A place for teachers to discuss issues to do with teaching
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By michi
#6760
Coming late into this thread, I'd like to relate an experience that was a true eye opener for me.

During my last stay in Mali, I studied with Sega Cisse for a month (six days a week, two hours a day). Sega doesn't speak English or German, and I don't speak French, so we couldn't really talk during lessons, other than a few simple words and facial expression and sign language.

In my very first lesson, Sega taught me Sugu. He started out by showing the accompaniment and the Konkoni pattern. Then he moved onto solo phrases. He'd play a solo phrase and get me to play it back, going back and forth until I got it. Then he'd move to the next solo phrase. After about 50 minutes, he had shown me six or seven phrases that made up a nice little solo. He would play the whole solo, then point at me and get me to play it back.

After the first hour, I well and truly could play the solo he had shown me so far but, suddenly, no more new phrases were forthcoming. He had shown me those six or seven phrases and wouldn't add any more. So, we sat there, Sega playing the same thing he had just played five times, and me parroting back the same thing over and over again, without mistakes. Every time I'd finish, he'd nod approval, and then play the very same again himself!

I kept waiting for him to show me something new, but he didn't. Eventually, after I was playing yet again the same thing I'd already played without mistake eight or nine times when, in the middle of my solo, I got sick of this, decided to do something of my own, and threw in some phrase that came to my mind. At that instant, Sega's face lit up, he smiled and nodded, and gestured to indicate "yes, more, more".

That was a key moment for me: what he had done was to show me some key phrases that work for Sugu, and I was supposed to understand what made those key phrases hang together, how they formed a musical theme, and how they harmonised with the "essence of Sugu."

From that point onwards, he would ask me to play what he had shown me, and encourage me to come up with solo phrases of my own that "work." When I'd invent something that worked, he would nod, and when I did something that didn't work (not because the phrase was out of rhythm, but because it violated the "rules of Sugu"), he would shake his head.

Every now and then, I would try something that sort of worked, but not really. At that point, Sega would stop the music, and show me something that was similar to what I had tried to do, but did work.

This was the most fruitful learning I ever did, I believe. With every rhythm we played, there are signature melodic and rhythmic ideas that are part of the "identity" of the rhythm. For example, for Djansa, the signature musical "thread" that maintains identity and provides continuity throughout a solo are the two 16th-note slaps that start on the 1, and keep recurring throughout. For Maraka, it is the pair of 8th-note tones that end on the 1, as well as the switch between solo phrases that launch off the 1 and those that finish on the 1. For Koredjuga, it is a flam that recurs and emphasizes the 3.

Sega kept working on getting these musical ideas across that are characteristic to each rhythm, rather than getting me to play solos by rote, without understanding of their underlying structure. In other words, he was trying to make me a better musician in a much deeper sense than just increasing my stash of solo phrases and working on my technique.

So, when I teach, I not only show students solo phrases, but also explain why a particular solo works, and what musical ideas are behind it. In other words, I try to get the underlying grammar and structure across, just as Sega did, in addition to teaching specific techniques.

One way to structure a solo is to have a set "holding pattern" phrase that alternates with various other phrases that are inserted in between the holding pattern. The holding pattern provides a "home base" for the listener and a recognizable recurring theme, and also allows the listener to recover from the more syncopated and complex phrases in between, that sometimes can drag the listener's ear away from the underlying cycle and be confusing. So, with the holding pattern, the soloist keeps reassuring the listener by guiding him/her back to safe and familiar ground after just having confused the hell out him/her with a really slick lick that is rhythmically more challenging. This is much like the idea of a recurring chorus in western music. (The Djagbe solo that Mamady teaches uses this idea.)

Another way to structure a solo is to create the "rising tension" curve, where the solo starts out with a simple phrase and is followed by successive phrases that increase in complexity and tension, but are usually linked, so each phrase picks up on a theme that was present in the preceding one. In that way, we get a solo that gets "hotter and hotter" and culminates in a climax, much like a grand finale in a symphony.

Another way to solo is the "repeating block" pattern that is common especially in Mali, where set phrases repeat in blocks of two or four and then move to the next phrase.

Yet another one is alternating phrases that emphasise, say the 2 and the 4, or alternate between launching off the 1 and landing on the 1, providing a larger underlying structure and grammar for the solo.

The point of all this is that soloing is, at least to some extent, a skill that can be learned. Good soloists don't play good solos by divine inspiration. They draw on a large number of skills they have learned, such as their drawer full of phrases, their knowledge of what phrases can be played with what rhythm without running rough-shod over the music, and knowing what listeners expect to hear for a particular rhythm because certain phrases are inseparable from that rhythm (such as the odd halting accompaniment for Mendiani--without that phrase, it's not Mendiani anymore).

All these are skills that can be taught, just as much as playing accompaniments can be taught. Now, having taught all these skills to a student, that doesn't mean that the student will be a good soloist. It takes more than skill to produce a good solo as opposed to a mediocre one. But at least, I have given my students a fighting chance at becoming a better soloist. And the more I do that, the easier I make it for them to find that part of themselves that is divine inspiration and allows them to tell their own unique story on the drum that no-one else can tell.

Cheers,

Michi.
Last edited by michi on Tue Sep 15, 2009 2:42 am, edited 3 times in total.
By bubudi
#6762
excellent post, michi. thanks for your ideas and personal experiences. i also emphasize telling one's personal story in their solos, while working within the structure of the rhythm. when i read your references to some of the different ways to structure a solo it reminded me of poetry or a song that describes a scene or situation. you take a key message that you want to get across. the words flow from one phrase to the next. as you describe the scene you add layer upon layer of detail. occasionally, you repeat the key phrase which ties what you're saying to the structure and breaks it up a little so it's not too intense. sometimes, though, the intensity is building and you just want to keep going until it comes to a crescendo... in poetry you wouldn't normally repeat the same phrase 4 times, but there are other qualities that poets and songwriters like to repeat throughout the piece. in african dance, steps are repeated in blocks and that's why drum solos often have this structure.

i completely agree about finding the essence of each rhythm and encapsulating that in your solos. i would like to discuss these identifying characteristics, with one or two examples for each rhythm, if possible. i was trying to follow what you were describing just with words and know exactly what you mean with mendiani, but i think many would have trouble following that, just as i did when you were talking about koredjuga. that's where an example phrase or two for each rhythm would help.
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By michi
#6764
bubudi wrote:excellent post, michi.
Thanks Bubudi :) That was probably the longest post I have posted here so far. When I looked at it, I thought "man, you are getting carried away again." But then, the djembe is my passion. Just can't help myself... :)
reminded me of poetry or a song that describes a scene or situation. you take a key message that you want to get across. the words flow from one phrase to the next. as you describe the scene you add layer upon layer of detail. occasionally, you repeat the key phrase which ties what you're saying to the structure and breaks it up a little so it's not too intense. sometimes, though, the intensity is building and you just want to keep going until it comes to a crescendo...
Totally agree. All good solos have some underlying structure that is invariant somehow, no matter how much the actual phrases vary. Mamady is a master at that. In many of his solos, there is an underlying theme that can be quite well disguised. For example, in his Djagbe solo, the blocks in between the holding pattern actually all exploit the same musical idea, even though they sound quite different. I believe that this underlying consistency is one thing that gives this solo its strength. The listeners most likely won't pick up how the trick works. But they will intuitively feel that the phrases make sense and are nice to listen to one after the other.

In some ways, that's the same musical concept that we find in many classical symphonies. Beethoven's 5th is a textbook example, where the opening phrase appears again and again, sometimes overtly, and sometimes transposed and fairly well hidden inside other musical phrases. This underlying unifying structure is deeply satisfying to the listener at the subconscious level, I believe.
i completely agree about finding the essence of each rhythm and encapsulating that in your solos.
Yes! Unfortunately, that's a lot easier to say than do :) But, at least I'm at the point now where I can start to see and understand some of these ideas whereas, two years ago, they weren't explicit in my mind and I was sort of fumbling for them subconsiously. Knowing something about these principles doesn't make me a master. (Most likely, I'll never be one.) But I think it does help me along my path to better drumming and better aesthetics in my music. And it is something I can pass on to my students, some of whom surely will end up being a far better player than I am.
i would like to discuss these identifying characteristics, with one or two examples for each rhythm, if possible. i was trying to follow what you were describing just with words and know exactly what you mean with mendiani, but i think many would have trouble following that, just as i did when you were talking about koredjuga. that's where an example phrase or two for each rhythm would help.
I might be very brave some time in the next few weeks and record a few phrases for Djansa to illustrate the idea. It will have to be to background accompaniment from Mamady's teaching CD in my living room, I suspect, and I don't know whether I'll be able to get something like acceptable sound quality that way. If the audience promises to be gentle with me, I'll give a shot though :)

Cheers,

Michi.
Last edited by michi on Mon Sep 14, 2009 6:17 am, edited 2 times in total.
By bubudi
#6767
if you get around to it then i'm sure we'll all really appreciate it. don't worry about sound quality - we will listen to it as an example serving to illustrate a point, not to display technical brilliance ;)
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By michi
#6770
Following up with more thoughts on this...

One way to explain what I mean is to explain what a bad solo sounds like. I know a few people who are technically good drummers, with good technique and speed, very solid sense of time, and extensive knowledge of West African rhythms. Yet, I can't listen to their solos for any length of time. Usually one or more of the following are behind the (to me) unaesthetic and grating solo:
  • Jumbles of unrelated solo phrases that are pulled out of either the 4/4 or 12/8 "bag of tricks" more or less at random and so don't relate to each other. This creates lack of continuity and breaks the underlying thread that should tie phrases together.
  • Solo phrases that don't harmonise with the dundun patterns and clash with them somehow. Nice phrases often play a call and response game with the dundunba or sangban, or alternatively deliberately mirror and emphasize them; if someone pulls phrases out of bag at random, they sometimes do neither and simply "don't fit well" with the dunduns--a phrase that sounds great with Balakulania doesn't necessarily sound great with Yole, for example.
  • Lack of repetition. Particularly with complex phrases, I like to hear them twice or even four times (maybe with minor variations on the third and/or fourth). That's because a complex phrase that is new to me, and whose rhythmical concept I am not familiar with, tends to surprise me and throw my ear a little. So, it's nice to hear the phrase more than once. That allows me to appreciate it more because, if it is repeated, I can confirm my understanding of the phrase and explore and savour its rhythmic subtleties much better. And, by repeating something, the soloist indicates competency to some degree: "Yes, you heard right, and I really meant to play it just like that--see, here it comes again."
  • Monotony. The drummer is limited in technique or, more often, in musical ideas, and there is not enough variety in the musical phrases. In turn, that quickly leads to a solo that gets boring because everything sounds so similar that it might as well be the same. (A solo that endlessly starts each phrase on the 1 with a 3-roll is a classic example of a solo that sounds boring and exposes the technical/creative limitations of the soloist.)
  • Mismanaged tension curve. Sometimes, I hear solos that start out with some really nice, fast, and technically challenging riff that sounds awesome, only to then follow up with phrases that, when played immediately after this awesome riff, sound dull. If they'd been played in opposite order instead, they would have sounded awesome. In other words, the crescendo comes first instead of last. A variation of this is a solo that builds nicely and reaches a point where the listener expects it to end (hopefully with an echauffement). Instead, the soloist misses the point where he/she should have stopped, only to let the tension curve drop again and finishing lamely. Yet another variant of this are solos that sort of peter out into nothingness and end nowhere, not even with an echauffement or at least a final flourish phrase. The soloist has run out of ideas and resignedly (and usually subconsciously dissatisfied) retreats back to the safety of accompaniment and leaves the listener hanging.
  • Overextending. A technically simple solo that is played precisely is infinitely better than a technically challenging solo that the soloist cannot quite pull off. Even untrained listeners are very sensitive to inaccurate timing. They may not be able to tell why the solo didn't sound good, but they will be able to tell that it lacked something that should have been there.
  • Imprecise micro-timing. Some soloists are technically competent, fast, aware of their fellow musicians, and all the rest of it. Yet, to me, they always sound a little off (even when they play within their technical limitations). Maybe it is just me, but there are some people who, to my ear, "never quite nail it". They tend to annoy me quite seriously because they continuously press my inner "this wasn't quite right" button.
  • Playing from the head instead of playing from the gut. Djembe is all about earth energy. It's supposed to be played from the gut and--excuse me for that please--from the dick. Some people play "from the head". Everything is played correctly, with good micro-timing and phrasing, but it still sounds mechanical and robotic. As a listener, I can tell the competent player, and I find myself waiting for the blast of energy that forever fails to arrive. I have heard this style of playing from drummers who are typically very well educated, intelligent, somewhat anal-retentive and/or obsessive, and with residual anxiety issues. Their desire "to do it right" (in reality, their fear of "getting it wrong") stops them from "letting go" and giving all their energy to their audience, who craves it so much.
  • Going on for too long. Only very good players can solo for more than three minutes without getting repetitive or mismanaging listener expectations. Just as with speeches, it is better to be short, sharp, and strong, than it is to ramble on and on.
  • Endless complexity. There is only so much tolerance my ears and brain have for complexity. Endless 32nd note rolls, double-speed triplet rolls, or off-beat sequences of notes that never resolve onto the pulse all put a lot of strain on me as a listener. I need time to recover from all that virtuosity and be given a rest. Good soloists have a feel for simplicity. Every now and then, they play something that is really sparse and simple, but places each note "just so". When they do, that is like a breath of fresh air to me as a listener. It gives me room to breathe and to appreciate the underlying groove and have a rest before I'm taken on to the next nail-biting cliff-hanger rhythmical adventure that ties my musical brain into knots again.
  • Over-taxing or under-taxing fellow musicians. If I play with people who are not completely solid in their accompaniment, and I pull some wild off-beat phrase out of the bag that tends to drag the ear off the pulse, I run the risk of throwing the entire group off the pulse. A soloist must respect the limitations of his fellow musicians as much as he must respect his own. Yet, if I am the strongest drummer in a group, I have the potential to lift the entire group up beyond its normal level, by inspiring the confidence to play things that are not easy for the other musicians, by encouraging them, and by providing the energy they need to extend themselves. A soloist who under-taxes his fellow musicians fails to make the most of the opportunity afforded him; that shows lack of respect and trust just as over-taxing one's fellow musicians does.
  • Lack of humility and patience. We probably have all met the kind of drummer who must solo at all times and and all costs, even at the cost of the enjoyment of his audience and fellow musicians. (Many drum circles are plagued by that kind of person, especially when the skill levels vary widely.)
  • Lack of silence. There is nothing worse than a solo that doesn't repeat anything and, on top of that, keeps going and going and going without ever leaving more than two beats of silence. It's what I call the "insensitive incessant chatter style of soloing". Lack of silence (to me) is a prime way to have a solo degenerate into noise. Four bars of silence can sometimes be twice as effective as four bars of incredibly fast and impressive djembe wizardry.
I know that some of the above conflict with each other. It's not supposed to be monotonous, but it's supposed provide continuity by repetition and following an underlying unifying musical idea with related phrases. How the hell do I avoid the first while doing the second?

It's supposed to come from the gut, yet respect all these rules about what phrase goes with what rhythm, linking phrases together, and creating a story. How on earth can I do this without thinking?

Yet, it's easy for me to tell when I've got it wrong: I sit there and I go "well, that was sort of alright, but I didn't really get a big kick out it." And it's even easier for me to tell when I've got it right: all I need to do is look at the other musicians, the dancers, and the audience--the smiles on their faces tell volumes. I don't even need to look at anyone else to tell: when I've played a good solo, there is this little spark of happiness and contentment inside me that doesn't happen with a bad solo.

To me, correctly managing all the conflicting demands and choosing the right trade-off among them is what distinguishes great musicians from mediocre ones. Great musicians do all of the above (and more) by instinct (as well as experience). And each individual's choice of trade-off is what creates their signature sound and imparts their personality to the music. The particular choice of these trade-offs (and probably dozens of others I'm still unaware of) is what turns noise into music, aimless chatter into a coherent story, and is what makes the djembe speak.

Cheers,

Michi.
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By Dennis103
#6773
Hi Michi,

Good two long posts, worth puting up on a separate page somewhere.

I'm quite competent at playing some solo's but as soon as I have to solo at top speed, I just don't have the time to think of new patterns and I will be reduced to just a few, which is one of my problems hen I have to improvise :D But your points of advice are excellent.

As for Diansa and and the solo patterns that I learnt, see my site: http://www.yankadi.nl/diansa.htm . With MP3 examples.

My insights about the 'constant factor' in each solo pattern parallel yours but it does not have to be the same element, it can be a choice of 1 or more 'constant factors'. In Diansa it can be the 2 slaps on the main beat, but it can also be the t-t-s-t-t-s-t-t-s later in the phrase, that goes with a spin or twirl of the dancer. I was taught the solo together with the dance steps and although I don't remember much of the dance steps this particular bit I happen to remember. So although the 4th solo pattern is very straight and out of character with the rest, it still works due to containing this second 'pattern'.
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By michi
#6779
Dennis103 wrote:Good two long posts, worth puting up on a separate page somewhere.
Thank you. I'm sort of stunned a little--all this poured out in a big gush earlier today, without me really having meant to go off like that. I'm a little scared now. Re-reading it all, I think I gave the impression that I have mastered all these things, which I most definitely have not. These are just the thoughts that have accumulated since I started drumming...

Anyway, I might take this and wrap it up into a web page at some point (but not before I've settled down a bit again :) )
I'm quite competent at playing some solo's but as soon as I have to solo at top speed, I just don't have the time to think of new patterns and I will be reduced to just a few, which is one of my problems hen I have to improvise :D But your points of advice are excellent.
Thank you. And I suffer from the exact same thing, especially when I feel I'm under performance pressure, in front of a large audience, or when there are three or four Guinean masters with me in the room, each of whom can drum the pants off me... As soon as I get into that state of mind, it's over. I'll manage to come up with something that's average at best, things feel forced, and I lose confidence in myself and tense up. In turn, that slows me down, throws off my micro-timing, and makes me play with my head again.

But then, there are moments where I don't think at all, where I'm happy, and where I don't feel I have to prove anything. Those are the moments (not always, sadly, only sometimes) where magic can happen. Suddenly, I play fast and without effort, new phrases seem to come from nowhere and flow into my hands as if by magic and, when I'm done, I sometimes sit there and think "I have no idea where that came from or how I did it." I just wish those moments would happen more often.
As for Diansa and and the solo patterns that I learnt, see my site: http://www.yankadi.nl/diansa.htm . With MP3 examples.
That's a terrific example of the Djansa theme: those two 16th slaps starting on the 1 are right through that solo and link all the phrases together. I hadn't heard most of those solo phrases before. But, if you had played me just the solo and asked what rhythm it belongs with, I wouldn't have hesitated to say "Djansa." The theme of the solo points straight at that rhythm.
My insights about the 'constant factor' in each solo pattern parallel yours but it does not have to be the same element, it can be a choice of 1 or more 'constant factors'. In Diansa it can be the 2 slaps on the main beat, but it can also be the t-t-s-t-t-s-t-t-s later in the phrase, that goes with a spin or twirl of the dancer.
Yes, totally. I should have said that it isn't necessary to slavishly stick to the theme to the point where every phrase I play has to include it. Sega doesn't do that either. But he does return to the theme often enough to remind the listener of what the theme is, and to play little tricks on the listener. ("You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you? Well, I fooled you: here is the theme again.")
I was taught the solo together with the dance steps and although I don't remember much of the dance steps this particular bit I happen to remember. So although the 4th solo pattern is very straight and out of character with the rest, it still works due to containing this second 'pattern'.
I suspect that's another one of those soloing principles that could be made more explicit with more thought: the theme can be disguised, inverted, mangled, or hidden. As long as enough of the substance of the theme remains for the listener to at least subconsciously recognise it, the theme is still intact, and the rhythm isn't violated. It's a fine line between changing a theme so it doesn't lose its identity, and changing a theme so it is lost to the listener. (I also suspect that the listener's familiarity with the music has a lot to do with how far the soloist can push things before losing the listener, thereby degenerating from music into noise.) Walking that fine line and staying on the right side of it is yet another one of those things that masters intuitively do right...

Cheers,

Michi.
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By michi
#6783
bubudi wrote:if you get around to it then i'm sure we'll all really appreciate it. don't worry about sound quality - we will listen to it as an example serving to illustrate a point, not to display technical brilliance ;)
When I said I hope that the audience will be gentle with me, I wasn't talking about the quality of the recording--I was talking about the quality of the musician ;)

Cheers,

Michi.
By bubudi
#6784
to use the storytelling analogy again... when a good storyteller tells a story the words flow out from the heart, from the gut... and are felt in the heart and gut. music is a language and naturally has structure and variance. lose that structure or make everything similar and it's a strain to follow, just as a story will be hard to follow if it were told without grammar or with a monotone. the audience needs the opportunity to take everything in that the storyteller has related. otherwise they tend to tune out the yabbering voice, like some pompous professor giving a rather long winded, self indulgent speech. i think many of us have witnessed someone who had a case of solo diarrhoea ;)
By bubudi
#6785
michi@triodia.com wrote:When I said I hope that the audience will be gentle with me, I wasn't talking about the quality of the recording--I was talking about the quality of the musician ;)
i knew what you meant, i was trying to be indirect ;) it's all good, and will be invaluable for many without a doubt.
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By michi
#6786
bubudi wrote:to use the storytelling analogy again... when a good storyteller tells a story the words flow out from the heart, from the gut... and are felt in the heart and gut.
Well spoken, thank you! There is wisdom in that, for sure!
otherwise they tend to tune out the yabbering voice, like some pompous professor giving a rather long winded, self indulgent speech. i think many of us have witnessed someone who had a case of solo diarrhoea ;)
Too true. And, yes, hint taken! :)

Cheers,

Michi.
Last edited by michi on Mon Sep 14, 2009 2:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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By michi
#6787
i knew what you meant, i was trying to be indirect ;) it's all good, and will be invaluable for many without a doubt.
OK, I'll give it a shot as soon as I come up for air from work. (I should have been working today, but found myself spending far too much time on this forum. Now I'm paying the price: it's midnight, and I'm still working--when I'm not posting to this forum, that is... :) )

Cheers,

Michi.
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By Dennis103
#6794
michi@triodia.com wrote:Thank you. I'm sort of stunned a little--all this poured out in a big gush earlier today, without me really having meant to go off like that. I'm a little scared now. Re-reading it all, I think I gave the impression that I have mastered all these things, which I most definitely have not. These are just the thoughts that have accumulated since I started drumming...
That is fine - th realisation of how things are stuck together must come before mastering them :-) And I think many players will eventually come to the same realisations all by themselves, just like you did. At some point someone does something, or says something, or teaches you something, or you see something, and the penny drops, something says 'click' inside your head and you realise how things are stuck together. You are not proclaiming that you have mastered it, only presenting your viewpoint of how things are stuck together, and as such, it is a good piece of writing, worthy of taking full credit for :D