IAM Drumming Instruction


IAM Music Pedagogy

Drumming Instruction

hand-drumWhile initially the educator might allow students to “hit the drum” unsupervised, it is important that instead, or soon thereafter, the educator prevents injuries by instructing proper position and technique. Among these are proper sitting posture (e.g., straight spine, relaxed shoulders, slightly outward elbows, unbent wrists, and bouncing the hand off the drum surface upon contact) placement, angle, and depth of hand(s) and fingers when approaching and hitting a drum (discussed below), and drum placement (e.g., tilted forward and held between the knees).

There are three basic tone (or stroke) types for hand percussion employed in IAM programs and sample repertoires (i.e., my compositional intention for the sounds), namely, “bass” (middle of the drum with flat or slightly rounded palm with fingers straight and close together), “tone” (edge of the drum with slightly firm flat palm, with thumb held away from fingers), and “slap” (firm flat palm with slightly spread fingers approaching at approximately a 30 degree angle to the skin, with hand stopping at the edge of drum head, and relaxed fingers hitting the skin, creating a loud, high sound; again, thumb does not hit the drum). These tones are standard for numerous types of traditional hand drums, including African, Arabic, and South American. I was taught hand drumming skills by Dr. Isaac Akrong, Modesto Amegago, and Saikou Saho, who practice West African, Ewe drumming, and African drumming. I also learned other African percussion, voice, and dance techniques from the former two, and other educators. Though I have been influenced by other percussion traditions (e.g., Israeli darbuka drumming), the West African tradition was most influential in IAM reportorial compositional style and, hence, in most of the collection’s percussion material. Nevertheless, one can interpret these rhythms according to one’s training or intuition, provided the main rhythmic patterns are sustained as notated within each piece.

Quick-Starting Beginners in Hand Drumming

Any piece with a suitable percussion pattern may suffice for teaching beginners in hand drumming. My mentor, Dr. Isaac Akrong, uses Kpanlogo rhythms in his workshops with great success, regardless of facility, age, level, social influences, or circumstances. This success leads me, like him, to teach a particular Kpanlogo drum pattern as a starting exercise for beginners in hand drumming.

The Kpanlogo drum pattern in question consists of four sixteenths (tones), a quarter (bass), two eighths (tones), and a quarter (tone).[1] The educator might briefly illustrate the tone sound of four sixteenths and instruct students to try; then likewise with the single bass sound. The teacher then combines four tones with one bass, asking students to respond with imitation a few times in turn-taking manner. When this is stable, the combination is changed to two tones with one bass. When both combinations or parts are mastered, the educator encourages students to combine the two patterns into one. A possible verbal representation of this pattern is pi.di.pi.di.pa___ pi_di_pa___. Asking students to pronounce these or other verbal representations allows for deeper comprehension and improves articulation.

Time permitting, Dr. Isaac Akrong would employ the more thorough teaching technique of first substituting bass sounds (or pa in the verbal representation) with claps. The clapping combined with drumming introduces a more apparent textural contrast, and, based on my observation, is registered more clearly and universally by beginners of various age groups. When the tone and clap combination is mastered, replace the claps with the bass sounds. If possible, give each student a turn in trying this pattern alone, one by one around the circle. Then, all combine two, three, and four of these full patterns in a row.

The next learning step invokes one of the most efficient pedagogical techniques of the oral African tradition, in my opinion. Ask students (or participants) to play a given pattern in recurring circles and in a group setting for a few minutes. When students seem comfortable enough as a group at playing the pattern, the teacher may add the bell part of Kpanlogo (described below). This creates a very basic Kpanlogo rhythmic feel and challenges students to keep playing steadily, although the bell is syncopated in relation to the drum pattern. Anyone who is overwhelmed, gets confused, or stops, is encouraged to just keep trying, watching others, and aiming at being comfortable with the pattern. Depending on the group, a few minutes should suffice for this experience. The educator completes this task with positive feedback and assigns the pattern for homework. It is important at this point to explain that students do not need a drum to practice the beat learned. A lap, table, chair, the floor, or anything sufficiently solid or resilient may suffice. Though sound variation may lack in the absence of a drum-like membrane, rhythmic memorization of required patterns can nevertheless be achieved. For further study of Kpanlongo, see the transcription in the following.

Kpanlogo Bell-Drum-Rattle Combination

Kpanlogo bell, rattle, and the above described supporting drum are transcribed in Figure 20 (below). The additional rattle part (using a shaker, made from a dried hollowed gourd surrounded by a mesh of beads) consists of two sixteenths and an eighth. The rattle (or shaker) pattern is aligned such that its ending (or its cycle) coincides with the bell’s first sound and with the first sixteenth of the drum part (or Kpanlogo drum in the image below). The first bar of the rattle and bell parts contains the rhythmic figures in typical Western notation, while the second bar groups the notes so as to illustrate the acoustic groupings heard in the ensemble (especially for the rattle part).

Figure 20: Kpanlogo transcription, West African traditional:

The following illustrates bell, drum, and rattle parts:


Kpanlongo Transcription – by Nina Soyfer


The actual sound of Kpanlogo as it is perceived through my body (or in my view) differs from the transcription by fractions of beats here and there. For example, the second dotted eighth of the bell seem to be executed slightly after the second sixteenth of the shaker (rattle) and not exactly on it. This and other subtle timing and dynamics that do not easily fit in standard notation would be understood by any experienced performer of this tradition. Therefore, it is more appropriate to call this transcription an approximate representation of selected Kpanlogo parts, which could be used for educational purposes. To my knowledge, the actual record of African traditional music repertoire is best preserved by each participant’s body and muscle memory. This is another element of the experiential approach which influenced IAM pedagogy.

[1] The note values are not exact but approximated by myself in order to clarify the ratio between all sounds of the pattern.


Book a Session/Workshop Today:

Group Lesson Length


Agawu, Kofi. 2003. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York: Routledge.

Akrong, Isaac K. R. Nii. 2003. Kpanlogo Dance Today: a Documentation of the Evolution of a Ga Traditional Dance Form of Ghana, West Africa. Major Research Paper, Graduate Program in Dance, York University, Toronto.

Akrong, Isaac. January 19, 2013. An informal interview on the Eele song, conducted by Nina Soyfer.


Soyfer, Nina. 2016. “Integrated Arts Pedagogy and Philosophy.” Canada: York University. http://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/handle/10315/32252 (accessed January 12, 2017).

Sweller, John, Jeroen J. G. van Merrienboer, and Fred G. W. C. Paas. 1998. “Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design.” In Educational Psychology Review, vol. 10. No. 3, pp. 251-296.

Please note this page is a direct quote form Dr. Nina Soyfer’s dissertation “Integrated Arts Pedagogy and Philosophy” defended and archived in 2016. All rights are reserved and this quotation is provided here with permission for educational purposes.

Soyfer, Nina. 2016. “Integrated Arts Pedagogy and Philosophy.” Canada: York University, pp. 325-329. http://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/handle/10315/32252 (accessed January 12, 2017).