[Journal] Teaching a non-musician to get them to play conga for worship

hand drumming for worshipWe recently had a post in the Musicademy Facebook Group that asked:

How do we explain to a new musician how to find beat one?

Cue lots of hilarious comments from the community that anyone so musically illiterate could actually be on a worship team and the usual references to people who clap on the two and the four. Of course most of those people just feel it naturally…

But there were also lots of very helpful suggestions (from people who had a little faith that with some patient instruction anyone can learn a little musicality).

Some of the suggestions made included:

  • Sit them down with a few well known songs and practice counting beats…
  • Listen to the strongest beat / copy out the lyrics and mark up the dominant beats
  • Watch the “Saturday Night Fever” and the “Staying Alive” sequence – watch how Travolta walks: 1 is heavy left foot, 2 & 4 are right foot, so much groove and swagger, you can tell the beat with the sound off
  • Come up with phrases of 4 syllables (dependent on what time signature) and teach him an inflection that he can use to illustrate that beat. For example – “SHOOT that pigeon” would illustrate 4/4 time. Once he’s got the beat, you could play a 4/4 phrase and see if he can work out when to say the phrase
  • When I taught piano I’d have the kids march around the living room while we sang what they were playing. Which beat do you want to stomp on?!
  • Perhaps it might help to work backwards. With some songs you can start with the printed lyrics and underline the syllables that, when you say the phrase, feel like they have greater emphasis. eg “the SPLENdour of the KING… CLOTHED in majesTY, Let all the world reJOICE etc etc. Then play the song and hopefully they will start to see and feel the connection between the dominant syllables and the count. It doesn’t work for all songs, but there are plenty it will work for. They may never be able to feel it instinctively, but at least it’s a way into the maze.

And this YouTube Introduction to Rhythm Reading video:

The person that asked the question was Diane Burns and she was good enough to provide an online diary of how the novice musician progressed.

I asked her to share the story diary-style here.

On the Path to Successfully Discovering the Downbeat

Here’s what’s working:

  • Using the timer on a cell phone, tap each second with the dominate hand on the thigh.  This is the best analogy for a steady beat I’ve found.  Everyone knows how to count 1, 1000, 2, 1000 …  (the metronome was frustrating and I could sense he wasn’t with it when he practiced on his own – cleaning up wrong practice has been my primary focus; better to do fewer things correctly)
  • 2nd step with the digital timer is to find .5 for the ‘and’ between the beats.  Place other hand, palm down, about 7″ above the 60 bpm striking dominate hand.  Divide the second in half and the top part is then the weaker sound, occurring naturally.  This has given him a sense of ‘down’ beat and ‘up’ beat.  Now we can place 1, 3 on the thigh with 2, 4 as the up stroke and we can also place 1, 2, 3, 4 on the thigh with the upstroke as the ‘and’ between the beats.  I am a firm believer that people (he’s in his 50s) learn best when they can pull from a childhood skill – counting seconds!

Then using the piano, I wanted to allow him to ‘make’ beat 1 instead of finding beat 1.  Our duet:

  • I placed sticky tabs on the piano keys giving him a range of a bit more than an octave of keys from which to choose.  He would use a single 2nd finger and play a single note in this bass range and this would be his making beat 1 from which I would take my cue.
  • Then, I played an improvised quarter note pattern on beats 2, 3, 4 to complete the measure of 4/4.  After that was going well, I threw in some 8ths occasionally and then we worked up to a running 8th pattern.  At first, he would interrupt my notes and come in way too soon (He discovered later that he was only counting to 3 and this is the reason he was coming in too soon).  Then he began on his own counting out 1+2+3+4+ but I was matching his tempo.
  • Now the challenge would be for him to match my tempo, for the faster pattern of notes dictate the tempo and control when beat 1 occurs again.  I wanted him to understand because he played beat 1, I can now finish the pattern of running 8th notes.  But he had to wait for the 8ths to occur, for they set the tempo.  He wanted to determine the tempo and so we stopped and started over until he started listening to my 8th notes and counting them.
  • Once that became reasonably comfortable, I changed registers from time to time and gradually changed the tempo.  For a while, he just kept marching to his own drum.  But, as I played higher and softer and slower and counted with him at first, he began to follow me.  People really do listen better to quiet sounds.  By the end of about 20 minutes of duet playing of speeding up and slowing down, we were working together with less effort and more accuracy.
  • Sitting on the bench together was helpful in that I could use my upper body language of movement as well as my breath to get him to travel the wave of the beat with me.
  • We had great fun doing this – so needed to take the worry out of the process!
  • As a bonus, he’s beginning to understand what a bass line is.  I believe a solid bass holds a group together and he needs to discover and understand what a bass sounds like.  I am going to edit a Worship Backing Band video with only the vocal line (following the above advice of stressed syllables) and the bass line and send to him.  At this point, listening is critical.
  • We limited his instrument to the conga (tambourine was too much, and the shaker, pretty challenging) and this has eased his anxiety.  For the softer, slower songs we use a bean bag on the side or the rim of the conga just playing beats without accents.  It sounds nice and he can play the bean bag on his own which will instill confidence (if he’s off beat a bit, it should still sound fine and not throw the pianists off).
  • Getting him to stop himself when he’s off the beat has been challenging as he tries to get back on beat while continuing to play out of sync – that’s too difficult to do!  He’s trying too hard; but there’s a breakthrough in that he’s listening and discovering when he’s wrong and believing me that for every time he plays it wrong, he needs roughly 5 accurate times to erase it – so critical.

Shaker progress: The “CHUG-a-CHUG-a” sound of a train as well as “THINK i can i THINK i can …”  is yielding results.  We start with the word THINK which occurs on beat 1.  He’s getting the movement of the shaker this way.  A valuable resource is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQDUOODp0H8  The upbeat is still confusing so I try and take it out of the process.  He’s beginning to see the ‘CHUG’s as the stronger, louder sound.  I realized last night he really doesn’t speak emphasizing words / syllables naturally.  So, it’s work for him.

Tambourine: Keep the tambourine in 4/4 at first.  “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” worked well just playing quarter notes.  Then “Great is the Lord” which is in 3/4, playing on beat 1.  When playing together, the new student remains on beat 1 and I play a tambourine along adding beats 2 and 3 and sometimes the and in between the beats.  When we play in 6/8, I have him play beats 1 and 4 and I play the same, occasionally adding the sub-beats.  I’m no longer throwing him off as he can maintain the metrical accents on 1 and 4.  He hasn’t picked up the subtle difference in the primary beat 1 and secondary beat 4 yet.  But in 4/4, he has been able to find the downbeat, so 6/8 will come with time and practice.

I count the pieces we play together, as suggested above.  He also has been working on his own (regular, daily practice) with an edited copy of a multi-track from WBB – Forever Reign.  It’s great in that he’s listening to lead vocal and bass tracks only as I made a copy just for his practice time – I highly recommend using WBB!  As we practice together, I ask him to find beat 1.  He used to answer too quickly and would often be wrong; but now as he’s waiting to answer and listening, he finds beat 1 about 90% of the time now!

He’s understanding he can emphasize beats 1 and 3 – or he can flip it and emphasize the back-beat of 2 and 4.  When I play either conga or the cabasa along with him, my regular way of doing so is to accent 1 and 3 on the verses and the back-beat of 2 and 4 on the choruses (the cabasa has been fabulous leading congregational clapping – I just love it and so does the congregation.  It’s the hand percussion instrument you don’t know you need!).  He’s been staying with the accents of 1 and 3 and he’s becoming solid while I change for the chorus – yea!

We have an ideal situation in that I can play along with him using hand percussion for services.  But that’s going to begin to change as I move more to the keyboard.  Sometimes he gets off of being exactly on the beat, but he’s always ahead of it.  Often people can hear they are off but they don’t know if they are early or late.  Helping someone know they are consistently one side or the other off the exact pulse of the beat is very helpful for them to adjust when they then practice on their own.

He’s beginning to understand double time as I play 8ths with his quarters or 16ths under his 8ths – the 2 to 1 ratio in music is making sense.  When playing along with him I have him play the main whole beats and I play the sub-beats while he maintains the whole beats.  It’s working very well.  While working with him recently, the song’s meter changed fro 4/4 to 2/4 and then back and he realized it – fantastic!

What worked the best

So, to summarize, here are the most important things we did:

  • We first found the beat with the lyric’s accented syllables.
  • Then we watched a stopwatch and learned to tap a steady 60 on the leg then 120 using the other hand atop (as described above).
  • We kept things in 4/4.  I counted and conducted and played along – had him keep the main beats while I played different rhythms until I didn’t throw him off the main beat.
  • Worship Backing Band’s MultiTrack is an incredible teaching tool which I will definitely continue using and I have plans to add more tracks such as percussion / voice cues, etc. as we go along so he can understand how the instruments and voice stack up together rhythmically.  Changing the tempo of a multi-track is something I plan to do as well; this will accommodate his current skill / needs.

Has it worked?

Bottom line: he’s finding beat 1 from the vocal lyrical emphasis and bass line movement.  Chord changes typically happen on beat 1 as well and is the reason he could follow the damper pedal in the beginning.  We will get into chords later perhaps if there is need or interest.  Worship Backing Band‘s product has been a godsend.  He’s been a delight to work with (he has the ‘little drummer boy’s’ heart) and in the coming weeks, he will play percussion on his own as I move back to the keyboard more regularly!

This is probably as far as we can get for now – main beats and finding 1 – changing to sometimes play the accent on the back-beat of 2 and 4.  Shadowing me when I do not need to be at the keyboard.  He no longer needs extra weekly rehearsal time – though he wants to continue :-) and he has come into the weekly group rehearsal – yea!  We will continue our learning together and get stronger and more confident, I’m sure!  Next step:  syncopated pattern of playing on the and of 2.  We have already lightly touched upon it and he can keep the main beats going while I play this syncopated pattern on top of it – a triumph from just a month ago!

It’s been a very enjoyable journey for us both and a lesson for me in that when the heart wants to play for God, a non-musician in his 50s can learn to play hand percussion with a praise team!  The look on his face after the first service he played was simply priceless so I encourage others to give it a try!  When God calls, He equips.

A few weeks in

Queen’s “We Will Rock You” has a fantastic beat to teach the 1-2 ratio.  He can do a quarter in 1 hand and 2 8ths in the other hand – he can switch hands and he can put the strong beats on 1 and 3 or 2 and 4.

Using 1/2 grid graph paper, I put in each square a half a beat so it read: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + and then had another paper for 1 + 2 + 3 + repeating the pattern (measures) – and I wrote it like a music score, vertically aligned.  It made sense to him how the grid of each player lines up so we play together.  And that we all meet and always play on beat 1 together – no matter what happens in between.  It was very helpful in that I wanted to play in a jazz waltz style accompaniment – this allowed him to see I was playing on the ‘ands’ and he was working to hold a strong quarter note pattern.

He can keep a steady beat while I improvise different rhythms


Brushes have been a grand discovery!  He does best keeping the steady beat when playing each hand the same (quarter notes in each hand).  We have nylon brushes for the sides of the conga.  For the top of the conga, wire brushes are best.

He’s not only playing on the beat without assistance, but he is hearing when he’s off within the measure and self-correcting!

He no longer has a blank look on his face when I count beats :-)

We are working to hear and feel the difference between triple and duple meter.  I am teaching him that while duple meter can play using alternating hands; not so in triple meter – it will need to be 1 beat in 1 hand and the other 2 in the other so he can maintain the pattern within the measure.

Last night I just started playing upcoming worship songs without giving any instructions how to play, and he found his way whether it be hands on the drum or either kind of brushes and it sounded good to me and I know we were together.  He’s developed a sense of the kind of sound he likes and his choices are pleasing to me as well, so – yea!

He is no longer rushing and playing ahead of the beat.  I think this is because he’s more relaxed.  We’ve spent a fair amount of time getting to know one another and sharing and so out of that comes a sense of community and out of that, trusting one another.  He now knows that I will say something if it doesn’t sound good; and if I don’t say anything, I’m pleased.  So, he trusts me to keep him from not sounding good and this is a comfort to him, he said.  So, he’s not afraid to make a sound like he was in the beginning.

So, we’re walking hand in hand with the beat as we feel it together and that’s delightful!  He can find beat 1 most of the time if he really takes time and stops and listens carefully.  It is far from easy though and he questions his answers.

Shakers and tambourine are more difficult and definitely not his favorite.

He built a cajon and soon we will experiment with that with and without brushes.

It’s been fun!  And rewarding :-)

4 months on

We started 4 months ago and here are my final comments as our percussionist is pretty much on his own.

We’ve needed to address his not feeling worthy enough to play with other musicians and change that!

Adrenaline at the time of service generally causes him to rush the beat but he’s learned what my different faces mean – like the “I’m working hard to hold this together” look on my face / mouthing the word ‘slower’ and of course the slight shaking of the head which means to stop and listen

We have fun playing congas together and he’s joining a drum circle which will be great!

Products to help with teaching

At Musicademy we have two main products that can be used in situations such as this:

  • Diane used the Worship Backing Band MultiTrack Player for backing tracks throughout the teaching program and found it a “Godsend”
    It is indeed a great training tool both for brand new and more experienced musicians. The perfect practice companion!
  • Musicademy and Psalm Drummer’s Hand2Hand DVD course is really useful for people wanting to learn hand drumming techniques

About Diane Burns

  • Diane is joyful grandma as well as a private piano teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana now for almost 50 years.  She has been a church staff musician for over 30 years (organist/pianist/choir director); now serving in lay music ministry at a small church with a focus on contemporary songs, also playing organ and accompanying the choir.