Saturday, February 14, 2009

Irish Bodhran - Beginners' Guide


The Bodhrán is a Musical Instrument

[Eldery drum front link]If you think that this comment is obvious, then you have learned the first lesson. Far too many people pick up the bodhrán with the laudable desire to join in the music, but without the dedication necessary to learn to play any instrument properly. If you work at it, you can make lovely music with a bodhrán. If you just pick it up and hack at it, you'll be one more person adding to the bad reputation that plagues Irish traditional percussionists. Mark Nelson used to teach a class at Lark in the Morning music camp, entitled Bones, Bodhrán and Social Responsibility.
The ... class grew out of years of hearing people say "I really love Irish music, but I'm completely unmusicial and anyway, I don't have time to really learn an instrument so I'll play the bodhrán." So I insisted that anyone interested in [bodhrán classes] sign up for the whole week and agree not to play in sessions unless they were confident they would fit in. We spent a lot of time on basic musical ideas like how tunes work, arranging, dynamics, basic time, etc. The class was a gas, and a big success over the four or five years that I taught it. I had people come back year after year and it was great to see real improvement. Not to mention all the thanks I got from the fiddlers...

Rhythm in Irish Traditional Music

In Irish traditional music, the tune is everything. Mike O'Regan, writing on IRTRAD-L, put it well:
You really can't stress enough that getting the rhythm is critical. However, unlike rock and a lot of other styles, the rhythm instruments ... are not there to create the rhythm, but to draw it out, to accent and highlight it. The rhythm itself comes from the tune ... how it is structured and phrased ... and how it is played by the melody players. ... Alternate rhythms are great, but we have to stress to beginners that they must complement the original rhythm. No matter how many rhythms you pile on top of each other, they all still have to work together. The result of stacking rhythms should not be several rhythms, but a single, integrated, complex one.
The bodhrán shouldn't try to drive the beat like a rock drummer, and should rarely jump out front to solo. It should match the beat, ornament the rhythm, and follow the music.

Buying your first bodhrán

You'll need to decide for yourself how much you want to spend; a new bodhrán will run you anywhere from $30 to $300. I deliberately bought an inexpensive, durable drum to start, because I figured I'd spend a couple years beating the crap out of it before I got good enough for a top-quality drum to make a difference. I got my first drum from Mid-East Manufacturing; the body is thin wood, the head is plastic, but it has served me very well and I still use it when the weather disagrees with my other drums. Don't disdain plastic drumheads; they are impervious to weather, will hold up to almost any abuse, and on a well-made drum produce a sound well within the range of natural-skin bodhráns. And they are much better than natural-skin drums in the same price range. A lot of the low-price natural-skin drums are made in Pakistan. I've tried several and they are not worth your time or money. The skins were very poor quality, the bodies were flimsy.

When you look at a drum, here are a few easy ways to evaluate it:

  • The body should feel solid and well-made. Find the joint where the hoop of the body was closed; if it looks ill-joined, stay away from that drum.
  • The tacks should be snug to the body, and the skin should be held firmly. If the skin appears to be tearing away from the tacks, shop elsewhere.
  • Look at the corner, where the skin turns over the rim. If the corner is sharp, then the skin will tear easily. Good drums have smoothly curved corners.
  • If you don't like the sound, don't buy the drum. If it's a little high-pitched, ask if you can wet the skin a little.
These tests will help you avoid a piece of junk; any decent drum should pass all these tests easily. If you decide to invest in a higher-quality drum, here are some tips.


There are dozens of varieties of beater, differing in length, weight, shape, and balance. I found it helpful to start with a very heavy stick with a large lump in the center. The central bump makes it easier to keep a grip on the beater, and the extra mass makes it easier to learn the basic techniques, especially the double-downstroke. As you improve, you may want to move to a lighter beater. I've done so twice; my current favorite is about 1/5 as heavy as my original one.

You probably want to get several beaters of different weights and shapes. Experiment with them until you find one that's comfortable. Save the rest for future experimentation and progress.

Books, Tapes, and Classes

There are lots of workshops and classesbooks and videos, all designed to teach you to play bodhrán. In my experience, they can only teach you the basic movements, and you can get that just as easily with a couple private lessons from any friendly bodhrán player. If you want to start with a book, I can recommend Mícháel O Súilleabháin's The Bodhrán. But you really need to get someone to show you the basics.

Getting Ready

You've got your drum and beater, but you're not ready to play yet. Playing the bodhrán requires rapid, repetitive motion of your wrist. Sound familiar? If you're foolish, you can hurt yourself. But it isn't hard to avoid problems. Mark Nelson suggests you follow three simple rules:
  • Warm up before playing. I always stretch my hands, arms, and shoulders before I play for more than a few minutes. There are lots of exercises that will do the trick; here's my routine: I bend back each finger of my stick hand separately, then in combinations, then I bend the whole hand back, forward, and sideways. I grab my stick hand with my other hand and twist the wrist hard each way a few times, then rotate the entire forearm in the same way. I stretch both arms across my body, over my head, and around behind my neck. Once you're loosened up, start slowly. give yourself a little time to build up to full speed.
  • Don't over-stress your wrist. Try to play with your wrist as straight as possible; it will reduce the strain. Some people like the sound of a very loose skin; if you play that way, be aware that you're working your wrist and arm much harder. You may want to pace yourself more carefully.
  • If you hurt, stop. Take a break and do some more stretching exercises to work out the cramps. If your hand continues to feel tired and crampy, you've had enough for the day. If you have regular problems, you should probably lay off the drum and see a doctor.
I'm not trying to scare anyone; Mark is the only person I know of who had to give up the bodhrán because of wrist injury, and he was playing for long hours, very frequently, on a drum with a very loose head. But some sensible precautions will help you avoid problems.

Basic Technique

Here's a brief description of how to play the bodhrán. There are many different styles; I'm trying to describe the most common one, the Kerry style. If you can't picture what I'm describing, let me know and I'll try again.

[Back picture link]The drum is held with the left hand and arm (assuming you're right handed, which I'm not). Rest the drum on its side on your left thigh, with the skin to the right, and tuck the near side under your left armpit, so that the drum is roughly perpendicular to the plane of your chest. You will anchor the drum with your chest and your upper arm. Place your left hand inside the drum, pressed against the skin.

[Front picture link]Take the beater in your right hand; hold it at the middle, like you'd hold a pen. Hold it securely but not too tightly; it should waggle freely in your hand, but not slide in your grip. You're going to strike the drum with one head of the beater, the end where the tip of the pen would be. For now, ignore the other head. Turn your hand inward so that the tip of that pen points toward your navel. Move the beater by rotating your lower arm, so that the lower head describes an arc roughly perpendicular to the drumhead. You should hit the drum roughly at the center of that arc, once on the way down and again on the way up. That's the basic stroke.

Did you get that? If not, here's Alan Ng's description of how to hold the beater and how to strike the drum.

Start with the hand flat, grip the middle of the stick in the bottom of the gap between thumb and palm. That's what holds it. Now you can curl your fingers out of the way of playing, which means the shaft of the stick will touch and bounce off of the side of your middle finger. Now you rotate your whole forearm (point your index finger straight out to see this) along the axis elbow / wrist / index-finger-knuckle / index-fingertip. One straight line, and it should mostly stay that way while you play! The rotating stick moves in one plane perpendicular to that arm-axis, and that plane intersects at an angle with the surface of the drum.

Practice it until you can keep a regular rhythm with reasonably constant tone and volume. You should be able to accent any beat, on a downstroke or upstroke. By varying the accents, you can play different rhythms: 4/4 for reels, 6/8 for jigs, and so on.

When you feel that you have good control, you'll want to try to use the other head of the beater. The upper head is used for ornamenting the rhythm, by adding extra beats. This technique is called doubling the downstroke. On your downstroke, you want to turn your hand a little further, so that the upper head comes over and strikes the drum. It may help you to change the angle between your arm and the drum, either by tipping the drum toward the beater or by raising your elbow a couple inches. You need to figure out what works best for you; the goal is to be able to double the downstroke whenever you want, but only when you want. Doubling the downstroke should not change the timing of the beat. The extra beat should come halfway between the downstroke and the upstroke, but those two strokes still carry the main rhythm, so they must be even.

You may wonder what you're supposed to be doing with your left hand while all this is going on. Your left hand should rest against the back of the skin, allowing you to muffle the ringing of the drum. You can control the tone of the drum by allowing it to ring more or less. You can change the pitch by pressing against the skin to tighten it. Experiment; you'll find you can make your drum sing to you if you work at it.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Once you have the basic mechanics, you need to practice. I devoted about four months to serious practice before I played in public. If you want to play with other musicians, then the most important things to practice are matching the beat and controlling your volume. A bad drummer can throw off an entire session; how do you think bodhrán players got their bad reputation? Recording your practice sessions will be particularly helpful in this regard: You can hear if you're off the beat, playing too slowly or too fast, or playing too loud.

Tommy Hayes suggests a couple useful exercises. Once you learn how to double your downstrokes, you need to learn how to add rolls when you want them and only when you want them, and you want to learn how to make them even, precise, and crisp. Practice a single, 4-beat roll: doubled-downstroke, upstroke, downstroke (diddle-de-dum). You should be able to do that once, very precisely. Then move on to a seven-beat roll: doubled-downstroke, upstroke, doubled-downstroke, upstroke, downstroke. And so on. This excerise will help you work on fine control. A second exercise is designed to help you learn how to put your rolls exactly where you want them. Play even four-beat measures, in sets of four. Once you've established a regular rhythm, play eight sets of four with a roll on the first beat of each set. Then switch the roll to the second beat of each set for eight sets; then to the third, the fourth, back to the first, etc.

The bodhrán is an accompaniment instrument in Irish traditional music, and the traditional method is to follow the music, i.e. match your rhythms to the those of the music. In order to follow the music, you need to learn the music; so get hold of a bunch of recordings and listen carefully. The better you know the tunes, the better you'll be able to play. Ideally, you should know the tune: You should be able to hum it or sing it or play it on a melody instrument. By knowing the tune, you'll be able to anticipate and match changes in the rhythm and pitch, phrase your rhythms to match melodic phrases, and help the melody player clarify the different parts of the tune and their repeats, instead of muddying the structure of the tune.

Listen to professional bodhrán players and pay attention to how they highlight and ornament the natural rhythms of tunes. Play along and try to do the same things. You may want to record yourself along with the music, and listen to it afterward; you'll be able to hear what you do well and what you do poorly.

Noise Control

Practicing any musical instrument can be hard on roommates, neighbors, and local wildlife; for some reason, people are particularly unsympathetic to the needs of a budding drummer. Practicing outside is always fun, but not always practical. The best solution is simply to learn to play quietly: It's a skill you'll want to develop anyway, and it will come in very handy when you find yourself at a session with too many drummers. People have found a variety of ingenious methods of reducing volume to spare your loved ones: Press the flat of your hand against the middle of the skin, or equivalently, stuff a towel, a legal pad, or a magazine under the crossbars, against the skin. Practice on a rubber drum pad held sideways; or use a large paperback book. I've even played a folded-up newspaper.

Playing with Real People

Once you think you're ready to play with other musicians, find a session in your area. Find out who is running the session, and introduce yourself. In my experience, most sessions will welcome a novice if he's polite. If there are other drummers, introduce yourself to them, too; you might even ask them to suggest when you should join in. Unless it is a very large session, more than one drummer playing at a time may not be welcome. At first, you may want to keep your volume low and keep the ornamentation to a minimum; give the other musicians a chance to recognize that you know what you're doing. Don't feel that you have to play with every tune, even if you're the only drummer at the session. When you're not playing, listen to the tunes. Pay attention to other rhythm instruments (e.g. guitar, keyboard), and listen for ornamentations used by the meoldy instruments. If there are other drummers, watch what they do; I still learn a lot by watching other peoples' styles.

At any session, you're likely to hear tunes that you don't know. You may choose to sit out those tunes or to improvise an accompaniment. If you do try to improvise, listen to one repeat of the tune before joining in, and try to figure out the large-scale structure of the tune. That's your template; everything you do should fit that structure.

Have a good time. Don't worry too much: Sessions are supposed to be relaxed and informal.

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