Learning Through Hearing: The Beating of Drums

Zaki's big white tent during the day @SAM's Front Lawn. Picture credit: SAM facebook. 
Drums. Conga. Africa. The Caribbean.
The beats that move us.

Today marks Lesson Two in Zaki Razak's performance-lecture series as part of his work in the President's Young Talent exhibition - Revising Art: The Ten Year Series - here at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). The pitter-patter of rain couldn't have made this class cosier as we sat on large pillows sheltered within a specially erected tent out on the front lawn of the museum. In fact the drumming of the rain made for an appropriate setting for today's lesson. This evening, we tackle the subject of Non-syllabus Education: Learning Through Hearing.

Hearing as we know it is a complicated process. Conversation goes in one end but not every word heard is retained nor listened to. Taken for granted, hearing is a passive, automatic activity whereby we take in sounds without paying much attention to what we have just heard. What we need to do is to convert that hearing into active listening.

This time around, Zaki has invited his uncle, Saifuddin Abd Rahman and percussions instructor Muhammad Arif who hails from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to illustrate through some participative exercises the role of hearing in a learning environment. Saifuddin's contribution to the class has been invaluable at allowing us an insight into his heighten state of hearing as a result of his blindness. The way our bodies evolve to accommodate the loss of one sense creates or super-intensifies the others is certainly a topic of much fascination.

Challenge numero uno: playing a series of beats on a drum with a blindfold. Bear in mind that none of the "students" are musicians at any level. I would like to think that I am a fast learner although I am sure we were given the most basic of beat tones. First up was familiarizing ourselves with the different tones. The open tone, the bass tone, the slap, the heel, and the finger touch. Pretty soon we were taking it out on our little drums with such force that our palms were soon turning a startling reddish pink. Rhythm making should be made a compulsory stress-reliever exercise. The beat of choice: The Calypso and the Calypso break.

Bass. Open. Bass. Open.
It bears repeating.
On the left, Arif with his popsical colored conga drumset and on the right, Saifu. 
Then came the blindfolds and we were asked to identify the beat tones. Almost immediately, the beats which sounded quite similar a few minutes ago took on their own identities. The open tone had a rich solid tap. The slap included a pop that was sharp and had a much higher pitch than the open or the bass tone. Without our visuals, our concentration towards listening to each of the beats increased tremendously.

As we practised the Calypso with the blindfolds on, I noticed a remarkable improvement in the way I was able to switch between the Calypso, the break and soon the Jolly Calypso that included a slight variation. Blindfolds off and my eyes were distracted by my hands and I found myself glancing around the tent. I soon realized that the key to keeping a consistent rhythm was to allow the beats to fill you up from within and refrain from forcing yourself at the drums. The drums, they know when you are out of sync. So its best to let yourself naturally take to the beats.

The closing exercise had us identifying from a list of five distinct sets: Tumbao, Zapin, Alfro Mozambique, the African Walk and Samarengge. With blindfolds of course. It seemed easier to clearly pin-point which ones were which. Almost instinctively, I assigned each set with their own personalties. The Tumbao seemed like the grand-daddy of the lot with its sudden low bass tones. The Zapin felt like a young child making her way to school - fun, giddy and light. The African Walk sounded proud and very grand with its paces. The Samarengge felt like a dance; fiery and upbeat.

From today's roaring, beating of the drums, I have gathered that it goes beyond the broader perspective of just being grateful with our senses and carefully paying attention to our surroundings. But that if we are capable of expanding ourselves beyond our regular scheduling; we can make delightful music in the company of strangers with a common goal of learning and experiencing something new.

For more information on upcoming programmes at SAM, be sure to check out the Lecture-Performances in conjunction with the current Innovation In Art Series - President’s Young Talents from 25 January 2013 to 15 September 2013.


Occasional hand model with a taste for adventure.

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