I have noticed that most of the time even those of us who practice djembe or dunu regularly are practicing at a normal comfortable speeds or moreover, the same speed with out knowing it.
We may be learning new phrases or rhythms, but generally we default to our own comfortable natural speed.
The problem is that we all have different natural speeds we drum at and the more you practice drumming at the same speed, the more you get locked into only being comfortable playing at that speed.
This is why many people don’t improve in certain areas of hand drumming and also why they aren’t able to play well or comfortably in different playing situations or more importantly when the rhythm speeds up.
Simply put, if you want to be able to hang, to play your djembe drum fast you have to train at it. Just like going to the gym. If you train at the drum gym you get results. If you do not train you get fat. It is as simple as that. You have to take action. what you put in you get back out of it.
There are various training tips, exercises and ways to increase your speed when playing west african drums. But playing drums in different situations is not all about how fast you can play your djembe. You may also need to play slower then is comfortable at times. Therefore whatever you practice should be done at a variety of speeds. Avoid getting stuck in your comfort zone! And please remember playing your drum slower then you are used to, playing as slow as you can and staying in time is as hard as playing as fast as you can.
So step one to improving the quality of your practice time and improving your ability to play at different speeds is to practice playing whatever you are working on going from super slow to super fast. You can also approach phrases and rhythms as wind sprints. Starting slow and sprinting then breaking back down again. This allows the muscles to train, be pushed and relax again. Be sure to breath. Don’t hold your breath. Breathe natural. Make sure your face is relaxed and neck is loose.
The main point is to consciously play faster building to playing as fast as you can then breaking it down to play as slow as you can. You want to do this naturally which means with as little tension as possible in your body. Be sure to try and keep your volume at the same level rather then softer when it is slow and louder when it is fast. This also helps you to learn to control your volume, something that is very hard for many pliers.
If you try playing a part or solo technique or sequence very slow or very fast you will notice it sounds different. By practicing different speeds we extend our abilities and our playing range. Playing a rhythm very slowly and accurately is indeed as hard as playing a rhythm or part very fast.
Many of us get tight or tense up when the rhythm goes fast. The first step to playing faster is to tell yourself you can do it and not be freaked out by sped. You have to make friends with speed and not be scared by it. To play a rhythm fast not only takes skill but it takes a certain calm mental strategy. If you can stay relaxed, confident and learn and practice to rhythms payed fast you will gain the ability to play fast and see that it is nothing to be scared of.
A tool I have found most helpful is anything with a metronome. Most smart phones have free metronome programs with a click or beep. I like to use an old school drum machine and most computers have programs where you can set up your own rhythms as well. Whatever you are practicing you should try with a metronome or drum program.This is very, very helpful for those of us who train alone. Of course if you have a group of people to play with who push you and each other that is the best but most of us simply don’t have that.
Do not psyche yourself out! I remember being in various dance classes and the rhythm speeds up to uncomfortable levels. I say to myself, “I am not jumping out here (to solo) it’s too fast”. But then, I see my buddy do it and I say, “wtf?!”. Then I do it, because he did it. And low and behold, I could do it! I was holding myself back.
Start at your comfort level, relax into it for a few minutes to get warmed up, then increase the speed slightly. relax into it, breath and keep the pace. You will find that as you let go of fear of speed you will be able to play along. Then increase the speed again. You keep doing this, relaxing, breathing trying not to play too hard, too loud or tighten up. Keep increasing the speed in intervals.
What you will see at once is that you were able to play much faster then you thought you could or were able to before you started the exercise. If you work like this for several days your speed will indeed increase. Your muscles will remember so when you are playing out in public you can play faster as well.
Most rhythms, parts and phrases are going to sound differently at different speeds. A lot of us don’t realize this and then panic when we are in a situation where the rhythm is being played faster then we are used to. This is another reason to practice at fast speeds. To familiarize ourselves with the changes that occur.
When soloing to fast rhythms you need to understand that the solo style you used when the rhythm or parts were at your comfort level will not work in the same way they did when the rhythm is sped up! When we are taught solo parts we are taught the parts at one speed, but they are going to sound completely different really slow or really fast.
Moreover, you are going to have to play with more space when the rhythm is super fast. Less notes because there is less time. Less equals more. The concept of playing the same amount of notes as you were when it was slower does not work at fast speeds. You need to play 1/2 as much….r less!
It’s like time and space are sped up. And we have to slow it down. The way to do this, one technique I call “cut time”. Instead of playing every beat, I will play 1/2 the beats. For the sake of understanding the concept I will oversimplify it and say that instead of playing on 1, 2, 3 and 4, I will just play on the 1 and 3..or the 2 and 4. It does not matter where you are playing, it is the concept of playing cut, or in half. You hit and rest and hit and rest instead of hit hit hit. It also leaves space which is great. This gives you a chance to spread out over the rhythm instead of jamming notes into space that is going by too quickly.
The next thing is that you have to relax. You have to breath or take a breath before you solo. You are going to ride the rhythm. Getting tense is not going to work. Playing louder is not going to work.
Prior to playing fast you want to learn phrases that are specifically made to play at fast speeds for the rhythm you are playing to.
Unfortunately much of what is taught for solo phrases by many teachers won’t work for most of us at high speeds! I have found this out the hard way, in context. So I went and started listening and learning more and found that there are indeed different solo techniques that work for faster tempos. The very interesting thing is sometimes it is very, very basic techniques, like playing up beats or down beats. However, it is the exact placement, the lock that matters.
The good thing is every rhythm has solo phrases that are specific to that rhythm and specific to playing at certain speeds. Many are nt taught but they can indeed be learned. You jet have to research and listen and study. Just find the CD and listen to the same piece over and over. For example P.D.G. (Pes Percussions de Guinée ) CD’s are an excellent resource for listening to distinct solo phrases that have a lot of space around them and are very cool to listen to and also very fun to play.
Back to your breath. If you can watch your breath, relax and also let your breathing slow down as a counterbalance to the rhythm speeding up. As I have mentioned and you probably have noticed in your own paying djembe at some point, we all tend to tense up as the rhythm speeds up. Consciously slowing down the breath will indeed counteract the sense of “going too fast”. You will have to experiment with this so it is not forced.