I’m so thankful to Bill Matney for this very thoughtful, informative post. Here what he has to say about developing a relationship with drumming!

I was recently honored to be asked by Kat if I would “guest blog” for her website Rhythm for Good. As someone who is passionate about both percussion and the field of music therapy, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in discussions that include both!

In one of Kat’s recent blogs, she discussed the importance of authenticity, and some simple but important ways to develop relationships with your clients. I am going to dovetail this idea as related to our own musical authenticity, and our musical relationship with percussion.

In the spirit of dialogue, I would like to begin with three rather bold statements.

1. Percussion is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, set of musical instrumentation.
2.   Percussion is the largest and most diverse set of instrumentation.
3. Percussion is, perhaps with exception to the voice, the most utilized interactive instrumentation in the field of music therapy.

If the above is true, then the field of music therapy commonly uses a diverse set of percussion instruments that range from very new to very, very old. Each instrument has a unique history. Many instruments are associated with, and given a role within, unique cultural practices. Each instrument has particular sound qualities. Each instrument has particular techniques that produce those sounds. Each instrument is associated with particular rhythms and particular musical roles that they commonly play. Each instrument has unique qualities that may address functional domain areas within therapy.

What is our relationship to percussion instruments? How can we further develop that relationship? Without that musical relationship, are we missing anything?

Both music therapists and drum circle facilitators have often touted the importance of percussion being “accessible” and facilitating the “expression of rhythm.” Of course, these two qualities are immensely important for our clients and participants. However, these qualities are limiting if we apply them to ourselves. I believe that true accessibility is better described as progressive accessibility. I believe that percussion traditions express music, and if we listen enough, we’ll hear much more than rhythm.

Regardless of whether you are a board-certified music therapist who utilizes percussion in clinical work, or a drum circle facilitator who works in corporate or recreational settings, the above questions are equally as relevant. In different ways, each relies on a relationship with people, and a relationship with music. The following is a brief list of seven thoughts that can help you develop your musical relationship with percussion instruments.

1.  Know the name of each instrument you use.

2.  Study the history of each instrument. Books and website resources have made it much easier to locate where an instrument came from, what culture used it, and how they used it.

3.  Learn the basics. Know the basic techniques commonly associated with playing the instrument, as well as simple creative non-traditional ways to play.

4. Be able to efficiently communicate #1, #2, and #3 to your clients and participants. One of our responsibilities is to empower our clients/participants, and to help them develop an immediate relationship with the instruments they are playing. Sometimes, the best way to empower them is to give them an context

5.  Find one instrument (minimum) that you are really passionate about learning and playing.

6.  Study the techniques and rhythms associated with the instrument. The good news is that the musical “wheel” for each instrument has already been invented! The best way to learn techniques and rhythms is to go to the source. The best source for history, culture, and rhythms is a teacher who is from or very familiar with the instrumental tradition. A thoughtful teacher is money well-spent, and your investment will return to you exponentially. You can also learn through books, DVD’s, youtube videos, and so on. Of course, this also means spending time each day (at least a little) playing, so that you can progress. The work you put in pays off!

7.  Take the opportunity to be creative in your own play. The Dalai Lama once said “Learn the rules so that you can break them properly.” I believe that one who musically understands where an instrument came from is better prepared to journey forward with it. Explore new techniques to make new sounds. Improvise your own patterns. Seek to emulate sounds you hear around you, whether they be popular songs or singing crickets.

8.  Return many times to #6 and #7!!!!!!

9. Practice using your percussion instrument to accompany singing and speaking. Many percussion instruments have traditionally been used as accompaniment for singing, speaking, and chanting. Percussion can create a unique sound environment with which to accompany song melodies because the singer is free of any harmonic constraints. Begin practing accompaniment by playing a very basic repeated pattern to speak or sing over. Once this becomes more comfortable, percussion-based accompaniment can be a valuable tool in music therapy clinical experiences, or in facilitating recreational music-making.

As you can guess, this is a list that could continue for pages and pages. It is my belief that when we develop a fundamental relationship with the instruments we use, and when we seek out the authentic aesthetics the created these wonderful instruments, that we beneficially alter the musical relationship we have with our clients/participants. Feel free to provide your thoughts, comments, and additions in the comments section. Be well, and happy percussing!


Bill Matney is an instructor at Texas Woman’s University and one of the primary trainers for Music Therapy Drumming. He has studied and/or performed with renowned world-music artists Midawo Gideon Foli Alorwoyie, Yamoussa Camara, Alseny Sylla, Greg Beck, Mohammed Camara, and Ryan Mehlmauer Camara. Mr. Matney has authored and self-published the book Tataku: The Use of Percussion in Music Therapy, which is currently being used in universities across the country as a text for teaching percussion methods. Read more about Bill Matney.

Catch Bill at the American Music Therapy Association conference in November or look for upcoming trainings at Music Therapy Drumming.

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