Cross-Training

A Lenke wood djembe from Guinea in west Africa
Image via Wikipedia

We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.

~Maya Angelou

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Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Cross-training. Athletes do it. Musicians can also benefit from pushing themselves in new directions.

For the last 6 weeks I’ve spent 3.5 hours every Sunday afternoon trying to hit the tightly stretched skin of a goat with rhythmic precision and great tone quality. I’m a member of  the Djembe 1 and 2 classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music, taught by Taylor, student of Mamady Keita. I’ve mentioned this art form before, but here’s a quick review: the djembe is a type of drum from West Africa, and the ensemble parts usually include three dunun (or dun dun, each with an iron bell strapped to the top), three djembe parts, and dancers.Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If you’re not used to this type of music, it sounds anything but simple. To me it’s mesmerizing and when it’s good, the body starts to move almost of its own accord.

The rhythmic precision is a challenge with many of these African polyrhythms, but most are now under my hands, thankfully (the performance is next week). However, the tone quality the drum still lies locked within it, despite daily practice, and despite playing on a professional quality Wula djembe. If you think playing a hand drum is as easy as hitting the thing with good rhythm, you’ve probably never been in the presence of a master drummer. Listen to some of the drummers in the vid clips below to hear what I’m talking about. When you hear someone who knows what she’s doing hit the drum, it can be a mystical experience. Mystical and mysterious, too. Watching Taylor hit the drum, it looks as though my hands are doing exactly what his hands are doing, but the sound says otherwise. My sound is thin and inexpert, with the tone and slap often sounding identical. Taylor’s sound fills the room and his tone, slap, and bass are distinct and powerful. I want that sound. The only way to get it is patient practice and focused attention. Probably years worth of this. Sigh.

So why pick up a new instrument when I’ve got my hands full with others already? You guessed it: cross-training.  The ways in which this new music pushes my ability is refreshing and useful. I’ve begun to apply some of the rhythms from the pieces we’re learning (Moribayassa, Bandon Djeli, Matoto, & Zouli 3) to didgeridoo and trumpet, instruments over which I actually have decent mastery. And that’s exciting to me.

Take on the mind of a fearless explorer, push yourself into new and different musical realms, whether it’s listening or performing. Some of that immersion is bound to stick, and exploring new musical territory is one way to keep the fire alight for you own chosen music.

In the first short video below, you can easily see (if not hear) the parts of the djembe ensemble. In the front row are the 3 djembes, with the soloist improvising in the middle (Taylor is the player on the right). Traditionally there are dancers, too, and the soloist will interact with them. In the back are the 3 dundun parts (Taylor is in the middle on kenkeni). See if you can separate out the parts while you watch and listen.

Whether it’s bodhrán, djembe, cajón, conga or some other instrument, I encourage you to stretch yourself into other musical realms, especially in the percussion world, because it’ll help your rhythm, one of the most fundamental skills necessary to good music. Stretching yourself musically in this way can be great fun and it’s certainly beneficial for your main instrument.

Happy holidays! Have fun and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

And here’s a short clip of young drummers paying their respects to the grand master, Mamady Keita when he visited. Check it!

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