Category Archives: Brain Shift Radio

Exploring How Slight Variations in Drumming Tempos Produce Very Different Calming Experiences

In this video, I talk about the approach I take to create neurological calm in the REI Custom Program versus the approach I use in Brain Shift Radio. I demonstrate how slight variations in tempo can produce significant differences in how a listener experiences calm. I play at 7.4 beats-per-second for a deep, centered calm and 8.6 beats-per second for a focused calm.

Learn how to play the drum for healing at: http://www.drumhealing.com

Find calm with Brain Shift Radio. Sign up for free at: https://brainshiftradio.com

I Play Rhythms to Help You Transition to Sleep

In this video, I talk about the the perfect tempo and style of music that will drive your brain into a pre-sleep state. I then perform musically-variable rhythms at 7.4 BPS for about ten minutes to help you transition to sleep.

Learn how to play the drum for healing at: http://www.drumhealing.com

Fall asleep with Brain Shift Radio. Sign up for free at: https://brainshiftradio.com

If you are having trouble staying asleep or are not feeling rested in the morning, please check out our REI Custom Sleep Program. This program is currently 50% off. Get the six-week program, including unlimited revisions, for just $147. Check out the program here and save 50%.

How to Achieve the Flow State with Drumming

In this video, I describe the state of flow and how to use drumming to induce and enhance it. Flow exists in the transition between the alpha and theta states of consciousness. A rhythm at 7.4 beats-per-second is a great tempo to induce flow.

Tempo is only part of the equation. Flow is characterized by a deactivation of the pre-frontal cortex (a phenomenon called “transient hypofrontality”).

To achieve this state of flow, the rhythms need to be variable enough to entrain the brainwaves to the 7.4 Hz  pace, while not so complex or variable that they activate the brain. This video shows examples of rhythms that are too repetitive (not able to entrain), too complex (activating), and musically variable (just right to entrain and induce flow).

Note: You don’t need to play the drum. All you need to do is listen. If you choose to play, the 7.4 bps tempo is achieved by setting your metronome to 1/4 note equals 111 beats-per-minute and playing 1/16th notes (you play four drumming beats for every click of the metronome).

Learn how to play the drum for the brain at: drumhealing.com
To try my music for flow for free: brainshiftradio.com

How to Boost Your Brain with Fast, Complex Drumming Rhythms

Activating the brain for memory and cognitive enhancement can be done two ways:

1. Play pleasingly variable patterns with an unpredictable, yet musical quality at 8 beats per second. This has an immediate activating effect and, coupled with progressively more complex patterns over a series of recordings, can provide long-term cognitive enhancements. This is the approach we use for the REI Custom Programs.

2. Play various tempos all within the alpha range of 8-12 beats per second (bps). Musically, 8-12 bps is 120-180 beats per minute when playing 16th notes and one beat of the metronome is a 1/4 note. This means that you are playing 4 drumming beats for each click of the metronome. This approach is the key to the Brain Boost category on brainshiftradio.com.

I end this video with a cognitive enhancement drumming session. Let it play quietly in the background and see how mentally clear you feel afterward.

Check out a free 14-day trial on https://www.brainshiftradio.com to explore more music to boost your brain.

Learn to play the drums for healing at http://www.drumhealing.com

Explore the REI Custom Program at: https://www.stronginstitute.com/rei-custom-program/

Free REI / Brain Shift Radio Holiday Audio Downloads

Every year I offer some free audio downloads of my music. These downloads are from Brain Shift Radio based on mixes created by the BSR member community. Click the image to download.

I hope you enjoy them.


Big Round Calm Audio DownloadBig Round Calm. This track couples a big, round ambient track with a 7.8 beat-per-second Gonga to calm your nervous system.

Warm Calm > Focus Audio Download

Warm Calmed Focus. This track uses a warm ambient pad mixed with an Udu drum accelerating from 8 to 10 beats-per-second to calm your brain then dial in focus.

Deep Sleep Audio DownloadDeep Sleep. This mix pairs our deepest, richest ambient track with a Gonga, played at 7.6 beats-per-second, to transition you to sleep quickly.

Instructions for downloading to mobile devices:

Apple iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod)

Download Documents by Readdle from the Apple App store (it’s free).

Once you download the app, please follow these steps:

  1. Open the Documents app
  2. Choose Settings (the little gear icon in the upper left of the app).
  3. Choose Browser from the options.
  4. Under User Agent choose Google Chrome.
  5. Close the settings window (tap Close in the upper left of the window).
  6. Choose Browser from the main menu on the left
  7. Click the download file images above (one at a time). A Save File window will appear.
  8. Tap Done when the Save File window opens. You can monitor the download by tapping on the Documents button to the right of the web address window (this is the down-pointing arrow).
  9. When file is downloaded it will appear in the Documents folder located in Documents option from the main menu. This menu is accessed by tapping the icon with the three horizontal lines in the upper left of the app window.
  10. If you want to put your track on iCloud simply drag the file into the iCloud Menu option. It is now on your iCloud account. Please note: if you want the file to go to iCloud by default choose this option from the Setting menu when you are changing the User Agent in the Browser options menu described in Step 3 above).choose View File. Again, a new browser tab will open and the track will play.

Android devices (phones and tablets)

Go to Google play and download ES File Explorerhttps://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.estrongs.android.pop

To download the audio files:

  1. Click the download file images above (one at a time).
  2. Tap Download. The track may begin playing. If it is Tap Pause to Stop playback.
  3. Let it download.
  4. Once it is downloaded, open the ES File Exporter app.
  5. Choose Search from the menu and type in Download.
  6. Click the Download folder to expand and you’ll see the track.
  7. Click the track and then select the ES media player to play the track. I suggest checking the box that says “Set as default” so you won’t get this screen again.
  8. Open the ES File Exporter app and click the track name each time you want to listen.

Different Drummer Book, Excerpt #5

“Are you talking about spirits here?” A woman asked incredulously from the back of the room. 

I was in New Orleans giving a talk at the Autism Society of Louisiana’s annual conference. My session was standing room only. Several hundred people were waiting for me to answer this challenging question.

“Historically, yes,” I said, pausing to let my audience take this in. “But the language used then was very different than what we use now. We know so much more about human behavior and today we have an entire lexicon of terms for these conditions. We have no need to view aberrant behavior as having a spiritual cause.” 

Here I was in the heart of the bible belt, in the largest American city where vestiges of the African religious diaspora mingle with the conservative values and deep religiosity of the south. To top it off, New Orleans is a music town, lying at the crossroads of spiritual and secular music.

Blues, gospel and jazz, music that New Orleans is know for, each developed out of African spiritual traditions that blended with Catholicism to form musical styles that would eventually change the way we experience music in the West. Rock, pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, rap, all owe a debt to the spirituals sung by the slaves as they toiled on the fields of a new America. 

The Africans that were brought to the new world had long and deep spiritual traditions that consisted of an intricate musical landscape. Like with many cultures around the world, music was tied closely with spiritual and religious practices. Most every religion and spiritual practice around the world has employed music to express and deepen one’s faith.

For example, early Christian carvings, sculptures and paintings regularly show angels playing harps or drums, hymns are sung at nearly every service, and music has become an important addition to a church’s identity. Even my Midwestern, conservative Lutheran church had a band that played contemporary Christian music to praise and honor God. Other Christian faiths such as Baptist and Evangelical, often put more emphasis on praise with music than my highly conservative Lutheran upbringing. In fact, today the super-churches often spend enormous sums of money on their musical stages, equipment, and musicians. 

Music touches us deeply and allows us to express ourselves, so it makes sense that it would be part of our connection with the sacred. However, many of us in the West are suspicious of music that feels too tribal. And nothing sounds as tribal as a beating drum. And it’s this association with tribalism and drumming that this woman spoke to. Her visceral response was that of fear. 

Given the Hollywood images of tribal drumming associated with voodoo and the prevalence of voodoo in the consciousness of most New Orleanians, it made perfect sense. And because of this I came prepared to answer her question.

I should say that this woman’s question also spoke directly to my own concerns when I studied the traditions and developed my techniques. And it wasn’t the first time I was confronted with others’ suspicions of the drumming, especially when it was also connected to the sacred and spirits.

Several years before, when I was first exploring using drumming for calm, I worked with a 4-year-old girl with a condition called, agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC). This rare condition, occurring in roughly one out of thousand people, is where the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain doesn’t develop. 

This child, Lily, had developmental delays, anxiety, and sleep problems, not unlike other kids that I played for on the autism spectrum. Due to my success with Stacey, I was asked if I could help Lily. She was a very anxious child, tantrumming often, especially when asked to transition from one environment or activity to another. She also had a very difficult time getting to sleep and woke often at night. I had seen that I could help calm and also suspected that, by extension, may be able to help with her sleep.

I played live for Lily in the same manner I had with Stacey and, like with Stacey, observed Lily calm down as I played. Her parents and I were encouraged so I made a tape of rhythms that they could play when she was anxious and when she went to bed. Lily fell asleep while the drumming tape played the first night and by the end of the second week she was sleeping through the night most nights.

But then I ran into a glitch.

Brain Shift Radio for Android is Live

After nearly a year of development we finally have a full-function BSR Player for Android mobile devices.

Brain Shift Radio Mobile is Available here

This app is built on the same platform as our new V.2 web player

I love this new player for many reasons but the main one is that it the interface is intuitive and uncluttered. Here are some screen shots:

BSR V.2 Player BSR Auto SelectBSR Manual SelectBSR Community MixesBSR Login PageBSR Menu

You can read a tutorial of the new player here

Brain Shift Radio offers a free 30 trial. If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend it.

Different Drummer Book, Excerpt #2

Note: You can find the previous excerpt here

Chapter 1, Part 2

“Where are we going?” I asked, as I climbed into the waiting car.

“To meet a little boy”, Lloyd said. We were on one of our many “field trips” where Lloyd would show me a side to drumming that I was unfamiliar with as a player of popular music.

Over the previous six months Lloyd had taught me the traditional rhythms he and his ancestors had used for centuries. He taught me their origins and was beginning to initiate me into the healing aspects of drumming. These healing powers, he described, were based on a connection to the sacred and tied to behavior.  I’d learned to trust Lloyd and, though I was uncomfortable with some of the spiritual connections he talked about, I was traveling a path that many drummers had followed before me and I was enthralled by all I was experiencing. This field trip was my first glimpse into a world where drumming was used to affect behavior.

We drove along for about fifteen minutes before Lloyd said, “Remember during the healing ritual last week when the young woman starting acting out, throwing her body and flailing around?” He asked.

I nodded. Thinking back on my first real initiation into age-old drum-healing ceremonies. In this ceremony we drummed while a priestess (Manbo) invoked Orishas (spirits) to facilitate the healing of a woman with an illness (a process I describe in Chapter 3).

“In our world when someone is acting outside of the community’s norms they are said to be possessed. It’s our job as drummers to help people keep clear of possession. We do this by using the power of the group, through celebration and ritual, to keep the community cohesive and to see the signs that someone is not acting right. Then if we observe this or a community member alerts us to inappropriate behavior, we intervene. That’s what we’ll be doing today.”

We drove along for another fifteen minutes before Lloyd said, “We’re going to meet a boy who is aggressive, often violent, doesn’t follow directions, doesn’t communicate, won’t be touched and screams when asked to come out of his shell.”

“So, how are we going to help?” I asked. “I know we can influence behavior by drumming, but this sounds like a mental disorder, not some spirit thing.”

“Well, it is.” He answered. “In Shango we frame any acting out or non-conforming behavior as having a spiritual cause. This is a holdover from a time when we didn’t have the language to describe these things in the way we do today. This is just another way a viewing what is now considered psychological or mental health issues.

Think if it this way, when you’re feeling down sometimes you may say: ‘I don’t feel like myself’. In village culture your loved ones may say that you are suffering from a illness of spirit. It’s the same thing. And it doesn’t matter from our perspective. We do the same work either way.”

“What’s that,” I asked.

“We play the drum,” he said. And that was the last he said until we arrived at our destination.

We were in an affluent part of town in west LA. The house was large and imposing and was entered through a locked gate. There were 2 beautiful foreign luxury cars parked out front and the views of the LA basin and Pacific Ocean were astounding. This was in large contrast to the run-down church we played at just a week earlier in San Pedro’s shipping district.

We were met by a familiar looking, stunning black woman. She gave Lloyd a hug and said, “Nice to see you again, Jeff. Are you ready for another initiation?” Hearing her voice I finally recognized her. She was the manbo!

“Um, yeah”, I mumbled, not sure how to respond.

She guided us into the house where a young family was seated in the sunroom. There was a boy of about 6 sitting on his knees on the floor pushing a Lego truck back and forth while rocking and humming to himself. The man and woman stood and we all said hello. The boy continued to sit, absorbed in his ritual.

“Ty”, the woman’s said to the child. “Say hello to master Lloyd. You remember him, don’t you?”

No response.

Lloyd leaned down and touched the boys shoulder. “Hello, Ty. It’s nice to see you again. Do you mind if I play my drum for you?” he said.

Again, no response. No one seemed surprised by this and no one forced the boy to engage. Lloyd simply asked me to get the drums and set them up by two chairs. I did as he asked, while he quietly chatted with the parents.

Once set up, Lloyd sat behind two drums (barrel-shaped drums that originate from Cuba, a conga and a tumba) and began playing. Slowly, quietly he centered on muted tones seemingly being careful not to startle the child. I sat and watched.

Lloyd played quietly for a while then slowly he increased the volume and intensity, adding some slap tones and bass punches to the mix. I noticed that once in a while the boy looked over toward Lloyd. Then after 10 minutes or so the boy got up.

He moved around somewhat aimlessly for a few minutes until he went over and sat on his mother’s lap. Lloyd continued playing but toned down the rhythms a bit. The child sat rocking and humming against his mother while she held him. She began to cry.

####

I sat looking at Stacey as she sat contentedly on the floor still playing with a toy. Her mother returned from the kitchen, her phone call over, settled onto the couch next to me, and smiled as she watched Stacey.

“I’ve not seen her this calm in a long time,” she whispered in my ear after a while.

I noddod and took it as a sign that I should call this an end to our first session. I slowed my rhythms and progressively dropped the volume until my drumming faded away.

I’ve come full circle, I thought. Just a decade earlier I was in a similar situation when Lloyd showed me for the first time what it meant to calm an anxious disconnected child with fast, complex drumming rhythms when he played for Ty.

#### 

“Hello, Ty,” Lloyd said as we entered the house. Ty was spinning around the entry eyes at the ceiling two stories above. Ty offered no response. Lloyd motioned for me to go to the sunroom and to set up the drums where we had the day before.

“Ty seems a little more settled every day,” I heard his mother tell Lloyd. “Last night he went to bed without a meltdown. After his bath he climbed into bed and sat quietly while a read to him. Two books and I turned out the light. He slept until 5:30 this morning. We actually got some rest, too.”

She was excited and Lloyd seemed pleased. I heard him mention something about the purpose of the drumming but I was essentially out of earshot and needed to focus on setting up the drums and preparing the space, so I didn’t catch most of what he said to her. I could tell she was focused on what he was saying, often nodding in agreement and appreciation for what he was describing.

This is our fifth visit to Ty in as many days. This time I came prepared with a pocket tape recorder. I wanted to document what Lloyd played. For the last four days I sat and watched as Lloyd engaged with Ty in a way that  made little sense to me.

I noticed some interesting connections, though. First were the focusing effects I felt when I played certain exercises for my classes at MI and second was the similarity to some of the odd patterns Ralph Humphrey had in his book, Even in the Odds.

This book, along with Joe Porcaro’s Drumset Method and Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation For the Modern Drummer, had become my main references in school. These books energized me and helped me stretch my rhythm muscles in a way that playing common rhythms in traditional time signatures didn’t.

Most music, especially forms of popular music such as rock, blues, folk, jazz, and hip hop, follow common time structures. You essentially have two basic feels: Straight and swing.

So you can either count a measure in music as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, giving a straight two pulse, or you can count it as 1tu tu 2 tu tu 3 tu tu 4 tu tu, giving it a swing.

From these two basic underlying structures you can cover nearly every song played today.

When I was working as a gigging drummer, I played a lot of pick up gigs, where I showed up at a gig and played with people I often never played with before. As a drummer even if I didn’t know the song, if I knew the feel, I could make my way through the song. If the song swung, I’d swing, if it was straight, I’d played straight. If you can do this and if you focused on the rest of the rhythm section and supported the melody, you’d be golden and more than likely be called back.

This is all to say that the rhythms I was hearing Lloyd play, and found myself playing, were not typical, which was fine with me.

So, as I was playing for people like Stacey and recording and analyzing what I played for them, I was looking at the rhythms and their responses I was remembering what Lloyd said to me one time early on in my studies with him.

“Each rhythm has a purpose”, he said. “You have to find the right rhythm to draw the spirit out. You play the wrong rhythm, or even the right rhythm at the wrong time, and you won’t be able to hear your patient. Know your rhythms and you find your power.”

So, as I was making tapes for people I was looking for pattern in the rhythm and listener response. This was a monumental task and one that was without a roadmap.

I’ve always been really good at seeing patterns and with the two that I had seen so far I wanted to begin looking at them in a more focused and structured way. This led me down the path I’ve been following for over two decades.

####

“Stacey slept in her own room last night,” reported her mother when I showed up at her house two days after first playing for her.  I tried to explore this with her, but Stacey, accosted me at the door.

“Hi Jeff,” Stacey said looking past me and grabbing my drum from my hand. She struggled with the forty-pound case and nearly tripped over me.  Unfazed, she continued talking. “Belle likes books. I like reading books too. Do you like reading books? I like books, Belle likes books.” She said in a flurry.

Stumbling with my drums and recording equipment I said, “umm, yeah, I like to read. Who’s Belle?” I asked.

“Belle likes reading books just like me” she responded, not answering my question, while dropping my drum and grabbing a picture book. I disappeared from her awareness as she was drawn into the pictures and her own world.

I shrugged and continued setting up.

Belle, I later found out, is the main character in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, one of Stacey’s favorite movies, one that she watched over and over and would talk about endlessly if you let her. She created an entire inner world with Belle as her friend.

Stacey was much calmer this day. She was not clinging to her mom, though I could see that she was acutely aware of where her mother was and at one point I saw her tense up when her mother walked toward the kitchen.

I decided this was a good time to start playing so I tapped a tentative rhythm with my fingertips, making sure not to startle her. Her sister, who is two years older and typical, came into the living room and sat down near Stacey to read a book.

They both sat quietly as I played a large variety of rhythms, tempos, and volumes. I played for about twenty minutes and really didn’t see much of a response from Stacey at all. I noted that her mother wasn’t in the room the entire time I played and Stacey didn’t seem to care.

This was fine with me as it wasn’t always about getting a reaction. In this instance I was testing out a bunch of rhythms that I would put on a tape for her to listen to everyday with the goal of helping calm her down when she got anxious and to, hopefully, provide a longer term impact on her anxiety. 

This long-term change concept came directly from my studies with Lloyd and was something I was beginning to explore in a more formalized way. Typically I would meet with someone and play for them while recording the session and having someone take notes about responses to the different rhythms. Then I would come back two or three days later and play again taking notes and recording my session. Then it was back to my studio to analyze the recording and notes and to make a recording of the rhythms that offered the most positive response.

“Goodbye, Stacey” I said as I grabbed my gear and headed out the door. Just like last time she was engrossed in a toy and didn’t answer me or even acknowledge my exit.

#### 

Two days later I returned to Stacey’s house to drop off the tape.

“Are you going to play your drum today?” asked Stacey.

“Not today” I said. “I’m only here to give your mom a tape for you to listen to. Would you like to listen to a tape of my drumming?”

“Mommy turn it on now!” She replied.

She grabbed my hand and led me to the couch. “Turn on the tape mommy and we’ll listen.”

Stacey was insistent and excited and she listened intently for about 35 seconds before she was back on the floor with a toy. I moved to the floor with her to see if we could play together but she wasn’t interested, pushing me away when I tried to interfere with her play. She spun a toy on a book over and over again.

I got up and said goodbye to her mother, leaving them with the tape and instructions to play it at bedtime or any other time Stacey got anxious. I also left a tracking form for her mother to complete to see if there were any patterns to Stacey’s anxiety or reactions to the tape.

Obviously tapes were not possible in the days that this technique originally developed but in Lloyd’s tradition he would often either move in with his patient or the patient would move in with him for a while and he would play everyday for the person until the spirit possessing the patient would move on. This was impractical for me and, given that I also worked in a recording studio, I had the equipment to be able to make a tape for the person to listen to so I wouldn’t have to be available for her everyday.

Stephanie’s mother called me after 7 weeks, excited by an event that occurred the night before. She reported that Stephanie had a sleep-over at a new friend’s house, a first for her on several levels: First, Stephanie had never been invited to a sleep-over before, second, she was able to separate from her mother to actually to on the sleep-over, and third, the next morning she was able to describe in proper sequence what she did at the sleep-over. These were major milestones for her.

Stephanie was also perseverating less and engaging in more appropriate conversation. She was also making eye contact more often. After roughly 10 weeks, she was observed in class by the school psychologist who noted that, based on her behaviors, Stephanie was “indistinguishable” from the typical children in the classroom. As a result she was mainstreamed into the regular (non-special education) classroom.

As was typical, when I analyzed the recording and listened to the rhythms I played for Stacey I was surprised at the complexity of the rhythms I was playing. Many times I had to slow down the playback to figure out what I had played.

This was something that continually surprised me. Even the first time I heard Lloyd play for a patient.

You can read an excerpt from Chapter 2 here 

Different Drummer Book: Excerpt #1

This is the first excerpt of my upcoming book, Different Drummer. You can read about my reasons for posting this here

Chapter 1, Part 1

Stacey took my case from me as I walked into the house. She was excited and talked non-stop as we went into the living room. She and I unpacked my gear and she talked on and on about nothing in particular. Did I see the latest Disney movie? What was that cord I was plugging in? What type of drum was I going to play?

At this point I was beginning to wonder why I was there. This child seemed so typical. She was curious, communicative, excited to meet someone new. She helped when I asked her to uncurl the mic cable and watched intently as I tuned the drum.

Then the phone rang. Stacey’s mother left the room to answer it and Stacey panicked. She dropped my mic and ran screaming after her mother. She hugged her mother pleading, “don’t leave me, don’t leave me”.

Her mother ignored the phone and tried to calm her, to no avail because Stacey was inconsolable. She screamed and squeezed. Squeezed and screamed.

This was the behavior I was told to expect.

So, I did what I came to do. I played my drum. Quietly and slowly at first, then with more urgency, gradually building in tempo and volume until Stacey turned to look. Her mother guided her over to the couch near where I was playing and encouraged Stacey to watch me play. Stacey was uninterested at first but as I played on she began to calm and occasionally glanced over at me as I drummed away.

I played for almost twenty minutes, the last half during which Stacey sat quietly on the floor next to her sister, who was thumbing through a book. Stacey spun a toy in her hands in rhythm to my drumming. She was calm and seemingly content. At one point, about fifteen minutes into my playing, the phone rang again and her mother left the room to answer it. Stacey didn’t flinch. She continued spinning her toy while I played.

I was engaged in a tradition with a long history. In many places around the world drummers were employed to moderate behavior, to calm or excite, to soothe or provoke. They were the therapists, the psychologists, the psychiatrists. Drummers were the bridge to the unconscious and the unknown where the root of behavior resides.

I was called to play for Stacey because she was experiencing extreme anxiety that wasn’t responding to more typical treatments. She also had autism. Hers was a mild case that is also referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome. In this form of autism, language is present but communication is lacking, social interactions are one-sided and awkward, eye contact is fleeting or even non-existent. There are also other common attributes such as anxiety and ritualistic behaviors, both of which Stacey had in spades.

I met Stacey ten years into my search to understand the role of drumming techniques in therapeutic practice. I had begun exploring the traditional use of therapeutic drumming around the world while attending the Musician’s Institute (MI) in Los Angeles. Interestingly, I didn’t discover these ancient techniques at MI. Rather it was through a chance encounter with a hand-drumming teacher I met in a park not far from my apartment in Hollywood that led me down the path that I would spend the next thirty years walking, oftentimes blindly.

The Musician’s Institute was a new school when I attended it. My class in the percussion program consisted of 16 graduating students. The program was arduous and demanding, but because of its intimate size, each student was encouraged to follow his passions. In class I focused on progressive jazz, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles. Outside of class I explored hand-drumming originating from West Africa.

Both my school and my apartment were in Hollywood. This was a great place to live while attending a music-based school. In the early 1980’s this part of town was a bit rough. There were lots of underground clubs and many artsy people hanging around. There were also quite a few homeless people and vagrants. Oh, and few tourists on the main drag.

My apartment was just a few blocks from school but the most straightforward, not to mention safest, route was past the Chinese theater. The Chinese theater, if you’re not aware, was built during the height of the glamor years of Hollywood and contained the handprints of some of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. In the courtyard you’ll find the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg (not at that time, though), and many others. This site was the most popular tourist stop in Hollywood and drew hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors each day. And it was in my path to and from school. Needless to say, I quickly got tired of wrestling the crowd. So, it didn’t take me long to find another, more interesting route.

My trail-blazing took me off Hollywood Blvd and onto Franklin Avenue, one block to the north. It was still a busy street for traffic, but few people walked (few people walked anywhere in LA in the 80’s, probably don’t today either). This way only added a block or so to my commute and became my route of choice.

I should probably back up and describe why I chose MI as opposed to other much more established percussion programs. I could have gone to Berklee College of Music in Boston, a very good music school for traditional jazz, or perhaps the University of Miami for big band. I chose MI because my goal was to be a studio drummer and MI’s curriculum was geared toward this goal.

I aspired to by like my heroes, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Calioutta, and my personal favorite Jeff Porcaro. Well, as it turned out Jeff’s dad, Joe Porcaro, was one of the founders and directors of the percussion program at the Musician’s Institute, called the Percussion Institute of Technology (PIT). Aside from being able to study with him I was also looking forward to their focus on Brazilian and Afro-cuban drumming, collectively referred to as Latin drumming. These represent the roots of all popular music, especially the progressive jazz and rock that I loved. Unfortunately, I quickly found out upon beginning my classes at MI that, though the Latin drumming existed, it was only on the drumset. I wouldn’t be learning to play hand drums.

Initially it wasn’t a big deal because I had my hands full, so to speak, with the drumset work I was doing, but I longed to expand my horizons and learn these other instruments. It wasn’t because of any sense of history or tradition, however. My reasons for learning hand drums were entirely practical: I felt that the more instruments I could master, the better chance I had of being able to make a living playing music.

As fate would have it, my route to and from school took me past a small park where a drummer often sat and played his congas (these are barrel-shaped hand drums that originate from Cuba based on drums played for centuries in West Africa). Many days I idled by and listened as he played, intrigued by the variety of sounds and rhythms he was playing. I could sometimes pick up bits and pieces of rhythms similar to what I was learning on the drumset but many times what he played went way over my head.

After a month or so of hearing him play, I approached him and asked if he’d teach me. He said no, he wasn’t interesting teaching anyone, especially a drumset player, saying that I would corrupt the drumming and wouldn’t appreciate its roots. I assured him that I would be respectful, but he demurred.

Undeterred, I kept showing up and pestering him. I often resorted to hiding behind a nearby tree in the hopes that I could pick up some of his cool rhythms and techniques.

Finally, after a few weeks of this he got sick of me stalking him so he relented and agreed to teach me. On the condition that I would take seriously the foundations he would share with me and follow his rules for how I was to use the information he would pass on.

I agreed, but I didn’t really know what he meant by any of this. By this point, though, I wanted to learn to play hand drums like him so badly that I would have agreed to almost anything.

So, we set a schedule and I met with him a couple of times a week before my first classes of the morning. This began an intense period of study that involved me playing the drums or attending classes nearly every waking moment. I was so absorbed by my studies that I often forgot to eat. Over the course of about eight months I unintentionally lost close to 50 pounds. I wasn’t big to begin with and I ended up barely over 130 pounds (at 5’9″, I was thin). This, however, was the early eighties so my emaciated state was pretty on par for the young people hanging around Hollywood. I fit right in.

I have to say that the instruction at the Musician’s Institute was top-notch. My teachers were first-tier drummers. Joe Porcaro could be heard on countless TV and movie soundtracks and almost all the live awards shows, including the Academy Awards. Ralph Humphrey, the other percussion program director, and his band, Free Flight, often played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he had played with the likes of Frank Zappa and on TV show soundtracks too numerous to count. My Latin drumming teachers (teaching drumset) were Alex Acuna and Efrain Toro, two of the most in-demand players in the genre, ironically both of whom played hand drums for their gigs.

But none of them held a candle to the understanding of rhythm and it’s effects that I gained from this unknown drummer I met in a dirty city park. My teacher, Lloyd, came from a long line of drummers in his native Trinidad (and before that, West Africa). His was a tradition that dove deep into the roots of society, carrying with it much power. Where I studied reading and rudiments at school, I was learning history and responsibility from Lloyd.

He spent as much time schooling me on traditions as he did with techniques. I was learning the origins of my chosen instrument. I discovered that the drumset that I had spent the previous decade trying to master was a new invention, less than 100 years old.

This instrument that I revered was a cobbled together grouping of mismatched instruments used when there were too few people to play the drums individually. I was learning that the rhythms I was playing on my drumset were originally played by 3 or more drummers on separate drums, bells, gourds, rattles, or shakers. I was learning that the rhythms were an abbreviation of their original forms to accommodate the limitation inherent in using only one limb for each instrument or group of instruments.

Each of the traditional rhythm parts were much more complex than those that ended up on the drumset. For example, the kick (bass) drum part for the Brazilian Samba on the drumset utilized only the accented notes played by the big bass drum, called a surdo. The surdo’s rhythms involve loud and soft notes and rim shots played with a mallet in one hand along with hand mutes and slaps to embellish, alter the pitch and sustain with the other. The overall feel of a surdo’s groove was much more driving and dynamic than anything that can be played with the kick of a foot pedal.

By learning the subtleties of the surdo’s rhythms, I became a better drumset player and developed my own interpretations of the Samba that drumset players explored. So, from a musical perspective studying the hand drums enhanced my abilities. But from a personal perspective my hand drumming studies with Lloyd open an entirely new world for me, one in which I got to see the power of drumming and music to have profound effects on those listening.

You can read Part 2 of Chapter 1 here