archetypo wrote:It's quite humbling to attempt simple phrases with non-dominant handing and realize you're not quite where you thought you were, especially when you've already been playing well over a decade and fancy yourself a half-decent player.
Yes. Don't you love it? Every time I think I amount to something on the djembe, along comes some phrase to make it perfectly clear that I don't know shit. I suspect that, no matter how long I continue to play, that same thing will keep happening to me. Of course, in the process, I get better. But there is this very character-building aspect of playing the djembe that keeps me humble…
Amadou is also a real stickler for technique - he can spend two hours drilling us on pure technique, just on getting our tones and slaps to sound the same on both hands, on getting one phrase to sound exactly the same played with either handing. His point being that if you really want to master this instrument, you can't afford to favour one hand over the other.
Yes and no, I think. It's good to be ambidextrous. It's essential to have the same sound on both hands for tones and slaps. (After nearly eight years of playing, I'm still actively working to improve the clarity of my non-dominant (left) hand.)
But I don't think it is necessary to be ambidextrous to master the instrument. Mamady isn't ambidextrous, and I suspect that many other excellent players aren't either. And technical skill, such as ambidexterity, is only one aspect of mastery; in fact, I would argue that technical skill is neither necessary nor sufficient for that (only useful). Think about some of the old masters, whose age prevents them from playing warra-warra wizardry, and whose solos are jaw-dropping, despite being technically simple.
Musicality is where it's at, first and foremost, I think. I've come across more than one player who was a speed demon and left me cold because what he played wasn't music (at least not to me).
I will say this much - developing that skill has not only made me a much better drummer, I'm pretty sure it has improved my neural connections in a whole lot of other areas as well. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I feel as if I'm just more coordinated in a general sense since I've been learning to play this way.
Same here. I've been actively working on ambidexterity, and it has improved my playing. It's useful to be able to use whatever hand happens to be available for a roll during improvisations.
When I first started playing, I studied with Famoudou and various sons, and according to my understanding, Famoudou developed his pedagogical style for 'westerners' with the help of his German students (Paul & Sylvie Kronewald I believe).
Rainer Dörrer (now deceased) played a large part too, as far as I know.
As a teacher of primarily beginners and westerners myself, I can see the value in staying consistent with your handing. I find students who don't develop this discipline to start with tend to have a hard time sensing and finding the beat, especially with more complex solo phrasing, but often even with simple things like placement of the breaks. Until a student has a really solid grasp of how to 'feel' where the beat is at all times, I think it's a mistake to push too hard on developing ambidexterity.
I think you opened a big can of worms here. It seems very difficult to find good answers to these issues, and we could probably debate the merits and demerits for a long time, so here are my five cents worth…
I agree that introducing ambidexterity too soon can make matters worse. I also agree that staying on a simple and consistent "hand-over-hand" technique can help people nail the timing of a phrase. However, I'm not sure that "sensing and finding the beat" is something that comes from consistent handing or from practice. Rather, I think that (at least at a basic level), the ability to sense the beat has to come from some innate ability of the student.
I am convinced that some people are rhythm-deaf. I occasionally come across students who cannot even maintain a steady even pulse, not even played at slow tempo (say, 70bpm), and not even when I ask them to play with me. In fact, just by looking and sensing the impact of their own hand on the drum, they should be able to easily tell that they are way out of time with me because their hand doesn't strike anywhere near at the same time as mine. But they cannot tell, not by looking, not by feeling, and not by hearing.
I've also watched some of these students bravely come to lesson after lesson, working diligently (and even having fun), but going absolutely nowhere. After three months of weekly lessons, they have not improved one iota, and they are still unable to play something as simple as a slow steady even pulse.
When these people play with other students in class, they do not know
and cannot tell
that what they are playing is nothing like what everyone around them is playing. Despite that, they are having a good time and are enjoying themselves. They clearly like the rhythms and keep coming back to drumming. So, their inability to play in time doesn't not seem to affect their ability to enjoy something that is played in time. And, when you play something that is not
in time, they can even tell that it's not right!
Because of this, I believe that there is a strong genetic and/or physiological component to drumming. Research by Daniel Levitin
and Oliver Sacks
seems to support this.
Now, for those people who don't have this problem, I believe that hand-over-hand technique can be beneficial, at least initially. When people first start out playing, there are a lot of things to worry about all at the same time: tempo, rhythm, handing, bass, tone and slap; all this can be rather overwhelming and playing hand-over-hand makes one of these tasks a little easier. And, until people have established basic familiarity with a number of accompaniments and rhythms, the consistency in handing seems to deepen their comprehension of pulse and rhythm.
I've actually had this discussion with Amadou, and although he agrees in principle, he still thinks it's beneficial for every student to learn ambidexterity right from the get-go, and that students should learn how to sense the beat by developing their listening ability, whereas I tend to think that a student has a better chance of developing an internal feel for the beat through consistent repetitive movements that eventually build familiar neural pathways.
I think we are in agreement there. Start the ambidexterity thing too early, and run the risk of making matters worse (not to mention the risk of frustrating students by making things even more complicated).
I also think it's probably difficult for many African teachers to really comprehend how far behind our neural development is as a result of not growing up hearing this music every day and learning the dance steps from the time we can walk.
Exposure from an early age to this music helps, I have no doubt. At the same time, I've come across people in Mali and Ghana who grew up there, and were just as rhythm deaf as some of the westerners. It seems that life-long exposure is not enough!
My own observation, based on just watching students I've known over several years who have started working with Amadou more recently, is that the ones who have a well-developed set of neural pathways wrt consistent handing and who are consistently able to feel the beat usually do OK with switching around the handing.
I'm seeing the same thing. That's what I would call early intermediate level. I think that's about the right time too to introduce handing exercises to try to wean them off their dominant hand dependence. Here is one of my favourite exercises:
Code: Select all
The "TT" indicates a three-roll; RR indicates that the roll starts right, LL that it starts left.
It's the same phrase each time, but played with opposite handing every eight pulses. This is a great dexterity and focus exercise. And it really builds confidence over time that rolls starting on the non-dominant hand are not that scary after all.
So I would say, from my purely experiential POV, that most beginners should focus on building consistency in their handing, but once they get past the point of internalizing the beat and the melody, it's important to start developing ambidexterity.
Yes. And, leave it too late, the ambidexterity will never happen, I believe. Once someone has been set in their ways for a few years, it gets much harder to develop a different technique. It depends on the individual student, but I would say that, for most people, dexterity exercises should be added somewhere between 6 and 18 months after starting out.
Back to feeling the pulse…
Beyond some innate ability and sense of time, there is definitely a learning/practice aspect to this as well, at least in my experience. I know that, as I've been playing more of this music, over time, my sense of pulse has improved, and my ability to feel different pulses in the same piece and to switch between them at will has improved too. Sorsonet is a good example, which can be felt on the 4-pulse and on the 6-pulse. Years ago, when I first learned this rhythm, I could feel it easily on the 6-pulse and could not bring myself to feel it on the 4-pulse, no matter how hard I tried. It was the same with Kakilambe and Mafuwe. Today, I can change my perception at will between the two pulses, and do it easily.
It's similar with dundunba rhythms. There was a time where I could feel Dunungbe only on the "wrong" side, no matter what I did. Now, I feel it on the "right" side naturally and easily.
So, it seems that natural ability and sense of time are a necessary prerequisite to this music, but not a sufficient one. And all the natural ability in the world won't eliminate the need for practice.