The good, the bad, and the ugly!


This past December I left my drum studio and home in Washington State to soak in the vitamin D sunshine of the San Francisco Bay Area.  The good news is that I and other percussion compatriots (or in the vernacular, rhythm freaks)  have planted rich deposits of drumming, dance and rhythmic practices all over the Northern California landscape. Almost everywhere I went in San Francisco, the East Bay, Marin and Sonoma, the South Bay, and down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, there are rhythm teachers, drum circles, TaKeTiNa rhythm circles, drum classes and dance, dance, dance everywhere.


I also had the great fortune of dropping into some of more wild and crazy drum jams in the Bay.

First place to go for a dynamic and eclectic drum gathering is found at the BART station on Ashby in Berkeley. It occurs at the same place as the weekend Berkeley Flea Market . At the flea market, while you are buying incense, or drums from Africa, Tibetan jewelry or fashion knock-offs, or cheap socks from China, you can hear the tattoo of the drums wherever you walk, delivering the experience of being in a foreign place, the true village market.


As you get closer to the music, the sweet aroma of herb is everywhere, and the drums are playing. Now here is the greatest thing about this melange of music and community: it is totally random. Sometimes professional musicians from various ethnic lineages show up and we are playing the congas and rhythms of Cuba and the Caribbean. Other times it is the athletic and competitive djembe rhythms of Senegal, Mali, and Guinea.  And sometimes it is just a bunch of us who want to play… doesn’t matter the ethnic tradition. We play a nice groove that goes with whatever flavor is in the air, and then– yes, you are off and running.


In between the possibility and actual moments of  groove, the random comes through the the circle and adds flavor. Women or men who look old and witchy go into the center and dance. Their movements–mythical and mystical–change the intent and direction of the music, as if a shaman has walked in and is telling a story through that person in baggy clothes with ragged sneakers and few teeth. Glancing at you, glaring at you– it’s the same. What we don’t want to encounter is right in front of us, and we are drumming for it. The next dancer is a beautiful young woman with finger cymbals and it is the same, even though it appears very different. And the hip-hopper, break dancing fool with his hat on backwards and his bling hanging out. Or someone having a conversation with someone in front of them that you and I can’t see, but who exists in their universe.


Like I said, random.


It gets more delightful and ridiculous after you have been coming to the BART for years. Then you are not afraid of the word: ‘diversity’.  You are not afraid of the projections that someone might have about you, and you are comfortable with your own projections. You are part of the diverse, a full spectrum of energies, whirling within the circle.


Some drummers show up with attitude. Attitude can be about reacting to the way others play. Many times the acoustics in the circle are difficult. It is hard to hear across the circle, especially if you or someone close by is wailing away on a djembe. If you get the stink eye from someone, you check your timing. But let’s say, you are spot on… then the stink eye is pure attitude.

Attitude can be about gender, race, age. “What are you doing here, white bitch?”   You’ve got to be tough, and smile right in the face of attitude-iness. “Hi, how are you?  Isn’t it a great day? So much fun playing together!” says my smile. You have a problem with that? Not my problem.

Others give you the nod or the fist bump. Life is good when you can look at each other with ease, and find some kind of simple thing to play together. It’s all about finding that groove.


There is a guy, a short guy, an older black gentleman, who holds the circle. His name is Spirit. Or I think it is. He plays okay but sits out when the music doesn’t please his palate. He is the circle elder and it is good to give him a little respect when you show up. He is at that BART station every week. For years and years.


When I showed up in the circle this winter, I felt I was coming home. There were the familiar faces, the tape on the fingers, the self-made drum stands. New additions: a loud guy on timbales (with attitude) and several young women (finally) with small drums.  I look around the circle for places I can sit, and decide who I want to sit next to. Sometimes you have to move around a couple to times before you find the right musical fit. But once I find my place, it is always about listening. Listening for the time, the tempo, the feel, listening for what can be added to the mix to support or to ground the music.


Sometimes the music is so fast, I am holding on by my fingernails, breathing in those deep yogic breaths that come from playing on the edge of my capacity. There is sweat and soreness. I thank god for technique, so all I have to suffer is soreness in my shoulders and the adductor muscles on the inside of my thighs from gripping the drum. And hot hands. It is rare that I get to play that way in Sequim, WA,  where I reside.  But the joy I feel when its hot and heavy is what got me hooked on drumming in the first place.


The last weekend that I was in Berkeley, I went down to the BART station on Saturday AND Sunday. I had a new head on my djembe and I was ready to go. Saturday was great. Good community to play with, great grooves and I was in the right group. I soloed with another guy, trading bits of drum conversation back and forth.  I was proud of myself, for all that I have endured to get to the place where I could solo– that I had something to say, and a way to say it.


The next day, West African guys in the house. That means speed, athleticism, and ethnic rhythms that have a funky swing to them. I can play some of the rhythms, but they are not my favorite feel, and I am not that studied in it. So I got a chance to watch my monkey mind, trying to find some connection to the music, the players without judging myself. With a group of ethnic traditionalists that are good at what they all know, I easily feel excluded. But the BART Berkeley jam is that you play anything that you want, so on top of  the rhythm Kuku you can play anything in 4/4 time.   So, Sunday kicked my ass. I appreciated it! I was feeling all “you-know-I-got-it” one day and brought back to reality on the second! Good to know my limits,  and still contribute simple rhythms in the middle of all that complexity and speed. Good to have my ego bubble burst in experiencing the vastness of this path, and my being a small contributor to it.


It reminded me that I am a part of the legacy of teachers that began for me with Babatunde Olatunji. When I was in early part of my studies, I traveled to Oakland and Santa Cruz, the nearby meccas of well-established drum communities. I had the fortune to have had some remarkable teachers… not always the nicest people, but good teachers. I journeyed to Mother Africa to become more steeped in the music and the life.


I have had the tenacity, stubbornness, and passion to deal with the sexism, the racism, the ageism, and the political crap that unfortunately shows up in the world of drumming. And I am still here, loving the drum, loving teaching, and thankful for my connection to this path. And I would love to share it with you!


Art of Mastery



Mastery, as George Leonard describes in his book with that name, runs counter to the American goal-oriented ethic.  Mastery is a process, not a product. You never actually get “there,” wherever “there” is. Or you might see it differently: you are always “there” and there’s no place to get to

This book ( of which this is an excerpt)  has been an exercise in mastery for me. As soon as I started thinking about it, I wanted to be done. I wanted the fully realized finished product, proof of my mastery, to exist, right then. Right now!

My head was filled with thoughts and questions. How many pages are enough? Is this a stupid idea? Who will buy it? Does it have value? Does it have to have a DVD with it? Because if it does, that means a lot more work, and oh boy, I am getting tired already.

Oh no, I didn’t write anything today. Boy, that was a brilliant idea. I wonder if anyone will like this? Am I a good writer? Who is going to edit this for me? Oh my god, they are going to see the messiness of my mental closet!  I am never going to be finished! Am I done yet? Am I cooked yet?

But Mastery says it is the journey that shapes our lives, not arriving at one final point. Man, I hate that. I want the gold star and to be written up in Who’s Who, Wikipedia and People magazine too.  Now. Not later. NOW!

I know better. The things that draw me–the things to which I have dedicated my life–drumming, rhythm meditations, journaling, gardening, art, yoga, dance…none of these things are about a finite point of arrival. I’ve learned that. Every time I teach one of my classes in drumming, I have another opportunity to check my technique, see how my body feels, all in the moment. I am focusing, breathing, relaxing, noting, noting, noting, doing what I teach and encourage my students to do. I am part of the rhythm, part of everything around me, part of the music. It is HAPPENING.

It is afterwards, that being on the journey breaks down. Afterwards,  I make plans or want to judge.  It is hard to let it happen without knowing the final outcome.

When I am reading a really good book, one that is suspenseful and engaging, when the tension builds I feel a growing compulsion to skip to the end and learn the book’s destination. That tells you something about my ability to withstand the anxiety of not knowing. On a life path I experience that same tension, but I don’t get to jump to the end of my life to relieve my questioning mind. All I can do is imagine the ending. But that reveals the difference between books and life. In life we never know how things end because we never get there. All we can know–all I can know– is what’s in the moment. 

It is hard for me to accept living with the unknown. And yet it is the easiest thing to do; the simplest place to be; the only place anyone can be. Why would I want to be any place other than the perfect now?  Still I want to. I am in the past and then off to an imagined future.

I have learned to develop practices–walking, yoga, swimming, writing, meditating and drumming that help me stay engaged in the here and now.

I tell myself and I teach my students: if you focus, you can see yourself–in the moments you play, or the moments you engage in those other practices. From time to time, I tell them, and myself, we are lucky or blessed enough to experience a kind of resonance–a hint of what traveling on the path of mastery gives us.

And then, I tell myself and my students: we begin again.

What I learned at Rhythm Boot Camp

 I began my drumming path when I was 41. I went to Esalen, my idyllic home away from home, and had my first exposure to world of the African arts of drum, dance and song in a 5-day workshop with Baba Olatunji.
For some reason, despite my education as a dancer in my early life (ballet from fifteen to nineteen, but still,) and my years of playing guitar, I thoroughly sucked at drumming and African dance. I mean SUCKED! I couldn’t find the portal into rhythm. Every part of me was in pain– my hands were like raw meat, my body had more charlie horse than I ever dreamed imaginable. I don’t know why I continued.On the second full day  of class I spoke to Baba told him that I was thinking of  taking the day off–”Oh no,” he said. ”Come to class. I will break everything down.”

The next day, there I was, still running after the rhythm, a few beats behind and trying to translate Gun go do (Baba’s rhythmic language) into something meaningful.

Then came the moment that put me on path of rhythm and drumming and has kept me there. On the last day of class I fell into the groove.

It was for a brief moment only.

For that moment there were no other thoughts, no other thing but the movement of my hands which seemed to move by themselves. It was magic , transcendent, and it scared the crap out of me. It also pointed me in the direction I was to go.

Twenty three years later, with many, many stories between, I arrived at my Village Heartbeat Studio in Sequim, Washington leading my first extended rhythm intensive.
I called this a rhythm boot camp. Eight intrepid explorers joined me in this adventure.

Our brave crew, in the studio!

For five days, and more than six hours a day, we investigated the elements of rhythm–using rhythmic patterns from traditional and adapted traditional drum music as examples, showing how the intervals between notes hold as much significance as the notes themselves. We played, sang, talked, ate, and walked rhythm. We created ritual, starting by showing up each day and being willing to learn.

We exercised and warmed up our bodies. We learned how to create more ease in playing, how to be harmonious in our playing, how always to include our voices with our drumming.

There was a curriculum. We started with drumming’s main meal, the ever-present 4/4 time and moving, course by course, onto dessert: variously called 3:2 or 6/8 or 12/8.

And guess what? After these 5 days I realized that I had just scratched the surface of what I had learned over 23 years. And I was ready to pass more of it on to more people.

I want to do this again. And again. I’ll do it next year for sure at the Village Heartbeat Studio, but I’ll do it anywhere, anytime, with any of you who want to learn how rhythm informs drumming; how we can use the drum to increase our strength and sense of vitality; how we can open our consciousness; how we create the conditions that allow groove to take us on a journey into the present moment.

Maybe next year we’ll have tee shirts and a camp cheer!

Drumming warm-ups

I started playing the drum when I was 41 years old.I wanted to start drumming when I was somewhere between 10 and 11 years old when I met my teacher Babatunde Olatunji for the first time. He came to my grammar school, Lenox School in Baldwin, New York, performing in a cultural enrichment program for white middle-class kids. This show, this man, changed my  life. I felt my heart open. I felt connected through the powerful music of the drum to every person in the auditorium, on the street,  possibly the whole universe, which at that time included my town and surrounding areas.
My parents bought Baba’s first album, Drums of Passion, and I  spent my childhood using the record as the all time greatest records to dance wildly to, whilst cleaning the house during my childhood chores.
I didn’t really know what the lyrics were so I made up what I thought they were. I danced, I sang, and in my heart I yearned to become a drummer.
My parents gave me a set of children’s bongo drums ( which I still have–photos added later), which was their way of trying to get their head around my request.
A year or two later I began to play guitar and the matter was forgotten, except for those crazy cleaning sessions on Saturday mornings.Flash forward thirty years. I am at Esalen taking a Zero Balancing workshop with Fritz Smith and there, at the table, in the lodge, is my hero, Baba Olatunji. He invites me to sit with him and as I say in a choked voice, how much his music has meant to me, he says, “Come to the next class I am teaching.” (By the way, in the 14 years I spent with Baba, I heard dozens of people tell their story of the impact of his music in the same way I stammered out my words.)

I started drumming with Baba. I sucked at it. I really believe that if  drumming had been an easy thing for me to learn, that  the drum would have ended up on the shelf of possible creative activities in my life, like acting, or song writing– both of which lived a short but happy life in my world
But no. Instead, I sucked at it. I was awkward and off time and my body HURT so badly. It wasn’t only the drumming. It was the dancing, too. Everything (I mean everything) hurt and I was lousy at it. My ego was pleading with me to stop.

With th0se kind of odds stacked against me why did I continue?

Something called. Something in the healing power of the drum, in the energizing power of the drum, in the passion and strength of drumming, the sexiness of it, haunted me and teased me and called to me and I answered. I said yes.

And so, here I am, about to turn 64 . I have never stopped drumming. I will never be like my girl friend, AlalaDe’ s kid, who drums at a cruising speed of 90 miles per hour. I wish I could. I am envious, and maybe if I went to the gym and worked out every single day… no, I tried that. I injured myself. I simply don’t know the limits of my own body.

And still.  Where I couldn’t develop super speed, I worked on technique. Clear sounds, and how to consistently make the same note occur. In the 12 years that I studied with Reinhard Flatischler, founder of TaKeTiNa, I grounded myself in rhythmic understanding.
I am still envious of pyrotechnical drumming displays but not doing badly for entering elder (or geezer) hood.

So all of this brings me to how I teach drumming now.

I do warm-up exercises with my classes.

There are older women and men in my classes and I want them to take care of their bodies in the same way that I am learning to take care of mine.

Perhaps I will insert photos or a video of some of these exercises that I have gleaned from dance classes, yoga classes, chigung, and my good friend, Sanga of the Valley.

But for now I will describe a few that are really helpful to use EACH and every time BEFORE you drum.

Sitting posture exercises:
Sit up straight. Find a way to lower your shoulders and allow your shoulder blades to “slide down” your back. Imagine that you have giant angel wings (as in the movie Michael) sitting on your shoulder blades and the weight of them pulls your shoulders down and opens up your chest. Tuck your chin in slightly so you have a long neck. Breathe. Nothing should feel forced or strained.  Also, if you like, you could imagine a giant kangaroo tail coming out of the bottom of your spine that you can lean back into. (I got the kangaroo tail from Cornelia Flatischler.)

Joint exercises:
1.Put your hands straight out in front of you at shoulder level with locked elbows.  Air drum. Start slowly. Just use the wrist and hands, not the arms!
2. Circles with the wrists. Hula dancing hand circles with straight arms, locked elbows, again at shoulder height.  Pinky leads as palm are pointed away from you.  Hands will face you as the circle continues. Do it again with the palms facing toward you (I hate this one!)
3. Shoulder circles. First circle back. Go for ease of movement. When you circle forward it should resemble the butterfly stroke.
4.Elbow circles. Turn your hands facing away from you on and place them on your shoulders. Bring your elbows together. Make elbow  circles  goign around and meet each other clockwise. Reverse and make  counter-clockwise circles.
5. Stretch your arms out in front of you with your elbows locked and your arms at shoulder level. ( like a zombie.)  Make a your hands into a fists and wrap your thumb around the fists. Open your fingers straight with energy and then make the fist again. Imagine that you are sending bolts of llight or love out of the tips of your fingers! You will feel heat in your forearms.

Flexibility and Stretching:
1.Right index finger in your left ear. (Sounds weird, but it works.)  Pull gradually across the top of your head to stretch out your neck muscles. Let your left arm hang down to create a counter weight.  Reverse to the other side.
2. Lace your fingers together in your lap . Turn your hands inside out and stretch them about your head with arms straight. See if you can move them slightly behind your head. Undo the stretch. Relace the fingesrs with your other hand in the top position. Stretch. Undo. Let your arms hang at your sides for a moment.


Become aware of your breath. Notice the inhalation and exhalation. The pause before the cycle of breath begins again.
Begin to drum at a very slow pace. Breathe rhythmically with your drumming. Breathe in for 4 counts out for 2 and pause for 2 . Or find your own way to rhythmically connect to your breath WHILE drumming.

Finally, sit up straight or stand straight while you play.  This is an energetic art… one that requires your focus.. As you pay attention when you play, your body will recognize more ergonomic ways to move . Drumming will energize and strengthen you. on the inside while you play!

Solar and lunar drumming


The symbolism of the sun, is strongly present in our world today. It is fiery and far-reaching, but oblivious of all it consumes. Feeding on itself, it always threatens to die from overconsumption. It shows its worst in the mechanics of a society fixated on making, having, and acquiring.
And yet each day, we wake to the magnificence of living in the world of light and color, where we see shape and form, and all appears to us in its beauty. Without the sun, we would not exist for long. Our sources of food and nourishment would disappear. Where would we be without the light of day to give us hope?

In contrast, the symbolic message of the moon tells us of a being which reflects light, but does not generate their own. It is an example of receptivity, a great power of becoming. As we know, the moon governs the tides of the oceans, and shows us of the possibility of experiencing a cycle- with darkness waning and light waxing to fullness and then waning again back to the dark.
In the dark is this mystery, how things seem to manifest out of the void .

Despite appearing more passive than active, the moon still provides for us the ability to be reflective, listening, receptive, and flowing. The moon allows us to rest, to dream, in the softened images of the night.
The 2nd half of our lives can be seen as an opportunity to turn our attention more to the lunar qualities of our being: allowing, not knowing, patience.

Losing one’s way, experiencing a lack of purpose or initiative, is the downside to the being moonstruck. The path becomes hidden or fraught with obstacles that seem overwhelming in the darkness.

In the world of music and specifically drumming and percussion, we can clearly hear and see the effects of solar drumming.
The excited passion and the fiery chops that come from traditions of African drumming, the core strength in Taiko drumming, the long continuous grooves in a drum circle all can have the hot quality of the sun. We need strength to play for long periods of time, but more than strength and stamina, we have to have a kind of brightness, a willing, happy energy to perservere in our playing, through thick and thin, through all the boredom that comes from continuity of movement, passing through judging the people you play with or the music. This brightness could be called a sunny joy, comes through the control of the breath. By controlling the breath, we can ride the heat, not be burnt by it. The difference lies between feeling a warmth that invigorates you than heat which drains.
Undeveloped solar drumming is personified in a man or woman who “takes over”, playing the loudest or the fastest. They might be highly talented, and yet show untrained “sun-ness”, undeveloped creativity.

Trained solar drumming is inclusive. Through our warmth, we inspire and strengthen everyone else in a circle, in a class, in a band. We encourage each of us to build the big house of rhythm together, and invite everyone inside.

Every day must have it’s night.
Lunar drumming at it’s best, is noticing the intervals between the notes. The focus turns towards listening as much as doing. And feeling what is the right event or instrument to add to the mix. It might be a wind chime, or rainstick.
Or a voice that soars with the other instruments.
The opposite of the joy of worshipping the interval and all the potential music within, is getting lost, lost, lost in the void… losing the “one”… Losing the sense of where the beat begins and ends in a cycle.
“Mooniness” is accompanied with a lack of energy. The rhythm lacks starch, focus.
Undeveloped lunar drumming could be seen in a group where no one has the energy or stamina confidence or knowledge to coax the groove into consistent repetition. Is it a group fear of making mistakes? Or is it people who don’t know how to self-organize or allow themselves to lead?

To be sure we need all of it–the sun and the moon, the heat and the coolness.
Can we recognize what is needed when we play together?
Perhaps the greatest challenge is to listen outside of ourselves. Do we turn up the heat by playing the “bottom” with energy and joy to show a solid rhythm foundation or tune in more intently to what is being “said” and adding the simplest of sounds at the right moment? To actively listen in this way will bring a renewed sense of connectedness and wholeness to the music. A group of musicians working to fine tune themselves will not only produce a more interesting and groovy sound, it will be a group of people on a path of self discovery and growth.

Why “practice” drumming.


Practice makes perfect? Is that the point? Or is it that practice makes practice? Once we begin on a path, practice shows us a way to pay attention and dedicate time to our learning. Practice can be either a verb or a noun. Drum practice builds a foundation for becoming a more competent player, and developing a drum practice opens us to the healing aspects of the drum.

When you play drums on a regular basis, make your strokes ergonomically. Use your body in the most effective and easiest approach possible. One way to do this is to study the movements involved in playing your notes: bass, tone, and slap. Find the flow–the way to go from one note to another in the most direct way possible.
Sitting in front of a mirror to play, and observing yourself is a great way to learn.
And that, my dear friends, is scary. You will see everything how your posture changes, how your hands change when “they don’t mean to”, the look on your face while drumming: everything from clenching your lips together, grimacing, looking like you have just attended a funeral, or are about to meet your worst enemy! Stay with it. Keep at it! Try playing very slowly so that you can track everything that you do, and make corrections as you go.
If your hands hurt, STOP! Look in the mirror again. See what needs to change.

We can “achieve” flow, however. Each note we play “sets up” a relaxed way to “travel” to the next note and the next. Easy, effortless, and consistent.
This is part of practice also–finding the best way to do what you are doing, repeat it, and repeat it again.

You have the potential to make practice interesting and illuminating. Learn about yourself. In one sense that is what a good practice develops: the ability to tolerate what is.

The drum also becomes an instrument that strengthens our bodies and augments vitality.
The upper body – arms, shoulders, upper back, and torso all experience positive effects of repetitive exercise. Many people who have had arthritis in their hands report that they feel increased circulation and flexibility from playing their drum.
As you can increase speed and playing time, experience the cardio-workout of drumming.
The lower body, keeping the spine erect and holding the drum with the legs, can strengthen the pelvic girdle and the legs.
Or, you may choose to stand and use your feet and legs to ground and balance you as you play.

And finally and most importantly, coordinating the breath with drumming can invigorate, stimulate you, lowering stress and increasing the immune system. And if you want to push yourself further, sing while you play. Start singing the notes you are playing. As you continue, see if you can sing another set of syllables other than your drum notes. Experiment! When you lose track return to your drum-note-song.
Notice how you feel when you finally bring the drumming and singing to a close. Spacious? Spaced-out? Connected? Make a note of how these singing sessions progress– and they will.

Anyone who drums regularly know that they feel good after playing, but Remo Drums have a created a division called HealthRHYTHMS Research specifically to study the immune system and social systems and significant impact that drumming can have on our health.
They have published research in the following areas:
Impact on Immune System
Employee Burnout; Turnover Reduction
Reducing Student Drop-out Rate
Genomic Impact
Corporate Employee Wellness Benefits
Creativity; Bonding in Seniors
Stress Impact Research Summary

Invest in your Practice. Enjoy your Practice. Remember that it is you that you are playing for. Cultivate the sounds that you want to hear. PLAY!

How to do TaKeTiNa in a war zone


Gentle reader! Be calmed…not really a war zone. An experience in the realm of rhythm and sound.

Deborah Masterson and I arrived at the Still and Moving Center on Friday night, preparing to set up our first night of our yearly TaKeTiNa workshop in Honolulu, HI. We have been leading TaKeTiNa workshops for over 10 years.

This evening, we walked into the lobby and saw a sub-woofer, mixing board, and other sound paraphernalia. For lo and behold, an ecstatic dance jam was scheduled during the same time as our meditative, internal, rhythmic process! In the room above us.

In our rhythm circle, as long as there was movement and song, the sound above us faded into the background. But at the end of every rhythm journey is a beautiful time to lie down and feel the effects of continuous movement in the body…
Usually, this space is a deep, penetrating silence. Rhythm has quieted the busy mind.

Instead, imagine what it was like to hear the pounding vibration of the bass through the floor and feet above us dancing. Small herds of elephants!Furniture crashing. Chaos!

The good news is this: this dance music became a continuation of what we had set into motion- lots louder, more vibration, but what the hell.
Yes, although the situation resembled a comedy movie, it was a wonderful way to realize that everything is rhythm… Maybe not how we want it sometimes, but always present.