Traditional Methods of Learning To Drum

By Jim Greiner

–  A shorter version of this article appeared in Latin Percussion Education Magazine: June 1998

For thousands of generations people all around the world have drummed to raise their spirits, energize their bodies, release tension, strengthen their community bonds and celebrate the pure joy of being alive! Whether we drum by ourselves, with bands, or in drum ensembles, drumming has very specific, very positive, effects upon our bodies and minds. This is especially true when approached in ways that traditional people drum.

In the past few years, studies conducted in hospitals and universities (some commissioned by the U.S. Senate) have documented the health and healing aspects of drumming. Drumming is very much like athletics and martial arts. In all three we practice repetitive movements over and over until they become effortless, reflexive and intuitive. In drumming these movements result in patterns of sound, that is, rhythms. The constant repetition can put us in a transcendental state that athletes call the “Zone”, where we become very alert and focused and able to react effortlessly and spontaneously to our surroundings.

There are many ways to play drums, depending upon the drum, the drummer and the context. There are, however, some basics that hold true to drumming because it is such a physical activity. These basics are

-breathing properly
-building a solid foundation from the beginning
-progressing to new levels only when ready, and
-practicing and playing.

In many of the traditional cultures from which we learn new drumming styles, such elements are taken for granted. In our modern, fast paced, channel surfing society we will be well served to re-integrate them into our learning process. Especially if we hope to remain true to the natures and traditions of these instruments and rhythms.

Breathing properly, using the diaphragm (breathing into the belly, not just the chest), helps us relax and gets much needed oxygen to the muscles and the brain for efficient operation and clearer thinking.

Relaxing prepares our minds and bodies for the task at hand by releasing physical tensions that inhibit our bodies as well as mental distractions that keep us from focusing. Performing a short (one minute or so), relaxing ritual before playing is a very effective way to prepare ourselves physically and mentally. This is time very well spent.  One of the relaxing methods that I include in all of my teaching is to tell people to “drop your shoulders”.  This simple action is a very effective way to release upper body tension, especially when it is repeated often enough to become an integral part of drumming… and of life.

Listening is a crucial skill for every musician. Playing music with other people is like a conversation. We have our best conversations when we listen to, and hear each other, and not to our own inner conversations!  I tell people to “listen with open ears, open minds and open hearts.”

Building a solid foundation means beginning at the beginning. Learn about the nature of your instrument (how it’s made, how to tune it, how to take care of it and it’s traditional sound). Then learn a simple basic pattern made up of just a couple of basic sounds. Say the pattern! In many cultures where drumming is an integral part of life, drummers say or sing their parts as well as play them. There’s a saying, “If you can say it, you can play it!”  I simply call it, “Say and play!”  Just say a sound that sounds like the sound you want to play. Saying the pattern gets us (and the pattern) into our body, where our voice is, and out of our heads, where the other voice is… the one that sometimes just gets in the way! . Once the pattern is in our bodies, it can then travel through the instrument (especially if we are relaxed).

Progressing to new levels only when ready means exactly that. There’s no rush! First learn a couple of basic sounds.  For example; when playing a conga drum, stay with the bass tone and the open tone, save the slap for a little later. Then learn a simple pattern using just these sounds. Then groove! Stay with it until you can play the sound and the pattern with the right feel fairly effortlessly. This may take 20 or thirty minutes, or it might take a week or more. That’s okay! Drumming by nature is more about how it sounds and feels than about how much we can do or how many rhythms we know. Over time we increase what we can do.

Practicing and playing are part of the same thing. Our practice should be disciplined and focused but also playful! We want both precision and passion in our playing. Precision means playing clear, distinct sounds that fall in the right place for a proper feel. Passion means releasing inhibitions and playing from our hearts and bodies. Play for long periods of time! Our minds may get bored and want to keep learning new rhythms, but we show respect for the drum and it’s tradition (and become more proficient drummers) by exploring a few rhythms in depth in the beginning. This process gets the playing out of our heads, into our bodies and allows the rhythm to come alive within us, uninhibited by the mind’s need to analyze and control. The process of drumming and learning become more important than the goal of learning as many rhythms as we can.

So begin at the beginning, take your time, stay true to whatever style you are exploring and have lots of fun on your drumming journey!

Jim Greiner is in constant demand to conduct corporate and community drum circle events, and give percussion clinics worldwide. His teaching technique is demonstrated in his ” Community Drumming for Health and Happiness” video/DVD distributed by Warner Bros. Publications and LP Music.