Friday, January 29, 2010

The Nature of Drum Solos

In a belly dance set, the dancer usually begins with a slow piece of music, and then she might speed things up, incorporate props such as a veil or sword, and almost always, she performs a drum solo.
A drum solo? What exactly does that mean? The name sums it up; it's a dance performed solo to percussion instruments. This can mean a couple of different things, though. If the music is recorded, the dancer can choreograph her moves. If the dancer is familiar with the song, then she can quickly choreograph the song while she is dancing, even if the song is being played live. So, kind of half choreography and half improvisation.
And then there is the improvised drum solo- a dance made up on the spot to music the dancer has never heard. To an untrained dancer, the task would be impossible. And yet, once you understand how the rhythms work, you can improvise almost flawlessly; the audience wouldn't be able to guess that it wasn't choreographed.
Some drum solos are basic; you just have to look for the down beat, which usually comes on every second or fourth count. In the first class of Jill Parker's "Demystifying the Drum Solo" workshop, she had us walking around and hitting every single down beat. The result was a little sporadic, and at times I felt like I was doing the funky chicken, but the lesson was helpful in training my ear to hear the down beats.
Other drum solos aren't so easy. Sometimes the musicians are nice and they will repeat patterns of four, so that by the second or third time you hear the rhythm, you've got it down. Other musicians aren't so nice; they like to show off, to one-up the dancer, and the rhythms will be all over the place with no repeating patterns. Then you really would look like you were doing the funky chicken.
The best drum solos are when the musician and the dancer work as a team. The musician will play according to the dancer's tempo and vice-versa. Lots of eye contact is required! Think of it like partner dancing. But in this case, you don't need to worry about stepping on anyone's toes, except maybe your own.

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