Hearing so many tales this time of year about creating syllabi and planning classes brings to mind my favorite class of all time in graduate school. It did not include a syllabus, a textbook, or for that matter any reading or writing whatsoever! It was an African drumming class at the California Institute of the Arts, taught by master Ewe drummer Alfred Ladzekpo. This was not the traditional Ghanaian drumming and dancing class—I took that as well and it was wonderful, but for me the serious fun started with the very next class period.
Each traditional song we learned had a very clear order of events—certain drums and bells start out the music, others enter in a prescribed order once a basic pulse has been established, the solos happen at particular times, etc. The songs were amazing to learn and to play, but our ears would quickly adjust to each percussive element as it belonged within that particular structure.
This was the stepping-stone from which the smaller, more casual gathering afterwards leapt. Basically Alfred would totally rip apart all of the rhythms that we had been playing, and we would learn each one completely away from its normal context. He would point at someone to begin playing (never the person with the instrument that traditionally started the music) and that person would have to pick the groove of their shaker, drum or bell out of the air. Then he would point at another person, and she would add her instrument to the mix, and so on. Always in a completely different order than “normal”, and sometimes totally backwards!
Needless to say, this was hard, and at the same time so much fun! The traditionally arranged music (always in 6/8 time) was chock full of aural illusions that would mask where the real downbeat fell, and these exercises revealed even more angles from which to hear the patterns. We were not permitted to write anything down, nor could we record the classes. “You will never be able to hear it correctly in a recording” Alfred would say. He was right—recordings never quite capture the visceral feeling, or the actual groove that comes from physically playing this music.
I cannot begin to describe the incredibly positive way this experience rearranged my synapses and scrambled my sense of rhythm. Those three months of playing—only for a couple hours a week—changed my musical life and the way I compose. By the end of the semester I knew every one of those rhythms inside and out; I could play them steady as a rock solo, front to back, back to front, or fit them into any other groove before a complete measure had passed. Those of us in the class would engage in good-natured competitions to see who could “find the groove” most quickly, and then we would play and play until our arms couldn’t stand any more.
From the experience there came an additional benefit that I never considered: the ability to pick out all kinds of complex rhythms from other types of music by ear. At the time I was also playing congas in a Latin jazz band, and my playing improved exponentially. I started to hear and be able to play and notate rhythms while composing that were worlds more interesting than anything I had come up with before. It was—and still is—an amazing feeling to hear the different percussion lines in a piece of music pop out of the texture, and then figure out how they work together.
So the question is now, why are there not more ear-training courses that include rhythmic ear training? Or that focus primarily on hearing and being able to reproduce rhythmic material? It’s not just for percussionists!
One day I hope to go back to Spain and spend more dedicated time studying Flamenco music in this way. A good rhythmic brain-scramble every decade or so seems like a good way to keep the creative juices flowing.