In the flow

In “Anatomy of Rhythm” I lay out a means by which the student of rhythm can map out various rhythmic patterns to a significant degree of complexity. This model serves as a way to understand the theoretical structure of most global rhythmic systems.

The next step is to learn how to apply this theoretical knowledge to your instrument(s) of choice.  “Flow technique” is a strategy that is especially useful . There are hundreds or possibly thousands of types of drums which may require many different approaches to technique.  As such it is beyond the scope of this post to apply “flow technique” to every drum. It can and does apply to most single headed drums where both hands or sticks perform relatively symmetrically.

For the purposes of this exercise we will use the 4×4 time signature. The student can set as fast a tempo as can be comfortably sustained for several minutes without losing control. Most students should be able to start at a minimum of 80 bpm but a range between 80 and 120 is acceptable for beginners.

Using a metronome begin by alternating soft strokes starting with the dominant hand and alternating. The dominant hand (D) will play the numbered stroke and the “&”. The non-dominant (N) hand will play the “e” and “a”.

D N D N D N D N D N D N D N D N
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
D Dominant Hand
N Non-Dominant Hand
. Touch
O Primary Accent
X Secondary Accent

A few things to keep in mind with this exercise:

Relax……………. really. …………  relax.

Remember to try to keep your sense of the pulse somewhere in your body (tapping your foot is a common way to keep it)

Listen to each stroke. Pay attention to variations in the quality of the sound, volume, as well as to the space between the notes. It should be equal.

Pay attention to the feeling of your arms and hands; relax, keep the movement fluid.

Do this exercise until you are comfortable (it may require a few hundred or thousand strokes)

Play the pulse

The next part of the exercise is to play various parts of the measure while keeping your body in flow. This means continuing to softly play all 16 notes but beginning  to create a rhythmic pattern by playing specific moments in the measure with a little more volume. At first just focus on playing with an emphasis on the pulse (the numbers 1 2 3 and 4).

D N D N D N D N D N D N D N D N
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
X . . . X . . . X . . . X . . .

Notice that the louder note is happening on every other stroke of the dominant hand, while the non-dominant hand is still playing all strokes at the same quiet dynamic level. The emphasized note (accent) should be happening at the same time your foot taps and the pulse of the metronome plays. Once this is consistent pay attention again to the space between the remaining strokes. Also there should only be two dynamic levels — the soft touch of all strokes and the slightly louder volume of the pulse stroke.

You should continue to do this until your are able to consistently play in tempo with an even dynamic and note distribution for several minutes at a time. If you are working at a tempo close to 80 bpm, increase it by 10 or 20 and see if you are still able to play comfortably.

The “And”

D N D N D N D N D N D N D N D N
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
O . . . . . X . . . X . . . X .

There are two important differences to notice in this variation. The first is that there is an “O” in the 1 position. This is to distinguish the 1 as the beginning of the measure. You may choose to play this stroke differently, either with a different sound on the instrument (the bass, or dum/dun) or more volume (now providing 3 dynamic levels — the “1”, the emphasized note — in this exercise the “&”, and the remaining quiet flow notes).

The other thing to notice is the distribution of emphasized or accent strokes. There are four, but they are now asymmetrically positioned, with accents on the “1” the “2&” the “3&” and the “4&”. All of the accents are still on the dominant hand.

Secondary upbeats

D N D N D N D N D N D N D N D N
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
O . . X . . X . . . X . . . X .

Here you will notice the that only difference is that there is an accent on the “1a”. This will require an accent stroke on the non-dominant hand (N).

Note: It is common for some beginners to experience a disruption of time (lags or time-drift) when non-dominant hand accents are introduced.

By now you will notice that there is some musicality to this exercise. You should feel some tension and resolution in the placement of the accents. Particularly a “pull” on the “a” of 1. You can substitute any standard voices of the instrument (Gun Go Do Pa Ta for jembe or Dum Tek Ka for doumbek) for any of the accents.  You can also play with different levels of dynamics for each of the accent strokes.

D N D N D N D N D N D N D N D N
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
O X . X X X . X X X . X X X . X

In this example, all of the pulse notes are played as are all of the secondary (“e” and “a”) notes. This creates a cluster of notes that surround the pulse. Again, the focus should be on maintaining equal spacing as well as equal dynamics in each cluster.  Because of the regularity of the secondary ups, it is not uncommon to feel a shift here where your time may drift so that you end up playing them on the down beat. It is important to keep the time in your body. If you feel the drift, stop and start again.

On your own

These few exercises are intended to give you a sense of how to apply instrument technique to the model in anatomy of rhythm.

Here are a few suggestions for further study:

Explore tempo — see how fast AND how slow you can play an exercise without sacrificing timing or dynamics. Push yourself; practice will increase this range.

Transcribe a pattern from a rhythm tradition and explore variations by moving individual accent points by one or two units.

Use a 3 based table to develop exercises in a 3 beat measure with a 4 beat pulse subdivision. Do the same thing for 5 beat measures and 7 beat measures.

Combine tables to create more complex rhythmic structures. Try to alternate two different 3-based measures to create a 6, add another to make 9. try a 4 and a 5 together to get a different 9.

Use a 3 beat pulse subdivision and explore how the alternating dominant and non-dominant hand position requires a more even distribution of strokes. (Hint: every other counted note – 1,2,3, etc will be played on an alternating hand – 1,3,5 on the dominant, 2,4, and 6 on the non-dominant.)

Try a 7 beat measure with a 2 beat pulse subdivision.

Try different voicing substitutions – instead of a bass on the “1”, try a tone or a slap. Listen to how different substitutions affect the tension and resolution of the phrase.

Take any exercise and displace it by a single unit – so if you have an accent on the “1” it would be on the “1e”. If the next accent is on the “1a” it would be on the “2” – again, pay attention to how the shift pulls on the pulse. (You are keeping the pulse, right?)

As you can see, it is possible to create thousands of exercises and rhythmic ideas using this basic model, and it is possible to develop your abilities on the instrument so that you can play virtually any note anywhere in any time signature. You will find that there are limitations around the edges of some rhythmic concepts – where double strokes may be necessary, or where pulse subdivision shifts. I will cover some ideas on approaches to these in a later post. Try to practice for at least an hour every day or two for best results.  This basic approach can be used for hundreds or thousands of hours and will help you establish consistency in tempo, timing, time signature familiarity, dynamics, articulation, and overall rhythmic flexibility. Happy practicing!