I can’t believe the first week has come to an end… It’s Saturday morning. The sun has gone and it’s been raining a fair bit again. Last night there was a lightning storm and torrential downpour. I’m starting to get my bearings a bit now. I’ve borrowed Sory’s bike, which is spectacularly awful. The tyres are nearly flat, the seat’s too low and it changes gear by itself! I’m sure I can tweak it a bit, i’ll look up ‘pump’ and ‘alan key’ and ask my host if her neighbours might be able to help. Still, I enjoyed rolling along slowly following the tram line, making my way home. I’m looking the right way now at least! Some fun facts about Lyon: the trams are driver-less and there are staff members who whizz around on roller blades in the supermarket! Last night I went to see Ibrahima Cissokho, a Kora player, which was amazing. It was a gorgeous little intimate venue. Sory jumped up for a few numbers and absolutely shredded it on the balafon! It was a perfect way to end a hard week of lessons and finally get the chance to relax and get a feel for what Lyon is like at night. Ah yes, the lessons. It has been hard work…
So. The pain. My god it hurts! I’m completely readjusting my technique which is gruelling to say the least. Relax, relax and relax some more! Yet it’s so hard, my shoulders, back, neck, arms and wrists are sore. I’d kill for a bath but there is only a shower here. At least it’s hot running water unlike Senegal where all I had was a bucket of water out in the elements!
First of all the grip: you have to hold the beater (they call it the baguette!) slightly higher up than I first thought using your thumb, first and second finger to provide the grip. About two inches should stick out of the bottom of the palm of your hand. The middle finger should come all the way round the underneath of the beater and touch the base of your thumb, the first finger sitting snugly above it, the thumb should point forwards towards the head of the beater running upwards along the side of it. You have to hold it tight enough so that if you try and spin the stick around it doesn’t move (Sory keeps checking this) but not so much that you create tension and discomfort. This is a difficult balance and I have always held the beater between my thumb and forefinger so my thumb keeps squeezing it (despite me politely asking it not to) giving me cramp and pins and needles. The hands should be turned in a little bit at around forty five degrees. The only time the grip should change is when you’re doing fast rolls. At this point you can let go a little bit to create extra bounce which helps with the speed.
The action: it’s all in the wrists. I have always approached this like djembe, using my upper arms to create the motion keeping my wrists relaxed. How wrong I was. The shoulders and upper arms shouldn’t really move at all. Sitting straight, facing forward with the beaters parallel to the keys of the instrument you use the muscles in your forearm to move the wrist up and down to strike the key, ensuring you keep the correct grip. Sory often stands behind me, prodding and squeezing my arms to make sure I’m not tensing too much. The bicep should be completely relaxed and there is minimal use of the tricep. You have to hit the keys in the middle, this is very important. For the first time ever I’ve heard overtones on a couple of keys towards the edge (like when you hit a big low drum right at the edge and you can hear higher notes ringing).
When playing sequences of octave doubles with both hands you have to try and fix your arms at a set distance apart so that they are doing the exact same movement. Sory pointed out how my whole body was bouncing when playing these parts. So I am trying to reign it in and keep it all in the wrists, staying relaxed. All of the melodies are played in octave doubles and somehow, watching myself play these parts, I look more like a balafon player now. I think it has something to do with the parallel movement of the arms and the way you use only your wrists when moving quickly between consecutive notes. Watching the top players I never realised this was what was happening as they play so fast but now I am seeing it in myself. I can take a lot of positivity and encouragement from that!
For a demonstration of what I have been talking about above watch my first vlog below.
The thing Im finding the hardest is to stay positive when I am making mistakes and struggling with the difficult things I’m being given. The standard is really high here and I’m surrounded by phenomenal musicians, African and European, who are subjected to me playing a single phrase over and over and over. Towards the end of the day when I’m tired and I’m struggling my head is starting to drift and I’m thinking- Am I actually really bad? Are they talking about me in French? What does Sory think of me? I am determined to not let this take over though so I smile, try to forget about it, remember it’s just silly paranoia (the plight of every musician I’m sure) and to sing what I’m playing so that I concentrate and focus on what I’m doing!
Despite that, rest assured, I’m loving it. A tout.