I often get questions from teacher, therapists, and music facilitators that have to do with helping their students, clients, and participants entrain to a pulse, otherwise called keeping a beat! With the recent rise in popularity of group drumming and drums as classroom, clinical, and recreational instruments, the need for strategies and techniques that help a group of participants find and keep that beat is on the rise. As it turns out, just having drums doesn’t endow someone with the ability to align with a beat. Who knew?
If you find yourself wondering how you can help your participants feel and align with a pulse, here are a few tips to help you do just that.
- Begin with the body.
Rhythm and drumming ability starts with the body and one’s personal ability to plan, initiate, and execute fine and gross motor movements. Beginning with receptive methods to rhythmic development, such as dance, is an important first step in reaching new levels of rhythmic acuity. Begin with large movements, such as walking, moving the arms, and bending at the hips and knees. Gradually work towards fine motor skills over time.
- Begin with the voice.
There’s a common saying that has been floating around drumming cultures for years: ‘If you can say it, you can play it.” While the origins of this saying are not clear, the message is. Begin with the voice and develop the capacity, through speech, to conceive of and produce rhythmic expressions. You can do this through re-creative, improvisational, and compositional experiences. Using the voice helps people connect to one of their “original” and “native” instruments and offers a way to practice rhythm making anywhere – anytime.
- Provide visual support.
Using a visual, such as a scarf, ribbon, or other manipulative, to act as a kind of ‘visual metronome’ can help people synchronize with the pulse and even complex rhythms. Even having someone look at someone else playing a drum, such as a bass drum played with a mallet or stick, can help provide enough visual input to tip them over the edge and help them fall into the ‘beat bucket.’
- Use verbal cues.
I’ve found it helpful to sit next to someone who is struggling to find the beat and provide verbal guidance in the form of “vocables,” non-word sounds that approximate drum sounds, such as ‘doum,’ and ‘pah.’ You can either do this yourself or have one of your stronger players provide some help to those who need it. Pairing students, clients, and participants has social benefits as well. Sometimes a little personal attention is just what someone needs. Care is taken to not single someone out or make them feel self-concious in that they are getting ‘help from the Teacher.’ Consider moving between players, giving verbal support when needed.
- Musicians Unite!
Begin with unified, rather than differentiated rhythms. There is strength in unity and the more players that are on a specific pulse or pattern, the more weight it carries. This weight is like rhythmic gravity that has the potential to draw players into orbit around the beat (commonly described as entrainment). Once players build up some skill and confidence, add complementary rhythms and more differentiation.
- Combine Strategies.
The more modalities you can align and support at the same time, the better. Most of us learn on many levels; auditory, visual, kinesthetic, interpersonal, etc.. The more of these you can use at once, the more likely you are to entrain to the beat. Consider ways to move through them as a Process, as in the Orff approach to music and movement education. Begin with a receptive method, such as listening to a steady beat while moving (walking or dancing). Add voices via a chant or song. Transfer the beat to body percussion. Invite players to ‘show’ the rhythm in different ways. Have them work in pairs or small groups (Pair strong and ‘challenged’ players).
- Songs Songs Songs.
Using a song as a structure is a great way to stabilize the music and help participants enjoy playing together. Most people have an idea of how fast a song ‘should’ be sung and will tend to reproduce it at that tempo. If you’re trying to have people play drums without singing and dancing, keep in mind that this type of approach is a relatively new idea and and not something that is done in traditional ‘drumming cultures.’ Singing and dancing is traditionally thought of as another aspect of drumming – not something separate from it. All types of “rhythm making’ work together to provide people with a holistic and musical experience. Rather than looking at the experience as a ‘drumming’ experience, think of it as a creative experience, where people use ALL of their abilities to reach deeply and fully into the music.
What about that “speeding up thing” that is common in groups?
8. Subdivide the Beat.
Speeding up is a result of reducing the space between the notes. In a way, it shows a kind of impatience in getting to the next note to be played. It’s common for players to want to play sooner than later and as a result the spaces between the notes get shorter and this is felt as ‘speeding up.’ Something you can try with your groups, is to have them ‘place something’ in the spaces between the notes. You do this by modeling speaking softly as you play, subdividing the beat with rhythmic speech, ‘nonsense’ vocal sounds, micro-movements, or creating instrumental sounds that can act as a kind of ‘rhythmic graph paper.’ Anything you can do to subdivide the beat will help you keep it steady. Why? Because it’s harder to remove the space from between the notes when that space is already small. When the tempo is very slow, people have a tendency to speed up, but when the pulse is felt as “fast” they don’t. They might even slow down. By feeling a ‘fast rhythm’ inside a slow one, the rhythm has a better chance of finding balance.
Will any or all of these strategies and techniques work for your groups? There’s only one way to find out. When you do, let us know by telling us what happens.
For more musical resource, visit the Developmental Community Music website
What do you think of this article? Any other tips to share?