One of the stars of the Muppets is a character named Animal. Animal is a drummer, who many would argue, embodies the general perception of a drummer in the U.S. He is wild, impulsive, and intense. This perception is not always based on how the world’s best drummers actually are, but more on the energy that they bring to musical groups and events. I hope to present a picture of some of the skills needed in order to become a great drummer / musician / person and how learning these skills can create rich learning experiences for children.
Drumming is not really wild – it just feels that way…
The world’s best drummers do not hit the drums randomly or haphazardly – they are very calculated and deliberate. In order to play their instruments well and to find new ways to be expressive during performances, they have to practice and train. Great drummers don’t tend to be like sprinters in a race, they tend to be more like marathon runners who take their training and preparation seriously. Like runners, drummers have to learn how to relax while moving, to learn how to breathe well while remaining active, how to use healthy postures, and how to get lost in their activity so that they are not “thinking” about it – but instead doing it with an automaticity that enables them to reflect on other things while they are being active. Drumming like many other physical activities can be very intensive at times – however, great drummers learn to be aware of their bodies and avoid becoming injured in spite of an increase in the intensiveness.
Drumming is natural…
There are many individuals who see a person playing a drum set and immediately think to themselves, “I would never be able to do that! It requires too much coordination – and I can barely clap on rhythm!” I would argue that when discussing who can drum, we enter a Nature vs. Nurture discussion. I firmly believe that more people in the U.S. do not feel comfortable drumming or using rhythm because of our cultural experiences related to rhythm. Throughout the world, there are toddlers and small children playing syncopated rhythms with ease. Is it because their genes predispose them to rhythmic intelligence or is it because they were exposed to seeing adults exhibiting behaviors and began to learn how to do what the adults around them were doing? What were some of the things that your child was exposed to and how has this exposure affected what they can do – the skills that they have?
Clearly, any art form requires an investment of time and benefits from guidance from experienced professionals; however, most children are naturally drawn to hitting a cylinder with their hands or with sticks. I would argue that it is as natural for people to drum as it is for us to run, but that our cultural experiences affect our exposure and comfort with drumming. It seems to move away from being an activity that you can engage at your own level into a skill that you either can or cannot do. It is similar to a person who enjoys drawing (and has a natural impulse for it) being discouraged from drawing because they don’t draw well enough to meet another’s standards or a person being discouraged from dancing because they cannot execute the dance move as expected – we often prioritize a person’s ability to perform over their desire to do something that they enjoy and that makes their lives richer (and could become something that they would be better at with time and work).
Great drummers listen well and express themselves appropriately…
Drums are very powerful instruments – an average person can create deafening sounds without the need for electricity. So, drums should be treated like other powerful things – tools, money, the stove, etc. You can hurt and offend people with loud erratic drumming. Most professional drummers tend to have a low tolerance for loud erratic drumming. They understand that it is possible to create something beautiful and enjoyable with a little bit of effort. The experience could be compared to watching a child color outside of the lines in a coloring book. Most adults will (at some point) draw attention to the lines of the picture and encourage children to use the lines to guide their coloring rather than disregarding them. Great drummers learn to be considerate to listeners by adjusting the volume of their drumming to a level that is appropriate to the occasion. A person who knows how to control their volume, but chooses not to, is being immature and inconsiderate of the listeners and musicians that they may be performing with. Showing off at the expense of the success of the group is seen in most social situations. Learning to be considerate to listeners and other musicians is a skill that demonstrates and fosters maturity in individuals of all ages.
When a drummer becomes aware of ways to channel these powerful instruments, then they can begin to dance musically. They can learn basic steps / movements and then they can add expressive touches and / or improvise something that is complimentary to the song. The great drummer dances with the other musicians – this sometimes leads the musicians to perform things that go beyond what was rehearsed. As a drummer, I have often been inspired to do something that was not rehearsed during a performance and responded to other musicians who began to do something that went beyond what was rehearsed.
Is drumming on buckets the same as playing Guitar Hero?
Although it may seem as though drumming on a bucket is similar to playing a musical video game, the skills introduced and reinforced are dramatically different. A video game introduces and reinforces the skill of pushing the appropriate buttons when prompted by the game. When a person is actually playing an instrument, they learn to repeat particular movements in a specific order in order to produce the musical sound. The sound produced is consistent when the movement / behavior is exhibited (muscle memory). For example, if you play a C note on an acoustic piano, it will create a sound – that sound will not change. However, it is possible to produce different types of sounds using devices that can be connected to instruments. Guitarists often use foot-switch pedals in order to change sounds. There are skills required to use them effectively – a video game does not introduce or reinforce these skills.
Drumming on buckets is not equivalent to playing instruments, but it does offer transferrable skills. One skill that is introduced and reinforced with bucket drumming is awareness of hitting versus not hitting. In visual art, artists learn to become aware of negative space. In drumming, not hitting the drum can be seen as a musical negative space. You don’t hit the drum in order to create the quiet portions of a rhythm – instead, you resist hitting. This silence / break in the rhythm is as important as the hits. In fact, intentional breaks are what separate an intentional rhythm from haphazard noise. This awareness is necessary for playing any instrument – to play or not to play… SELF CONTROL
Another skill that can be learned from bucket drumming is the skill of experiencing a repeated pattern becoming the foundation for song. Many popular songs have 4 or more chords that are repeated. The melody of the song is performed on top of this repeated pattern. After a child / person learns to perform a rhythm, it is important for them to learn how to relax into the rhythm so that they can continue to repeat the pattern while other performers do something different that is complimenting the rhythm. RELAXING
Finally, bucket drumming offers opportunities for creativity. Once a child has learned how to relax into a rhythm/ song, then they can begin to explore being creative. They can try to develop their own “new” rhythms and they can begin exploring ways of complimenting rhythms with other patterns or with improvisational breaks. CREATIVITY
In summary, Drumming teaches countless invaluable skills. A child who learns how to drum, doesn’t make noise, they make art!