Body Percussion – You Make the Music
Posted on 15th January 2015 at 13:30
Body percussion is a brilliant way to warm up for a music workshop, and a useful tool for creating music in a group. It is incredibly accessible; the human body is an instrument every participant possesses. It is also valuable for internalising fundamental musical concepts including rhythm, beat and tempo.
"I love Body Percussion because it’s a high energy, very accessible art-form. Seeing the amazing ideas that workshop participants come up with is brilliant, as is the reaction when they see what is possible when making beats on your body!"
Ollie Tunmer, Body Percussion specialist
As a group warm-up activity, body percussion stimulates circulation and creates an energy in which it is impossible to feel self-conscious. As a musicianship tool, it provides strategies to equip students with a collective sense of pulse, memory for different rhythms and the opportunity to full engage with the musical material.
In composition it provides an inspiring way to explore sound, rhythm and the physical relationship with music.
It is also an engaging way to explore the music of World cultures. The folk traditions of many countries include the use of body percussion. The Juba, or hambone dance from West Africa became a traditional dance among African-American slaves in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Slaves were forbidden from owning rhythm instruments for fear of secret codes hidden in the drumming. Instead they created music using body percussion, stamping the feet, slapping and patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks. This percussive dance, originally known as “Pattin’ Juba,” would be used to keep time for other dances. Steps had incredibly descriptive names such as “Yaller Cat,” “Pigeon Wing” and “Blow That Candle Out.”
Other traditions that use body percussion include the palmas, or intricate hand claps in Spanish Flamenco music, tap dancing and Ethiopian armpit music.
Body percussion works on the same basis as any percussion instrument, but uses the body to create the different vibrations and sounds. These can include:
Stamping the feet on the floor
Patting the thighs with open palms
Clicking the fingers
Clapping the hands
Patting or knocking the chest
Slapping the cheeks with an open mouth
Clicking the tongue
Inhaling and exhaling air, and various vocal noises including grunting and whistling can add to the repertoire of tones, and sounds can be adapted to create different effects. For example, clapping the hands in different positions will change the pitch and resonance.
Body percussion can be performed solo, but it is exhilarating as an ensemble activity, both to performers and audience members. The well-known percussion group Stomp use a combination of non-traditional, junk percussion instruments and body percussion in their performances.
Body percussion has many possibilities. It can be adapted for any age and ability. It can be introduced into a diverse range of workshops, from African Drumming or African Songs, to Composition workshops. It can be used as a warm-up, an icebreaker or a full workshop.
You can use existing games and ideas or create your own.
A famous body percussion piece is Steve Reich's Clapping Music.
Here are some simple ideas to get you started.
This can be done seated or standing.
Start with a copying activity. Start with four beats to establish a beat. Clap a rhythm that fits into a four – beat bar. Keeping to time the group should repeat the rhythm.
Gradually make the rhythms more complex. If the group doesn’t quite catch one of the rhythms, repeat it once or twice. Don’t comment on whether the repetition was correct or not, just repeat it.
Keep talking and instructions to a minimum, but make eye contact with every member of the group.
Start to add other body sounds; knee slap, click, stamp, chest…
Vary the dynamics, but keep the pulse the same throughout.
This warm-up can be developed by getting participants to create their own rhythms for everyone to copy. Either ask for volunteers or working round the group.
Try making up a call and response vocal activity using speech and percussive vocal sounds.
Participants can take it in turn to lead this game, and it can be varied using different tempi and dynamics, or by adding more physical sounds such as stamping the feet and clapping hands.
Body Percussion Patterns
Begin to build up a body percussion piece by setting up an eight beat pattern, such as this:
This can be developed in a number of ways, for example as an ensemble piece using similar ideas to Reich’s Clapping Piece.
Watch some body percussion performers and use your imagination to create your own rhythms, sounds and games. You can even develop ways to notate your piece, deciding on symbols for each sound and rhythmic pattern, and finding creative ways to write them down in your group.
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