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.


Josselyne said...

I remember that moment Steve - it was abrupt, to be certain. I was one of the musicians playing and even *I* was taken by surprise!

My thought is that the culprit here isn't breaks in general, but *inadvertent* or sudden breaks called to placate someone's personal need, rather than a planned break called when everyone is ready and agreeing it's appropriate for the larger circle.

There are times when something really does need to happen to give a solid feeling of transition - like when the rhythm has been trudging, trudging, trudging for a loooong time, drummers are tired and beginning to lose focus, and maybe not thinking to stop so that something else can happen. A break (gently played) might help there. It can also call drummers to attention, helping them stop if they are playing and don't hear something else has already started to happen. Again, gentle use of a break could be helpful. I'm sure there are other times when conscious use is appropriate...

and -

When something is rocking and one person just doesn't like it, calling a break seems selfish. I've not seen it happen at SFF in the manner you describe, at least to my memory, (and thankfully!) although I'm open to hearing other folks stories or recollections. But I don't think one person should ever take it upon themselves to decide to call a break without first checking in with a) the other drummers and b) the state of the dancers and even c) those doing work in the Well area.

Lyra had asked about this very thing in her blog post - it's in the "Pathway of Music" blog from January if you haven't read it - and I think it's an important question. Do we or don't we? If we do, how? And who gets to?

My thought is that in many aspects of music and dance and chant and poetry and seva at SpiritFire, there are always times when things will work perfectly, and times when they won't. We create the guidelines we have in order to create an aesthetic, hopefully with folks catching on to the idea so that in the circle, we can move and adjust as we feel is right. Like all improvisatory skills, though, it doesn't work well when folks aren't in agreement about the basic structure.

I hope that with the aesthetics/agreements info we're trying to disseminate, those playing music of any kind will be in accord and we'll be able to maintain eye contact, stay connected with the dancers, and communicate with each other to give the circle exactly what is perfect for that moment.

If you haven't checked it out you can download it here:
PDF version

It's basically an updated version of what's been out since 2006.

Lieve Maas said...

Hi, thank you for this blog. Very good.
My comment/question might be a bit non sequitur, however I do find it important to express, here goes.

I am a beginning drummer, and a beginning didg player. I love it and things go pretty good. However I notice that the real "test" is to play together with people! I notice how I need at least one person in the group of drummers to focus my attention to. Someone who can tell me where "the One" is, so that I can enter the rhythm and groove together with y'all. I am curious if there are certain ways developed at Spirit Fire that are helping beginner musicians to gracefully step into the mix?

Thanks! Blessings, Lieve