Riaz means "practice". It is the responsibility of any artist to establish a strict and daily practice regime necessary for producing clarity of the bols (syllables on tabla), and the phrases which comprise any given composition or improvisation. Without this consistent and highly focused form of practice, the development of the student’s hands, mind and presentation will never flourish.

It is not suggested that the musician practice as many types of compositions as possible. On the contrary, it is best to focus on a singular technique or composition for as long as the riaz interval is to take place. During this drilling of specific techniques, the hands will develop more thoroughly, st rengthening the muscles with each minute of practice. Playing one technique over and over again for as much as several hours may seem pointless, but the end results will greatly outweigh any scattered form of practice.

The ability to practice within this format is not only challenging and tiring, but mentally, can be very taxing. Even though practicing such repetitive phrases seems mindless on the surface, what we are training is the reaction time for quickly entering and exiting the bols within more complex phrases. Without this mental training, the speed will not come when needed and clumsy playing will result - an embarrassing and frustrating situation

Many anecdotes of India's great historical musicians clearly reveal this point. Arguably, one of India's greatest tabla maestros was the late Ahmed Jan Thirakwa who died in 1975. In his own words, he describes his own practice routine:

I used to practice for sixteen hours, with one hour gap in between. If I stared at ten in the morning, then at twelve I took a rest, took lunch. After lunch, I practiced again till seven at night and then had an interval of an hour. I practiced when I travelled by train. There was less crowd in the train then.

This is only one example of the discipline these great masters exhibited throughout and during their performing career, illustrating the incredible drive and determination to render the bols completely and thoroughly. After all, the audiences deserves your best presentation and without these hours of practice, you have, in essence, cheated the audience of the potential and beauty of what you are playing.

Further anecdotes of Thirakwa’s routine, whether of fact of fantasy, reveals even more of his great discipline.

Where would he sit when he practiced? Where bugs and insects and scorpions used to bite. He used to sit there so he wouldn’t feel sleepy and go to sleep. He is about ninety years old and still very healthy. He used to practice the whole night. In the morning his brother would get almonds and raisins and that sort of thing. At twelve o'clock he would tie his hair to the ceiling and stay awake, and he would play till six in the morning. He continued like this for two years. Now he doesn’t need to do this any more. Now he practice for an hour or two a day.

Thirakwa is truly an inspiration to all tabla players and musicians who attempt this form of practice for any extended period. In today’s demanding world of strict work and family schedules, it is clearly impossible to maintain this strict regime. Yet, without such sacrifices, true greatness will never be attained.

Is it good enough to be the best you are at any given time. Has one truly practiced enough to call it a day. The answer is, quite simply, no. No matter how much one practices, one could conceivably practice more. Within our daily schedule, sacrificing a moment to relax, read the paper, or watch television, we could be practicing. Yet, there are so many distractions which dissuade the player from practicing, and this usually shows up at the worst possible moment - the performance. It is then that the musicians realizes their own shortcoming and easily recalls Thirakwa’s inspiration.

Within a daily riaz of one to two hours, the ability to focus on the keener aspect of one’s craft are so much more vital than how fast or how many compositions one can play within that period. Indeed, it is not the length of one’s practice that is vital, it is the quality of practice. Within today’s hectic schedule, even a half hour of highly focused and concentrated practice is worth much more than three hours of scattered, un-focused practice.

As my guru, Pandit Shreeram Devasthali once put it: "A tabla player must become like a wrestler, battling with all your inner strength to pull out the clearest sound of the drum. Focusing on one specific technique during the riaz is like entering the ring with your singular opponent - that one mystifying technique you so often stumble upon. One day, you may loose the battle, but the next, you will become all the wiser and stronger, with your ultimate goal of winning that much closer within reach. Do not treat this lightly, because there are many battles to be won, and many more which unfold during each mind-expanding lesson or practice session.

Having learned how to properly practice and adhering to this daily discipline is a great feat; and if you have attained this perspective, you are to be congratulated. However, avoid thinking that because you had a great practice last night, practicing the following night is not necessary. This attitude will invade your routine and soon you will no longer have a routine to call your own. The bottom line is discipline!

A proper riaz requires an appropriate practice space without interruption, good lighting, atmosphere and a clear mind. The latter is most vital for, without a clear mind, all focus will be lost. Understandably, with so many things clouding our thoughts within a busy day, how does one clear the mind? Meditation is one possible answer, but the other is pure and simple concentration. Avoid concentrating on concentrating. It is one thing to think you are concentrating, but it is another to truly have concerted thoughts.

How will you know if you are truly relaxed and concentrating. This answer clearly lies in your practice - the clarity of sounds produced and the ability to flow through variations without stumbling. Another thing to avoid at all costs is frustration as this will diminish one’s concentration, resulting in more harm than productivity. If your riaz is not going well, slow down and start again, gradually increasing your speed and focus.

Controlled speed on tabla is, undoubtedly, vital to an aesthetic musical presentation and today's educated audience almost demands great skill and technique. There are many players who can render relas with amazing speed and finesse, but this is the result of years of riaz, patience, and performing experience. You may never play like Zakir Hussain, but you will always play like yourself. We are, after all, individuals and our individuality comes from within, not by mirroring someone else's style or compositions.