We all like to play with ourselves…. it’s fun, enjoyable, and can be a good workout. But we want to make sure that we can play with others as well so we’ve got to make sure that we play with ourselves in a way that others will understand… I’m talking about drumming here… sheesh..Boss RC20XL
One obstacle I’m always faced with when I want to practice but don’t have access to other drummers is timing and feel. When we practice alone there is no reference for what we play so there is so way to measure if we keep the same tempo, speed up/slow down, or fluctuate throughout the rhythm. Most drummers who have been drumming a few years will be able to hold an accompaniment rhythm without too much change in tempo, but then if you try and solo, or play off in an odd time signature and come back to the main rhythm.. are you still on beat?
It takes years and years of practice to dial in your inner metronome. One thing I struggled with a lot when first starting drumming was that I’d practice alone, without a metronome, and without dununs or another djembe. Boy… I was smokin! Had some killer solos, played on the beat, in-between, over top and underneath and then came right back to the rhythm… I know I was on because my foot… I’m hitting the down beat when my foot does… Haha. I couldn’t figure out why I was so good when I drummed alone and then when I’d venture out and drum with others my solos weren’t quite cutting it…. they ended everywhere but on the beat, my weaving in and out of the rhythm just sounded like I didn’t have a clue what I was doing… I didn’t! I had no sense of time. My foot adjusted to what my hands were playing so my body tricked itself into always thinking I had a great sense of time! This is one reason why many djembefolas stress to not play the djembe unless you have the dununs when starting out. The dununs give you a reference, an amount of accountability for your part in the rhythm. The same can be accomplished with another drummer drumming along with. It’s always a great idea to find a good local teacher.
This article is more for those that can’t find a local teacher or maybe don’t have time to hit up the drum group or African dance class. As much as I drum in the community, at dance class, and with my students, I still find it useful to have a reference when I drum. I turn blue in the face begging my wife to drum with me… I can’t wait till Adelaide is a few years older!
If you are in a pinch and/or can’t afford the below resources, a metronome is a good tool. For the djembe you’ll want a loud one or better yet one with a headphone out. Also use some in ear phones that lower the outside decibel or use some studio phones that surround your ear and block out some of you drum. You’ll need this to actually hear the metronome over your djembe. Another option is to use recording software on your computer; record one part to the rhythm using a metronome, then use that phrase to practice against. This is pretty much what I am demonstrating below, but without the need of a computer.
I use the Boss RC-20XL loop station. What this guy does is let me record live and then loop it back. I can add multiple “tracks” on top each other so if I want to practice dununs for a specific rhythm, I can record all the djembe parts on top of each other and then play back so I can reference them for the dunun.
I like this so much better than a metronome. It’s not as good as a live drummer because you all will work with each other to speed up or slow down and just share the rhythm… it’s a little more dynamic. But a metronome is dull and boring and you’re not really sure where your specific part will play in the whole rhythm. With this method you can play against “live drums” and it’s easy enough to adjust the speed or the rhythm. The loop station lets you save quite a few rhythms (11 if I remember right). I believe I currently have 4-5 dunun rhythms saved on the device that I use when teaching so we can feel what the rhythm sounds like as whole.
It’s also great if you have a dunun section that is, say, four measures long while your djembe section is one or two measures long. This means to practice your solos properly you want to listen to where the longest phrase is… if it’s the doundounba, then you’ll want to keep that in mind when soloing or playing the break. You might be on beat with your one measure phrase when you play the break, but if you don’t listen to the doundounba which has 4 measures, you could cut it off short instead of completing the cycle. Also, if you play with dancers they will be listening to the music and most likely will hear the longest cycle… so you if you play a break at the wrong spot, the dancer wont be so happy.
There are other loop stations available, and some free software for the computer, PercussionStudio. It’s not as good as actual drum recording but will save you from having to buy some gear if you don’t have any.
…Now go play with yourself and let me know how it went!