Singing Sa

The old story goes like this: An old fiddler has a young apprentice. Every day the fiddler sits in the town square and plays just one note on his fiddle. The apprentice listens in rapt attention. Then one day the apprentice hears another fiddler, playing in another part of town. This fiddler plays many notes on his fiddle. The apprentice is astonished, and goes to the old fiddler, saying, “You are only playing one note, but the other fiddler is playing all kinds of notes.” The old fiddler says, “Aha! He is still searching. I have found it!”

My teacher, the late Ali Akbar Khan, used to say that being in tune is 95% of music. In the North Indian (Hindustani) classical tradition, the musician learns to play or sing one note, as a tuning exercise. In my experience this is the most powerful and profound singing exercise there is. By singing this one note, you can reach an inner attunement to your own body and to the outside environment. One quarter of the musician’s practice time should be devoted to playing or singing this one note, called “Sa” in the Indian musical scale. (One quarter should be exercises and scales, and one half, the songs or compositions.)

The theory is that every person has his or her own “Sa”, the note that your body, your instrument, is tuned to. When you find that note, you are actually tuning yourself up, like you would tune any stringed instrument. Your “Sa” is generally a fifth or so above the lowest note you can sing comfortably. When you sing your own “Sa”, you can sing it for a long time and it just recharges you. After about fifteen minutes you get into a special zone, and it becomes a meditation.

Of course, your accompanying instrument must be in tune! Indian musicians spend a long time just tuning the drone instrument, called a “tanpura”. The practice of tuning an instrument is itself a meditation. It’s all about fine-tuning yourself, so you can hear better, and feel the power of the music. It’s a life-long lesson. For singers, there is nothing more important than tuning, and nothing more rewarding. It just feels good to be in tune!