An intro to this intro. . .about a year ago I was a contributing writer for Modern Drummer. I worked with a great editor there and was able to contribute at least an article every issue. Without going into the details, the magazine has gone through a number of transitions in the last year and a half – which included getting rid of my editor. This was a piece that I was assigned, and delivered on time – but the magazine did not publish it. That sucks because this book is something that drummers really need to know about. There’s nothing like it out there. I spoke with Shawn over Zoom over a year ago – and I know he (and Liquidrum) were hoping the piece would run in MD. Anyway – hopefully – at least by sharing it here – we can get it in front of a few interested folks! Do check it out – buy and support this book! It’s special!
Shawn Mativetsky’s new book Rudimentaal – Pieces for Snare Drum Inspired by the Tabla Drumming of North India is a revelation. For some curious Western percussionists, Indian Classical music is the ultimate expression of rhythmic complexity. In the same way that the trap set has been a voracious devourer of cultural percussion instruments from Africa, China, Turkey, England, and elsewhere – Western percussion pedogogy has always sought out ways to transpose World cultural rhythms to non-native instruments, sometimes with mixed results.
Instead of applying his work to a drum set, Mativetsky sought to transpose North Indian rhythms to the snare – the central drum in the Western percussion tradition, and transcribe it using Highland pipe drumming notation to avoid the clutter of sticking indicators. The result is an ambitious, but approachable pathway into North Indian classical music for advanced players. If you are a drummer, you have a snare drum, and if you can read rhythmic notation, the Highland style of notation takes a few days to habituate. According to Mativetsky, students of his method will not be playing an approximation of North Indian Classical music – they will actually be playing it. While the tonal variations that make the tabla such a gorgeous and challenging discipline are not found here, the first steps and the fundamental rhythmic elements of the music are. Mativetsky also created some video content that can be found on his site, to ease the transition to fluency. This is a great addition to the snare repertoire.
John Colpitts: What was missing in the pedagogy for you to create this book?
Shawn Mativetsky: There are people on drum kit who have brought the tabla and other Indian percussion to their practice. Some have taken a North Indian approach, some have taken a more South Indian approach to their playing. There are some books out there that are drum kit oriented. In the concert world there’s pieces by percussionist Bob Becker that are tabla on snare drum. This kind of thing has been done before. I think people have always taken either the approach of “here’s the music, play it without too much of the theory behind it” or “here’s some Indian rhythms for drum kit and I’ll teach it to you in a drum kit kind of way.” I’m trying to teach it in the traditional Indian way. I teach tabla, I have a number of tabla students and I run the tabla ensemble at McGill University, and for me the oral tradition is very important. I know that sounds funny, the oral tradition is important and here’s a book. I’m really trying to transfer as much as possible how we learn tabla to how we learn snare drum. Tabla is the principal percussion instrument in the North Indian tradition, snare drum is the center of the Western percussion tradition – whether you’re a classical percussionist, a jazz drummer, rock drummer – the snare drum is literally the center of the kit.
How do we learn tabla and how do I teach tabla in the traditional way and transfer that as much as possible in a printed book to learning these pieces on snare drum. Really the idea is – you’re playing North Indian classical music and instead of tabla, its snare drum. You’re learning it a very similar way, through notation though rather than through the oral tradition.
How do we learn tabla: we learn these short pieces, we learn some theme and variation pieces, and these are composed seeds that we improvise variations on, or we have some fixed compositions that we can speak and then play. Any of these can be their own small piece. There are thirteen of these short pieces in the book. You can just play them like a snare etude. It’s a single piece, maybe it lasts 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, a short little thing. But what we learn in tabla is we can take this introductory piece, a development piece and a conclusion piece and string them together to form a tabla solo. It works like a story: intro, development, conclusion. That’s an expandable format. You can have that be a 5-6 minute mini tabla solo or it can be a one hour tabla solo by expanding on each of those 3 sections. So it’s very much like how we learn it traditionally.
I also present the approach for how to practice it. You wouldn’t just take the book and read through it, “Ok I can play it now.” I would be very surprised if someone could actually read it at tempo and get the feel. I give instructions and suggestions – First you take the theme and practice it very slowly, you get to know it – you get the feel of it. You have to be able to play it single double. Then take the variations – you work on that variation until it becomes integrated. You’re not actually attempting a run through until you’ve integrated each step. Then you’re going to get the gist of how these variations are improvised. You’re going to see and feel that and then take these concepts back to your other playing. This happens all the time, if it’s a drum solo, a drum fill, whatever it is.
We’re always looking for new ideas, where do I go from here? These are ideas from the North Indian Classical tradition – how we improvise. You take a very small idea and we can go a long time with that very small idea. I think it’s going to give people other ways of looking at things that they already know.
JC: It seems like the book centers improvisation as the ultimate goal.
SM: Well, the teacher provides the variations. I’m not telling people, “here’s the theme now improvise your own variations.” I’m saying here’s the series of variations, learn these. So through doing all of those and learning these let’s say “pre-composed” series of improvisations, I’ve composed the improvisations for you. We learn transcriptions of Led Zeppelin, Rush and great jazz solos, after you’ve done a number of them you start to get the gist of it and you’re able to generate your own. One of the big concepts I focus on is permutations. That’s a really valuable thing. You take four of this and 2 of this and you have 15 possibilities – it’s like magic. Giving strategies – we’ve explored this avenue and now we can explore this avenue OK – by explaining these concepts and people going through and doing them I think it will really effect how people solo and compose. You can take it into your technique practice with your basic rudiments and phrases and beats. There’s a lot of ways I’m hoping that people can be creative. I don’t spell it out. The book is entirely from the “we’re going to be playing tabla on snare drum” perspective. That’s what the book is giving. I really think any musician, even outside of the drum and percussion world should be able get something from it.
Composer Reena Esmail wrote, “Wow anyone who wants to learn about Indian rhythm check this out.” I hadn’t intended it that way in the begining.
Why did I not do it for drum set, why did I do it for snare drum? The tabla is a many sound instrument with lots of nuances. On snare drum we can get lots of sounds, rim and edge etc. But I didn’t want to do that. I’m just writing for one sound. By distilling down the complexity of the tabla to essentially one sound – with accents and sticking patterns of course – you get down to the bare essence of what’s actually going on. Everything becomes really clear. That’s the value of it. What’s the heart of it, the soul of it? Any musician should be able to understand something out of it.
JC: Often times method books come alive with a teacher. How could someone who buys this book approach it without a teacher?
SM: It’s totally doable. Almost half the book is text – there are a lot of instruction and details there. On my website, rudimentaal.com, on the left side I added a resources area. I’ve done videos of all the exercises so you can practice along with me. All the exercises in video form and the 3 tukras collections – I give you the bols and if you want to do an authentic performance you have to speak them before you play them. Not the playing just the speaking – so I’m trying to help along a little bit. For a lot of drum teachers this will be new for them too. I try to help as much as possible.
Another thing I was very impressed with, I’m complimenting myself (haha), Todd Meehan who runs Liquidrum posted some video of him practicing some of the first composition the kaida number one. I asked my students if they could guess what he was playing and the tabla players can guess the composition. Even if someone doesn’t know anything about tabla its translating. If you just play what’s there and just go through it, I think it speaks for itself and you should be able to follow it or get it. Everyone knows the rudiments and everyone knows the sticking. I know I’m using a notation system that maybe not everyone is familiar with but it’s not a new notation system. It’s from the Swiss rudimental drumming and my own exposure to it is through Scottish Highland drumming. I think it visually it makes it easier to read and you can see the motivic variations as they’re happening. Where If it was just rhythm with RRLLRR it’s much more difficult to read in a way.
JC: This shows my ignorance – the carrots that are on top of the notes?
SM: Extra – a stronger accent.
JC: Underlined notes?
SM: That’s a tenuto marking – you’d give that note a little more weight but not as much as an accent.
Anyway – I played for a few years with the Black Watch in the late 90s. I’ve maintained connections with the band and some of those people. Some of the drummers in the group are asking me can we do it on a drum-line? Of course you can do it on a drum-line! I’d love to see that. One of my former students who recently got a teaching job in the States he’s using it for drum-line warmups and they are having a blast with it. I’m really excited to see the different applications – there’s the classical percussionists, the drum set world, the drum-line world because rudimental drumming is really important in the drum-line world. I’m open to all that. I want people to get an eye open on the tabla and Indian rhythm that they can grasp and understand. People are fascinated by tabla but are intimidated. They know they have to spend 10-20 years and practice 6-8 hours a day – so I’m trying to provide a gateway for people to get a foot in the door, playing it on an instrument that they are familiar with. But the music is the same, when you’re playing kaida number one, you are playing kaida number one – you’re playing traditional Indian classical music but on snare drum instead of tabla. People play ragas on violin, it’s become accepted over the last 75-100 years. In the last generation people are playing raga on cello and there’s people more recently doing raga on saxophone, on trumpet and clarinet and it becomes accepted. Drummers like Dan Weiss and Bernhard Schimpelsberger in the Uk they are doing amazing things. When they play drum kit, you hear tabla. Bernhard he’ll speak the bols and then he plays. Dan as well. I hear it.
My students heard some of this stuff on snare drum and they can identify the source composition. “Oh yeah I know that!” It is translating and I’m very happy about that.
JC: Can you advise a student who’s picking this up for the first time? They might not even know how Indian music is voiced. How do we start?
SM: Someone could just open the book and say, “I wanna play!” And they go right in and play Kaida one and Kaida two – and you could do that but I think something would be missing. So that’s why I start really from the begining, What is taal? What are rhythmic cycles? What’s the theka? What are the bols? This is ultimately what we are translating onto the snare drum. We have to learn things in the same way that we do with tabla. What we’re playing is a 16 beat time cycle, it’s structured like this, this is how we count it, this is how we speak it. I think that’s very important. Because otherwise we’re taking this music out of context. It’s partly out of respect for the culture and the tradition. This is how we learn it. Before we play anything we need to at least set the context and set the foundation. In Western music we know that we’re playing in 4/4 or 3/4. Here are the philosophy of cycles, let’s learn the cycle that we’re going to be playing in. Try to count it, speak it. Also at the same time it does give more than that. There’s of course the cultural aspect and the oral tradition aspect and it’s really going to be great for peoples’ time keeping. Some of the initial exercises that I give – you speak the theka. The theka is basically the groove pattern for keeping the supreme beat cycle, in this case the teentaal. To speak it at single speed, double speed, quadruple speed – while the time keeping stays the same. You can imagine doing this with any musical phrase. Paradidles, you play it as quarters, eighths as sixteenths but your feet are keeping some pattern going that’s unchanging. Here the hands are keeping the time and we speak through these different subdivisions. A lot of teachers say if you can’t say it you can’t play it. We struggle to get our students to count out loud and speak the rhythms but that’s the rule in Indian classical music. Doesn’t matter what instrument you play – tabla, sitar, you’re a dancer – you have to speak it first before you play it. We start right from the begining of the book, Dha, Dhin, Dhin, Dha – this is the first thing you learn and then we play after. I think people will be challenged. Someone posted on my facebook that their mind was blown with the 1.5 speed. . .quarter note triplets. Instead of doing single, double, quadruple. That’s step one, Step two is single speed, 1.5 speed, double speed, triple speed, quadruple speed. Going up through these different levels. I made videos of all this and you see the notation at the same time so you can follow along with me and practice it together because it might not be immediately clear. I guarantee if you can do that it’s going to open up the door for a lot of things. I tell this to students all the time – if you’re practicing something really hard, practice it slowly and take that same thing and bring it up through these different rhythmic subdivisions. You’re not messing with the metronome – metronome stays on the same speed but you’re still able to play slow, a little faster, a little faster. And then when you go back to play that thing, it’s so easy because you’ve experienced it from all these different dimensions.
Later in the book, the last composition in the book is in a seven beat cycle and we do the same exercises again with a seven beat cycle.
Back to the original question – start by learning the rhythmic cycles, start by clapping, start by speaking the rhythms. That gives us our framework, after that we can get into the music.
JC: Would you take a snare drum student through this book? Or have you?
SM: It’s still pretty new, students at McGill – some of them are starting to buy the book and check it out. I don’t want to have to impose it necessarily. But definitely we have some percussion students who are also doing tabla ensemble so it’s a natural match. One student wanted to play one of these pieces on her recital. This book just came out a month ago. Students are starting to pick up on it. In terms of the concert percussion world, people do things from Delecluse book and rudimental pieces, people are looking for something new or different in the rudimental repertoire. Wilcoxon is a great standard but this is something different that people could play. I know a lot of people are fascinated by tabla and Indian rhythm and want to learn more about it and integrate it into your playing so you get the best of both worlds – you have your rudimental piece and you’re learning about Indian Classical music and tabla rhythm at the same time. Two for one!
It’s rudiments so I’m sure drummers are going to be really creative with it and take it outside of just the snare drum and start moving things around the kit – I leave that up to the individual creativity of the players.