Last night I spent some time practicing with the bodhran again. I’m still on the bare bones of things – stability and control. For example, for a reel, it’s supposed to be ONE-two-three-four. But as a beginner, what’s more common is that downstrokes are firmer than upstrokes, so what you end up with is more line ONE-two-THREE-four. I think I made some real progress last night, but not necessarily consistent success. I can’t keep it going indefinitely.
I know jack-all about drumming, but I know that bodhran is all about fluid wrist motion. In my first practice I ended up with a sore bicep which told me I was working entirely the wrong set of muscles. So, for part of this practice session I planted my elbow on my thigh. This is a terrible playing posture, granted, but it did help drive the point home when I suddenly was missing the drum entirely and helped me iron out the angle of my hand to the drum a little so that when I did sit back again, I was more conscious of gluing my upper arm to my side and getting my arm and drum in a place where I could consistently hit the drum without moving anything above the elbow. This also helped with speed, but it’s going to be a while before I can do this for extended periods of time. The whole wrist to forearm area gets tired, so at the moment I’m doing something around 10 minute intervals, then a rest, then another 10 minute interval, then a rest, as my arm’s fatigue dictates.
My goal, for the moment, is to be able to do a full span of 10 minutes or so without losing my rhythm or dropping my tipper.
Fun fact: learning to play a bodhran is a bit like learning to play guitar with a pick – the loose, yet slightly firm grip means your tool of the trade is going to slip out of your grip and go flying fairly often early on. In that vein, I do think I would be benefited at this stage by a slightly heavier, longer tipper. The one that came with my bodhran is about 7 inches long and light as a feather. That’s nice in a way, since I do have a small bodhran, but the more I work with it, the more I’m sure it feels just a bit too short. I think something with a bit more weight and maybe an inch longer would feel a little more stable, which might be advantageous for me at this stage, so I’ve been browsing the internet. Since they’re almost all imported from Ireland, they’re coming up a bit pricier than you’d expect for a little piece of carved wood, though, so it’s not like guitar picks, where I can just buy a multi-pack and try a bunch of stuff. This is a collection that will most likely grow one piece at a time. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not extortionately priced, but when you’re looking at $5-10 on shipping alone, it’s also got the potential to add up fast, so I want my first choice to be a good one.
I’m quickly learning just how far into the level of ‘specialty’ this little guy is. Once upon a time, we called the ukulele a specialty instrument. It was weird and quirky and not many people played them. But, the uke is having a revival right now, so you can go into a major US music retailer and have several choices. Bodhran tippers? Well, you’ll probably find one or two cheap ones, so unless you’re into woodworking, shopping overseas is just going to be par for the course. (Does this mean I’m going to get into woodworking now? Good grief, I hope not. I have more than enough hobbies as it is!)
Further interesting reading (or, in my case, skimming) on the internet brought my attention to something about the nature of my little drum that I instinctively suspected, but didn’t actually know that I knew until I read it. The bodhran has a very different job in music that what we think drums are for. If you look at modern music – pop, rock, etc – the drums establish a tempo, drive the beat. The bodhran doesn’t do that. It’s not for that. The bodhran is more like an accent drum. It doesn’t draw the lines that the other instruments have to stay in. It keeps things pretty understated, doesn’t overdo it, and rarely solos, which, actually, probably gives it a musical job closer to a bass than a drum when we compare it to popular modern music, now that I think of it. That’s probably not an entirely accurate comparison, but I think it probably comes close.
So, that’s where things are for now. It’ll be a while before I’m able to play consistently enough to make any real use of it, but it’s mostly a matter of teaching my hand to do a new thing, and my head to stop thinking about it so hard – ultimately, not so different from learning how to strum a guitar.
Of course, once I get to that point, there will be plenty of fancy techniques to learn. There always are.