Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why I think drummers shouldn't call breaks

I admit it, the title of this post is deliberately provocative. Few rules should ever really be absolute. But one of the agreements we tend to have at most fire circles--including SpiritFire--is that the drummers shouldn't just simply call a break and bring a rhythm to a sudden, screeching halt. I've felt that this is a good, logical agreement for several years now, but I observed a perfect example of exactly why it is good at the Rites of Spring last month.

The setting should be familiar: a fire, a dance track filed with dances, and musicians on benches at one end of the circle. The drummers, although few in number, were laying down a fairly decent 12/8 rhythm, exactly the kind of groove that promotes trance in dancers. Although the rhythm could have been a little bit tighter in terms of musical precision, several of the dancers were getting pretty deep into the groove. I was watching this with a fair amount of satisfaction from the edge of the circle, taking a turn as a fire tender. Decent rhythm, good response by the dancers, and the appearance of synchronicity between dancers and drummers.

Then, out of nowhere, one of the drummers simply called a break, and everything came to a crashing halt. And I do mean crashing. The dancers were given no warning and no gentle landing. The musicians were done, finito, sayonara baby Elvis has left the building. The dancers were left to fend for themselves, several of them apparently needing to shake themselves back into direct awareness of the circle.

And why did the musicians do this? From where I was standing, it seemed to be because one "alpha" drummer was dissatisfied that the rhythm was not as tight as his musical sensitivities would have liked it to be, and he simply decided that it was time to end the whole thing. He was either unaware of the dancers or simply didn't care about what a break would do to them. The only thing that seemed to matter to him was that he wanted something better, and if he couldn't have it, then the rhythm needed to end that instant. Rather than trying to simplify his playing to help less experienced drummers create a tighter groove, rather than slow the tempo so that everyone could keep up with the pace, rather than fade out, and rather than walk away, he called a break.

We talk a lot about the importance of musicians recognizing that, when at a fire circle, the musicians are playing in service to the dancers. I got to witness why that's so important and exactly what happens when a drummer forgets why he or she is really there.