Practicing and Making Music...Without Your Instrument

(By Mark Nauseef)


mnpractice.jpg (11229 bytes)Live in an apartment? Travel much? Have unfriendly neighbors? Take a tip from the East (North and South) Indians...practice without your instrument. Practicing without your instrument can be done almost anywhere at any time and is as important as practicing with your instrument.

Singing music (rhythms and melodies) will deepen your feel for rhythms and increase your ability to hear music. By feel I mean the actual state of being very comfortable and relaxed with the rhythm you are dealing with (either singing or playing). Learning to sing the melody of any piece of music you are to play has been recommended many times by many people and is always good advice. Learning to sing rhythms is equally important. Dividing and sub-dividing space and time and singing these sub-divisions, with mnemonics or non-sense syllables, can be a very valuable form of practice and is one of the most proven ways for gaining a deep internalization of music (rhythm/melody). It will also increase your ability to memorize rhythms, patterns, parts, etc.. Practicing this way can be beneficial regardless of what style of music you are playing. It is equally helpful in situations involving strictly written music or totally improvised forms, and all areas in between.

The ideas for practice in this article are primarily Indian rhythmic concepts but are being used in various ways often in Western music by such drummers as Tony Williams, Trilok Gurtu, and Vinnie Colaiuta and by teachers such as Gary Chaffee and Terry Silverlight. I was personally introduced to these concepts by Pandit Taranath Rao, John Bergamo and Trilok Gurtu. These great musicians all stressed the importance of singing or reciting rhythms and they also placed great importance on the idea of keeping some form of "physical time reference", while reciting the rhythms, to show the large skeletal frame or shape of the space/time we are dividing. Some examples of "physical time reference" are conducting, keeping tal ( the Indian system for maintaining a particular time cycle and showing the stressed and unstressed beats of the cycle by clapping or waving the hands on each beat) and dancing.

For all practical purposes of this article and simplicity, I suggest we start with dancing. Now don't be frightened! I simply mean a repetitive body movement which will clearly mark "where we are" in the space we are working with. In other words, our own metronome. Even if you are familiar or comfortable with conducting or keeping tal, I feel that the idea of moving your hands and feet while saying (reciting) the rhythms is worth checking out as it gets the whole body moving as in playing the drumkit. Before starting with this "physical time reference" (dancing) let's backtrack to the singing/reciting. John Bergamo has constructed a "rhythm scale" which is an ideal tool to use for singing the sub-divisions of a large pulse. These divisions may also be considered "speeds" per pulse/beat. John derived the syllables for the "rhythm scale" from drum mnemonics of North and South India and a treatise on ornamentation for recorder players written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535.

The basic scale is for speed/divisions 1-8.

(Main pulse or down beat) =Ta

  1. TA=
  2. TA KE=
  3. TA KE TE=
  4. TA KE TE NE=
  5. TA KE TE NE GE=

Of course numbers can be used when reciting the divisions, although it is more difficult on the tongue at fast tempos with numbers to make the divisions clear, accurate and smooth. When first working with this material I would suggest using a metronome.

Let's begin:

examplea.jpg (6734 bytes)

Don't confuse these "phrases" of 3 or 5 with the "speeds" of 3 and 5 These are linear phrases, not polyrhythms. The actual speed is 8 in the above example. We are simply accenting some of the eight notes.

A) 5 3 3 5
B) 5 5 3 3
C) 5 5 5 5 3 3 3 3

As you can see, these examples add up to either 16 or 32 notes which will bring you to a down-beat with your foot and the metronome. Also, as you can see, the possibilities are vast!!! Singing odd number combinations of phrases (such as 3 and 5) in even speeds (such as 4 and 8), while moving, can be helpful in breaking the common bad habit of always starting phrases on the down beat. Singing these phrases will also help you to think of longer spaces before resolving a phrase which makes playing "over the barline" more comfortable. Of course these ideas we have just worked with in the speed of 8 can be used in other speeds as well. An example of this would be:

exampleb.jpg (13477 bytes)

This Polyrhythm of 6 over 5 will resolve to a downbeat after five pulses. (In all of the remaining examples the syllable 'Ta' should always fall directly with the accents)

Another possibility is:

examplec.jpg (13084 bytes)

This Polyrhythm of 7 over 5 will resolve to a downbeat after five pulses.

Another example:

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This Polyrhythm of 5 over 3 will resolve to a downbeat after three pulses.

As you can imagine there are many possibilities to work with polyrhythms and linear phrases. There are of course ways to apply this material to your instrument. For drum set, two applications of this material would be using various sticking patterns with each speed and assigning each part of the polyrhythm or syllable to a different sound source or timbre. Rather than getting into these applications, or others for your actual instrument, I think it is best at this beginning point to work strictly with the reciting and the body movement until the material feels comfortable and the groove feels deep (the most important part!!!) After all it is the purpose of this article to build a strong internalization of rhythm within one's heart and soul (oh yeah, and to please our neighbors!!!).

This article was published by PERCUSSIVE NOTES (Oct. 1992)


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