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Tuning an Esraj
It is very essential to be able to tune an esraj correctly. This instrument is not like a violin where there are only a few strings. In the esraj, you have many sympathetic strings along with four main strings. Tuning them to perfect accuracy is very important.
Of course, tuning an Indian instrument will vary amongst musicians. As long as their techniques remain consistent, then it is no problem. I will present two standards of tuning strings. The first method is the common method, while the second method is my method.
The common method is based on tuning the first main string (on the right) to ma below madhya sa. The second string tuned to sa one octave below madhya sa. The third string tunes to pa below madra sa. The fourth string is tuned to sa one octave below mandra sa.
The sympathetic strings are tuned to the notes of the raga. The picture of the common method can be found on Silverbush's Esraj Tuning Page. The Esraj tuning chart is linked from their site.
My opinion is that the tighter the strings are, the stronger the sound will be and its sympathetic effects will be stronger. Look at the diagram below.
With my model, Pa is the most ideal way to start the first string, since its a little more tighter than Ma. The middle two strings could be lower sa to emphasize the importance of the tonic. In addition, those two middle strings resonante whenever Pa or Ma are played too. The final string tunes to Ma of the lower octave. Again, this is pretty much for resonating purposes. If a raga contains tivra ma, then the last string is tuned to Tivra ma.
The sympathetics are tuned in a way to accomodate the raga. For instance, if R in the raga is komal, then you tune the R strings into komal re. This holds true to all notes except for ma. The tivra-shuddha ma is handled with the first string.
Tuning the Instrument
What was just discussed was on how to tune the strings. Even though the strings are in tune, the instrument may not be. Esraj is a fretted instrument. Since frets will be used as note markers, we want to make sure they really do mark the correct notes. Indian music is not like Western music which is based on a fixed equally tempered scale. Indian music is based on uneven pure intervals. Since esraj's frets are moveable, let's take advantage of moving frets to fix correct tunings.
Traditionally, esraj players do not really use frets. They are just there to show you where the notes are. The method of producing a note is to touch the section of the string above the fret of the desired note. Since the strings are floating in air, you aren't going to get full sound. I actually use the frets since they define it more clearly and you get a much fuller sound and less scratchy sound than the traditional method.
Whichever method you chose, the general method of tuning the instrument is the same.
First, bow your esraj's main string and find your sa. This should create a lot of vibration as many strings are tuned to that note. Remember where that note is. On the traditional method, this is the 7th fret, while my method has this to be the 5th fret. Move the fret such that when you touch string to the fret while bowing, you get Sa to be vibrant sound. You defined this to be your Sa fret. Do the same for the higher Sa.
After doing this method, work for the Pa. In method, Only Pa needed to be tested is in the madhya saptak. In the traditional method, two Pas has to be tested for. After correcting the frets for Pa, work for ma.
After doing that, fix all of the unaccounted notes for in between. Note, in the traditional way of tuning, your Re and Dha fret will be the one which will move a lot, while my method has Ga and Ni fret moving frequently. This sort of copies, the sitar's motif on frets. If your raga has a komal re and komal dha, then you have to tune those notes accordingly through the traditional way. If I had a komal ga and komal ni, then I would have to those frets accordingly.
Play each note. When playing, listen for that vibration. If you hear no vibration or sympathetic sounds coming, then either your fine tuned your fret incorrectly, or your sympathetic strings went out of tune. Always check!
Final tip: When moving frets, do it gently. These frets are supported with a plastic fishing line. It is really easy to break the fret strings. Push both ends up or down when moving them.
Also, the frets are used to fine tune the main melody string only. The other strings, if used for melody, will have to be based on proper intuition. The frets will lead you to an approximate area of where the note is located, but not necessarily the correct pin-point.
UPDATED: June 20, 2009