I grew up in a multi racial home. Half of my family was African American with post-slavery roots in the American South and half was white people from the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Music, rhythm, and dancing were part of every day childhood. A physical appreciation of music and rhythm was completely natural, normal, and expected.  When learning to play music I didn’t take lessons to develop a rhythmic sensibility. I had been immersed in an environment where it was just always present. I grew up thinking most people had a similar experience – perhaps not quite as rich as growing up around musicians, but certainly rhythm was everywhere – even for people who just enjoyed music without being involved in creating it. Later, when I started teaching and facilitating drum and dance circles I realized that a lot of people in the US didn’t get to develop that sensibility – and only as adults were beginning to get a sense of and taste for the physical, psychological, and community benefits of the rhythmic arts.  I’ve often reflected on how my early environment may have provided me with the opportunity to bridge the divide between the two disparate cultures of my childhood. I’m sure the perspective it has offered has made me a better teacher.

Sometimes in the US, the study of world percussion instruments and music can be complicated by the cultural differences between the teacher and the student.  Rhythm is a cultural inheritance for a lot of people who grew up around these instruments. For those like me who were raised in communities that embraced music and dance, some aspects of rhythm are transmitted without any need for a theoretical or conceptual understanding. It’s felt in the body before we even have words. What this often means is that teachers of rhythm traditions are teaching based on a set of concepts that never needed to be verbalized or intentionally transmitted to them. As a result, they sometimes don’t think about or know how to transmit these concepts to their students. And some students in the US are at a disadvantage because, without these inherited foundations,  they’re not picking up the lessons and concepts in a way that suggests that they have an aptitude for rhythm. This can be discouraging for both teachers and students – to the point where teachers give up on the students and a lot of students quit lessons before they develop much proficiency, or feel discouraged because they don’t know how to use what they’ve been learning.

I’ve had countless interactions with people who have taken lessons from some teachers who describe essentially the same set of limitations. They don’t know how to use what they’ve learned except in a very narrow scope. They don’t know how to relate what they’ve learned to other things that know or have heard.  They don’t understand what they’re playing in terms of how it functions or how it may relate to other material they might encounter and most importantly, they don’t know any more about how to express themselves on these instruments than they did before they started taking lessons. At the root of these frustrations is the same challenge. Even after spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to learn how to play and countless hours drilling patterns and trying to develop technique, because they weren’t taught rhythm (the concept), they don’t know how to apply it to rhythms (patterns/vocabulary/grooves) and so they are stuck imitating musicians and still don’t know how to play music.  

Fortunately, the solution is stated in the problem. As teachers we need to make sure that students have the necessary fundamental skills and knowledge. Often this means that we can’t start at vocabulary or “teaching rhythms”. We have to start before that – with measuring and embodying time and developing an understanding of and sensitivity to rhythmic tension.

We wouldn’t try to teach children how to read before they have learned to properly identify the shape and sound of the letters in the alphabet, and yet I have seen a lot of world percussion teachers do just that by trying to teach rhythmic material without verifying that the student has any understanding of the context and foundations of musical rhythm. We need to remember that we need to teach the students we have. This may mean that we have to evaluate our assumptions about what most people know or should know, we need to evaluate the students for their ability to embody time and rhythmic tension.  Sometimes we have to start at the beginning.

When I started teaching, I didn’t have the vocabulary for all of the musical knowledge I had. In order to teach effectively I realized that I needed to break down what I knew kinesthetically into it’s component parts and I had to formulate a complete concept of rhythm theory that integrated this body knowledge into a conceptual framework that students could understand.  The process of learning to conceptually externalize rhythmic intuition has definitely been important to connect more effectively with students. This deeper understanding has also made me a better musician and composer. There are challenges to  teaching across cultural divides that aren’t present when teaching folks who have the same cultural foundations we do, but for those of us who take it on,  I believe we need to take these extra steps to be successful.

Many of my students didn’t get the benefit of a culturally inherited rhythmic sensibility so we started at the beginning; at the rhythm alphabet and the anatomy of rhythm. It takes time, but their progress in developing a physical and conceptual awareness of rhythm has been incredibly inspiring to me, and their developing rhythmic and musical competence is evidence that when we focus on the student and what they need, we can open whole new worlds of creative possibility for individuals and communities.