Rhythm as Motion



Julian Douglas
Consciousness, Exercises, Technique

All music comes from the same place – the canvas of silence. What is placed on the canvas is where the differentiation of one piece of music from another occurs. Are we creating a Western classical symphony? An Irish drinking song? An Indian raga?

As students of rhythm, we learn that most, if not all, of the forms of rhythmic material have some kind of structure. World percussion students often spend much of their time studying the patterns (commonly called “rhythms”) of different forms of world music – patterns (and families of patterns) with names like shiftaatellii, samba, jig, fanga, clave, and maqsuum. One could spend a lifetime learning all of the different rhythmic patterns of the world’s rhythmic cultures. In studying these patterns, one quickly learns that not only are there myriad patterns with different names, but there may also be many variations. In some cases, a pattern may be known by several names; in other cases, we learn that different patterns all have the same name (though typically with common characteristics).  We also learn that the authority for what defines these patterns can be difficult to pinpoint. In some cases the patterns have been welcomed into institutions of higher learning and so have become strictly defined. In other cases we may discover that a pattern is different from village to village ( from whatever culture of origin it hails).

All of this can become very confusing for a beginning student of rhythm. Beyond that, the way most students learn is by memorizing whatever patterns their teacher has learned (which may or may not be correct or comprehensive – if such standards are even applicable). It can become frustrating for students to spend time memorizing the motions and names of pattern after pattern and yet somehow still not feel like they are learning how to play. Variations require the memorization of new patterns, and when students get together to play from different schools of learning, sometimes they discover that while they may be using the same name, there is something unfamiliar to the setting that inhibits them further.

I propose that the reason for this is that the method of memorization as a means for learning how to play music, while valuable from the perspective of developing vocabulary, is insufficient for integral development. For some innately gifted students of rhythm, it may be enough, because in addition to the memorization of note and voice placement there is a gestalt-like absorption at some deeper level – something that enables the student to make intuitive leaps. For most students though, this does not come so easily.

Learning to play percussion (or any music) by memorization of a specific piece of music is like learning to read by memorizing what a word looks like rather than learning the alphabet, what sounds they produce, and hence how to sound out an unfamiliar word. Again, it may be possible to make intuitive leaps, but it is usually not optimal.

In my post “Anatomy of Rhythm” I lay out an alphabet of rhythm. While the number of variations in music may be significantly broader than that of the English language I propose that valuable insights into the characteristics of  nearly all metronomic music can be obtained by learning this method. Additionally, it opens the doors to creativity by enabling the student to imagine musical possibilities without first having to hear them. Finally, a student that learns the anatomy of rhythm – and a physical model for how to place any note anywhere in musical time on his/her instrument(s) of choice is able to more easily execute variations, improvise, and express in the moment.

Music is experienced in time like the flow of a river. At its best, the performance of music provides a pathway to awareness of the ever present Now – where our sense of self dissolves into this moment, and this moment stretches out forever. The sound happens before we think it and comes from a source that is beyond our intention, as we usually conceive of it. We discover that we are not making the sound at all; instead music is coming through us – and we are blessed to just be along for the ride. We become an instrument of Inspiration

To reach this place, we study, we learn, and we practice – developing ourselves so that we can be worthy instruments of whatever sound might move through us. An important aspect of this development is having the ability to integrate structure and content with a sense of musicality, where we are not playing a collection of notes, or patterns, but instead are intending to place sound on the canvas of silence stroke by stroke.

Certainly some music is heavily prescribed, but other music happens with minimal structural definitions. Students of rhythm should seek to feel comfortable anywhere in this range of settings. Learning how to flow in any setting is the goal. Learning the anatomy of rhythm is a way that any student can enter that flow.

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