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Last updateWed, 11 Nov 2015 11am

Sunday, 29 March 2015 17:37

The Only Knack to Drumming Is Practising Hard

Written by  Gan Chian Nee & Siow Lee Kien, KL & Selangor / Translated by Chong Pei Fen

Goh Mea Seng shared that, “Seclusion is not the way to spiritual cultivation. To walk the Bodhisattva Path, we need to serve among the multitude. The same applies for drumming. We cannot play at our own pace without synchronizing with others.” [Photograph by Choo Kok Choi]

 Formed by 29 members of the Tzu Chi KL & Selangor’s Entrepreneurs’ Group, the Drum Team overcomes stress with great vows and diligent practices, hoping to present a dignified performance in the upcoming Dharma assembly.
 


Tzu Chi Chapters in central and southern Malaysia will be staging the Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance (or Water Repentance in short) sutra adaptation performance on July 4-5, 2015, at Putra Indoor Stadium, Bukit Jalil. After four months of strenuous practices, it is now time for the first-stage progress review.

Since November 2014, the Drum Team has vowed to observe a vegetarian diet and practise drumming diligently. As everyone was new to drumming, it took them some time to familiarize themselves with drum notations and get the hang of drumming. Although a drum is single-pitched, drum beats at differing volume levels will create different moods. They can also reflect a drummer’s personality and emotion. Thus, it is a challenge to get every member calm and focused, so that they can perform in perfect synchronization.

The Drum Team has been practising at the KL Tzu-Chi Jing Si Hall bi-weekly after work. Months of blood, sweat and tears saw an encouraging progress from the initial uncoordinated strokes to unified harmony.

Strive for cohesion and synchronization

The ability to play a steady and even tempo contributes significantly to a wonderful performance. Every drummer is likened to a metronome; when one fails to keep to the tempo, the whole team will be affected.

Goh Mea Seng shared, “The greatest challenge is to develop shared understanding among us, for example, how do we define the varying degrees of intensity and our coordination in speed. It is not easy at all. Every stroke cultivates our concentration and patience.”

As precise timing is utterly important, everyone has been practising persistently and trying hard to memorize the drum scores and patterns. Mea Seng, who plays the high-pitched drum, felt that not only must he stay cool and focused, but he must also pay attention to the beats of the other members so that he could hit harder to guide them back to the right tempo whenever discrepancy is observed.

Likewise, while striding on the Bodhisattva Path, we need to guard our minds and at the same time, listen to others. If we notice that any of our Dharma brothers or sisters has gone astray, we should extend our love and care, as well as, be a beacon to him/her. On the contrary, if we fail to keep a clear and righteous mind, and listen to others blindly, then we would gradually deviate from the right path.

“Seclusion is not the way to spiritual cultivation. To walk the Bodhisattva Path, we need to serve among the multitude. The same applies for drumming. We cannot play at our own pace without synchronizing with others,” said Mea Seng.

Cultivate stillness of the mind

Initially, before the drums were made available for regular practices, the Drum Team would just lay some plastic mats on the tables as their “drums”. For fear that they would break the tables, they have to watch their strengths while practising. Faced with time constraints and strict supervision of the coach, they pushed themselves on to practise harder to meet a competent standard.

Showing two pieces of crumpled drum scores, Kek Wei Seng said, “We practise based on these scores. I bring them with me all the time so that I can practise whenever I am free. In fact, drumming requires complete concentration, and this cultivates stillness of the mind.” Apart from drumming skills, the members also learnt some of life’s principles through the practices. Truly assimilate the Dharma they learnt, they elevate the team spirit with understanding and accommodation.

“For almost 20 years or so, I have hit on different legal issues and problems in courts, but have never hit on a drum,” said Yau Wai Leong, a lawyer. He added jokingly, “The opening of the Dharma assembly resembles the moment when the judge says ‘court’ before a case commences.”

Wai Leong understands that the standing drum he plays bears an important role to settle everyone’s mind and gather everyone’s attention. He commented that as the drum is placed at the centre and is taller than others, it is naturally eye-catching. The same applies to us, who walk on the Bodhisattva Path. Everyone, friends or strangers alike, sees what we do. Thus, playing the standing drum reminds him to always observe and carry out his duties well.

The Drum Team had its maiden performance during the Entrepreneurs’ Group Fellowship on March 7. Wai Leong felt that the team did well overall and was particularly smug that no mistake occurred. But later on after the event, when he was moving the drums back to the store, he accidentally knocked the stand with his knee. At that instance, he was reminded of the time and consequences when Master Wu Da gave rise to a trace of arrogance. He immediately repented for his complacency over the little achievement and vowed to practise even harder to make the actual performance, which expects to draw an audience of more than 10,000 people, a success.

Eliminate distractions with wisdom

Success does not come without confidence and perseverance. Despite the differences in age and capability, everyone shares the same goal and takes the training seriously. They are not defeated by a lack of knowledge in music, but strive to overcome the challenges with determination.

He Qi Sheng even customized the original drum scores into unique Tzu Chi’s drum scores with notations that the team members can understand. He said, “Initially, we memorized the beat based on the ‘bang-bang-bang’ rhythm, but we often got lost half way.” Thus, he tried to label the beats with 1234, accented strokes with black colour, growing intensity with numbers in increasing font sizes, left-hand strokes with green colour and right hand strokes with orange colour; and hand raising actions with a hand icon.

“The standing and high-pitched drums play first. So, the rest of us need to stay calm, keep counting the beats patiently and listen to the rhythm attentively so that we can merge in later seamlessly,” said Qi Sheng.

He admitted that he had messed up the beats on a few occasions due to a wandering mind, “We cannot allow even the slightest distraction or else we will mess things up.” He is grateful for the coach’s constant reminders for them to overcome distractions and focus their minds in the present.

Every day, Qi Sheng will spend at least 30 minutes for drum practice. As he has only glass tables at home, he has to put a piece of plank, thick layers of newspapers and plastic mats on the tabletop for practice. He shared that this sutra adaptation performance is different from the one in Tzu Chi’s Year-end Blessing Ceremony that he took part two years ago. Back then, he was among a crowd and his mistakes were less noticeable. But this time, he must ensure that all his movements and strokes are flawless.

Awaken the Buddha-nature through drum beats

Thong Yoong How, who coaches the Drum Team, is a Tzu Chi volunteer and a performer with HANDS, a well-known percussion ensemble in Malaysia. He is rather happy with the Drum Team’s progress in the past four months.

It is challenging for these entrepreneurs to spare time off their hectic schedules for the practices. Indeed, it would not have been possible if it was not for their determination to make the performance a success. Thus, Yoong How often encouraged those who still have room for improvement, “You can move, can hear, can do, can play; don’t give up, you can definitely make it!”

Besides the sounds of bell and drums in the opening, there are three other drum sequences, including two accompaniments for the dances. Yoong How explained that the final drum sequence in the closing aims to awaken the Buddha-nature in the audience after purifying their hearts through the series of performances.

He also reminded everyone, “Now that the team has been formed, it is likened to a ship that has been built and ready to take its passengers. You are the one to set sail and steer it. So you must develop awareness of beat and master the patterns, techniques and movements. Look ahead and understand that to hit the drum with force is not to express anger. This is a Dharma assembly, you must not be angry, but lead all to focus on calmness and feel the drumbeats.”



It takes a lot of hard work to stage a performance. Everyone deals with the challenges they face with patience and courage, and learns the Dharma unwaveringly, hoping that the Dharma ship, which has set sail, will be able to cross the sea of suffering to the shore of bliss one day.

 

The greatest challenge for the Drum Team is to develop mutual understanding, which includes the force and speed of their strokes. [Photograph by Choo Kok Choi]   The Drum Team practises drumming on plastic mats placed on the tables. They have to watch their intensity to avoid breaking the tables. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]

The greatest challenge for the Drum Team is to develop mutual understanding, which includes the force and speed of their strokes. [Photograph by Choo Kok Choi]
 
The Drum Team practises drumming on plastic mats placed on the tables. They have to watch their intensity to avoid breaking the tables. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]
 
The members learnt not only drumming techniques, but also life’s principles. Assimilating the Dharma they learnt, they elevate the team spirit with understanding and accommodation. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]   Every drummer is likened to a metronome, that is, when one plays at unsteady speed, the whole team will be affected. Thus, they must learn and develop awareness of their own beating, as well as, others. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]

The members learnt not only drumming techniques, but also life’s principles. Assimilating the Dharma they learnt, they elevate the team spirit with understanding and accommodation. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]
 
 
Every drummer is likened to a metronome, that is, when one plays at unsteady speed, the whole team will be affected. Thus, they must learn and develop awareness of their own beating, as well as, others. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]
 
Yau Wai Leong commented that the standing drum, which is placed at the centre and is taller than others, is naturally eye-catching. Playing the drum reminds him to always observe and carry out his duties well. [Photograph by Choo Kok Choi]   Through the practices, He Qi Sheng learnt that even the slightest distraction could mess up the beats and drum strokes. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]

Yau Wai Leong commented that the standing drum, which is placed at the centre and is taller than others, is naturally eye-catching. Playing the drum reminds him to always observe and carry out his duties well. [Photograph by Choo Kok Choi]
 
 
Through the practices, He Qi Sheng learnt that even the slightest distraction could mess up the beats and drum strokes. [Photograph by Lim Yen Kuan]