Studying Cuban Rhythms in Havana

December 21, 2018

By Taylor Watson, Upper School Head Music Teacher – August 2018

Last summer I was generously awarded a MMFS Parents Association Grant to study Cuban rhythms in Havana, Cuba. The goal was not to return and teach our students Cuban music per se (though that was a side endeavor) but rather to sharpen their rhythmic independence and precision. Cuba is a country with a long tradition of groove-based music that is founded on rhythmic polyrhythm. This music, like much of the rock and blues-based genres that we play at school, is based on repeating patterns (riffs) that must be played by each musician independently. The ability to maintain and play these patterns with precision and verve is necessary to improving the sound of a band.

My course of study was with local musicians who play each week at the famed “Floridita” restaurant in Havana. My main teacher, Dennys, is the band’s lead percussionist and would serve as my Cuban percussion teacher over a two-week period. We began semi-daily classes with hand and foot warm-ups, as Cuban percussion can be quite demanding physically. Dennys taught me typical riffs on the conga drum, tumba drum, claves, and other Cuban percussion. He also gave me strategies for playing these instrument riffs while incorporating foot patterns to maintain the pulse of the music. My second teacher, Juan Carlos, is a well-regarded percussionist and dancer. In our classes, Juan Carlos provided me the basic body movements to feel the music better while integrating body percussion and subdivision techniques. We focused on using different parts of the body to feel two-against-three and three-against-four patterns. This was accomplished by studying the body movements of those who perform Cuban rumba and son, two musical styles that demand precise rhythmic feel and subdivision.

The main takeaways from my study involve utilizing pedagogical techniques for teaching riff-based music. My study with Dennys and Juan Carlos gave me both instrumental and basic kinesthetic instruction for playing the extremely polyrhythmic music of Cuba.  These strategies will be applied to strengthen my student’s rhythm and rhythmic independence in a rock and jazz band setting. Furthermore, I intend to use the riff patterns I have learned in our daily warm-ups on all instruments. To our rock and jazz band percussionists, I will teach basic conga, clave, and other percussion parts to add to certain song selections. Finally, my movement and dance study has given me strategies for feeling musical subdivisions when students are having trouble learning parts, especially those that involve two-against-three and three-against-four rhythms. I am very grateful to the Parents Association for providing this amazing learning opportunity and I look forward to utilizing my new skills in the classroom.

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