Keeping that Beat Steady

By Kalani • March 7th, 2012

One of the most common questions I get when I’m teaching or presenting a workshop regarding group drumming has to do with helping the group maintain a steady beat. I’ve written about this before, but it’s such a common question that I thought I’d talk a little bit more about this popular subject.

If you’re a teacher, therapist or facilitator who uses group drumming experiences with your participants, you’ve probably witnessed situations where the group starts off playing together, only to end up in a sort of “downhill” race to the finish line. The tendency to speed up is quite common with young children, but it also is something that happens with just about any group.

Something that helps me maintain a sense of balance, is to remember that the participants are often very excited when they get the opportunity to play drums together.  This is quite normal and to be expected. With this in mind, you can simply allow everyone to “get their rumbles out” before asking the group to maintain a steady beat. This means letting the process of speeding up take place, even a couple of times, before you focus a lot of energy on helping your participants maintain a fixed tempo.

Why does the tempo speed up? If we examine it from a purely physical perspective, we could conclude that the tempo speeds up when the striking actions occur more frequently. Why do the striking actions occur more frequently? There are a couple of reasons. As mentioned above, the participants are excited and probably more focused on the feeling of drumming rather than the task of playing a steady rhythm.  This means that they are likely not connecting what they’re hearing with what their bodies are doing. Your goal could be to bring their awareness to their bodies and help them connect their hands with what they are hearing.

An approach to music education, called Dalcroze Eurythmics, often addresses the physical aspects of instrumental play through the use of specific types of movement that can have the effect of constraining or limiting one’s actions in order to achieve a more desirable musical outcome.  An example of this includes asking participants to take up more space within a given movement, thereby creating a physical structure through which play is regulated.  For example, if I ask a student to strike a drum on their far right and balance that with striking a drum on their far left, the physical distance between the two drums will serve to limit the overall tempo. The distance they have to travel will automatically bring the tempo into a specific range of possibility.

In addition to setting up certain physical structures, or asking students to engage in specific types of movement, you can employ very simple strategies, such as those that are commonly used within the Orff-Schulwerk approach to music and movement education. Participants may not have complete control over their arms, but most people find it quite easy to walk or march in rhythm. Before you move to the instruments, consider playing a steady beat and inviting everyone to march to that beat. I recently used this strategy at a school residency and it was very successful. Believe me. It works.

Use a tambourine, bell or block to play a steady beat. Model marching to the beat and encourage everyone to imitate your movements. Use physical structures and features in the room to align and guide your path as you lead the group throughout the space. While everyone is stepping to the steady beat, invite them to vocalize, chant or sing different patterns. Once they are able to feel the pulse in their body, keeping the rhythm steady, they will be much more likely to maintain it once they go to the instruments.

You can use this grounding technique before, during, or even after your participants play the instruments. You can also use this strategy as a developmental practice for yourself to improve your personal rhythmic acuity. This type of “rhythmic centering” relates to a procedure that I use to teach rhythms called “pattern over pulse sequence” or “pops.” Look for that in upcoming articles. If you work with groups of students, clients or any specific population, and you have questions about this or any other aspect of community music making, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to send me an e-mail and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. In the meantime enjoy making music – and keeping that beat solid.

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