Strike & Vibrate

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It’s such an obviously known fact to us that we never talk about it, but musicians have intimate relationships with vibration. Singers vibrate themselves, string and horn players vibrate their intricate wood and metal contraptions through bowing or blowing, pianists press keys that strike the piano’s tuned strings, and so on. Even electronic musicians are attuned to vibration, though in this case, it’s a speaker that’s vibrating, not the musician, which can make the music feel a little more removed from the musician’s body. (This is compensated for by two facts: 1) electronic music has developed a huge repertoire of strange and otherworldly and larger than life sounds and 2) is often performed at punishingly high volumes that literally vibrate the listener.) It doesn’t matter what instrument you play, what matters is that you know how to get it vibrating in the ways that make the sounds you want to hear.

Percussionists (and I include here drum set-playing drummers) mostly strike various kinds of objects—from hand drums to tuned idiophones to cymbals and brake drums—to get them vibrating. They use their hands and fingers (e.g. on the Indian tabla drums), sticks and mallets (e.g. on marimbas and vibraphones), and even their feet to control drum pedals with beaters or other mechanisms attached to them (e.g. to play bass drums or hi hat cymbals). Today, playing percussion has been democratized through the “finger drumming” that musicians do with varying levels of skill on the little rubber pads on hardware sequencers. In this way, now anyone can be a drummer.

Another known fact rarely spoken of is the joy the percussionist derives from the fundamental act that sets vibrations in motion: striking. Whether you’re playing a hand drum, a snare drum, or a marimba, the joy of striking derives from transforming yourself into a kind of complex living lever, a fluid arm-hand-finger contraption that moves in a 3D space, piston-like, to transmit energy from you to the instrument to get it vibrating. While it’s true that percussion instruments are the easiest ones for a beginner to get a sound out of by hitting, it’s also true that they are the most difficult instruments to strike well (as opposed to hit) and make sing. There are many approaches to playing percussion, but they all share a common goal, which is reliably striking to make beautiful vibrations in time. Masterful percussionists can make their striking look effortless, magically conjuring smooth rolls or round tones. But sometimes a percussionist’s deliberateness is another kind of mastery on display, drawing you into their sound-production workflow, hinting at its deeper sources. Something about whole enterprise is mesmerizing when done with requisite skill and aplomb.

I rank the joy of striking right alongside the joy of running because of its transformative effects on consciousness. In striking (or running) you become one with the process you’ve set in motion—a process that only continues as long as you continue keeping it going. And in keeping it going you get feedback from your playing—a continuous stream of information about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, your tone production and timing, and how your thinking and feeling are changing via the striking. Another similarity between striking and running: neither one has a goal besides marking time. Like vibration itself, percussive striking and running in their purest states are oscillations that just want to keep on keeping on. Isn’t that beautiful?

4 thoughts on “Strike & Vibrate

  1. A fine bit of attention to these fundamental things. The third part of this triangle would be breath, would it not? The very thing that notated on a mirror or though an inverted trumpet signaled life itself.

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