Friday, January 14, 2011

Drum Circles, Drumming In Cold Weather & The Elements

If you are a hard core drum circle lover, sometimes we play in very cold weather, and even outdoors in the snow. I’ve done it, and lots of circles go on up north during the winter. It’s easy to pick up a bruise in the cold. The drum head is a lot harder. When I play my Djembe outdoors in extreme cold, it’s usually in a remote location, and often its dark outside as well. Most of the suggestions below are common knowledge, so please bear with me for those that are newer to drumming.

My drum of choice is a goatskin djembe. When I do choose to take it outdoors and play, to protect it a bit more, I take some precautions. The sub-freezing, cold air has less moisture. If you play a goatskin head drum, the drum head will be very dry. Moisten it with whatever oil or butter you would normally use on it, but do so at least a day ahead. Personally, I don’t like to use any oils or anything on my drum head, just the natural oil build up from my hands. It’s a personal preference. Some people put oil on the wood drum body also, I choose not to do that either.

More often than not, I leave my expensive goatskin djembe at home, and use my “beater” drum. When I’m outside I use a synthetic drum like a Remo djembe or something. They sound pretty good even in frigid weather, and even pretty good when you're wearing gloves or mittens while playing them. The cold even makes them sound a little better. I don't like the feeling of synthetic drum heads. They are not kind on the hands, and I don’t care for the sound that is created as much as goatskin. I don’t endorse Remo or any other manufacturer, I am just giving you my opinion on what I like to use, and why.

That Remo djembe of mine is the 12” head size model. Not too heavy to play for hours, yet still has decent range for bass, tones and slaps. I’ve had it for over 15 years and never had to replace a head or anything to it. Of course it has a few signs of wear, some dings, dents, and scrapes, but hey, so do I. I can’t say the same for my goatskin drum, I’ve replaced the head 4 times in 8 years, but that is my drum of choice for session recordings, facilitating drum circles, important gigs, etc. So my beater is my drum of choice to play in hot humidity, dampness, or very cold weather.

The Remo was like $125 to my door used from an online auction site. As far as I know, they still sell new for just under $200. Picking up a used one isn’t really a problem, because you pretty much know what it’s going to sound like. Considering how long it has lasted, it’s a pretty good value for the money. I’ve played the crap out of that drum in all kinds of conditions. On the beach in hot humidity, gotten sand all up in it, in the rain, snow, extreme cold, and it sounds pretty good all around. You could probably play that thing on another planet with no atmosphere and it would sound okay. It’s a decent all purpose drum, and I don’t really need to worry if I let others play it for awhile. But the ping sound of a synthetic drum bugs me a little. A piece of blue painters tape with a 4 inch tail hanging under the head tames it down a bit.

On the up side, that drum has taken a real beating over the years, and I’m told it is made of all recycled materials. (Not exactly sure what that is, it could be soylent green for all I know, but I think it is recycled wood.) They seem to hold their value, rarely need a repair, so in my opinion, they make a fine all weather condition beater drum, that I don’t need to worry about. It’s just my preference.

When I’m out in very cold weather, obviously, you want to avoid gloves entirely if you can, but you'll do a little better using the thinnest gloves you can find. Be sure to check your gloves for any metal clips or plastic clips on them, and take a look at the cuffs of your sleeves of the coat you'll be wearing. Remember to try and not get to hammering away outside in the cold. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, and do some real damage to yourself. Remember to pace yourself, and try to play a little softer than you normally would. Don't expect to be getting all these extreme slaps from your drum, and hurt your hands. Take a break now and then, and let your hands warm up. I keep a few of those heat packs in my coat pockets to warm them up with. Plus it keeps my body warmer. For a coat, I like to stay warm and toasty, but have as much freedom of movement for my arms as well. A snowmobile suit doesn’t quite cut it. I have one of what is called a squall or stadium coat. It has a thin windproof nylon outer shell, and warm micro-fleece inside. It’s not real heavy, yet keeps me warm, and allows freedom of movement.

Outdoor drum circles sometimes can get a bit sloppy sounding because everyone is cold, so an ideal thing to have, or for someone to have, is a decent bottom drum. Even an old floor tom from a drum set works great for this with a soft mallet. Sticks are too piercing and loud. Plus with a bottom drum, that’s all it needs to do is help hold the bottom, or downbeat. It holds the support rhythm to be more solid, and everyone knows that the better the circle sounds, the more fun it is. One common problem is that everyone wants a turn on the bottom drum. That’s fine of course, but many people will overplay a bottom drum, get to whaling away, and leave no space for the other drums to be heard. Less is more, that’s why when I bring one, I bring only one mallet for it. Problem solved.

One guy had a 55 galloon barrel with a thick Taiko style cow head on top. As odd as it sounds, the thing sounded great, and was a blast to play. He had used a hole saw and put 3 two inch holes spread out around the base so the sound could get out, or resonate more. Pretty clever idea. I’ve also seen the big blue plastic water barrels that are like 22 gallons done up like that. A little easier to move, the big barrel guy had to use a hand truck to move that thing from his van to the circle. But it was fun, great sounding, and really held the grooves together.

If you are facilitating a drum circle, or even just a rhythm, musical non-verbal cues become much more important, because all the hats and scarves tend to cover our ears, and muffle things a little bit.

For my hands out in the cold, I've had a fair amount of luck using fingerless knit gloves. The tones lose a little bit but the slaps are intact, since the fingertips are exposed. On a synthetic drum head, the difference isn’t all that much. I want to jam, but don’t want my fingertips to fall off.

When you are jamming outside in the cold, do whatever you can to keep your whole body warm. There is less chance of you damaging your hands through poor circulation in the fingers. Wear thermal, or silk underwear, even that “wicking” material is a good idea, because we do get to sweatin’ sometimes. I wear thick socks, boots, and lots of layers of clothing. This new underarmor stuff seems pretty nice for this. Don’t forget the lid, like a wool hat, we lose a lot of heat through the top of our heads when they are uncovered. Huddle close together if you have to, in order to save some heat.

Bring a thermos full of something warm, like hot chocolate. It’s a good idea to avoid alcohol outdoors while drumming. It dilates the capillaries and makes you feel warm, but in reality, you just losing heat quicker. Instead, eat plenty of good food beforehand, to generate some heat internally. Have some of that soft cloth first aid tape ready just in case anyone gets a cut or a bruise on their finger.

You can get some of those new high tech warm gloves. (The furry ones look the best) I’ve seen some people cut out the palms and finger pads, or just the finger pads. Not only will you still be able to hit all notes, but your hands will stay a little warmer too. One of the bellydancers has some sort of black thin arm length silk material that ended in fingerless glove, it sort of hooked around her thumb. She would dance, and take breaks to drum out in them, I’m not quite sure what it’s called, I think it was “arm warmers”. A search under bellydancing gloves should bring it up. She said it kept her arms and hands pretty warm while dancing or drumming. Pretty clever idea.

After the drum circle is over, consider getting a few people together afterwards, and go to a restaurant, eat some warm food, drink, and hang out a little. Get to know a few new people that might just turn out to be new good friends. It’s a great way to wrap up a fun drum circle. A drum circle wrap party.

If you are playing in the opposite conditions, with high heat and humidity, you need to adjust to that as well. Try to make sure that you and everyone else are in the shade if possible. Ask people in advance to bring bottled water and keep hydrated. Or provide it yourself for everyone if you can. Sunscreen is a good idea, except for the palms of your hands. This is particularly important if you are playing near water, as the sun’s rays can bounce and give you a nasty burn, even if you are in the shade. Wearing a hat, or headband keeps the sweat out of your eyes.

Your drums will also need some extra attention. Goatskin heads, especially, stretch in heat and/or humidity. They quickly become out of tune. This is one situation again where a synthetic head might be a better choice. I don’t want the sand or dirt getting all up in my nice djembe. Even the wood in the body of the drum can be affected over time, and possibly split along the wood grain. Those synthetic djembes, or aluminum Doumbeks can be a much better choice than your expensive wooden djembe in this kind of hot humid weather condition.

My hands sometimes get a bit bruised when I get home, so what I like to do is use a hand lotion that has some lanolin in it. That helps heal them up quickly. Some friends of mine use shea butter, use whatever works for you. But anything with lanolin helps to heal them. Or at least soothes them a little. A nice soothing soak in a hot bath tub with Epsom salts takes it down a little also. Treat your body right. At least when you get home.

This is more for indoor or hot weather drumming, but before and after I play, I wash my hands in cold water. It cools them down a little bit, and the odds are you shook a lot of hands today, and could catch somebody’s cold. So there’s the hygiene thing there also. Bring some of that portable hand sanitizer, for you, and more importantly for them. But mostly, you have just finished what amounts to beating on something like drywall with your hands for hours. So a nice cool down of your palms will help you take care of them. Washing them just before you play, gives them lots more “grab” on the drum head, so you can get cleaner, and crisper sounding notes as well. I hope some of this helps you to say warm, and in the groove!