Ask Jim Greiner

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I've seen a type of thin plastic block that mounts to the side of a cocktail drum. Do you know where I can buy one?

LP makes several models of great-sounding and durable plastic blocks. Here is a link to them:

LP also has a full line of mounting brackets that allow you to attach the blocks to virtually any instrument and stand:

Someone recommended that I use "Manteca de Corojo" for my hands and on my congas. Is this true? I also want to know, I have a double mounted stand so how high off the ground from the bottom of the drum should they be? Lastly, should the thicker mule skin be used for the larger drum and the thinner for the smaller drum, or vice versa?

I've used Manteca de Corojo, or palm oil, as one of my main hand oils for many years, and it's very effective at keeping my hands in good shape. I do suggest that you use just a very little bit at first and see how it works for you.

I never put oil on my drumheads (congas, bongos, djembe), though. It makes them sticky and dampens the sound more than I like. This is completely up to each individual player to decide what works best for him or her. I also do not live in a very dry climate, though I travel for gigs a great deal and often play in air-conditioned hotel/resort ballrooms, which are very cool and dry. If you live in a very dry climate, you might want to use a little oil every once in a while.

The natural oils in my hands seem to be enough to keep my drumheads in good shape. I do always loosen my conga and bongo heads at the end of each day, as well. This is also recommend by LP and greatly extends the life of the skins.

Here is a link for an article that I wrote for LP entitled, "Hand Care For Hand Drummers".

Here is a link to another article by Kurt Rasmussen, a fellow LP artist, entitled, "Your Hands: The Complete Owners Manual".

I suggest having the conga stand at the height where your forearms ate roughly parallel with the ground when you are standing erect (not rigid, just not slouching) and your shoulders are relaxed. This is a playing position that is comfortable and reduces shoulder, back and arm injuries. This will get the drums off the ground enough for them to be resonant, as well.

Whatever types of skin your use on your tumbadoras (congas), the larger drums should have thicker skins.

Can I use Mule skins for the tumba, conga and quinto , or a different type for each one? Also, which is the better skin to play professionally, mule skin or cow skin?

The type of skins we use on tumbadoras (congas) depends entirely upon the sound that we want. Mule skins are great skins, especially for a warm "old school" sound for rumbas. I suggest using the same type of skin for each set of drums in order to get a consistent sound from all of them that work with each other.

Of course, the tumba should have the thickest skin, the conga the middle thickness, and the quinto the thinnest.

Mule and cow skins can both be played professionally. Again, it depends entirely upon the sound you want. Mule skins tend to be livelier and more resonant than cow, but this depends upon the thickness, as well.

I use the water buffalo skins that LP puts on its tumbadoras because I play mostly in rock and funk bands, so I want a very bright and cutting sound. I make sure to tune them so that they do not have too much "ringing" overtones... a kind of metallic sound.

What are congitas? Do they require a different drumming technique than a normal conga?

Congitas are basically small versions of Congas (Tumbadoras is the traditional Cuban term for this family of drums). Since they are smaller than traditional congas, you might have to modify your usual conga technique by using smaller areas of your hands for tones and slaps. Experiment with hand placement to find the best sounds you can get. There will also be far less of a bass sound than with traditional congas.

LP's Junior Congas (LPJRX) are a great example of small congas. CLICK HERE more information about them, including a short audio clip.

I am currently restoring an old conga. There is an aluminum ring that wraps around the drum and is kind of tucked under the wood. If I take this off, will it weaken the structure of the conga to the point where it will fall apart while I'm sanding, cleaning, etc.?

I've re-finished and re-built many congas over the years, and it is enormously satisfying! My respect to you for putting this time and effort into renewing your instrument!

It's hard to tell how much the band is holding the drum together without seeing it, but generally when the band is embedded into the wood as you describe, it is an integral part of the drum.

If there are no cracks in between the staves of the drum, it is probably okay to take it off as long as there is no tension on the head. Of course, you'll have to take the head and hardware off to sand the shell.

To be safe, I suggest that you sand as much of the drum as you can before taking off the band, and then sanding the rest of it quickly and re-finish the shell and replace the band as quickly as possible.

I am a djembe player in a modern dance class. I'm looking for things to give me a fuller sound. Any ideas?

Congratulations on your gig drumming for dancers - drumming and dancing have been intertwined since we humans first started playing and moving!

Ankle bells, such as Ghungoos used in India, or seed pods attached to a strap, are a great way to add color and rhythmic spice to your hand drumming. You can also add LP's Finger Shots for a subtle shaker sound as you play.

LP's Go-Jo Bags add a more pronounced shaker sound when strapped to the back of the hand when playing hand drums.

In addition, I have used vocal percussive sounds when I accompanied dance and theater classes. You can start by saying the fundamentals of the part you are playing (for example, say a low-pitched "Unhh or Hoo" when you play the bass sound on your djembe). You can then add more sounds that play off of the sounds you are playing as you get more comfortable doing this. Another option is to play a shaker with one hand and a simple djembe part with the other. Practice each part separately before putting them together, though! This is always a great way to build our rhythmic repertoire.

Finally, one of the best ways to learn what moves dancers is to dance - put on a CD, and go to music concerts and clubs - and dance!

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My heads definitely appear to be drying out. What can I use on my conga and bongo heads to keep them soft and transparent-like?

It does sound like you need new bongo heads. Once they've lost their natural oils and flexibility, there's not much that be done to restore it.

I highly recommend loosening the heads on your congas and bongos when you're finished playing at the end of each day. This greatly extends the life of your heads. As a side benefit, we get to tune up our drums every time we play them - a great way to honor them, and to connect with them. Most natural hide heads will go out of tune from day to day anyway. LP also recommends de-tuning them every day.

Yes, I suggest using a very light application of a lanolin-based hand cream on your drum heads every once in a while; especially if they're stored in a dry climate. Don't use too much, or the heads will get sticky and attract dirt and dust from the air and hands.

Of course, we hand drummers should take as good care of our hands as we do our drum heads! Here is an article that I wrote for LP entitled, "Hand Care For Hand Drummers":

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Can hand drummers use ghost notes instead of stops in music if playing along to a metronome?

Yes, hand drummers do use ghost notes (soft sounds in between the main sounds of a rhythm). We often call these "taps" or "touches". They do add a nice texture to the rhythm. Of course, they also fill up much of the space in between the notes with sound, so we want to be careful to use them mindfully. That is, only where we want them to be, and not all the time, or not as an aid to keeping the rhythm moving forward. We want to be able to play with a solid groove, a consistent timing and feel, without them, as well.

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Is it possible to tighten the bead net of a shekere?

Yes. You can weave thin cords through the top and/or bottom rows of your bead net, and then pull one or both of the cords tighter and tie them off. This will bring the top and the bottom of the net up and closer to the gourd.  Too much tightening, though, can cause the net to bunch up. Experiment with the tension that give you the sound and feel that you want.

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What kind of tuner can I use to tune a conga?

I use an electronic Chromatic tuner. These can be found in most local music stores. Do not use an electronic guitar tuner; these only recognize standard guitar tunings.

Chromatic tuners are small, portable devices that contain an internal microphone and usually include a dial and/or an led light that shows the pitch of your open tone, and if your instrument is on-pitch, or either below or above that note.

Hold the tuner over your drum at about the same place you would put a microphone (on the opposite side of the head from your playing surface, a couple of inches above the head and an inch or two in from the outer edge). Hit an open tone and see what note you are near. Experiment with the position of the tuner until you get a consistent reading when you hit an open tone. Then re-tune all the lugs on your drum until you get the pitch you want.

If the drum is not in tune with itself, you may get a lot of high-pitched overtones (a metallic "ringing" sound).

If you can, also experiment with the tuner and an electronic keyboard that you know is in tune. This will also help you to develop your ability to recognize pitches and intervals... always productive training for any musician.

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What are best heads to buy to get the best tone out of my LP Aspire Congas?

LP matches the heads to the congas in each of their lines, so I don't think you need to change the heads from those that came with them.

You will get the best sound out of your LP Aspire Congas, or from any Conga, by working on tuning them, and on developing effective playing technique. Here are links to two articles that I've written for LP that will assist you in tuning your congas:

Tuning Your Conga by: Jim Greiner
Tuning Your Conga, Part 2: Specific Pitches and Intervals

I suggest that you work with a local conga teacher in your area to learn how to get the most melodic sound out of the open tones on your congas. This, coupled with attention to tuning, will give you the best sound.

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What is the best requinto and where can I buy one?

My all-time favorite Requinto is the LP Giovanni Galaxy Requinto (LP804Z-AW)!

It was designed by LP and virtuoso conguero Giovanni Hidalgo. It has a head diameter of 9-3/4", is made from select North American Ash wood and it really sings!

Visit the LP website and click on the BUY NOW icon to find an authorized LP Online Dealer, or ask at your local music store.

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How do I care for my rawhide drum head on the LP Aspire Bongo? Also how do I know when I have the drum tuned correctly?

Here is an article on Tuning Bongos written for LP by master percussionist, and my friend, Kurt Rasmussen:

Kurt lives in the Las Vegas area and is the percussionist with the Circe De Soleil show, "O". I've had Kurt play with me in the past when I've done my corporate drumming events in Vegas.. he knows his stuff!

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Do you recommend conditioning conga heads?

Whether to condition a conga head or not depends upon the head material and the climate. I don't pre-condition my drum heads, although I do rub a very little light weight lanolin hand lotion into them every once in a while since I travel so much with the corporate events band I'm in. We usually play in very large, air-conditioned hotel/resort ballrooms, under very strong stage lights, so my heads can tend to dry out sometimes.

I've heard of using mink oil, but I don't have any experience with it myself. It would also depend upon the type of heads (cow, water buffalo, etc.) your friend had.

The skins that LP uses are all of the highest quality, and hand-picked for each model of conga and bongo, so I've never felt the need to condition them right out of the box. In general, I suggest not doing anything to the heads unless you feel they need it. Just play as much as you can so you can get a good feel for the way the heads feel and sound (so you notice any changes due to aging or climate conditions... and don't forget to condition your hands regularly! (see my article on this site about Hand Care For Hand Drummers).

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Do you have any info on the response of thinner heads, different materials, etc., and have you ever heard of anyone very lightly sanding or smoothing out the new head roughness to get better repsonse, tone and playability?

The thinner the drum head, the faster it will tend to vibrate, the faster it vibrates... the more overtone "ringing" it will tend to have. Of course, the drum shell size, shape and materials will also affect this.

If you are used to playing thin heads, such as synthetic heads, then the water buffalo heads that LP uses will feel thick and coarse to you, and will give your a "warmer" sound... that is, will tend to have more low-end fundamental tones and fewer high-pitched ringing. Many contemporary Tumbadora (the traditional Afro-Cuban term for the Tumba, Conga and Quinto) makers have followed LP's lead in using water buffalo skins for their instruments. These are actually thinner and more responsive that the cow-hide heads that I grew up playing, and tend to be more versatile for a very wide range on traditional and contemporary musical styles.

I don't recommend sanding or smoothing the heads. This will tend to remove some of the natural oils in the head, make it less responsive, and wear out sooner. LP focuses a great deal on choosing specific heads for each instrument in order to get the highest quality, most versatile sound from each instrument. The more you play the heads that come with the instrument, the more you will get used to them.

I do suggest experimenting with the tuning of each instrument in order to get the most resonant sound possible from it. Each instrument has several "sweet spots" in its tuning range. That is, tunings that will result in the most sustained tone with the least amount of effort. The most important element in getting the best sound from your instruments is to make sure that each drum is in tune with itself; that the pitch over each lug is the same all around the drum head. If it's not, it will be very difficult to get a easy, sustained open tone, slap and bass sound.

Here are links to two articles I wrote for LP that cover beginning to advanced Conga tuning principles:

Tuning Your Conga Drums
Tuning Your Conga Drum, Part 2 - Specific Pitches and Intervals

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I am going to be purchasing a used set of LP Aspire congas which have a natural wood glossy finish. One of the congas has a serious scratch and I would like to change both to a glossy black finish. What kind of finish does LP use to bring their congas to a gloss?

LP uses a polyurethane finish on their Aspire Congas. It would be a great deal of work to strip the finish off of them.

I suggest bringing the scratched drum to someone who makes or refinishes furniture or other wood products. He or she might be able to give you some suggestions about the scratch.

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Are Djembes ever used in Latin Jazz bands?

I've jammed on a song or two with my LP Galaxy Djembé (wrench-tuned!) with Latin Jazz bands, as well as with other styles of music, such as Funk, Rock, Soul, Gospel, Reggae and Pop... hey, it's the 21st Century; contemporary music is evolving as I write this!

However, I've never seen or heard anyone playing a Djembé as the main hand drum in a Latin Jazz band.

Since the sounds of the Djembé (bass sounds, open tones and slaps in particular) don't sound exactly like those of the Tumbadoras (Quinto, Conga and Tumba), the music won't sound the same as we're used to hearing it... this would stretch the traditional "sound" of Latin Jazz.

The "Latin" part of Latin Jazz is deeply rooted in the sounds that have evolved over the course of more than six generations of players in the Afro-Cuban traditions... many traditionalists, and possible even many casual listeners, might have a difficult time accepting the difference in sound.

However, the "Jazz" part of Latin Jazz has, traditionally, been much more open to different instruments and different sounds.

Go ahead and try it. If it sounds good and feels good... it is good!

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Is there some way to soundproof the drum?

Your question is universal; I answer this question where ever I go worldwide! "How do we engage in our passion for drumming while also respecting our neighbors right to peace and quiet?"

First... please, please don't give up drumming! Finding and following a passion in life is absolutely essential to finding fulfillment in life! I will address the issue of playing at home, but first... find additional places to play, as well. Connect with other drummers and find people who know of places to play, and who want to play with people. They are there, finding them will be another fun part of your drumming journey!

One of the primary suggestions that I make to all of my students and workshop participants is to talk with your neighbors! I do suggest that we talk with them before we begin adding drumming to the neighborhood, but you can catch up since you've already started drumming.

I've found that most people will respond favorably when approached with respectful consideration. Tell your neighbors that you love drumming, and respect that the sound might affect them, and would like to work out a practice schedule with them. Find a time when they are not home. Suggest a few days and times that you might want to play, and ask them for their suggestions, as well. Be sure to emphasize that you want to be a good neighbor and do respect their wishes. For example, set a cut-off time past which you will never play; "I will stop after one hour... I will never play after 8 p.m.... you decide what will work for your situation.

Find the place to play in your apartment that reduces the impact to your downstairs neighbor, if possible.

Short of sound-proofing your room or apartment (not practical in many cases) here are a few quick suggestions; do any or all of them.. These do limit the volume and the resonance of the Djembe, so they are only a partial solution... not ideal, but any playing is far better than no playing:

  • Fasten a non-textured cloth over the Djembe head so it doesn't slip when playing
    (a textured cloth might be abrasive to your hands and the drum head)
  • Put a thick, soft pad under the Djembe and play seated
  • Stuff a thick cloth into your Djembe

Ask your neighbor if you can do a "sound check" with these fixes... involve him/her in your process of creating a solution that respects her/his wishes!

Mix these in with playing without any sound-muffling while your neighbor is not home (part of finding a schedule that works for both of you), and playing at other places. Don't give up... make the solution happen!

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Where could I find the most complete encyclopedia of exotic world percussion instruments with a picture, description and, most importantly, a sound sample of each?

Here are two that I like: This is a fantastic resource with images, audio and video clips of many instruments:

Wesleyan University Virtual Instrument Museum

This one is good, but has only photos and descriptions:

The Drummers Lounge Drum and Percussion Encyclopedia

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How do I measure my bongo replacement for head replacement?

Measure from the outside of the top of the shell, directly across to the opposite outer edge. If you have LP bongos, you can get measurements for each of their models on their web site. Click on each model to get specs.

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I recently moved from Florida to Utah. The climate change concerns me because I know my hand-carved djembe with goatskin head was okay in the humidity for the most part, but is there something special I should do to care for the skin while in this drier climate?

Of course, the climate in Utah, depending upon where you live, can be very hot and dry in the summer, and very cold in the winter. I will focus on the hot and dry part since that's what you mentioned.

Your djembe goatskin head will shrink and tighten as the humidity drops and the temperature rises, so you want to prevent it from splitting. To do so, I suggest loosening the cords that attach it to the shell whenever you feel it is getting too tight. This is up to your personal playing preference and your experience with tuning djembes. You can also put a piece of moist cloth along with the djembe in your bag or case (not touching the skin, though) whenever you are storing or transporting it. This will help keep it from getting too dry. I'm assuming you have a bag or case for it.... this is important to protect both the head and the shell wherever you live!

Do not leave the djembe sitting in direct sunlight, or in a vehicle whenever you can avoid it. You might also want to occasionally use a very light application of oil to the head. Not too much, or the sound will get muffled and the skin will attract dirt! Lanolin based hand oil or crème would work; just start with very little.

It's also important to keep a close watch over the shell, so you will notice any cracks as soon as they might appear. I suggest bringing your djembe to a local woodworker and ask his/her opinion about the effects the climate might have on the shell, and any recommendations for oils to protect it.

This is all a part of getting to know and to respect our instruments thoroughly... good question


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I recently moved from Florida to Utah. The climate change concerns me because I know my hand-carved djembe with goatskin head was okay in the humidity for the most part, but is there something special I should do to care for the skin while in this drier climate?

Of course, the climate in Utah, depending upon where you live, can be very hot and dry in the summer, and very cold in the winter. I will focus on the hot and dry part since that's what you mentioned.

Your djembe goatskin head will shrink and tighten as the humidity drops and the temperature rises, so you want to prevent it from splitting. To do so, I suggest loosening the cords that attach it to the shell whenever you feel it is getting too tight. This is up to your personal playing preference and your experience with tuning djembes. You can also put a piece of moist cloth along with the djembe in your bag or case (not touching the skin, though) whenever you are storing or transporting it. This will help keep it from getting too dry. I'm assuming you have a bag or case for it.... this is important to protect both the head and the shell wherever you live!

Do not leave the djembe sitting in direct sunlight, or in a vehicle whenever you can avoid it. You might also want to occasionally use a very light application of oil to the head. Not too much, or the sound will get muffled and the skin will attract dirt! Lanolin based hand oil or crème would work; just start with very little.

It's also important to keep a close watch over the shell, so you will notice any cracks as soon as they might appear. I suggest bringing your djembe to a local woodworker and ask his/her opinion about the effects the climate might have on the shell, and any recommendations for oils to protect it.

This is all a part of getting to know and to respect our instruments thoroughly... good question!

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I am a 50 yr old woman interested in learning drums. I was inspired by the movie, The Visitor. I completely identified with Richard Jenkins character - burned out at work, which is largely academic research. I feel stiff and awkward as he did. Learning to drum was so freeing for him, plus I love Latin and African music. How does one get started - even learning about the different drums?

Congratulations on beginning your drumming journey! I also saw, and loved the movie,
The Visitor.

I receive many requests similar to yours; I am blessed to be able to bring the joy and uplifting power of percussion playing to a wide range of people from all walks of life. Recently, due to the increased stress levels in our world, many people contact me about drumming for relaxing, meditation, stress release, to enhance their creative spirit, to connect with others in a fun way, and to experience the many other physical, mental and emotional benefits that drumming has brought to people worldwide for thousands of years!

My instructional/inspirational DVD, "Community Drumming For Health & Happiness" is, to be humbly honest, a good way to start. In it, I cover the fundamentals of some of the most commonly played percussion instruments, as well as how to maximize the fun and wellness promoting benefits of drumming.

In addition, please contact your local music store to find percussion teachers and drum circles in your area. When approached from the perspective of using drumming for relaxing and community bonding, either one-on-one lessons, or group classes will be perfect for what you have in mind!

Of course, the Drum Circle section will let you know if there are any ongoing drumming circles in your area. I invite you to submit circles to that page.

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I am a 5 week old player who is eager to learn. Are there any sound clips of a LP Aspire Djembe that I can listen to in order to ensure that mine is correctly tuned?

LP has sound clips of many of their instruments on their web site. Go to the Ethnic Drums section to hear the Aspire Djembe.

To tune an LP Aspire Djembe:

  • -It is very important that each tuning lug is at the same tension, the same pitch, as each other.
  • -Begin with the tuning lugs completely loose.
  • -Tighten them with your fingers; this will assure you that they are all at the same tension before you tune the drum.
  • -Tighten each lug about a quarter-circle turn, going around the drum head.
  • -Then do this again, then again until you get a very high pitch; make sure you are are tightening each lug the same amount.
  • -Hit an Open Tone over each lug (rotating the drum so you can comfortable play the sound over each lug) to make sure the drum is in tune with itself.
  • -Djembes are tuned very high, but don't tighten the lugs if they feel like the head is too tight.

A few suggestions:

  • -If possible, take at least one beginning lesson with a teacher in your area to hear how he/she tunes the instrument .
  • -Listen to CDs of djembe drumming, and watch videos, to train your ears to hear how they are tuned.
  • -Take the time to learn about your machine-lug-tuned instrument by tuning it down at the end of the day and tuning it up again the next time you play... this is time very well spent! (This is not practical with a traditional, rope-tuned djembe).
  • -Breathe, relax and allow yourself to go deeply into the experience of tuning, and playing, the djembe... don't just bang around for the physical pleasure of it (this will be included as you go deeply into it!).
  • -Learn about the history and traditions of the djembe and the peoples who originated it (research the ancient Malinké Empire of west Africa)... this shows respect for the instrument and the peoples who developed it, and deepens the Intention underlying our playing.

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I have a key-tuned Djembe. What do I need to keep the goatskin head in good shape?

You can use a very light application of a lanolin-based hand cream if you think the head on your djembe is drying out. In fact, I suggest using this on your hands, as well.  

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How do i know if i have a conga or tumbadora, what's the difference?

Whether you have a conga or a tumbadora (tumba) depends upon the model and manufacturer and what sizes they use. For example, in the LP Professional line (Galaxy, Salsa, Original, etc.), the quinto is 11" in diameter, the conga is 11 3/4" and the tumba is 12 1/2". In the LP Aspire line (entry level) the conga is 11" and the tumba is 12".

Of course, within each specific line the quinto is the smallest diameter, the conga is the middle diameter and the tumba is the largest diameter.

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Do you feel that djembes are overused in drum circles?

In most open free form drum circles, djembes are probably the most commonly played instrument. I don't think this automatically makes them overused, this depends upon how they are being played.

Unfortunately, many drum circle participants sometimes don't play at a volume that encourages listening to each other. If someone has an instrument that can be played very loud, like a djembe, this can result in far too much noise and not enough music.

This can also be true for some other instruments that can be played loudly, such as quintos and cow bells. It's really up to the player to play at a volume, and to play a part, that is intentionally cooperative and not competitive.

In my rhythm based programs, and drum circles are just one component of these, I always reinforce the importance of playing musically in cooperation with each other. This means listening to each other, playing an articulate repetitive part that works with the other parts, being willing to cooperate with each other to create a groove, supporting each other's creativity within the groove, honoring the traditions of the peoples who created the instruments we play, and having fun... celebrating the blessing that is life by engaging in life completely with positive intentions.

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Can I replace the heads and hardware on the discontinued CP congas by LP?

You can easily change the heads. Order pre-mounted LP heads for your model at any LP dealer and simply put them on. If they don't fit perfectly on the drum, then pour about an inch of warm water into the upturned head, let it soak for an hour or two (until the part of the head that fits on the conga shell is a little soft and pliable, dry them with a towel and then put them on and put just a little tension on them with the lugs to help the skin conform to the top of the shell. When the head is dry you can tune them up.

You can also get flat, unmounted skins through LP. I've done this many times and I like the process of tucking my own heads. However, I don't have time to do this anymore!

You can also order new rims, tuning lugs and all the other hardware through an LP dealer. Of course, if you want to save time and money you can touch up any scratches with black paint or even a black felt pen.

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I need a tuning wrench for a set of congas. What does it look like?

The simplest is an "open ended wrench". Most conga tuning lugs are 1/2" wide, so you will use a 1/2" wrench; many come with each of the two ends having a slightly different width. The LP Galaxy line of congas uses a 9/16" lug, though. There will be a metal plate that says Galaxy by LP if you have this model.

I often use a socket wrench with a ratchet for faster tuning and de-tuning. LP’s Percussionist Survival Tool Kit which contains a ratchet wrench and lug lube is available at most music stores that carry LP. If you prefer to buy an open ended wrench they are available at hardware stores.

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My thumbs tend to hurt when I play the conga. How can I eliminate this without taping them?

Hurting your thumbs when playing a conga is fairly common, but doesn't have to happen. If it's the outer part of your thumb on the joint that is hurting, you must be hitting that part on either the metal rim or the edge of the top of the shell. This part of the thumb has no padding, so it will hurt your joint to hit a hard surface with it.

You can reduce or eliminate this by not letting the thumbs fall below the rest of the hand. so they don't hit these surfaces. The thumbs are not a part of the playing part of your hands; they shouldn't hit any hard surfaces. Here are a few tips about this:

> Keep you hands flat when playing bass sounds and tones; if you cup your hands too much when playing tones, the thumbs will tent to hit the rim or edge of the drum.

Keep your thumbs lightly touching the upper segment of your fore finger, the part nearest the knuckle, when playing slaps; don't let your thumbs fly around and hit the drum when playing slaps.

Don’t hit "through" the drum head as this will tend to drive the thumb below the rest of your hand.

Stay relaxed when playing, don't tense your arms and shoulders as this often causes us to hit harder than we need to in order to get a clear sound. Relax your arms and shoulders, breathe easily and allow your upper body to release all the tension we often carry in our shoulders, back and arms. For example, watch Giovanni Hidalgo play... see how relaxed he is... he often talks about the importance of relaxation when playing.

Practice slowly in order to reinforce the technique that you want to improve upon. Practicing slowly allows us to make sure we're repeating the things we want to get good at. We want to repeat good habits and not repeat bad habits (works well in all of life!). You can increase the tempo of your practicing as you get your technique fairly consistent.

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Whenever I practice a rhythm of claves or congas, I seem to lose my concentration on playing the rhythm correctly. My background is in classical guitar. Why does this occur when I practice?

Your question goes to the core of one of the main differences between the way music is approached in visually-oriented Western musical cultures and in more orally-based cultures; the ones that developed congas and claves, for example.

As you discovered, when someone trains him or herself to play only what is written on a page, it is possible to lose touch with the innate ability to play by integrating the sound of the pattern into our muscle and nerve memory. I must emphasize that this does not mean this is an inevitable result! Many, many musicians have the ability to both sight-read music and play "by ear"! It is important to practice what we want to get good at! If we want to be able to play both ways, we must practice both ways.

One of the most profound, of many, music and life lessons that I learned in my two years of drumming and living in Africa, was the importance of internalizing rhythms by vocalizing them! Say and play! When we say the patterns we want to play, both before and while playing them, we get them into our bodies, where our voice is, and out of our heads... where our other voice is... the one that sometimes tells us that we cannot do something simply because we have not done it before, or because we might not do it perfectly right away, or because we (our conscious minds, that is) are getting "bored" and want to move on to something new. I call this the tendency to "channel surf through life", by not staying with something long enough to go deeply into the experience! We become information addicts; we get bored easily and want to move on to something new!

Of course, it has been demonstrated that there are different ways of learning; through visuals, through movement and through analysis. Different people do learn in different ways, and with different amounts of each of these methods. However, it is possible to train ourselves, through repeating the things we want to get good at, to learn in more than one of these ways!

So, say the pattern you want to play, the 3/2 Son Clave is a great one to start with if you want to internalize one of the fundamentals of Afro-Cuban music. Your saying of the pattern will tend to overpower the tendency to get bored with the repetition necessary to progress in the learning of the pattern. Saying the pattern will also help you to focus on your intention, the learning of the pattern, and lessen the tendency to let mental and physical distractions divert your from your goal.

Finally, breathe and relax to release physical tension, to let go of mental distractions and to help go deeply into the experience.

Of course, as always, have fun... we call it playing music for a reason!

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I want to learn how to play the congas. Would it make sense to just get one drum for starters, and if so, what size should it be?

Yes, I recommend starting with one drum. In the Afro-Cuban tradition, which is where these drums originated, what we generally call congas are referred to as tumbadoras. There are usually three sizes of tumbadoras; the largest diameter and lowest pitched drum is the tumba (TOOM-ba), the middle size and mid pitched drum is the conga (KUHN-ga) and the smallest diameter highest pitched drum is the quinto (KEEN-toe), I suggest starting with the conga if youare playing by yourself.

You can get great grooves going on the Conga by itself. The signature conga pattern that is played in many contemporary Afro-Cuban musical styles is the tumbao (toom-BOW - rhymes with "OW". The Tumbao has many variations, depending upon the style of music (Cha-Cha-Cha, Mambo, Bolero, Guajira, etc.).

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I played outdoors last weekend at dusk in 90 degree weather. During my break I noticed my congas were out of tune. What caused this, and will this happen whenever I play in hot weather?

Yes, the rawhide heads on congas (traditionally called Tumbadoras) are affected by temperature and humidity changes; the greater the change, the larger the effect.

In your case, I'm assuming that the temperature dropped during your break since you began playing at dusk; therefore your drums became lower pitched as night fell. This is unavoidable with rawhide heads; you just have to keep tuning them up as often as you need between songs as the pitch drops. During a break you can put a covering of some sort on the heads to minimize the pitch drop, but it's still going to happen. This is why I always emphasize the importance of getting comfortable with tuning your congas. You just have to do it; train your ear to recognize the sounds that you like, listen to the way other players tune their drums and practice tuning!

Many conga manufacturers (including LP) and players recommend that you also tune your drums down so the heads are loose at the end of every day. In this way you lengthen the life of the heads, and you also get to practice tuning your instruments.

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I want to develop a drum circle, should I promote it through the music stores in town?

Yes, absolutely promote your drum circle through all the music stores in your area
(both city and region, if possible). Also, promote it in as many other ways as practical and appropriate.

For example, make simple, upbeat, good-quality flyers and post them, and have your friends, students and others post them, in all appropriate places, such as coffee houses, cafes, schools, community centers, retail stores that have bulletin boards or already post flyers on their windows, etc.

Also, use the local media, send press releases to newspapers, and PSAs (Public Service Announcements) to local radio and TV stations (especially college and public). Local media will often have a calendar that lists community events for free.

Finally, contact everyone you know whom you think might be interested in drumming (or might have never even considered it before!). Start an email list to announce your local drumming activities. Begin this with you friends' and family's email addresses, then add people consistently over time. Call everyone you know to let them know about the circle and to ask them if they would like to be on your email list to be notified of all your upcoming drumming activities. Note: bring an email sign-up sheet to your events and encourage the attendees to join your list... bring it on a clip board along with a pen or two.

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In a two drum set-up, what should the primary drum be?

Two Tumbadoras (Congas) one uses in a two drum set-up are, to a large degree, a matter of personal preference. Some players prefer to use a Conga/Tumba combination, and some prefer a Quinto/Conga combination. This depends a great deal upon the style of music you are playing; this determines the tuning you will use.  

The primary drum is generally the smaller, higher-pitched of the two Tumbadoras.

For example, in more traditional styles such as some Rumbas, many people prefer two drums that are tuned relatively low. In this case, you will probable want to use a Conga for your primary instruments, and a Tumba for the lower pitched of the two.

In more contemporary musical styles, such as contemporary Latin (Mambos, Salsa, Latin Jazz) Rock, R&B, Funk, etc., many people prefer two drums that are tuned relatively high. This means that the drums are in a higher pitched register in the musical mix, and therefore do not get lost among the lower pitched instruments such as bass guitar and, in the case of Rock, etc., the drumset player's bass drums and lower toms).

I usually use a Conga/Quinto combination, since I play mostly in 8 to 10-piece bands (with drumset, electric bass, a horn section and a keyboard player). We play contemporary music in a wide range of styles. I tune my Conga to a G over middle C, and my Quinto to the C (a fourth) above that. This puts me in the middle and the upper middle of the overall band mix.

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Is there a particular tuning, as defined by pitch or intervals, when tuning up timbales?

There are many ways to tune the timbales, depending upon the style of music you play and other factors.

The tuning of timbales is much higher these days than it was a couple of generations ago (as is the tuning of congas). A common method is to tune your Macho (means "male"... the small timbal) and Hembra (means "female"... the large timbal) to a perfect fourth apart, or sometimes a perfect fifth apart. For example, the Macho could be tuned to an "F", one octave above middle C. The Hembra would then be tuned to a "C" one octave above middle C. Of course, the most important thing is that each drum be in tune with itself, that is, you have the same pitch on each lug.

I like to start with the Hembra, then move on to the Macho. Begin by loosening the lugs completely the first time you tune your timbales or when you change one or more of the heads. Then finger tighten each lug to make sure each one starts at the same tension. Then tune each lug with the tuning wrench the same amount in order to make sure each of them will be at the same tension. Begin with any of the lugs and move across the drum to another, then across the drum to another. Repeat this until you have tuned each lug once. Do small increments to start. Once you get to know your instrument, you can do larger increments, especially with the Macho, which will, of course, be tuned higher than the Hembra. The exact pattern of crossing from lug to lug will be determined by how many lugs your drums have. Keep repeating this tuning pattern until you are at the pitch you want to be.

Check your tuning every time you begin a new day of playing. They might go slightly out of tune, and this is the best way to get to know your instruments! Experiment with your tuning until you find one that works with the music you play. Learn to listen carefully to melodies and intervals in order to "tune" your ears! Work with experienced players/teachers whenever possible. Listen to CD's and to live players to get ideas, as well.

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How do I tune my bongos correctly?

There is no one and only "right way" to tune bongos. It depends upon the music, the venue and your own style.  A good way to learn to tune bongos, and to train your ear, is to listen carefully to the tunings that you hear on recorded music and in live situations.  If possible, find an experienced Bongocero(a) and spend some time learning the way he/she tunes the Bongos.

A common tuning, and a good place to start, is to tune each drum to an "A", an octave apart.

Many Bongoceros like to tune the Macho up very tightly, so you get a very sharp, dry cutting sound when playing a tone.  Others like a more melodic sound. Experiment with it.  Don't be shy about just getting in and experimenting with the tuning until you get something you want to try playing!

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • start with both the Macho (smaller drum) and the Hembra (larger drum) heads loose, then finger-tighten all the lugs so that each of them starts at the same tension.
  • start with the Hembra: do about a half-turn on each lug, going around the head (do not jump across the head).  Be sure to tighten each lug the same amount i order to keep the drum in tune with itself.
  • hit an open tone to hear the pitch. 
  • tighten the lugs again if you want the pitch to be higher; each time you tighten the lugs, do smaller increments because you will get closer to the pitch you want.  

Do the same with the Macho; you can tune each lug in full-circle increments the first two or three times around the head, because you want the pitch to be much higher than the Hembra.  As you get closer to the pitch you want,tune in smaller increments. Loosen the heads when you're done playing for the day.  This will increase the life of the heads, especially the Macho.  Also, the pitches will tend to change with changes in temperature and humidity if you leave them tuned up overnight.  Finally, as an additional benefit, you will get to know your instruments, and become more proficient at tuning them, by tuning them frequently.

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How do I correctly measure a conga?

One measures the diameter of a Conga head by starting anywhere at the outside edge of the top of the shell (the head can be either still on the drum or off of it) and measuring to the outside edge directly across from the starting point.

For example, the LP Quinto head measures 11" in diameter, the LP Conga head is 11-3/4" in diameter and the LP Tumba head is 12-1/2" in diameter.

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I recently held a drum circle at my job for an hour, and the feedback was good. I had several types of percussion: congas, bongo, castanet, guiro, maracas, tambora, claves. I own your DVD on Community Drumming and you make the grooves look so smooth when it comes to keeping their attention. How can I keep their interest with building on one groove for such a long period of time?

I use a number of Drum Circle Facilitation Cues and Techniques that I've developed over the years to help people stay in the groove together, to connect with each other and to have fun. I use them during the drum circle at the end of my "Community Drumming For Health & Happiness" DVD that you mentioned. A few are:

  • Attention Cue: raise one or both arms high with the fingers pointing upwards to get people's attention; use this before giving any other cue.
  • Tempo Up Cue: mark the pulse on any instrument that can be clearly heard, give the Attention Cue, then give a "thumbs up" signal with one hand and gradually increase the tempo of the pulse along with marking the tempo increase with the "thumbs up" signal.
  • Volume Down Cue: give the Attention Cue, then face one or both palms down and gradually bring the hand(s) down to signal the participants to play quieter. Stop the movement when you get to the volume you want and close your fist(s) to signal to stay at that volume.
  • Volume Up Cue: give the Attention Cue, then face one or both palms up and gradually bring the hand(s)up until you get to the volume you want and close yourfist(s) to signal to stay at that volume.

These are just a few ways to bring the participants together and to enliven the experience.

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I am starting a drum circle at work and there may be some who want to play along with music (3-5 minute songs). Is this advisable?

It depends upon the purpose of the drum circle and why some people would want to play along with recorded music. I sometimes use recorded music, children's songs, in my work with kids. This gives them something to relate to and puts them in a groove together.  

Most of the time I don't use recorded music, even with kids. I never use it with adults. My intention with my drum circles is to help the participants create their own grooves and to support each other's creativity.  Most non-musicians need longer than the length of a 3 to 5 minute song to get comfortable with their instruments and to get into a groove together where the music flows and they get into a comfort zone.

If the people who might want to play to recorded music want to because they already know what to play, I suggest that, since they are experienced musicians, you ask them to be the foundation of the circle, to be the "groove mentors".   That is, ask them to play simple, fundamental repetitive patterns that help the less experienced participants to get into the groove as a group.

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I have an old Mambo Cowbell that has a 2 inch crack and I would like to know if I should cut away a 2 inch chunk of metal or buy a new one?

I've tried many ways to fix broken cowbells over the years, including welding cracks and cutting them down. Unfortunately, I've never been able to come up with a solution that produces an instrument that sounds anywhere near a good as the original.

You could have the bell cut down to just below where the crack begins, (you'd have to find a metal worker with the right power tool to do this or you could try with a hacksaw, but it's a lot of work!) but the new, smaller bell will not sound anything like the old, larger one.  A good bell is made to very specific dimensions; changing them will result in the loss of the frequencies that made the original bell sound good.  

Short answer... give your old bell a respectful "goodbye" and have fun finding a new one! Here is a link to LP's Mambo Cowbell.

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How do I keep a new conga head in good condition and durable?

Care of your conga head depends a lot upon the climate and the playing environment. If you live in a very dry climate, or a very cold one, and/or play a lot under very hot stage lights, the head will tend to dry out and therefore wear out quicker. In this case, I suggest using a very light application of lanolin-based hand lotion regularly. Rub some into your hands before playing (good idea to take care of your hands, too!), then rub a little of the excess lotion into your conga head. Don't use too much or hand oils and dirt might stick to it.

I also highly recommend tuning your congas down at the end of every day. This can greatly extend the life of the heads, plus you will become more in touch with the sounds and different tunings of your instruments... always a good idea for a musician!

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How do I start learning the reggae drum playing technique and is there any web pages or books that could help me out?

I recommend listening to reggae CDs and playing along to what the conga drummer is doing. Remember that it is not Afro-Cuban based, so the usual Tumbao pattern won't necessarily work. Reggae conga playing is often based on a Jamaican style of drumming called Nyabhingi. Listen to Jimmy Cliff's song, Bongo Man, for a great example of this style of drumming. Of course, once you learn how to play Reggae from accomplished Reggae percussionists, feel free to develop your own style, as well. The main goal is to groove and serve the music.

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I would like to persue a career in hand-drumming, is there any advice you can give me as to how to find decent gigs?

Djembe gigs are possible, but more limited than congas. There are also a lot more gigs available if you are also proficient on bongos and hand percussion instruments like claves, maracas, shekere & other shakers, tambourine, miscellaneous hand-held and mounted percussion sounds.

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What is the name of the conga riff: LLRLLRLLR etc., with the left hand leading and always playing heel-toe, while the right alternates between other sounds?

I'm familiar with the conga riff you mentioned, but I don't know that it has a traditional name. I think it is just based on heel/tip exercises played as triplets. It is then thrown in to create the triplet feel within a pattern.  The heel/tip exercises, whether played as straight eighth note, sixteenth notes, or triplets serve as the basis of a lot of improvising on congas. There are an almost infinite number of possible varieties of riffs based on the heel/tip patterns.

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What is a drum circle and how is it different from a drum class or workshop?

A drum circle can mean entirely different things to different people. There is no absolute, universally accepted answer to this question. There are different styles of drum circles just as there are different styles of playing musical forms such as Rock or Funk! This experience, though, is rooted in the concept, found in many cultures, that the average person can have fun making music even if they have no desire to perform.

I usually avoid calling any of my programs drum circles since there is no universally accepted definition of the term. I use the blanket term Rhythm Based Activities to be an overview of my work, and then define my different types of programs with terms that give specific images of what they are and what their goals are. For example, Interactive Rhythm-Based Team building Program.

I would very loosely define drum circles as drumming or rhythm based-jam sessions. Some are led, or facilitated, by one or more people and some are more freeform, spontaneous experiences. Some people refer to any gathering of percussionists as a drum circle. Others feel very strongly that a group that is playing traditional rhythms with the intention of staying true to the traditions is not a drum circle. Again, there is no wrong answer or one right answer.

Some people refer to rhythm games and exercises as drum circles, even if no drums are actually used. All are acceptable, if somewhat vague, definitions.

How is a "drum circle" different from a drumming class or workshop? Again, there is no single definitive answer. Different leaders and facilitators have different styles and approaches that range from "don't teach, just let people play whatever they want" to various amounts of instruction.

I always incorporate elements of teaching in all of my drumming programs. I've found that people usually appreciate knowing something about the instruments and the traditions behind them. This gives them a sense that they are part of the rich tradition of drumming around the world, and shows respect for the people who developed the instruments. I also make it a point to teach something about the playing of the instruments so that people get the best sounds possible and avoid hurting their hands (in the case of hand drums). In some of my programs I just give the fundamentals of playing and the traditions, in others I go deeper into these elements. It all depends upon the themes and goals of my clients and of the group.

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How do you get novice drummers to play consistent parts?

I use the "say it and play it" method of teaching that I learned in Africa. That is, I introduce the fundamental playing techniques assign a verbal sounds to them that sound like the sounds we want to play, and then have the players say the patterns using those sounds. Keep it simple for beginners! Don't get too complicated when assigning sounds.

When we say our part we are getting the part into our bodies, where our voices originate, and out of our heads! If the conscious mind tries to analyze, process, categorize and authorize each and every sound within the pattern, then we get into "mental & physical gridlock" and it simply just doesn't groove.

I've found that this method also makes it easier for beginners, and others, get back into their patterns if they get off, since the muscle and nerve memory of the body will remember the pattern, while the conscious mind might go into a panic state and hold the body back. This works!

If you make a mistake you just can't start playing randomly and try to "find" where you should be; you'll end up playing a lot of sounds that do not fit into the groove which pulls other people off. What you can do to get back into the rhythm is to first let go of the mistake, remain calm and focused, listen to what everyone else is playing, find the place to start, say your pattern, then play it.

Also, if someone is very shy and / or lacks confidence then give him or her a part that can contribute to the group, but not dominate the sound. I use maracas and other light weight shakers for these good folks to help them gain confidence before giving them a crucial foundation part. Have them say "Shaker, shaker, shaker, shaker, etc." with the "shake" part on the out swing and the "er" part on the back swing.

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When leading drum circles, how do you know when to lead and when to just let the group play?

"Over leading" is like a musician "overplaying". Sometimes there is the temptation to do, or play, something just because we can. Many people call our work, Drum Circle Facilitation, rather than leading, because it is our role to help the group help itself

I've been blessed to play with many accomplished musical elders in a wide range of styles in my career, and one of the things I always observe in their playing is that they no longer play the notes that don't matter! Many times they are simply not able physically to play all the things they could when younger, and they used their maturity and wisdom to just play what served the music. Babatunde Olatunji, for example, in his later years would not play a note for long periods of time, but he would inspire the other musicians and the audience by his very presence and his beautiful singing. Then, BOOM!, he would make one hit, the perfect sound in the perfect place, and the whole place would be elevated to a new level!

Our jobs as drum circle facilitators is, as I mentioned, to help the group help themselves. We must have our finger on the pulse of the group, so to speak, so that we do only what is necessary for the group to groove and meet its needs and goals. What are the goals of the group? What does the group need in order to reach these goals? These are the choices we make for every group we lead.

It is important to learn different facilitation skills in order to have them available when needed. It is equally important to know when, and when not, to use them!

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I want to learn reggae on conga, so what's best for me to do?

The best way to learn how to play Reggae on congas is to study with a percussionist who is an accomplished Reggae player. Of course , I realize that there may be nobody where you live who fits the bill. (where do you live?). This can also be done by learning from percussionists who play on Reggae CDs. I do recommend that you study conga fundamentals with someone who is qualified to teach the basics, including tuning and maintenance of congas, the fundamental techniques (bass sounds, open tones, slaps, etc), the fundamentals of music (learning to truly hear and feel what is going on in the music, different types of rhythms and the effects they have on people, how to find and maintain a groove, different note values and their applications in various musical styles, how to support the music with our playing).

As far as specific conga rhythms that work with Reggae (and, of course, there are various styles of Reggae that require their own rhythmic approaches), very often the percussionist in a Reggae band play "color" as much as a repetitive pattern. By "color" I mean wood block and bell accents, timbale riffs and accents, very sparse, open-ended conga patterns.

One of the roots of Reggae is a style of drumming called Nyabhingi. It has a repetitive "heartbeat" type pattern on the low drums with lead "riffing" on the higher pitched drums. I recommend listening and playing to any Nyabhingi recording you can find to get grounded in the roots of Reggae. Jimmy Cliff's recording of the song, "Bongo Man" is an example that is readily available.

Enjoy your Reggae journey!

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Do you think drum circles invited certain spirits? If so what kind?

If by "spirits" you mean from the spiritual realm... then I guess it would depend upon the intention and the spirituality of the drummers. If by "spirits" you mean the mood of the participants, as in "raising the spirits, the physical and emotional mood, of the participants", then absolutely yes!

Drum Circles are not the same as traditional spiritual rhythms and ceremonies that people worldwide have engaged in for thousands of years. Those rhythms and ceremonies have evolved out the the needs, goals and experiences of the cultures and the peoples who originated them. They are highly developed and very specific in nature, in intention and in execution and require many years of study, discipline and intention to create the desired outcome. These rhythms and ceremonies are sacred to the peoples who have developed them. My firm belief is that anyone who wishes to engage in them should spend the time and intention to study with source people who have themselves spent this effort to learn them, and who have the authority to teach them.

Drum Circles are a broad definition of many different types of rhythm jam session and rhythm-based activities that are strongly rooted in the universal nature of humans to entrain together and to cooperate and communicate through drums and percussion. I believe that people who drum together with the intention to create positive connections with others will become more aware of Spirit, the everlasting, universal force that is present in all of Life, and that their awareness of Spirit can have enormous positive effects upon their lives and, by extension, the lives of all whom they touch.

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Please tell me about the subtleties with which traditional congueros play versus the more aggressive style of playing found in West Africa (djembe).

I get a lot of questions about the differences, and the similarities, of playing congas and djembes

A few of the differences:

Congas are often played using muted, muffled sounds. For example, muffled tones and muffled bass sounds, where one hits the drum and lets the hand stay on the drum to stop the sustain of the sound, and muffled slaps called "golpe seco" (dry hit) where the playing hand hits a slap and stays on the drum, while the other hand stays on the drum in the bass-sound position (center of the drum) to muffle the sound. Djembes are usually played with open tones, open bass sounds and open slaps by letting the striking hand rebound off the instrument.

Conga technique also includes a number of subtler, softer sounds such as heel/tips, ghost notes and a technique known as "manos secreta", or "secret hands" where the hands play a quick series of "ghost notes" with very loose wrists, in a controlled rebounding movement,between the primary sounds (tones, bass sounds, slaps, etc.

CCongas also tend to have a "warmer", melodic and more fundamental-tone sound, while djembes tend to have a brighter sound with a lot of high-pitched "overtone" ring, or harmonics than congas. This is due to a combination of the head differences I already mentioned, and the size and shape of the shells. The congas, being barrel-shaped, have a very large resonating chamber which tends to emphasize the lower fundamental tones. Djembes, being goblet-shaped, have a very booming bass sound due to the upper bowl and the thin head, while also having a higher-pitched slap due to a combination of the thin head and the narrower bottom part of the shell. This is not to say that djembes are not melodic. They can be, especially in a traditional djembe ensemble made up of experienced players.

Of course, congas can also be played very aggressively, and djembe can be played very subtly, depending upon the player and the situation. But, in general, as you pointed out, congas due tend to be played with more quiet subtleties than djembes.

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Is the diameter of a conga head measured at the wooded top or is it the diameter of the metal ring?

The diameter of a conga head is measured from the outside edge of the wooden top of the drum shell to the outside edge of the other side.

Here is a link to an article I wrote for Latin Percussion Instruments about tuning congas, the various sizes of the drums generally called "congas" and some other conga tips. There are also a number of other articles and short video lessons listed on this page:

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When we have to select the instruments for our percussion set, do we have to think about the music we are playing or about my skills as a percussionist?

Choosing the instruments that you will play will be determined mostly by the type of music you are playing, but your skills as a percussionist do also matter, especially if you are a beginning to intermediate player. The most important thing is to be able to play the music with the right feel and to be able to groove, to entrain with the rest of the musicians.

For example, if you are playing Afro-Cuban music it would be necessary for you to be able to play the fundamental patterns on claves, maracas, guiro and tumbadoras (congas). It is most important to listen to the other musicians and to play the basic patterns with the right feel and to groove; more advanced patterns and rhythmic figures can be added later, as long as they come from the groove. Of course, if you were the timbalero in the band, it would be required that you know all the common patterns, accents and rhythmic figures (Abanico, etc.) on timbales.

Different styles of music require different instrumentation, but what they all have in common is the importance of authenticity and groove. These are much more important than flashy riffs and chops.

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I'd like to know exactly where in the guaguanco clave, where do the conga parts start?

The Guaguanco drum parts start on the three side of the Rumba Clave (or Clave de Guaguanco). That is, they start on the first beat of the Clave in the measure that has the three hits. I'm assuming you know the Rumba Clave since you know the right question to ask. It is crucial that all the parts are aligned correctly with the Clave. The Clave defines the groove, the feel, the tempo and the alignment of the parts. The Clave is the essence, the heart and soul, of Guaguanco. The drummers, the singers and the dancers all integrate the Clave into their parts.

Let's assume the clave is written as a two measure pattern using eighth notes (though I have seen it written as a one bar pattern, using sixteenth notes)

Generally, the Guaguanco starts with the Rumba Clave, beginning with the measure with the three hits (the "three side"), then the Tumbadora (the low drum) enters with an open tone on the fourth quarter note of the second bar of the clave. Then the Secundo (the middle pitched drum) enters, then the Cata (two sticks that traditionally play a piece of bamboo) then the Quinto (the highest pitched, lead drum).

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I need a drum for belly dancing. Can you tell me any information about belly dancing drumming?

The typical drum used for middle eastern belly dancing is the Doumbek. This is a chalice shaped drum, usually metal, that is played on the lap.

Of course, middle eastern dancing and drumming has many, many different styles and rhythms. I suggest that you study with an accomplished drummer who is also a dedicated teacher, focus on the fundamentals of technique, groove, style and authenticity and stay with one or two basic patterns until you become comfortable with the instrument. You can then move on to more complex patterns and other rhythms.

In general, the lead drummer works with the lead dancer to get cues for tempo, volume, accents, embellishments and rhythms. The role of the other drummers is to listen to the leader and support and complement the dancers.

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I am a conga-player beginner and I bought 10" and 11" LP Aspire Congas. I enjoy playing these drums and I have two questions. 1st - When I place my hand on the Conga it covers the whole drum head and I wanted to ask if I should buy Congas with bigger diameter. 2nd - I heard about drummer (percussionist) "prayers" (rhythmical verbal sequences that you can learn) but I did not manage to find much about them, I have read about your "say it and play it" technique so I was wondering if this is familiar with the "prayers".

About the size of your congas and the size of your hands: it sounds like your hands are large. You can still play on the LP Aspire Congas if you can get a good bass sound and you can fit both hands on the drum head when playing heel/finger patterns. The bass sound requires that you use the palm of your hands in the middle area of the drum. If you can do this, then their is no problem. The heel/finger patterns require that you be able to get both hands on the drum at the same time. If you cannot do either of these, you might want to consider getting larger drums.

Regarding "drummer prayers". Great question! As you mentioned, I use the "say it and play it" teaching method that I learned in Africa. This means just saying a sound like the sound you want to play, then saying patterns of these sounds in the pattern you want to play. For example, if you want to play a Bass sound, then say "Bass" or "Boom" or "Doon", etc. There is no universal drum sound vocabulary, everywhere I've traveled people have their own sounds.

There are, however, "drummer prayers" in the Afro-Cuban tradition, especially when playing Batas, the two-headed, hour glass shaped drums traditionally used in Santeria (also known as Lucumi) ceremonies. These rhythmic prayer phrases are called Toques. Each Toque is considered sonically attuned to particular Orishas, the Spirits of the Santeria pantheon. These are rooted in the Yoruba traditions of west Africa.

I am not an expert in this by any means. I've played with people who are, and I've studies non spiritual forms of Afro-Cuban music, but I don't do this music because I have the highest respect for the people who do dedicate their lives to it.

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I wanted to know what skin is the best for a conga? Also what skin is good for Tumbadora, Quinto, and conga respectively. I'm a conga player from India, but I don't get the correct skin I feel.

Many manufacturers of congas these days use water buffalo skins from southeast Asia. Latin Percussion Instruments, uses these skins that they get from Thailand. The Tumba should get the thickest skin, the Conga the middle thickness and the Quinto the thinnest skin.

I suggest contacting a music store that carries LP congas and ordering drum heads from them. You can either get heads that are pre-mounted and shaped for your specific instruments, or get flat, un mounted rawhide rounds and mount them yourself. You do this by soaking them in water, mounting them and then trimming the excess skin. This, however is is difficult to do do if you don't have someone to show you how. I've done many of these over the years. I enjoy the process of mounting my own conga skins, but I don't have the time these days!

Some conga manufacturers still use cow hides for their rawhide skins. I know that there might be a problem with this in India.

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Can all drum notations be used to play any drum or do different drums have their notations for playing?

Standard "western" musical notation can be used to notate all types of drums and percussion instruments. You will first determine where on each line and space of the staffs you want to place each specific instrument. The just use standard note values to notate the rhythm patterns.

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Do you have any tips or exercises that you could recommend for improving hand independence?

There are many way to do this. Here are just a few to get you going:

  • take every pattern that you know, beginning with the most basic, and practice them by reversing your hand patterns. That is, play the right hand part with the left hand and the left hand part with the right hand. Begin with single drum patterns, then move on to two drum patterns by reversing the position of your two drums.
  • practice playing core patterns such as claves, bell patterns, etc. with one hand (first with taps, then tones, then slaps) while playing heel/finger and finger/heel/finger patterns in the spaces between the core patterns with the other hand. Then reverse the hand patterns.
  • practice leading with your non-dominant hand when you do accents, rolls, fills and riffs.
  • use your non-dominant hand as much as possible for everyday tasks, such as unlocking and opening doors, eating, drinking, doing chores, etc. etc.

Of course, with all of these exercises, stay relaxed, breathe, start slowly, keep a solid groove and play the sounds consistently before increasing the tempo. Stay focused, don't let your mind wander as we sometimes can when practicing something over and over. If we tend to let our minds get distracted during practice sessions, we are practicing this behavior, and might tend to slip into this when performing!

When you're comfortable with an exercises, then practice it along with a CD of music you love! This way we are also practicing having fun... this alone is worth the time!

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When I play percussion, should I try to keep a beat with the tambourine and rhythm with the conga at the same time or go back and forth with both?

Ultimately, it all depends upon what serves the music. If you have the capability, and it adds substance to the song, then go ahead and play two instruments at the same time. If the music sounds better when leaving more space between the two parts, then that is what we should do. Experiment with your playing techniques and your setup to find what works!

In the ten piece corporate events band in which I play, I often play a conga and/or bongo part with one hand (I usually use my dominant hand for this, but it's up to you) and a mounted tambourine, cowbell, etc., with a stick in my other hand. I also sometimes play the mounted tambourine (carefully!) with just my hand. I might also play a tube shaker (usually the LP Rock Shaker) with one hand and a mounted bell pattern with a stick in the other.

Of course, the most important thing is that it all grooves! I encourage my students to become very comfortable with playing each pattern separately before trying to combine them.

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What is a groove?

A Groove is the experience of interacting with one's internal and external environment is an intuitive, focused and alert way. A musical example would be when a musician or musicians get into the flow when playing. This is the same transcendent state that athletes call The Zone, that Martial Artists and meditation practitioners might call Effortless Mastery and that psychologist sometimes call Flow. It is the result of repetition with a focused intention to be relaxed, focused, disciplined and have a "can-do" attitude about the activity in which we are engaged.

It often refers especially to the rhythmic part of music, (and Life!), but also includes melody and harmony.

When we get into the Groove, we experience an undeniable "aha!" moment; this is the Mind/Body connection that has been recognized throughout history as being the place that help us empower, focus and uplift ourselves and our communities. This is the state where we are our most creative and fearless, and where we are alert on the conscious, as well as the sub-conscious, levels.

When we are able to bet back to this "aha" moment often, and stay there for longer and longer periods of time, then we get deeper into the Groove.

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What's the main difference between an open/free drum circle and one in a specific population like corporate or health settings?

The main difference between an open/free drum circle and one for specific populations would be in the intention behind the event. If the open/free event is just an open jam session, then pretty much anything goes (hopefully the participants are actively listening to each other and actually playing together!). There won't usually be a "drum circle facilitator" at a true open/free drumming event. However, a facilitator might be present to help get grooves going and help people who are struggling to stay in the groove. Usually, facilitation is kept to a minimum for free-form drumming events. My style of conducting drumming events is to emphasize the groove, respect for the drumming cultures who have come before us, communication, cooperation and celebration. I will always incorporate some of these elements into all of my drumming events.

What I prefer to call "interactive rhythm-based programs" for specific populations such as corporate, community, school, therapeutic and private groups have more thematic elements, shared goals and specific objectives. For these types of programs, I will also incorporate their specifics, such as team-building, communication skills, creativity, risk-taking, trust/support and an upbeat "can-do" attitude about life. There is much more active "facilitation" in these types of events, so the facilitator should be familiar with the type of population being served, as well as will the specific "drumming event facilitation" skills, techniques and models that will serve the group.

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What is the name of this conga riff: Right-handed players playing LLRLLRLLR etc., with the left hand leading and always playing heel-toe while the right hand alternates between tones, slaps and other sounds, sometimes switching drums. The LLR is often played as eight-note triplets but can be played as sixteenth notes or sixteenth note triplets. I know you are familiar with this riff. My question is, does it have a name?

I'm familiar with the conga riff you mentioned, but I don't know that it has a traditional name. I think it is just based on heel/tip exercises played as triplets. It is then thrown in to create the triplet feel within a pattern.

The heel/tip exercises, whether played as straight eighth note, sixteenth notes, or triplets serve as the basis of a lot of improvising on congas. There are an almost infinite number of possible varieties of riffs based on the heel/tip patterns.

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As a self-taught conguero by LP educational DVD's, I can only play slow rhythm along side with bolero, cha cha cha, guajiro, guaguanco. My big difficulty is I am unable to keep up with fast tempo in salsa or columbia combia...etc. The rhythm is so fast the conga basics I've learned doesn't match the beat. Please help and advise what to do. Thanks.

Gaining facility with faster tempos is a common challenge, and an opportunity for growth, for percussionists (as well as other musicians, of course). Here are a few tips that I use in my teaching and in my own playing:

  • stay relaxed
  • start with a simple, fundamental pattern
  • increase you tempo gradually over weeks, months and years
  • stay focused on your intentions... playing faster while maintaining a solid groove
  • have fun!

Staying Relaxed: this is the single most important element for playing clear, consistent patterns at any tempo and at any volume. It is, unfortunately, one that many people neglect to incorporate into their playing from the beginning. Begin with sitting or standing in a relaxed position, drop your shoulders (don't wiggle them or force them down... just release them). Breathe comfortable deeply into the belly and release tension on the exhale. Check out master conguero Giovanni Hidalgo's videos for his emphasis on relaxation (not to mention his breath-taking speed and consistency!).

Start with simple patterns: don't try to play complex patterns faster until you can play simple ones faster. In other words... begin at the beginning.

Increase you tempo gradually over weeks, months and years. The great American Opera singer, Beverly Sills, once said, "There is no shortcut to anywhere worth going." If you feel too much tension while playing faster than usual, slow down until most of the tension is gone. Play at that tempo for a while to reinforce the relaxation, then bump the tempo up a bit. It does take time and gradual incremental increases to make the big breakthroughs!

Stay focused on your intentions... playing faster while maintaining a solid groove. Don't let mental or physical distractions, especially frustration at not being where we want to be, keep us from getting to where we want to be!

Have fun! Enjoy the journey... notice and celebrate the small successes that come from consistent practice. These small successes get us to the place where we have huge breakthroughs.

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As an amateur conguero, my hands and fingers are transforming, becoming bigger and dries...and painful. Any advises to keep them in shape? And what is the softest congahead available in market?

Take care of your hands (and the rest of your body), the way a master craftsperson takes care of his or her tools. Playing congas (and djembes and others of the large hand drums) definitely has effects upon our hands, and much of our upper bodies, but we can minimize long-term damage with intention to caring for them.

Much of my playing is done with large groups (congas/bongos, etc. in a ten piece world-traveling corporate events band, and an eight piece soul/gospel/funk band, and others), as well as playing djembe while leading interactive corporate and community drumming programs for groups of several hundred and more). I rarely get cracks and bruises in my hands, even though we often do two to four hour gigs.

My own hand-care regimen includes:

  • -daily massaging oils and lotions into my hands. I especially like vitamin E oil and Aloe Vera based lotions.
  • staying as relaxed as possible while playing. Don't lock your wrists... let your wrists, and other joints, be flexible, not floppy, just flexible. Imagine throwing a ball with a comfortably flexible wrist. This reduces the force of impact of the hands on the drums. One can play loud without playing overly hard. Don't hit through the drum head. let the hand rebound off the drum head, even when playing closed or muffled tones and slaps.
  • practice proper technique and relaxed playing at slow tempos and relatively quiet volumes, and gradually increase the tempo and volume while staying relaxed. Bring your technique along with you as your play faster and louder.
  • stay focused on your intentions. If you want to learn proper technique, for example, you should be aware of how you are hitting the drums. I don't meant that you should be thinking of it all the time... just create and reinforce an internal awareness of what you feel like, and what it sounds like, when playing.
  • prepare for playing in much the same way as an athlete prepares for his or her sport. Develop a warm-up routine, as well as a warm-down routine, and engage in it consistently.
  • Eat well and get enough rest. This will help your body stay healthy, especially your hands, joints, arms, shoulders and upper body.
  • Don't worry, be happy! In other words, don't worry about damaging your hands, just do what you have to do to keep them healthy and have fun with your playing.

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Is there a particular tuning, as defined by pitch or intervals, when tuning up timbales?  I ordered a 14" and 15" recently and need to tune them up since the smaller drum out of the box was actually pitched lower than the 15"

Yes, the timbales do not come pre-tuned when shipped so you will have to tune them. There are many ways to tune the timbales, depending upon the style of music you play and other factors. 

The tuning of timbales is much higher these days than it was a couple of generations ago (like congas).   A common method is to tune your Macho (means "male"... the small timbal) and Hembra (means "female"... the large timbal) to a perfect fourth apart, or sometimes a perfect fifth apart.  For example, the Macho could be tuned to an "F", one octave above middle C. The Hembra would then be tuned to a "C" one octave above middle C. Of course, the most important thing is that each drum be in tune with itself, that is, you have the same pitch on each lug.

Listen to CD's and to live players to get ideas, as well.

How do I measure my conga drums for new heads?

The pre-mounted heads for congas, bongos & djembes are sized by head diameter.  The head diameter is measured across the middle of the top of the drum shell, from the outside of the shell, to the outside of the shell on the opposite side.  The LP Professional Series Congas are: Quinto- 11", Conga- 11 - 3/4" & Tumba- 12 - 1/2".  

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I go to a pentecostal church, and we play upbeat, contemporary music. What are some other percusion extras i can add, to bring depth, and add layers to our music?

Here are a few suggestions based upon the kinds of things I like to use to add color, texture, spice and drive to music of all types: -Bongos mounted on a stand to compliment your congas.

• Shekere: the LP483 Pro Shekere , with its fiberglass body, is resonant and cuts through all types of music, and is a very versatile instrument.

• Tube Shaker: the LP462 Rock Shaker can be soft and loud

• Tambourine: LP Cyclops Tambourine has beautiful balance and tone and is a "must" for praise music!

• LP Afuce/Cabasa: large or standard, add a crisp texture, especially on "up" beats.

• Blocks & Bells: mounted and hand-held such as LP229 Mambo Bell (large) LP204A Black Beauty (small, cha cha bell), LP Jam Blocks (plastic blocks with warm, resonant tones)

• LP Rawhide Maracas

• LP Vibra Slap

• LP Bar Chimes

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For conga playing, which is the real preferred or typical position: seated, or standing?

Your question goes to one of the fundamentals of playing congas... sit or stand? Conga players traditionally played sitting... this is the root position and, I believe, it benefits us in many ways to start this way. We develop a physical connection with the conga by holding the conga with our legs as we play. We can also relax more when playing (very important!) because we can release our weight into the seat and release tension from our arms, shoulders, chest and back.  Sitting also allows us to work with the subtleties of our sounds by moving the conga slightly with our legs as we play (an advanced technique).

Standing also provide its own benefits, though. We get a louder, more resonant sound when the conga is elevated off the floor, we are more visible as a performer (if this is an important element), and we are able to play congas and other instruments (mounted bells, blocks, cymbals, etc. and hand held shakers) if this is an important element to our playing.

The master conguero Candido Camera always plays standing for example. This is part of his style and sound. Others always play seated... ultimately, it is up to us to find the ways that work for us and serve the music.

I play both seated and standing, depending upon the situation. With either method, it is extremely important to be at a height that allows us to play without creating tension in our bodies (upper and lower) and with arm and wrist angles that allow us to play efficiently and ergonomically (natural body movements).

For example, if we sit or stand too high above the conga, we have to reach down at too great an angle; this forces us to bend our wrists at a sharp angle... bad for the tendons running through our wrists!I suggest that we sit or stand so we can play with our forearms more or less parallel to the ground. It is well worth the expense to get a seat or stand that gets the instrument at the height that works for us!

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I have bruises on my hands because I've been playing a lot of djembe in drum circles. Its mostly on my first and last knuckle (palm side) and they don't seem to go away. What can I do to heal them and still be able to play?

Playing hand drums, especially the djembe with it's thin goatskin head provides no cushioning, which definitely effects our hands. This is a fact of djembe playing. Many experienced djembe players, however eventually realize that it is not necessary to hit so hard as to brutally bruise our hands. Drum Circle players in particular seem to be most likely to suffer from hitting too hard because many times the volume level gets very loud due to inexperienced players, or players who have not studied with experienced players, simply hitting harder than necessary.

I play congas and djembe from twenty to thirty or more hours a week in my practicing and in my corporate and community drumming work and in the ten-piece corporate events band I'm in. I never bruise my hands, and I play as loudly as musically necessary.

Taping your hands is an option, especially if you've already damaged them. It's simply not as much fun to play, though, if we can't feel the drum head!>
Here are a few suggestions and comments relating to this that I cover in all my workshops and instructional videos:

  • Relax and breathe to release tension and get into a groove.If we play with tight arms and shoulders, we will tend to hit harder to compensate. It is not necessary to hit very hard to get a good, clear sound.  In fact, hitting harder than necessary will dampen the sound and cause us to hit even harder to compensate!

  • Let your hands rebound off the djembe, don't hit "through" the drum, Hit as though you're bouncing a basketball, not as though you're pounding a stake into the ground.

  • Practice your sounds (bass, tone and slap) and your patterns slowly in order to reinforce the optimum hand shape, hand position on the drum head and optimum rebound. Practicing slowly allows us to truly reinforce the things we want to get good at. Practicing too fast allows bad habits to get reinforced... we then later have to go back and take the time to unlearn these bad habits and reinforce the good ones.  (just like life!)

  • Study and play with accomplished djembe players and teachers as much as possible. We improve by playing with people who are better than us! There's a Chinese proverb that states, "To learn about the road ahead, talk with people who are returning from it.

  • "Play only as loudly as absolutely necessary! I realize that playing with people who play very loudly will make you want to match their volume, but play your part at your volume. Who knows, as other people in the circle realize how much fun you're having, they might even play at a lower volume themselves. Of course, you might want to mention your concerns about volume and hand damage to others.Other people might have had similar thoughts but have not felt encouraged to speak about them. Also, if your hand hurt from the volume, it might also be damaging your hearing! As musicians, our ears are as important a part of our instrument as our hands and our drums!

Given all that, I suggest trying some hand products that promote the healing of bruises. Arnica gel works well for bruises and muscle strain. Of course, I'm not a trained medical practitioner; I am physically very active, though and I've found it works for me. You should be able to get it in any health and wellness store.

Talk with a dermatologist about this, as well. He or she would be able to give you more suggestions about products.

Have fun, play much and share your rhythm!

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Can you recommend a way to practice with a full-size shekere that provides a muted sound that's easier on the ears and compatible with play-along practice?

There is no easy solution to your dilemma! Here are a few suggestions, but each has drawbacks:

  • Remove the bead net and practice the movements with just the gourd; of course, your won't be able to practice working with the bead sound. This is kink of like using a practice pad to work on sticking exercises; you will get better at the fundamentals of the movement, but you will not be able to improve your "sound"
  • Stuff something into the Shekere that is as light weight as possible, but still muffles the sound of the instrument. Anything too heavy will change the weight of the instrument, though
  • Tie a light-weight cloth around the Shekere to muffle the beads and the sound of the gourd. This will also change the weight of the Shekere, but not as much as putting something into the gourd.

I assume you have already explored other options such as finding a time to practice when nobody else is at home, finding a room in the house that you can sound proof or finding a practice space outside of the house Let me know if any of these work for you.

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Is covering up the non-chamber hole on the end of an udu a legitimate technique for playing the drum, and what other techniques are there besides those?

One of the important elements to playing the udu is to get a good seal with the palm of the hand when you hit over the hole... any air/sound that escapes around you hand will lesson the volume and resonance of the sound.

Yes, experiment with covering up the other hole, as well. Also try varying the amount of the other hole you cover as you play the the shell and the main hole... you can get a kind of "walking" bass line when you do so.In fact, experiment playing with the finger and different parts of the hands on different parts of the udu... you will find a lot of different sounds!

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