Drone Your Way to Excellence

If there is pain, use it as an awareness, as meditation, as a sharpening of the soul. And when pleasure is there, use it as a droning, as a forgetfulness. Both are ways to reach God. One is to remember yourself totally, and one is to forget yourself totally. ~ Osho


Several months ago I spoke with the fantastic jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen about practice. She mentioned that one thing she liked to do was practice with drones, using an Indian instrument called a tanpura (also tampura). She said that playing against a drone was a great way to train your ear/horn coordination. Practicing with a drone allows you to really feel how it sounds to play every note against the tonic, throughout your range. It’s meditative.

Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, North Sea Ja...
Ingrid Jensen

When I hear a great practice idea, I try it, and I’ve been using this one for a while and absolutely love it. I almost immediately noticed a greater ability to match pitch (my fellow musicians mentioned it in rehearsal), and a deeper awareness of sound in general. Part of the reason for this is that playing with the drone makes me aware of where the horn is naturally out of tune, whether because of the way a horn is made or because of the quirks of the harmonic series. But doing this has made playing just one note a meditative experience, even more so than it usually is. And by meditative, I mean it makes it easy to lose the “self” in the sound. Hard to explain, but a fantastic feeling.

I decided to buy the iTabla Pro app for iOS systems. It’s a full version with drones on the Tanpura, but adds many tabla rhythms. All future updates are free. Check the comments for more information about the developer of this great app, Prasad Upasani. He’s also created iTanpura Lite, a free app. I used that for a very short time before I knew this was a great thing to have, so I upgraded to the $25 version.

Might seem like a lot, but oh, man do you get some great stuff. It’s been a boon to help me learn more about Indian music, especially the taals used for tabla, which fascinate me (sixteen beat patterns, 5 beat patterns, 7.5 beat patterns….). You can set it to tell you the syllables used for the tabla and this is helping me learn tabla, too. The app is remarkably tweakable on many different levels.

Here’s a tanpura (you can see a set of tabla in the lower left):

Shubha Mudgal playing hte tanpura
Image via Wikipedia

You can set the Tanpura in the app to any pitch (the tabla match it) and can change those pitches by cents (there are 100 cents in a half step). This is wonderful as it allows me to tune the device to my didgeridoos, none of which are close to standard tuning. It’s a fantastic program and has given my practice a real shot in the arm. I’m incredibly grateful to Ingrid for sharing that information. You can hear the interview in the link below. Anyway, here are a couple demonstration videos of the software. First is the iTanpura (with just the drones and you can get it for free) and then a demonstration of the iTabla pro:

Apple’s App store links:    iTanpura Lite     and      iTabla Pro (has the drone and tabla)

Have fun, and good luck with your meditation, er…, practice.



iTanpura Pro (with Tabla)


8 Comments Add yours

  1. miguelmarcos says:

    Excellent suggestions in this post. I’ve been using iTablaPro for sometime now, for both classical and electric guitar practice. It’s an extraordinary tool. The drone definitely opens up your ears in a variety of ways but the tabla as well, in terms of rhythm ideas and practice.

    A couple of additions to the above: There is no app named iTanpuraPro; the name is actually iTablaPro. There is an iTanpura Lite, however, which is free and a great sampler for what iTablaPro has to offer. The second thing I wanted to mention is the developer, Prasad Upasani. He has not only been on top of updates, adding functionality and addressing issues, but he is also responsive to users via email in response to requests and questions. I can’t recommend iTablaPro more highly in every sense, above all, though, as a practice tool.

    The developer also has another app, this one with a harmonium. I prefer iTablaPro as I find the harmonium tonally exhausting after a while; not so the tanpura. iTablaPro also has a swar mandal, which I normally turn off, and a manjira, which appeared in the latest update of the app and I think will add nice variety to the patterns.

    Here’s the developer’s web site:

    1. great comment! Thanks for the correction. I’ll go make the change right now. I’d be interested in hearing more how a guitarist uses the drone. Would you mind sharing how you use it? Either here or shoot me an e-mail? (jon@sol-ut.com) I’m doing a study on practice and have been curious how a non-wind player might use this… Thanks again for the comment and advice.

  2. Jody says:

    Hi. I’m a bass player and just did a workshop with Ingrid. I am really excited about using this technique. Obviously fretless stringed instruments present similar intonation challenges to the ones that horn players face. But even for fretted instruments, playing with a drone would seem to offer very real benefits in terms of hearing intervals and modes.

    1. thanks for the comment, Jody. I bet this would be fantastic for upright bass players, and I agree that it would be good for anyone. One of the benefits is the meditative space that playing with drones induces (at least it does in me). Good stuff….

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