Jim Donovan and the Saint Francis University World Drumming Ensemble
By Jim Donovan
Philosophy: Us Vs. Me
Let’s begin by taking a look at several important aspects of playing music with a group. The foundation philosophy I encourage musicians to use is to play for the betterment of the group. In other words, find ways to make whatever you play be complementary to the music of the whole group. Put the success of the group ahead of your own by focusing on “us” instead of “me”. What I’ve found out about using a group focused approach to music making is that the better the group sounds, the more positively I am perceived as an individual. It's a win win..
How to help your group dynamic be the best it can be:
1. Listening: Great listeners make even better players. When you take the time to hear what each person around you is offering musically, you become better able to find ways to add to thoughtfully add to it. When other members of your group feel heard by you, it becomes more likely that they will listen to you in return.
2. Communicate: Find something you like about what one of your group members is doing and sincerely compliment them on it. Drawing attention first to what you like is a great way to build trust and open the lines to deeper meaningful communication.
3. Be open to receiving and giving constructive critique. Remember when criticizing to focus on the actions and not the personality of the person. Also remember to smile and be genuine in any comments you make. When receiving critique, remember that the person on the other end may have important information that could help you grow, even if what they are saying isn’t easy to hear at first.
There are a multitude of musical devices that can help you make what your group is playing sound more interesting. Music is not just made up of what you play, but also how you play it. Your approaches to the music as well as the sounds you use have a great effect on how the listener perceives your end result.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Organize around a common pulse. To create a cohesive sounding piece of music, it is important to establish a mutually agreed upon tempo (or speed). This pulse becomes the reference point for the rest of your creation. Once the group members know what the pulse is, they have something to rely upon and come back to if they make a mistake. It helps to designate a few people to be in charge of holding the pulse. Low drums or high-pitched bells work great for this purpose.
2. Find a wide variety of different timbres. A timbre is the quality of a tone that makes it unique from others. For example, the sound of the human voice has a different quality to it than say the sound of a piano. A good practice to follow in group music making is to use of a wide variety of sounds from across the spectrum.-Low deep bass sounds, high pitched sounds, and mid range sounds. A way to get a sense of how timbre works is to look at the tonal variety in a typical West African drumming ensemble instrumentation.
- Djun djuns: (Pitched African bass drums) Usually played in sets of three drums. Low, mid-range and high.
- Djembes: (African hand drum) This drum is capable of many sounds, the main ones being a low, medium and high tone. The tones are commonly referred to as the bass, tone and slap.
- Bell: (gankoqui or toke) This percussion instrument is the cousin to the modern cowbell, made of metal and is high pitched. The bell is commonly used as a time-keeper since it is loud enough to be heard over all of the other drums. More cowbell!
3. Use dynamics. Experiment with playing at different volumes at points throughout your music as a way to bring interesting variation to it. There’s nothing like suddenly playing very quietly to draw the listener’s attention in before bowling them over with a louder section. Notice what happens to how you feel in your body as you play softly versus when you play louder. Much of what you feel will also be felt in the listener.
Common Rookie Errors
One of the great things about music is how much it can teach you about yourself and your own tendencies. Do your best to avoid these common beginner’s errors and you will be well on your way to creating music that is both enjoyable to you as well as your listeners.
1. Releasing the fear of mistakes. Let’s face it; anytime you try doing something new, mistakes are bound to happen. In fact, I believe that mistakes are where the true learning takes place. There nothing quite like feeling something fall apart to inspire you to want to find ways to make it stay together. When you have a failure, simply allow it to show you what NOT to do the next time.
2. Not listening to each other. When groups aren’t listening to one another, it becomes challenging to create something magnificent. Just because you may be a virtuoso doesn’t mean that you play well with others. Make your focus be on the sound of the whole, rather than on the isolated parts.
3. Overplaying. Great music utilizes silence as much as it does sound. Find ways to strike a balance between playing enough and playing too much. Notice how what you are playing connects and interplays with the other parts in the group.
This guide is by no means exhaustive, but by using even a few of the ideas described above, you’ll give yourself and your group a better chance of creating great music together. Have fun!