Percussive Hand Drumming Independence

(Playing Hand Drums for the Modern Percussionist)
Kenne Thomas

I would like to address an issue facing many percussionists who play hand drums, or multi-percussion instruments. Being able to play and move around smoothly without having to crossover, or be dependent on playing something with a particular hand, is a necessity in the ever expanding world of ethnic percussion. Here the African drum, the Jembe, is specifically referred to, although the techniques mentioned in the material can be applied to other hand drums as well.

Dedicated percussionists learn their skills diligently and adhere to those techniques forever. This becomes a hinderance when faced with the new demands on techniques of ethnic instruments and there increased presence in the modern percussionists arsenal. Performers must be able to, at a moments notice, switch to a different instrument which may require an unfamiliar hand technique. To further complicate matters, in the modern percussionists set-up, these instruments are often in a different location than players are accustomed to, or should we say, trained.

As a performance practice it is increasingly becoming necessary to play, R to L, or, L to R hand, at will, depending on various circumstances such as starting foot, for a syncronized movement, location of instruments, if stationary, and possibly the number of instruments to be played by one person. Referring to the latter item, drummers who play two or three, or even four, hand drums at a time are invariably faced with the prospect of being in an unfamiliar set-up location, if they are not skilled at performing with whichever hand is available, or most convenient.

Becoming ambidextrous is more than just practical for the modern percussionist, it is a necessity. The limits of being "strong hand dominant" are obvious when seen in the context of the multi-percussionist. One MUST be able to "attack" with a decisive stroke from either hand. Latin percussionists employ this without thought. Playing 2-3-4 congas, with possible mounted bongos, to the left or right, is proof of the need to be able to "Lead" with either hand for the sake of the music.

Jembe players, or we can just say, African hand drummers, often do not adhere to this philosophy, for cultural and aesthetic reasons, such as uniformity of "the line", where many drummers are in sync. Also, in performances, with one person playing one drum, this does not make it necessary to alter the lead hands bass playing, or dominant role. One can consistently use their strong hand, which invariably is the right one, of which most players have as their strength.

But, as modern percussionists, the ability to "Lead", left or right, should be a requirement for competence. The demands on percussionists have increased, most notably by the players themselves, who are venturing off into the realm of world music and incorporating formerly exotic instruments into their set-up. Many of these "new" instruments demand techniques which western trained players are not acquainted with. And to be authentic, the player must adjust their previous way of thinking about hand dominance. Succumbing to "primitive" performance practices such as slaps and flails, from either hand, demands that the player develops competence, or be outplayed, or worse, embarrassed, in a circle or ethnic gathering.

A few years ago a percussionist would come to a performance with a conga, maybe bongos, a cowbell, a tambourine, and maybe some shakers. The performer would usually put down one instrument to play another. But today the percussionist's set-up rivals the drum set drummer's in scope, miking, and space. Almost everything is mounted, even the Jembe! And, performing in the new percussionists set-up is fluid, without a break, or pause.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what this demands from the percussionists technique. So the ability to "Lead" with the left hand OR the right hand is crucial. Percussionists who are not functional in this area should rethink their performance practice. For those with well grounded theoretical ability, it will not be difficult. But for players who play, "off the cuff", it may prove to be a daunting task to, "figure out", patterns, hand positions, and accents. This is a paradox as we will see later when discussing native African performance parctices.

A good way to start would be to do simple exercises such as the following. And for aschii purposes I will make this as plain as possible. The exercises are written with the understanding that left handed drummers will reverse the strokes. Repeat each exercise a number of times to get a feel for the cadence, volume, and handstrokes.



[ r, l, r, l, r, l, r, l ] (REPEAT)

This is obviously just a hand to hand exercise. Now switch hands. And, with the aid of a metronome, keep as precise time as you can. The beats can be realized as 1/8th notes or 1/16th notes in a duple meter.


[ l, r, l, r, l, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

With expansion, triplets can be actuated, in 12/8 time, or 6/8 time.


[ l, r, l, r, l, r, | l, r, l, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

This seems simple enough. Now add a bass note. Keep a steady pulse, preferably audible from a metronome. Begin slowly with an authoritative bass. This is a simple "wheel" to be played with a metronome counting off the primary beat(s).


  1. [ L, r, l, r, l, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

  2. [ l, r, L, r, l, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

  3. [ l, r, l, r, L, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

  4. [ l, r, l, r, l, r, L, r ] (REPEAT)

  5. [ L, r, l, r, L, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

  6. [ l, r, L, r, l, r, L, r ] (REPEAT)

  7. [ L, r, L, r, l, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

  8. [ l, r, L, r, L, r, l, r ] (REPEAT)

  9. [ l, r, l, r, L, r, L, r ] (REPEAT)

  10. [ L, r, l, r, l, r, L, r ] (REPEAT)

Now do this again but switch the hand symbols making your dominant hand, or right hand, play the bass notes. Then switch back and do it with your weak hand lead. You probably can hear the difference in tonal coloration. For those players who do mainly strong hand bass notes, and accents, this points out a hurdle to be overcome. It is imperative that you build up the strength in your weak hand to "match" that of your strong hand. Bass notes and accents can show clearly where work needs to be done. Evenness should be the object. There should not be a noticable difference when executing with either hand. Although this would be an "ideal situation", it can be attained if you give attention to volume and accents. The use of an audio recorder to check your own evenness can help self evaluation.

Now I would like to show a standard African hand drum pattern emphasizing the weak hand and contrasting it with the strong hand. The sound difference will be quite noticable to the player who is unaccustomed to "attacking" with their weak hand. Begin the exercise at a reasonably slow tempo to mentally "read" the hand positions, accents, spacing, and volume.


[ L, -, -, r, L, -, r, -, L, -, -, r, L, -, r, - ] (REPEAT)

The same pattern can be realized with a right hand lead.


[ R, -, -, l, R, -, l, -, R, -, -, l, R, -, l, - ] (REPEAT)

sound sampleListen to the audio to hear the exercise.

Now play this with an alternating transition.


[ L, -, -, r, L, -, r, -, L, -, -, r, L, -, r, l, | R, -, -, l, R, -, l, -, R, -, -, l, R, - l, r ]


Often a player would just double the last (r, l or, l, r) as (l, l or, r, r) to keep their dominant hand as the accent, fundamental, or bass tone.

EXAMPLE: [ R, -, -, l, R, -, l, -, R, -, -, l, R, -, l, l ]

sound sampleListen to the audio to hear the exercise.

Though not wrong, this does not give the player much flexibilty to involve differing movement possibilties or incorporate other instruments. The performer is forced to move their primary hand to whatever event they are to do next. Any many cases that may not be the best choice. The alternating pattern should, in addition to increasing the strength and dexterity of the player, allow them to adapt to any given situation that may occur. The option of doubling is still there. And more importantly it remains just that, an option, rather than a necessity. Practice this at different tempos after if becomes comfortable. it will naturally flow after a while.

In my workshops and circles I teach "PhoNums", which are playing by the sound of the note and space. This Phonic Number technique is useful for novices, to eliminate the need for counting, but retain a spacial reference. It is also useful for seasoned professionals, to verbalize a pattern. Non-western cultures, who haven't, or hadn't, adopted strict notational systems, have been using oral forms of pattern transmission for centuries.
Now let's try EXERCISE SEVEN with such a system.

"The Gun go Pa notation"

This method of notation is most frequently applied to Jembe performance practice. Promoted by the renown Master Drummer, "Babatunde Olatunji", it is established as a trusted method of oral pattern transmission.
The following pattern is an extension of EXERCISE SEVEN, written in "Gun go Pa" with a Slap added. It is written again with a dash as the rest, or space. This rest, or space, is usually symbolic of a held tone.



The [ Pa, Ta, Gn ] and, [ Ta, Pa, Dn ] are areas which probably create the most problems because of the switch of hands. Once again it is good to start practicing this at a slow tempo. Increasing the tempo, gradually when a comfort level is attained, will build confidence and proficiency.

The next exercise emphasises the dexterity needed to play a hand drum with an ambidextrous approach. It should be taken slowly to recognize the proper muscle control and hand positions necessary. Actuated in duple meter it is even in pulse and allows for a balanced metric feel, or step.



sound sampleListen to the audio to hear this exercise.

As this pattern shows, doubling is eliminated, increasing the players overall control of the instrument and allowing the player to break the pattern, do a different event, and come back to the pattern, in stride, at any time, without worrying about which hand leads, or, being dependent upon any one hand.

I would like to conclude with a pattern which clearly challenges the player attempting to play hand drums with an ambidextrous approach. The cadence is not balanced and demands careful attention to the pulses and cadential separation. This is usually referred to theoretically as, an "odd meter." Africans take these such patterns for granted, as they don't search to theoretically dissect the music before playing. It is often described as, "becoming one with the music." Playing the pattern intrinsically, it becomes fluid and natural. Western musicians however, trained to "understand" what they are to play, before they play it, often don't have the instinct to emerse themselves in the music - first. This is not a drawback but a condition of the state of music awareness in western cultures - analyze then play.

To become comfortable with the following exercise the player must section off the pattern and then connect each section smoothly. It must be attempted slowly, to become acquainted with the proper muscle control and hand positions necessary, since there is no balanced bounce in the pattern to aid in cadential recognition.

The metric division can be realized as:

3/8 + 3/8 + 2/8 + 3/8+ 4/8

This turns out to be a pattern in 15. The pulses are defined by the bass note, although a different realization can be done also.



sound sampleListen to the audio to hear the exercise.

The possible usages of this, juxtaposed over a common meter, are numerous. This pattern can also be executed starting with either hand. Concentration is essential, to keep the pattern alternating succesfully and the cadence executed smoothly. Taking the tempo up incrementally should help weak handed drummers. A metronome would be useful, although only the first pulse can be accented by one. Getting over the fear of change, with a non-duple meter, is something that has to be dealt with by western musicians. The end justifies all of the work you will put into it.

Ambidexterity opens up the world of percussion to allow the player the freedom to choose and the ability of unlimited movement. I can recall myself how, it felt like a breath of fresh air to be able to move around the percussion set-up without worrying about cumbersome handcrossings to play an instrument. Just using one hand drum is a start. The reliance on strong hand lead, or dominance, can be eliminated. You will hopefully be thankful for the effort later.


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