One of the first most important lessons to learn when we first buy or get given a drum is to respect the instrument as you would any other instrument such as a violin or guitar. The drum is so much fun many of us do not even think of it as an actual musical instrument and frankly in our western culture, many people do not see drums as musical instruments. So lesson one from my book is: respect the drum as you would any other musical instrument. It does not matter if it is a djembe drum, dunun, dumbec, tabla or conga drum.
Everyone has their own unique or borrowed rhythm patterns they feel and move to in their lives. It maybe the way you feel when you hear music, they way you tap your foot or your fingers. Or it may be what you feel when you get inspired or perhaps even when you make love or when you dance.
These feelings, these beats, these inner and outer are what inspires us to begin our studies, our jam sessions and our explorations in music and drumming. It is the creative pulse that we play off of in our life.
Many of us are drawn to the drum for different reasons. For some of us the drum has called to us, or we feel pulled to it. Others have tapped on a drum and enjoyed the immeadiate response we get when we hit the drum. The drum is one of the few instruments you can seemingly hit (at first) and it sounds like you are doing something or making music. This is totally valid and an inspiration as well.
However, the drum does have a deeper level you can go to and get to. It has a voice or more importanly a vocabularly of sounds that it makes. Regardless of if you want to be a freestyle jammer, non traditional player or learn traditional rhythms and techniques, you need to learn how to speak on the drum. To make the correct tones, slap (pop), bass notes, muffs and other techniques as well. Learning this vocabulary and learning to make your drum talk is an exciting and inspiring exploration and can be challenging as well.
I talk about respecting the drum because the drum is an instrument to express your inner creativity and therefore your own personality. So it is very personal. And respecting the drum is also respecting yourself.
The drum is not only a personal instrument or voice it is also a communal channel or voice as well. It interlocks with other drums or drummers to build a network of sounds or rhythms that together make up intricate and sometimes complex rhythm compositions or formulas. Some of these formulas or patterns have been used for who knows how long and are part of rituals, celebrations and rights of passage amongst other things as well.
So you can see the drum has quite a history and is quite a powerful tool as well. This is why I suggest learning as much as you can about the drum you are playing, where it is from, rhythm patterns and how to play it, too.
Furthermore, the drum as an instrument and as a genre needs to be respected by others and also yourself as an actual musical instrument not just something someone bangs on. I have spent much of my adult life educating people about this. It is not Ricky Ricardo chanting Babalu or hippies on a beach playing a cacophony on sounds. You would not go up to a violin and pluck it and be satisfied. You would want to and need to learn how to play it properly to make it speak. The drum is the same way. Furthermore, if you were studying the violin you would learn the orchestration or how it fits in with other parts and players.
Drumming, be it Afro Cuban congas, Afro Haitian, West African or whatever, is the same way. You need to first learn how to play it, to make the sounds, the vocabulary and I suggest the rhythm patterns as well. Then, like a violin, guitar or other ensemble instrument you need to learn how to play with and fit in with other players. The drum can be a solo instrument but in and of itself it is and ensemble instrument, meant to be played with other drummers, dancers and even singers.
Many of us think because we have bought a drum, we now have the right to play anywhere at anytime, whatever we want to play. This is simply not true. Although many people do do this, this is what gives drummers and drumming a bad name. Beginning drummers often have no concept of how harsh they are sounding to others.
Please do not get me wrong here. I am not trying to dissuade beginning drummers to not play or practice. It is the opposite, I encourage everyone to play. That is one of my purposes for being here. To encourage others and to help people to learn correctly. My point is that we do need to start with structure before we leave structure.
Many people (including myself) have accused other accomplished drummers of being egotistical when they play and complain of not being heard, acknowledged or feel they did not get to express themselves at a session. And the accusers are probably right. However, my advice to these people is to be patient, to learn your instrument and to check your own ego, and leave it at the door so to speak. If you do not humble yourself out, especially around people that know the music, who have devoted themselves and their lives to it you will never learn. And to me it is a hard lesson, but it is all about learning.
I used to get frustrated when I would go to African dance classes and the lead drummer or African drum master would not invite me to solo. Now looking back, why should he? As a student I need to watch , listen and learn. My suggestion to others is to do the same. If you are invited to solo, fine, but drumming is not all about soloing. It is about learning the whole composition from a to z. And if you do not want to learn about this, I totally understand. But still it behooves you to at least learn the basic techniques for hitting the drum and making it speak.
I have studied countless hours in Guinee, Mali, Brazil, Cuba and elsewhere. When I am traveling sometimes I will be invited to play, to hold a basic part. And I feel honored. Just to hold an accompaniment part. The mantra, The repetition. I do not even want to solo. Many times I’ll be at sessions and not even be invited to play. And that is O.K. Because to me, it is all about learning. And you do not have to play to learn. You can learn very well by observing.
Drumming can take many years to learn and countless hours of practice and repetition. Just like any other instrument. You would not show up at an orchestra rehearsal or music session and pull out your violin and start making demands as a beginning violinist barely able to play. Why will you do it on a drum?
Again, just because you have a drum and show up somewhere does not entitle you to any special treatment. That does not mean you should be disrespected either. And if you are, by all means speak up! We are all humans and need to treat each other with equal respect and no one should get more or less then anyone else just because they are a better drummer. This is not what I am talking about.
In the meanwhile, learn to play and speak on your drum. Do your talking on your instrument. You will make yourself happier and others as well. I support your learning process and encourage you to learn and play in any way shape or form you deem fit as well. These are all suggestions based on my observations and experiences playing and teaching over the last 30 years.
So be humble, be open minded and let the information come to you easily with out fighting.
I have observed way too much competition and fighting in the drums scenes since day one. And it does not need to be there. Give respect and if you are not getting respect back then talk about it and if not, move on. There are plenty of scenes, scenarios and places to play and you need to find the right scene for yourself as well.
There are many ways to learn how to play the drums. From DVD’s, to Youtube videos, to private or group classes to traveling and going to the actual place where the music is from.
It is all out there and available to anyone with a desire to learn. All you have to do is type in a search, pick up your phone or bring out your drum. The wealth of knowledge is immense and we are living in a golden age for drummers. Good luck in your studies!