable with your flute and to be able to play it effortlessly and that’s just talking about the flute itself. Learning Hindustani music takes much longer, even though you should begin learning as soon as you can play the notes. However, once you are comfortable with the flute and your ear adapts, you will eventually be able to create your own songs and play any songs you know by ear.
STEP 1: GETTING A SOUND FROM THE BANSURI
If you have never played a wind instrument before, this can be a very difficult and frustrating task to begin with but you must keep trying, be patient and above all do not give up. Just remember that there are NO SHORTCUTS to playing the bansuri so do not expect to pick up the flute and suddenly play like a top professional. If you accept the fact that it’s going to take you a long time to play this beautiful instrument, then you will not become disappointed and your learning will be more pleasurable. Just relax and take your time. You are about to learn a truly wonderful instrument.
To begin with, do not worry about covering any holes on the flute. It is far more important to get a sound first before we try to cover the holes and learn the notes. This first step concentrates on getting the sound.
If you are right handed, then hold the flute in your hands so that your left hand grips the flute to the left of the blowing hole and your right hand grips below the blowing hole to the right although it does not really matter even if you hold it with one hand as long as you are able to hold the flute aligned with your lips. The idea is here is just to hold the flute up to your mouth so the the blowing hole is under your lips. Of course if you are left handed you will use opposite hands.
Raise the flute so that the blowing hole is in front of your lips and aligned with them. Your bottom lip must then be placed on the edge of the blowing hole nearest to you and will cover about 1/5 of the hole when you blow into it although this varies from player to player. I demonstrate this in the pictures below:
Examine how Bapu Padmanabha in the picture below also has his bottom lip placed on the blowing hole and how the blowing hole is placed in line with his lips.
Now you have the flute in position, imagine blowing softly into a glass bottle to make a sound. You might like to try by making a “P” sound with your lips. Say “P P P P P” and then try saying P and keep the air flowing out. So it will be like saying “Pu” pronounced as in the word “Put” but you will hold the “u” sound after saying Puuuuuuuuu.
The idea here is that most of the air you blow should go into the flute, but a fair amount of air will also escape. Much of the air will flow downwards. Your blowing creates a whirlpool of air in the flute which will create the sound. You should try to imagine with your mind that you are focusing the air into the blowing hole. Your lips should be shaped in a similar way as if you were very softly blowing on food to cool it down.
TIPS FOR GETTING THAT SOUND
If you are unable to get a sound after some time (and most people do not get a sound straight away – this sometimes takes hours, days or more depending on the person) then there are several things you can experiment with to try to get the sound:
1: Try changing the intensity of air with which you are blowing. You may be blowing too hard – in fact most beginners blow much too hard to try to get a sound – do not blow as hard as if you were blowing out a candle. It actually takes much less air to make the sound so try blowing softly.
- Try moving the blow hole towards your lips by rolling the flute towards you or roll the flute slightly away from the lips. Use your hands to roll the flute inwards towards your lips and outwards. Find where you can get the sound by experimenting with the angle.
- Try changing the position and shape of your lips. Try bringing your bottom lip forward and your top one slightly back and then do the opposite. Tighten your lips and loosen them to find which method gets you the best sound. You can practice this by blowing on your hand to see how the airstream changes direction when you change the position and shape of your lips. When you top lip is further forward than your bottom lip, with the bottom lip drawn back, you should notice that the air stream goes downwards. The further you move your bottom lip forward, the more you should notice that the air stream flows forward.
- Change the size of the hole in your lips. Notice how when you tighten your lips, the hole through which the air flows gets smaller and the air becomes faster and tends to flow more downwards.
This whole learning process is essentially a process of experimentation, so you will need to see what works for you by varying the intensity of your blowing and changing the shape of your lips to see what works for you and what will produce a clear sound. Everyone’s lips are different!
Some people play with their lips perfectly in line with the flute, whilst others play at a slight angle. Everyone plays a little bit different so you just to find what works for you by using the exercises above and experimenting to find “THE SOUND”.
The aim of the above exercise is to produce a clear sound. You should be able to produce a good long pure sound before beginning to close the holes and learning the fingering of the bansuri.
This can take time but after many squeaks and funny noises, you will eventually achieve this. In some cases it could take up to a week or more to get a clean sound. In my own experience, it took me about 3-4 days when I began but much longer to make the sound clear and pure.
You should spend much time practicing just getting your first note and trying to make it sound as clear, pure and smooth as possible. DO NOT HURRY! Everyone wants to play songs as soon as they can, but your songs will sound much nicer if you master the sound first. Do not jump ahead. Get a good long pure sound before trying to move to the next step.
STEP 2: HOW TO GRIP THE BANSURI
If you have only just begun to play the bansuri, you may be unsure how to hold the flute. If you are right handed then you will use your left hand to cover the top 3 holes and your right hand will be used on the bottom of the flute. If you are left handed, you will do the opposite. In the pictures below, you will see that one player is left handed and the other right.
There are 2 main ways of gripping the bansuri.
Hariprasad Chaurasia’s style
The pads of the fingers are used to cover the holes – not the finger tips. The fingers are relaxed and flat.
Observe the position of the fingers. Notice also the position of the thumbs. The thumbs help to support the bansuri and keep it in position. The chin also helps do this. The fingers must be able to dance over the holes and therefore should not be used to support the flute – Use the thumbs and the chin to do this.
The little finger (or pinkie) is not used and does not need to touch the flute. The others fingers cover the holes and the thumbs help keep the flute in place without slipping.
When playing in this style, keep in mind that the lines on your fingers should not be over the holes as this will cause the air to leak and effect the sound (See picture to the right). You will notice that if you cover a hole and there is a slight gap, the sound will be squeaky or non existent, so it is important to ensure you cover the holes correctly.
I also play using this style and demonstrate how the holes should be covered in the pictures below:
Pannalal Ghosh’s style
The finger tips are used to cover holes (as in picture below). This style can be difficult for players with small hands and fingers, particularly on the larger flutes.
Some players use this style of the smaller flutes and Hariprasad Chaurasia’s stule on the larger flutes.
Observe how in the picture opposite Pannalal Ghosh is using the very tips of his fingers to close holes.
Practice the grip that is most comfortable for you WITHOUT making any sounds.
Just get used to the feel of the flute and where the holes are.
Notice how your thumbs can be positioned to support the flute. Examine the pictures here and try to copy.
When you begin playing, it is normal to experience some discomfort in your hands, fingers and thumb.
It takes time for your hands and fingers to adjust – it can take years to be able to play the larger flutes comfortably. If you are a total beginner, it is best to begin using a smaller flute such as an A bass flute, G bass flute or if you have very small hands a C medium flute (See where to buy a bansuri for more information on selecting a suitable flute).
Once you get used to this, you can then move down to a bigger flute and begin to adapt to that also.
If you are experiencing discomfort, I would recommend stretching your fingers before playing the flute and after. Shake your hands if they begin to ache. Give yourself breaks also and above all if you are experiencing a lot of pain, give yourself a break for a day or 2. Do not overdo it. Just practice a little at a time.
STEP 3: PLAYING NOTES
Now you are able to make a clean sound on the bansuri, the next step is to begin covering holes and playing notes. We will look at the names of notes in a bit but for now concentrate on getting a good sound by playing the notes below.
It is best at this stage to cover one hole at a time, beginning from the top hole nearest to the blowing hole and to give a good amount of time to each note, making each note as clear and pure as possible.
Begin covering holes in the following order from left to right. Note that the yellow hole on the chart represents the blowing hole so you do not need to take any notice of this when looking at the chart. White holes represent open holes and black holes represent holes covered with your finger. Many flutes also have a seventh hole but do not worry about this hole yet. You can play the flute perfectly well without using the 7th hole at all like Chaurasia.
Indian MA GA RE SA NI DHA PA
When you being covering the holes you may experience problems with the sound. This can be for various reasons: the main 2 reasons are usually due to their being a gap when you cover a hole; so the hole is not fully covered and there is a small amount of air seeping out. You can try using a mirror to check that the hole is completely covered. There must be no gaps!
The other reason may be because you need to spend more time practicing getting the smooth sound. Perhaps you are keen to play music and have not given yourself enough time to practice getting a good sound each time. If this is the case, go back to the first exercise without covering any holes.
The sound should get deeper as you cover the holes. If the sound becomes higher or screeches, then you are blowing too hard.
You should spend a good amount of time (days or weeks) just practicing these notes. You should play long solid notes. Do not try to play fast (I am playing much faster in the video than you should) Play each note VERY slowly one at a time and when you can play them all perfectlu move on to the next stage of these lessons.
STEP 4: LEARN INDIAN NOTATION
You should begin to familiarise yourself with the Indian notes.(which differ from the western notes Do Re Mi…) and learn them so that you know exactly which notes you are playing. This will also help you to do some of the practice exercises on this page. The Indian notation system is called “saregam”.
The notes are called the following (Full name in brackets) as we cover holes one by one beginning from the top of the flute and working our way down until all holes are covered.
Ma (Madhyam) – no holes covered
Ga (Gandhar) – 1st hole covered
Re (rishab) – 2 holes covered
Sa (Shadja) – 3 holes covered
Ni (Nishad) – 4 holes covered
Dha (Dhaivat) – 5 holes covered
Pa (Pancham) – 6 holes covered
Try playing each note and saying the name of that note in your head (you do not need to say the full name, just the shortened version, since the longer version is not used often). The sooner you get used to the names of notes, the easier it will be to play the exercises later and to play songs and learn to read Indian compositions.
OCTAVE – SAPTA SWARA
Until now you have played just 7 notes (In Indian Sapta Swara). This set of 7 notes can also be referred to in Indian as SAPTAK, which is the equivalent of an OCTAVE.
The bansuri is capable of producing just over 2 and a half octaves. Until now, I have demonstrated in the videos only the lower octave (so the deeper notes) and have not played the upper octave (higher notes).
To produce the higher notes, it is possible to use the exact same fingering as with the lower notes you have learnt, but you must tighten your lips so that the hole through which the air flows becomes very small and this will increase the air, making it go faster. This creates a higher pitch.
You should now try to practice playing the lower note followed by the higher note as demonstrated in the video below on a G bass flute. I have down this quite fast, but it is a good idea to practice this slowly. I play lower Pa, higher Pa, lower Dha, higher Dha, lower Sa, Higher Sa etc etc.
Take your time to practice this. Getting the higher notes can be difficult for some and it can take many months to get used to changing your lips and also using your diaphragm to push up the air and make it flow faster. Remember the idea here is that you don’t have to blow harder to get the higher notes, you just need to make the air flow faster.
Over much time, you will learn to make these higher notes sound soft. They should eventually sound soft and airy. This is difficult to achieve but with a lot of practice and time it is possible.
I mentioned before that Indian notation system is called Saregam or Sargam. This is because in Indian music, the first note (or the “home” note) is considered to be Sa (with 3 holes covered on flute) and not PA. If your flute is a G bass, then your flute will play in the western key of G when playing Sa. If your flute is a C medium, then when you play Sa, it will produce the western key of C.
It is important to know that Sa is the home note because most compositions in Indian music begin and end on the note Sa. If you read the notes in order according to Indian music, you end up with SA RE GA MA PA DHA NI SA.
Examine the chart below (Click on it to enlarge). You can see that I have split the chart into 3 columns. The second column SA RE GA MA PA DHA NI is the middle octave. The 1st column including the deep notes ‘NI ‘DHA ‘PA is the lower octave (usually written with an apostrophe before the note or a dot underneath to show that they are lower notes).
The 3rd column shows the notes in the upper octave (usually written with an apostrophe after the note or a dot above to show that they are higher and not lower notes).
Note also that middle Pa and higher Pa (but not lower Pa) can be played also by opening partially or completely the first hole (Ga hole) so that the last 5 holes are covered but the first hole is only half covered or not covered at all. Many players play Pa using this method and some teachers will tell you only to use this method. As a beginner, I would recommend that you open half of the Ga hole to produce middle and upper Pa.
Now try to play from the lower octave Pa all the way up to the higher octave Pa (you will need to make the hole in your lips smaller and the air flow faster as you get up to the higher notes)
STEP 5: BLOWING TECHNIQUE
You may notice if you are a beginner that you get out of breath easily or feel dizzy when blowing into the bansuri or that you are not able to play lots of notes or hold the sound for long (this happens especially on the bigger flutes). This is normal when you are a beginner because beginners tend to blow without using the full capacity of their lungs and they also tend to blow too hard.
In order to use the full capacity of your lungs, it is necessary to use abdominal breathing which is similar to a technique for breath control used in yoga called “pranayama”.
It is not difficult to do, but requires time and practice to develop and use.
Put your hand on your belly and take a deep breath so that your belly begins to stick out. Now breathe out slowly and feel with your hand how your belly gets slowly smaller. Repeat this several times.
By doing this, your are filling your lungs up with as much air as possible and then slowly releasing.
When you play, you must learn how to breathe in quickly, using your abdomen and then release the air slowly. It is a bit like swimming when you must breathe in quickly when coming up for air. This technique takes time to develop and your lungs will get stronger over time.
STRUGGLING WITH THE HIGHER NOTES
Reaching the notes in the higher register can be more difficult. The main thing to remember is that you do not need to blow harder but instead make your embouchure smaller so that the air flows faster through your lips. The air also needs to be more focused with the air flowing faster.
A good way to imagine this is by thinking of a garden hose. When used normally, the water flows out at a moderate speed, but if you close the hole partially at the end of the hose, the water comes flying out very quickly. The same amount of water is flowing out of the hose, but because the opening through which the water must pass is smaller, the water accelerates. The same is true for playing the bansuri. For the higher notes, you must use the same amount of air but make your embouchure smaller, thus increasing the air speed. Tighten your lips as much as possible so that the air is flowing fast through a very small hole in your lips.
PRACTICE EXERCISES – NOTES AND FINGER/MIND TRAINING
Once you have learnt the notes SA RE GA MA PA DHA NI SA, you can begin to practice playing the following sequences of notes below. These sequences are called “Alankaar” or “Palta” in Hindi and mean “Ornamentation” or patterns of notes.
They can be played at varying speeds once mastered to ornament the music but as a beginner you should learn them as slowly as possible because this will train your brain and equip you better for playing them faster later.
The notes in red with an apostrophe before them are notes in the low register or octave.
Notes in blue are notes in the middle register.
Notes in pink with an apostrophe after them are notes in the highest register.
I demonstrate the exercises in videos below on a G bass flute. If you have a different flute, they will sound different in pitch.
Arohan (Ascending): ‘P ‘D ‘N S R G M P D N S’ R’ G’ M’ P’
Avarohan (Descending): P’ M’ G’ R’ S’ N D P M G R S ‘N ‘D ‘P
Arohan: ‘P ‘D ‘N ‘D ‘N S ‘N S R S R G R G M G M P M P D P D N
D N S’ N S’ R’ S’ R’ G’ R’ G’ M’ G’ M’ P’
Avarohan: P’ M’ G’ M’ G’ R’ G’ R’ S’ R’ S’ N S’ N D N D P D P M P M G
M G R G R S R S ‘N S ‘N ‘D ‘N ‘D ‘P
Arohan: ‘P ‘D ‘N S ‘D ‘N S R ‘N S R G S R G M R G M P G M P D
M P D N P D N S’ D N S’ R’ N S’ R’ G’ S’ R’ G’ M’ R’ G’ M’ P’
Avarohan: P’ M’ G’ R’ M’ G’ R’ S’ G’ R’ S’ N R’ S’ N D S’ N D P N D P M
D P M G P M G R M G R S G R S ‘N R S ‘N ‘D S ‘N ‘D ‘P
Arohan: ‘D ‘P ‘N ‘D S ‘N R S G R M G P M D P N D S’ N R’ S’
G’ R’ M’ G’ P’ M’
Avarohan: P’ M’ M’ G’ G’ R’ R’ S’ S’ N N D D P P M M G G R R S
S ‘N ‘N ‘D ‘D ‘P
Arohan: ‘P ‘N ‘D ‘P ‘D S ‘N ‘D ‘N R S ‘N S G R S R M G R G P M G
M D P M P N D P D S’ N D N R’ S’ N S’ G’ R’ S’
Avarohan: S’ G’ R’ S’ N R’ S’ N D S’ N D P N D P M D P M G P M G
R M G R S G R S ‘N R S ‘N ‘D S ‘N ‘D ‘P ‘N ‘D ‘P
The following exercises require the use of the tongue. So you can play the same note multiple times but by saying “ta’ or “ta-ta-ta” when you blow into the flute. Try producing the following:
Arohan: ‘P’P ‘D’D ‘N’N SS RR GG MM PP DD NN S’S’ R’R’
G’G’ M’M’ P’P’
Avarohan: P’P’ M’M’ G’G’ R’R’ S’S’ NN DD PP MM GG RR SS
‘N’N ‘D’D ‘P’P
Arohan: ‘P’P’P’P ‘D’D’D’D ‘N’N’N’N SSSS RRRR GGGG MMMM
PPPP DDDD NNNN S’S’S’S’ R’R’R’R’ G’G’G’G’
Avarohan: G’G’G’G’ R’R’R’R’ S’S’S’S’ NNNN DDDD
PPPP MMMM GGGG RRRR SSSS ‘N’N’N’N ‘D’D’D’D
You can also make up your own alankaars. Here are a few more suggestions of various combinations:
Up: SR RG GM……..and so on
Down: S’N ND DP……..
Up: RS GR MG……..
Down: NS’ DN PD…….
Up: SG RM GP…….
Down: S’D NP DM…….
Up: GRS MGR PMG……..
Down: DNS’ PDN MPD……..
Up: SGR RMG GPM……
Down: S’DN NPD DMP……..
Up: GSR MRG PGM……..
Down: DS’N PND MDP……..
Up: SGRS RMGR GPMG……..
Down: S’DNS’ NPDN DMPD…….
Up: SRSRG RGRGM GMGMP……..
Down: S’NS’ND NDNDP DPDPM……..
Up: SRGRS RGMGR GMPMG………
Down: S’NDNS’ NDPDN DPMPD………
Up: SRGSRGM RGMRGMP GMPGMPD…….
Down: S’NDS’NDP NDPNDPM DPMDPMG…….
Many combinations are possible. Just taking the 4 notes Sa Re Ga Ma, we can get some of the following sequences and more:
MRGS etc etc……….
It is also possible to practice these alankaars with grace notes. A grace note is when you play a note for a very short time compared with other notes – it is a flicker of that note. You literally tap the hole of the note – on and off very quickly. For example, you could play : S R G (R) G – The (R) is the grace note. So when you play this sequence of notes you will play Sa Re Ga then you will tap your finger on and off the grace note, in this case the Re hole very quickly then playing Ga normally. Try to play the grace notes in the following practice exercises:
SRG (R) G RGM (G) M GMP (M) P………………
SG (R) G R RM (G) M G GP (M) P M……………..
SG (R) GRS RM (G) MGR GP (M) PMG……………
SRGRG (R) GR RGMGM (G) MG GMPMP (M) PM……………..
SRG (R) GRS RGM (G) MGR GMP (M) PMG…………….
S (‘D) S R (S) R G (R) G P (G) P D (P) D S’ (D) S’
S’ (D) S’ D (P) D P (G) P G (R) G R (S) R S (‘D) S