When you’re going abroad it’s useful to know some basic sentences in the common language of the region. Hello. How are you? I’m well, thank you. May I have some water? Can you direct me to a restroom? Where is the hospital?
But when we make a commitment to learn a language, the aim is to learn how to express our own thoughts, feelings, and ideas as completely as possible. To do this, there is so much more to learn than basic conversation. In addition to the alphabet, and vocabulary, linguists tell us that the process includes learning structural elements like phonology, morphology, semantics, pragmatics and syntax.
The same thing is true of the language of rhythm, which is spoken (both literally and metaphorically) all over the world. Hopefully as percussion teachers our aim is to teach something more than just conversational rhythm while we’re teaching instrumental technique. Very often in the mind of the student, instrumental instruction and the teaching of musical content seems to be fused or undifferentiated. When it comes to the folk instruments found in many rhythm traditions, the default for some teachers seems to be that students will only learn the music from that tradition. This is not so with other instruments. A student of violin might be playing bluegrass, Celtic music, Indian classical music, Western Classical, jazz or something else entirely. We also probably don’t make any assumptions as to what music a skilled accordionist plays. Generally we don’t assume that students learning to play other instruments are bound to one geographical or temporal region for the music that they will create. Now, it is true that some instruments are found more regularly in some musical traditions than others. Banjo comes to mind as an example; but a quick search for banjo outside of bluegrass shows that the limitations we think of for that instrument are limitations of our own imagination and are not inherent in the instrument. Percussion instruments, including folk percussion instruments are no less inherently flexible and our imaginations should be equally open to the infinite possibilities of self expression. .
When we teach, it does make sense to provide some content for students to work with. For the student, along with the tedium of exercises and drills, musical content can help connect instrumental technique or theoretical concepts to actual identifiable music and that’s always helpful. And for many teachers, it may make sense to draw on related traditional folk music as a source for that content (though it also makes a lot of sense to teach students to play music that they’re familiar with so that they can have the early success of connecting their existing knowledge to this new language). But when we’re teaching traditional folk content we should also be teaching the structure and syntax of that content and how it relates to other content. It’s important to provide students with a framework that they can use to make some sense of the vast majority of rhythmic content they might encounter, regardless of its cultural origins.
There are teachers who specialize in teaching musical tradition and that can be a great way for a student to focus on the details of a particular musical dialect. But we shouldn’t confuse the teaching of a tradition with the teaching of an instrument. Teachers who benefit from the expertise that arises from coming up in a tradition can be even more valuable if they are able to communicate about how the dialect of their tradition compares or contrasts with those of others. At every level, there are opportunities for us to learn and grow. For those of us that teach, an area of growth is always going to be in learning how to reach more people and communicate in a way that diverse students can most relate. Helping students make connections between the music of their birth cultures and their instrument of interest gives us the opportunity to expand out teaching vocabulary and as a consequence, we also become better musicians.
In order for our students to be able to express their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas, we have to teach them the structure of the language. We have to teach them the theory of rhythm and how it can be used to understand existing music and create new music. The language of rhythm transcends genre and culture. Through it, people from entirely different worlds can communicate, connect, and create something unique. So as teachers, we have an obligation to teach more than genre and culture. We have to teach them how rhythmic time works. and how to move around in it in order to fully express themselves.
We live in a world rich with the inspiration that arises from a vast range of musical systems and traditions. When we hear that music, it’s speaking our language, even if it’s saying something we’ve never heard before. We owe it to our students to show them how to do that. We need to teach them how to say more than what we have said, what only they can say. We have an obligation to teach them how to speak their own truth through music.