Steel // Blog

Learning how to (steel tongue) drum from scratch

Putting this online

Edited on 2019-03-25 at 19:40:05

In parallel to drums studying, I've spent a lot of time improving my note taking/writing tool, Opuscule, in order to use it as a mini-website generator. What you're reading is the result of this process.

Keep in mind it's far from being perfect, as my tool was initially designed to output single HTML documents. There's still a lot of optimization to be done. But it's good enough for me to make this website public, even if the next version of Opuscule isn't ready yet for an actual release.

What's interesting is that playing the steel tongue drum motivates me to improve Opuscule in order to use it more efficiently to write about playing the steel tongue drum.

I love it when different projects of mine converge to reach some kind of synergy. It's really something I'd like to tend to in the future.

But let's get back to drumming! I have four or five drafts dealing with different topics. I'm not sure what will be published here next, as it may involve music hardware, music software, nursery rhymes, drumming exercices, recording techniques...

What I'm sure of, however, is that starting to learn a physical instrument is the best freaking idea I had in years. It has already changed my life in tiny but countless ways.

Learning the rudiments

Edited on 2019-03-25 at 19:40:05

As I mentionned earlier, I've started to learn drumming rudiments. I suppose you can totally play steel tongue drums casually, just for fun, without having ever heard of drumming rudiments. It's also very possible that you don't need them to play at all, especially if you only use your hands. In fact, I don't know.

I have never learned how to play a real instrument before, except the cornet, decades ago, at an age when I didn't really see the point nor enjoyed it. I enjoyed learning it with my grandfather, though, but that's another story.

I've forgotten everything but the taste of wet metal, and the way I had to empty the instrument from my saliva after playing (yes, brass instruments are disgusting). I remember fragments of music theory, memories of my grandfather explaining the basics, the sound of his patient voice, but playing the cornet? Not quite.

I've forgotten how to read a music score. I can't name a note when I hear it. I can make some decent noise with a computer for sure, but playing a physical instrument? It's alien to me, it has always been. Except maybe when I tried to learn how to play the siyotanka I ordered from a Canadian maker a few years ago, but this, also, is another story. Should I mention my singing bowl? Maybe later.

Anyway, drumming is probably what I should have tried first. It's not easier, but it feels better, more accessible, closer to me than what I've tried before. It's definitely not innate, though, hence my interest for the rudiments.

Drumming rudiments are, to sum up, patterns. Some are very simple, other quite complex, and the idea is they can be combined to form longer structures. They are little bits of rhythm you have to practice again and again, cursing your left hand or your variable tempo until you suddenly realize you don't have to think anymore to play them.

This is where the fun starts. A whole new world of tiny tools to play and experiment with. It's not unlike learning to control your character and use advanced moves in an action video game.

One week later

Edited on 2019-03-21 at 18:57:44

I've been practicing every day for about a couple of hours, maybe more. And it seems I've made a lot of progress. I'm still unable to play a "real", structured tune, but I'm getting more confident with the disc. I play longer patterns, with more varied notes. And every day it gets a little more complex, a little more interesting to listen to. And it's a joy to play.

At first, I couldn't play with my hands. Not enough volume, too much click. But I'm starting to get the hang of it. I've cut my right forefinger several times, maybe because of the peculiar tongues design of the Rammerdrum, which are slit in the middle. Nothing serious, just some tiny cuts that I noticed after a while. I've never learned to play the guitar, but I've heard it can be pretty hard on beginners's fingers, so I don't really care. I guess you've got to make some sacrifices to master an instrument, whether it's time, sweat or real blood. My skin is already getting harder.

Playing with my hands was totally dull at the beginning, so I used the mallets a lot. Mallets output a much louder, clearer sound, with a long sustain. At first, I thought I'd never use my hands, but after trying both methods for a while, mallets somehow feel like the easy mode. You get a bit less control, a bit less feelings. It's still amazing, but I now understand the appeal of good old human fingers.

I should also mention that you can use a hand and a mallet at the same time to get the best of both worlds. Mallets requires less effort, less stamina, and produce instant awe, not to mention some special "whale song" effect if you manage to make them glide properly on the tongues. Hands allow to dampen the sound and play with a lot of subtlety, but at a lower volume. And they require more strength.

So I'm using mallets, hands, or both, and all three methods are equally interesting.

Three days later

Edited on 2019-03-21 at 07:49:52

I'm in love with this instrument.

I made the right choice: a powerful sound despite its small size, a perfect form factor that allows me to carry it easily all over the house, and only six notes, which at this point are more than enough.

Let me get this straight, steel tongue drum are not easy to play. They are only easy to play with. While you can output mesmerizing sounds with very little effort, playing actual tunes, like any other instrument, requires practice and skill. Yes, it's intuitive and accessible. No, it won't turn you into a real musician without real work, even if it can easily create this illusion.

I'm serious about getting the most of this steel disc, so I've decided to learn drumming rudiments. And guess what? It's hard. It requires patience and discipline. It makes you realize that you have two hands, and that one is definitely more accurate than the other. It makes you feel awkward because you're not sure what's the best grip for your beaters, or even if you should use beaters. It makes you wonder why you never noticed how clumsy you actually are.

But even after only three days, it's incredibly rewarding. The drum vibrates on your lap, and you vibrate with it. The harmonics slowly build up and the metal rings and sings. Notes are loud and clear at first, then start to drown into a sea of sound as you keep hammering, crafting your own trance.

I'm probably playing it in a rather unusal way. I can't make complex rhythms or melodies yet, but I can drum a binary beat just fine, and wow, stacking up chords like a human machine until a wonderful blur of drones fills the room is quite the experience. It feels like doom metal, but with real metal.

It's absolutely not the kind of ambience I expected to create, but it's been incredibly liberating so far.

I've finally choosen a drum

Edited on 2019-03-25 at 19:40:05

I knew I needed a steel tongue drum the instant I heard one.

I've always enjoyed delicate bell sounds, and I've always had an interest in complex beats, mostly electronic for sure, but beats nonetheless. 10 years ago I released cats don't cry, a mini album made in a weekend. I still regard it as one of my best works ever. It's crude, poorly structured, badly produced, but it has a fragile, melancholic tone, a special atmosphere I never quite managed to reach again.

Don't get me wrong, it's not nostalgia I'm talking about. 10 years ago, I was a mess, and it's not a period of my life I'm especially eager to revisit. But back then, I found an ephemeral way of blending emotions, of expressing them, some kind of raw artistic freedom, that I've always wanted to explore more deeply. And for some reason I can feel but hardly explain, it has to be through drones and faint metallic sounds.

During the past two weeks, since I unexpectedly discovered them during a casual family activity, I did a lot of research on steel tongue drums and handpans. I read about their relatively short history, about people who make them and play them, watched many videos, listened to many albums. It's probably the first time I listen to so much music since I discovered doom metal, ages ago.

After a bit of web browsing, my first idea was to order a custom drum designed by myself, with my personal sigil, geometric patterns, a minimalistic color scheme and silver etchings. It took me a few days to find a drum maker that would do that within my limited budget. It was really exciting at first, but after more research, and some interesting discussions with Nicola Pisanti from Merveilles Town, who made me think about various technical aspects I had ignored, things got both clearer and more confusing.

Maybe a custom 12 notes tank drums made by a random maker found on Etsy wasn't such a good idea after all, even if this person had a great reputation, seemed good at their craft and was eager to answer my questions. Maybe I should look for something that would sound really good instead of something that I'd like to look at because I designed it.

Most steel tongue drums that seemed to have a great sound were either out of budget or too plain for my taste. HAPI drums, for example, sound really nice, but I just can't stand the awful logo slapped in the middle of the instrument, not to mention the nondescript colors and shapes. The Beat Root and Zenko drums were tempting, but too expensive. And don't even get me started on actual handpans.

Italian maker Rammerdrum was one of the first I stumbled upon, but I dismissed them quickly because at first their instruments seemed both too simple and too costly. Only 6 notes for the tiny 9" disco armonico 2g, really? And the bigger ones cost more than 500 euros? No way. But a few days ago I took a closer look, watched some of their videos, again and again, and... It became obvious the man had a lot of experience and a real passion for his craft, and was not only an expert artisan, but also an accomplished musician.

And his instruments, well... Their design didn't catch my eye the first time. But I kept coming back to the website from time to time, and I started to notice the timeless elegance of their tarnished look. Something like mysterious artifacts freshly dug out a forgotten layer of ancient history. Something that finally clicked.

So I ordered a 9" harmonic disc, the only I could afford, with a pair of beaters and a rubber ring stand.