The Rhythms of Presence: Part 4

A series of short musings on the impact of presence within the world of rhythm.

I am teaching a Rhythms of the World class. We are three weeks into a 9-week block. I have been focused on teaching a version of a Kpanlogo rhythm from Ghana, which has up to 8 separate interlocking patterns namely, a bass drum part, 3 hand drum parts, 3 bell parts and a shaker pattern. On top of this foundation, I can then teach solo parts if we get to that point by the end of the course.

I rotate the parts in the circle so that everyone gets to play everything. Hearing the groove from multiple positions is a great way to develop a rhythmical radar and it also highlights the strengths and weaknesses in the students playing. A comment I often hear from new students is, ‘I don’t like this pattern. It is boring.’

It always offers me a chance to dig deeper into the concept of ‘boring.’ Underneath the idea of boredom is perhaps a sense of not needing to learn anymore. I know this pattern, so why should I practice it further? To this I would say that it is not about the pattern but more about the perception of the player. Do you really know the pattern? At all the levels it is possible to know it.

I offer examples to the class. If I pull one other pattern from the rhythm we are learning and play it on its own and ask you to add your pattern, can you? What if the pattern I pull out begins off the pulse, or on a different beat than the one? After some experimentation with multiple examples we learn it is not so straightforward and that knowing a pattern in isolation is not enough. We must of course get to know our own pattern deeply before we can know it in relation to all the other patterns in the groove but very often, we do not know how well we know it ( or don’t) until we lose it.

So, if it is not about the pattern and is more about the perception, what is it exactly that the player must bring to this situation. The answer is of course presence.

If I have 9 students all diligently playing their own pattern without any awareness of their connections with the others, then we get the wobbles in the rhythm. These wobbles, rather than being seen as mistakes, are in fact the guides to where we need to look, to listen and to feel. Meeting the edge and feeling the wobble helps us to find balance. Only as we connect our patterns through this process of oscillating in and out of the groove, do we create relationships which allow us to be more present within the rhythm. Once we achieve that it is time to rotate and look for the wobble again.

That is why I rotate the group and why I ask them to be fully immersed at each change over. Finding the wobbles is key to learning one of the great paradoxes that the moment we lose it we are on the way to finding it. Beginner’s mind and joyful exploration are helpful. If you immerse yourself fully and joyfully in a single pattern you will find that the whole also exists there, simply because full immersion is full presence. So, when you find it and then lose it, continue to bring beginners mind, smile and go again.

Like a meditation practice, every time you dip into presence as a practice in rhythm, it deepens until one day it is all there all of the time. This will eventually lead us to a place where we can sit down and play the whole rhythm without being led. From any starting point. You know when you are there because suddenly you can hear it all, feel it all and see it all.

Then it is time for the next rhythm 😉

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