Making a Frame Drum & Finger Cymbal Piece

I was introduced to the frame drum as part of the Dance Cohesion program and totally fell in love with it. When I play finger cymbals I feel like something relaxes or uncoils in my brain (this is the only way I can describe it); I get the same feeling when I play drum but with the added benefit of not cutting of circulation to my fingies.

When I signed up from drum lessons, I told my teacher (Josephine Dow of The Rhythms Within) from the start that I wanted to create drum & cymbal compositions for dance. And now I’ve DONE IT! Well, hopefully just the first of many. 🙂

Here’s a little rundown of how it went.

What comes first?

One thing I find so fascinating about dance and music is that it, like, doesn’t exist. Or, more specifically, there is no tangible form to the thing you are creating–although dance does exist in physical space in the sense that the dancer’s body is there, the dance itself is not tangible.

This creates an interesting puzzle–where to start when there is no music AND no dance? You just have your own dumb brain, which is a liability in my case.

It’s not uncommon practice to develop movement phrases and find music for them later but bellydancers in general (and me in particular) tend to start with the music first. I knew had to create the composition first but I also had the opportunity to structure it in a way that I knew I would want to move to. I was a little overwhelmed with all the possibilities.

Music

Luckily, this was a bellydance piece for a bellydance show–the Art of the Belly (AOTB) gala show–so I had a very clear structure in mind. I wanted to make it a sort of mini-version of a bellydance set. That ended up being

  1. call/response (instead of the typical fast intro, I thought this would be fun to establish the two Marizas),
  2. mid-tempo walkaround (maqsum, saidi),
  3. slow section (chiftitelli, 5-beat cycle),
  4. drum solo (random stuff), and
  5. fast outro (ayub).

I did consider a “folkloric” section which is common in many sets but the piece was already getting a bit long for my ability level so I stopped there.

I taught an AOTB workshop based on rhythms which gave me another constraint: I wanted to include the rhythms we would go over in the workshop. That means I had to use maqsum, saidi, beledi, and chiftitelli at a minimum.

My final constraint was I wanted to include something NON-Middle Eastern that I had learned in my drum lessons. We had recently been working on odd time signatures so I threw a 5-beat cycle in there that I made up all by myself which is why it’s exceedingly simple (I started with 7 but all my versions sounded like a weird Turkish rhythm and I didn’t want people to think I was just playing 9/8 wrong).

Bonus: the festival wanted the video earlier than I had anticipated, so I was forced to stop thinking and start doing! I had originally envisioned this long, iterative process working with my drum teacher but LOL NOPE IT NEEDS TO BE DONE THIS WEEK

The composition turned out to be much more straightforward to create than I thought because all the constraints mostly made it a matter of plugging everything in its place. This is a perfect example of constraints actually helping your creativity.

Dance

Fortunately I had a hunch that this whole thing would be very challenging so I knew from the start that the dance would be simple. This was partly for my benefit but I also think it’s overkill (generally speaking) to be playing something very complicated on top of a complicated choreography–it makes it difficult for the audience to really process either thing. I wanted to make the music front and center.

This turned out to be a good instinct because WOW THIS SH&* IS HARD. Playing pattern-style finger cymbals (e.g., 337, 31313, et al) is not easy either but playing musically (i.e., playing specific rhythms) is a whole ‘nother challenge because you gotta hit the tones.

AND THE DRUM? Good gravy. Since I’ve been playing finger cymbals so long I really didn’t think it’d be such a big deal but actually keeping time for yourself the entire time is a very different experience.

The only reason I think I pulled it off is because I’ve been playing finger cymbals for so long–at least my brain is somewhat accustomed to my hands doing one thing while my body does another. That said, I think I created some new neural pathways as a result of this project.

I don’t have much to say about the dance itself–it’s pretty standard. I originally had many more details and textures planned that completely fell away once the instruments got involved.

Final Product, or, Was it Worth it?

Listen, I’m not a professional video editor and I didn’t feel like paying money for anything. I used OpenShot Video Editor which is free. I think it turned out pretty well, considering. I had Bren record and track my playing separately so I could have a clean sound for the video.

Despite the separate track, on principle I wanted to actually be playing for real when I recorded just to prove to myself that I could. I sort of have some regrets about this. Because I am really playing for real, I am not dancing as well as I could be and have more of a thinking face on than I usually do (as mentioned, I had less time to practice than I thought–maybe with a couple extra weeks I could have pulled it off). It’s pretty unlikely that anybody is going to sit there and make sure my hands are perfectly accurate so I wish I had just fake played and focused more on the dance for video purposes.

Possibly unpopular opinion: playing an instrument while dancing is not very visually impressive. There, I said it. In a live setting it’s very exciting but in terms of the visual–when it’s reduced to a video–it’s kinda whatever. So…I should have just fake played. 🙂

At the same time, I know I’m really playing and I know all the work that went into it. As a result, I have sort of mixed feelings about the video itself: I am proud that I did it and I’m proud of the work that went into it but I also recognize that the video as a standalone product is maybe not that great. BUT… I still feel very happy with it and am blasting it all over the place to force people to watch it. 🙂

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