This post is part of the Michael Pluznick author residency at X8Drums.com. Enjoy!
How do I learn how to play djembe?
At first, the djembe seems easy to play. The first time you hit it, it feels good! It is so exciting to make your first sounds! But for 99% of us, it gets boring pretty fast playing the same one sound and rhythm. And many djembes end up becoming furniture. So how do we really learn to play?
Learning to play your djembe is like learning to play any other instrument. It takes a little time and energy and what you put into it will come back to you. The more you practice and play the more you will improve. So please don't get discouraged, there is a lot of help out there for any one who wants to learn!
There are several ways to learn how to play. The first is to find a qualified teacher, which in my opinion is always the best way. The djembe comes from an oral tradition in West Africa. Passed down from father to son, or from teacher to student. And now of course we have the Internet.
If there is no teacher available or even if you have one, there are several great learning DVD's available and of course there is a wealth of information on the web and Youtube. Look for the videos that show close ups of the hands, slow motion and shots from above and behind so it is easy to follow along.
Learning to actually play is definitely easier if there is someone to show you how to hit the drum and make the proper sounds. The djembe has many different basic and supplemental sounds that can take a while to perfect. I have been playing djembe for over 30 years and I am still working on my sounds! So take your time and try to play your drum as often as possible focusing on technique or making the sounds you are learning.
Please remember it is not how hard you hit the drum when you make a sound or play. It is about proper technique. If you are hurting your hands you are not playing correctly.
Once you have learned to make the sounds and perhaps a rhythm or two, I suggest watching yourself play in a mirror. Watching yourself play will give you a lot of information. You can see how you are sitting or standing, if your posture is correct, if you are making strange faces, where you are are tightening up and many other important details that you would not be able to know unless someone was watching you intensely.
The first time I watched myself play I was amazed. I was leaning to one side, my neck was turned, I was making faces and my hands were going every which way. I had no idea!
The next tip is to listen to the music you are studying. For example if you want to learn to play djembe rhythms from Guinea, listen to music from Guinea as often as is pleasurable. You can do it when you wash the dishes or when you exercise for example. Listening to the music of professional players helps to give you the feel of the rhythms which is usually something most of us are not born with as we are from a different culture.
Playing along to recorded music you like is also very helpful and a fun way to practice. It can be pop tunes or traditional West African drum music. I like to try to copy the licks (ideas and solos) of the soloists on drum CD's. Sometimes I will practice holding the basic parts as well. It does not have to be perfect, it is just about getting new ideas and maintaining contact with your drum in a fun and interesting way. The more you play the more you will get comfortable and the more you will improve.
Once you are really into your drum practice or routine I also suggest getting a metronome or drum machine. I have a small portable Zoom Drum Machine that runs on batteries that I travel with. You can easily program rhythms into it and then you can play along, like you have a whole ensemble to play to. To work on my speed, being able to play fast, I push the tempo up just below where I am comfortable playing. Then I stay there until I am completely relaxed. Then I push it faster, relax and so on. The next thing you know you are playing much faster then you thought you could!
I hope these tips are helpful in your studies of how to play djembe. You can check out my DVD's, "How to Play Djembe", "How to Play Congas" and "How To Play Shekere" Vol.1 and 2" as well.
by Michael Pluznick
Internationally-recognized musical djembe drummer and percussionist, Michael Pluznick has introduced his new Signature Eco-Pro Djembe Drums and Instructional DVD for Djembe Players now available at X8Drums.com.