Learning from the Balafon: 4 over 3
Balafon to Vibraphone: a unique path to new ideas
I wanted to share some thoughts about my balafon lessons and how they might connect to your primary instrument: vibes, marimba, piano, etc.
African Origins to Drum Set:
In my collection of 33 balafon lessons, I introduce African grooves adapted to drum set for students at Berklee and the New England Conservatory. The kit is a natural connection with the cymbal playing traditional bell patterns, snare and toms mimicking Ghanaian drums. Bass drum and high hat add other elements to complete the orchestration. In this way, drummers combine grooves to develop unique independence and multi-dimensional awareness, learning to play the kit like a world percussionist.
In my lessons, I incorporate drum languages to develop a deeper awareness of the phrase being played, blending African grooves with the mathematics of Indian rhythm systems. Language allows one to practice away from their instrument, the hands working on mechanics as recitation deepens awareness.
New Mind becomes No Mind:
I tell percussion and non-percussion students that they will discover a “New Mind” – a new way of thinking about rhythm, groove, and independence. Over time, they achieve a level of freedom and expertise called “No Mind.” This occurs when newly honed skills flow into their music in conscious and literal ways (composition/arranging), subconscious ways (split-second improvisation), and even unconscious (counting sheep).
Discipline = Freedom:
Because I approach the balafon as a kind of drum with many pitches, it took me a matter of minutes to adapt African and Indian repertoire. Jazz drummers and pianists play in a flowing continuum, like the gears of a clock working together to keep time. My language-based approach removes clock gears to study them independently, to own each pattern that becomes part of the whole. Bottom line: The greater the discipline, the greater the freedom.
A Path to Vibes and Marimba:
Once you develop basic hand mechanics using the balafon lessons, move to your instrument and begin with simple ideas to hear and feel the results. When comfortable, start to embellish and take more chances, never worrying about “wrong notes.” Always think about “process over product,” knowing that you have to eliminate the incorrect ways to play before you get to what works. I remind my students about the humanity of being a musician, adding that they do not play “wrong notes.” Instead, what they play are “unintended events.”
My first post on VW opened with Chick Corea’s “Children’s Song.” The tune is kind of lullaby with subtle flavors of African grooves. As a vibes solo, it is loaded with challenging independence, like a classical etude that encompasses the full range of the instrument (especially with right-hand octaves). Begin by memorizing the left-hand ostinato that is reminiscent of a mbira (finger piano) groove. As the repeating pattern falls into “autopilot,” introduce the A melody in the right. With the entire A section memorized and proficient, you would have learned half the tune! You will also have opened your eyes to a wider range of the instrument, your ears to the cool blend of sounds, and your hands to the freedom of independence.
Mood and Music:
Indian music has taught me an important lesson to keep in mind: If the mood is clear and the music is present, the player has succeeded!