Learning How to Play: Chp 9 (excerpt)

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When you first learn how to play the djembe, you may sometimes feel quite overwhelmed by all the new things to keep in mind while trying to play it right at the same time. It gets extra rough when all of the other students seem to find it really easy while you are struggling to grasp anything at all...

Learning how to play the drum should be easy and fun all of the time, and it can be, especially if you regard the tips and advice of this chapter. The big question is whether the teaching you get is adapted to your way of learning!

9.1 Three different ways of learning

The fact that it takes a different amount of time for different individuals to learn something need not only be due to different conditions, backgrounds and qualifications. It can also be due to our different ways of learning things.

Some people learn best by physically doing what they are supposed to learn. They remember what they have done with their body; they use their physical memory. Others do not learn until they can see an inner picture of what they are supposed to learn. They remember what they have seen; they use their visual memory. Those in the third category learn by hearing what they are supposed to learn. They remember what they have heard; they use their aural memory.

Normally, we do not use just one of these three ways of learning, but rather a combination of all three, depending on the situation. We usually find one of them more rewarding to use than the two others, however, and consequently prefer to use that one. A good teacher will therefore pay equal respect to all three ways of learning.

Exercise: Find out what your primary way of learning is!

Hearing: Let someone clap a simple rhythm while your eyes are closed.
Then try to clap the same rhythm.

Seeing: Let someone clap a simple rhythm while you are watching with
your hands plugging your ears. Then try to clap the same rhythm.

Feeling: Let someone clap a simple rhythm on your back while you keep your ears plugged with your hands. Then try to clap the same rhythm.


In djembe classes the teacher usually instructs the students by playing the rhythm they are supposed learn, one portion at a time. The students listen and watch the teacher play, then respond by trying to play the same way.

All three ways of learning are possible here, but they typically occur in a certain sequence. Those who learn by listening or watching get a head start to those who learn by doing. Once the class starts playing, however, those who learn by listening may get into trouble: If the rhythm is not played correctly, there is a risk that they will hear and learn a distorted version of the rhythm!

If a student has difficulties keeping up with a class, it may simply be due to his or her way of learning. As we soon shall see, however, it can also depend on the student’s stage of progress.

9.2 Four stages of progress

Before you master a rhythm, you usually go through four different stages while you are learning it. You will typically go through these four stages each time you try to learn a new rhythm. However, as you gain experience, you will progress more quickly through each stage.

The first stage is characterized by unconscious ignorance – you believe you play everything right although you do not. You have simply not caught the nuances of the rhythms, so you think just about everything sounds right. To progress from here you need only to acquire some more rhythmic experience.

At the second stage you get into conscious ignorance – you know exactly when you play incorrectly and you also know why. You are simply not able to do what it takes to play it right. To progress from here you simply need to practice more.

At the third stage you have attained conscious proficiency – you know how to play it correctly and you do. Your hands are now doing exactly what you direct them to do when you play. To progress from here you just need to play more.

At the fourth stage there is unconscious proficiency – you play it correctly without consciously controlling your hand movements as you play. Your hands are now working as a direct channel for your intention, inspiration or intuition!

As a beginner, you may struggle for a long time with each stage before you progress, because there are so many basic things you need to learn. But once you have learned the basics you will progress through the different stages with greater speed each time you learn to play a new rhythm.


Apart from the four stages of progress, there is still another way of looking at the development of a drummer that can also be divided into four stages. This progress deals with how well you are able to play a part that you have learned, and can be described by the following gradual development.

1. You can play the part with other drummers.

2. You can play the part by yourself.

3. You can play the part while other parts are played.

4. You can teach someone else to play the part.

At the first stage, you are only required to recognize the part and to be able to play it along with the other drummers of the group. You may temporarily lose the part without it being noticed. At the second stage, you know the part so well that you will neither lose it nor stumble. At the third stage, you have embraced the part so completely that you can clearly hear it within you whenever you wish to – regardless of what is going on around you. At the fourth stage, you are able to communicate what you have learned to others.

Of course, everybody does not have the ambition to go through all four stages and may be quite satisfied with being at any one of the first three. This is one of the great things about African drumming – you will get the same amount of pleasure from drumming whether you are a beginner or if you are advanced!



Copyright 2000 Lennart Hallström, Glasbruksvägen 57, SE-361 94 Eriksmåla, Sweden
Phone +46-(0)8-612 17 82  ·  lennart.hallstrom@djembe.net  ·  Cell +46-(0)70-725 42 63

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