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I’ve been getting a little bored at night not really having anyone to talk to and earlier this week felt a bit fed up. It’s hard to fit much in around all the studying and travelling and I have been so tired I’ve just resigned myself to the laptop mostly after getting home and eating. A nice evening prompted me to head out and venture into Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon). Wondering around the wonky cobbled streets I spotted the cathedral way above the city and just headed upwards. After walking up about a million steps I found the beautiful old building with a terrace in front of it and stunning views over the entire city and beyond. Arriving just before sunset I watched Lyon turn from day to night and stood there alone for about half an hour smiling to myself, feeling totally and utterly content.

The painful journey of technique is nearly over now. My way of playing has completely readjusted and I think the pain was in my body actions learning to change their old habits rather than just the sheer amount I have been doing. It feels natural to hold the beaters properly now. In a previous blog I talked about how the grip should be with your thumb and first two fingers. Approaching it like this was making me squeeze too much creating tension and I’ve hurt the wrist on my right arm a bit. I realise now that the way to do it is to hold with all the fingers and thumb, removing the need for tension. A small amount of grip from every finger means the golden rule is still achieved: the stick doesn’t move if you try and spin it. Success! The major realisation has been completely removing the need to feel like the stick bounces between the palm of your hand and fingers (the only time you should do this is when playing two notes very close together with the same hand).

I played in a dance class with Sory on Thursday night. At first he just started playing something simple whilst he taught a song to the dancers and looked at me to say copy this. Talk about being put on the spot! I tensed up and made a bit of a hash of it. I can listen and copy djembe or dundun parts but I need a bit of explanation for balafon. After that piece Sory shook his head in disappointment. Eeek! However he came over and showed me the next one before anyone started playing anything and reminded me to relax and keep it all in the wrists. As expected it went really fast straight away. Yet, I relaxed, breathed deeply and concentrated on the technique and it worked. I totally kept the pace, didn’t tense up at all and felt great for doing so. I got the smile and nod of approval from Sory too. After the slight altercation earlier this week there is a definite understanding of expectations now and the lessons are thorough and full. When I am left alone there is a time set to practise something and a check that everything is ok. This has created a really positive atmosphere and we’re having loads of fun together in the lessons and I’m learning so much.

Let’s talk about learning methods. The language barrier is a bit of a problem but not an impossible obstacle to overcome. So much of the technique guidance is through body gestures: a drop of the shoulders, a shake of the arms, a deep breath, a floppy waving of the wrists, a flex of the arms accompanied by a shake of the head, a swooshing sound with a graceful move of the arms across the balafon, a soft exhale or aahhhh sound with a miniscule flick of the beaters. The meanings of these gestures are obvious enough to understand: relax, get rid of any tension, use your wrists, stop using your shoulders, glide gracefully across the instrument, play fast rolls and trills delicately. The resounding message is one thing: relaxation. Even when playing something really fast and complicated, it’s still just a simple flick of the wrist. It’s the speed that prohibits the relaxation still. When I get home my own practise is going to be centred around slowly building up speed at a pace where I can maintain the relaxation. I’m setting a definite goal of at least twenty minutes practise every day even when it’s hard to fit it in and when I can it should be an hour.

Every time he teaches something new he plays it and waits to see if I can pick it up. I try and pick out the left and right hand parts separately. He slows down. I still can’t get it straight off. Each and every time he stops and breaks it down which is what I need. I’m not sure if this is just to show me what I’m about to learn or if he expects me to just manage to pick it up. He goes through the melody and handing and when I understand it I get about twenty minutes to solidify it. Sometimes it’s hard to explain that I just need mini sections at a time. Sometimes he plays it loudly (like I can’t hear it!) and looks at me like- ‘it’s just this?!’ When I ask if something’s right he just shrugs meaning ‘you tell me…’ It’s clear he wants me to listen and decide for myself whether I’m right or not. When I’m learning a melody part to a piece I have tried to ask to hear it over a pulse or where the start of the bar is. I never get really get what I want. What I get is an explanation in french that I think usually says it has to fit in a certain place with the accompaniment or with the dunduns. This exemplifies the difference in our ways of learning and understanding music. It’s a struggle but after a few attempts and and a bit of head scratching I can always figure it out and then there’s a big celebratory smile and cheer to congratulate that. I wonder if I could speak french whether this would change or not. And which is better: that I could ask for the helpful points that ease my understanding or learn ‘the African way’ and arrive at my own understanding through exploring the vaious options?

***Edit: I forgot to mention something when I first published this which is Sory’s military style habits that pop in the lessons. At one point when I was left to practise I took a break for a minute for some water and looked at my phone and he knocked on the window and pointed to his ear with a stern look! On another day at 17:58 I said ‘d’accord, finit.’ He shook his head  seriously and said ‘Non, deux minutes.’ And at one point when I asked to slow down he just said “Non, continue!’ Love it!***

We are doing fewer exercises now the first week is over. I am hoping he has recognised that my technique has changed. He is certainly calling me out a lot less now. Occasionally he still moves his stick to get me to check my grip. Any exercise we do now is at the start of the day and as a warm up and is now solely focused on octave doubles. Moving his arms from side to side with a fixed distance he is trying to show how both arms have to move at a exactly the same pace to achieve that parallel movement. Yesterday morning I played G, B and D on repeat for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Most of the day is focused on learning material though and I’m soaking it up and managing to keep my concentration. I have a list and we are going to work through it over the next two weeks. Even though I have learnt so much and come so far in such a short space of time it highlights how much further there is to go and pushes my goals beyond where they were. Which means: a month is no way near enough! As I said I’m going to practise everyday without fail now and I plan to make this a yearly trip. Maybe just two weeks at a time. Sory said he was telling his dad about me when he called. Thus another dream is on the horizon: go and study with the master’s master! All in good time. There is no doubt in my mind, this is a lifetime journey. Maybe in five or ten years I’ll feel like I’ve passed the first post…

As it’s been another week I made another vlog. Enjoy!