I would be happy to help out anyone who wants help to select a Bansuri. If you need help, just write to me. You can also buy Bansuris on this site (through shop or though links at the bottom of this page).
Let me begin by answering the bottom line question that most of you may have – which Bansuri should I buy?
Most leading bansuri players play the E Bansuri (about 32″ long) in the concert. For my beginner students I recommend to start with G# Bansuri (about 24″ long) since it is a bit smaller and helps get over the initial learning curve faster.
With that, you can now read the details and rationale below.
Choosing any musical instrument is all about the balance between the acoustic characteristics and musician’s personal preferences (and most often, cost and budget). Bansuri is no different. Here are some basic considerations.
- Pitch and Length
- Bamboo Quality and Tonal Characteristics
Pitch & Length
Longer the Bansuri, deeper is the pitch – this is matter of simple physics. In general, deeper the pitch, more suitable it is for classical music. The reason is simple. When we play long uniform notes in classical music, we don’t want the flute yelling and screaming. We want it to create a soothing sound.
Two factors however, limit how big a Bansuri one should choose. Firstly, big flutes are difficult to finger. If you have short fingers, you will have trouble playing a long Bansuri. Even when you have long fingers, the objective is to make the fingers “fly” on the Bansuri. Therefore, if you really have to stretch to close fingers, it will limit your ability to play fast. To complicate things, fingers do adjust to some extent to the stretching and therefore, usually you should go for the Bansuri that is slightly beyond your initial abilities to finger.
The other factor is that bigger flutes are difficult to blow. Again, over the period of time, your stamina improves. But if you choose too big a flute, you will have trouble blowing the notes for long, playing the Bansuri for long or producing volume related variations on the Bansuri.
Most professional Bansuri players today play Bansuri keyed to Tonic E or safed teen. Such Bansuri is about 30-32” in length and suits most adults. Children should start with suitable lengths of Bansuri. Even adults can start with smaller Bansuri such as G# or F# and then over period of time, move to bigger Bansuri.
The definition of the pitch of a Bansuri can be quite confusing to the beginners. Here’s an attempt to demystify it.
By convention, the tonic note or SA note of the Bansuri is considered to be the note played when upper three holes are closed and lower three are left open. It is, of course, possible to the octave from any hole, but usually bansuris are tuned to the convention mentioned above.
This sound of the SA, when matched to the standard Western keyboard will tell you the pitch of the Bansuri. For example, if the note with three holes open, three closed position, corresponds to the note produced by the white key after the two black keys on the keyboard, then the pitch is considered to be tonic E by western conventions.
The picture of keyboard above shows how notes are named by Western conventions. The black keys denote the so called sharp notes and are denoted by suffixing the main note with #.
Indian convention is to call a note safed (white) or kali (black). For example, Kali 4 or black 4 corresponds to G# and Safed 5 or white 5 corresponds to G (counting white keys from C).
Bamboo Quality and Tonal Characteristics
Natural characteristics of bamboo play important role in the tonal characteristics. The Bamboo of the Bansuri should be as straight as naturally possible. It is a natural material and slight bends over the length are very common. It should not have any node in its entire playing length and I personally prefer not to have the node even at the close end.
The bamboo should not appear very dry and woody. Most good Bansuris will have a glossy appearance. The glossiness is due to buffing and not due to any polish coating. In fact, I really hate playing Bansuris with varnish or polish applied because they tend to get sticky.
Region from where the bamboo is sourced plays important role in determining tonal characteristics. Bamboos from north Indian regions of Uttar Pradesh and Assam or south Indian region of Kerala produce good tonal characteristics. What are these tonal characteristics? When you play a note on a Bansuri (and for that matter, any other instrument), depending on the natural structure of the instrument, the harmonic frequencies of that note are also heard (if you play a note at 440 Hz, the note at 880 Hz is called second harmonic, the note at 1320 Hz is the third harmonic and so on). Based on the mix of these harmonics and their intensity relative to each other you get different tonal characteristics. In absence of these harmonics, all Bansuris or for that matter, all instruments would have sounded identical – how boring.
Preference of tonal characteristics is a matter of personal choice. If you blow very lightly in a Bansuri, with intensity well below capable of producing sound, you can hear some harmonic frequencies. These almost sound like hissing but if you listen carefully, they actually are notes. More or less of getting these is yet another matter of personal choice.
Unlike most other instruments, the Bansuri is tuned when it is built. Once made, there is only a small room to fine tune it. Therefore, it is extremely important that the Bansuri you choose is tuned to perfection by the Bansuri maker.
Bansuri used to play Hindustani music should be tuned to the Just scale. People often make the mistake of testing how tuneful the Bansuri is by comparing notes against the harmonium or keyboard. This is a big mistake since the harmonium is tuned to the Chromatic scale. The Just scale is based on the natural ratios of frequencies whereas the Chromatic scale is based on equal spacing of notes.
It is clearly not easy to figure out how well the Bansuri is tuned when you are about to begin learning it. I would be happy to help out anyone who wants help to select a Bansuri.
A well tuned Bansuri with very good bamboo can still be quite bad, if it is not ergonomically designed. A good Bansuri maker strikes good balance between the size of the holes and the distance between them so that the Bansuri is comfortable to finger.
Here are some indicators to good ergonomic design:
- Top three fingering holes are more or less equidistant and of about the same size
- The second of the lower three holes is usually closer to the first. However, there must be a balance between this distance and the diameter of the second hole so that the distance between the second and third hole is not too much
- Some big Bansuris, called shankh (conch-shell) Bansuris, usually have fingering holes in a curved manner instead of linearly aligned. This makes them easier to finger.
Buy Concert Bansuri