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ABOUT THIS METHOD

The following method is not intended to be a compendium of traditional and modern congas rhythms. For this purpose, a great deal of literature is already widely available, as are teachers capable of conveying that knowledge to students; a perennially unfinished process, because the very object of its learning is in perpetual evolution.

Also, this is not an introduction to the instrument for somebody who is approaching it tabula rasa for the first time, and it doesn’t provide instructions on how to sit, hit and draw the various sounds from the drum. It contains several basic exercises useful mostly to beginners, but these shouldn’t be taken as a substitute for the personal and direct contact with a teacher, which is the only way to acquire a correct technique, posture and sound.

 

My purpose here is rather that of providing the student with a body of purely technical studies; “abstract”, or “neutral” so to speak, inasmuch as they are unrelated to a specific musical application, or style. There will be several studies which are inspired by patterns found in the congas’ traditional repertoire - namely rhythms from the salsa and rumba fields - but this is only because these rhythms are so intrinsic to the very identity and function of the instrument that avoiding their use would be like omitting the idea that the core function of an electric bass is that of defining the root of a chord in a book dedicated to such instrument.

 

Most of the studies presented here can be practiced by players of any level, from intermediate to proficient, and there is not a specific way in which they should be approached, nor a particular order to follow. They can be employed as additional program material by a teacher, as a reference for basic technique’s exercises by a student, or as a companion for life for an advanced player who wants to investigate certain specific aspects of the instrument - or more simply have a collection of exercises and studies at hand to pick up at leisure during his or her daily practice routine.

In whichever case, all the written material lays on the assumption that a comprehensive knowledge of musical notation is already acquired; there’s nothing too complicated in the transcriptions of these studies, but nothing has been simplified for the person who cannot read either.

 

Another topic that this method doesn’t deal with is the widely used double stroke on congas, as a double open tone or slap. This is a very exciting feature of modern conga playing, and it can be achieved with a bit of dedication; but for a systematic study of its applications the best reference is probably still the classic literature for snare drum: the Table of Rolls of the Gene Krupa, the various paradiddles and the many permutations that can proliferate from either.

Rather than focusing on flashy playing and solo phrasing, most of the studies in this method are conceived with the aim of helping both students and advanced players to improve precision and coordination over any set of one, two or more congas. Even the studies more focused on endurance and physicality maintains the same function of developing the muscular tone necessary for that sort of control and accuracy.

On the topic of permutations, many studies in this method are precisely that: investigations on all possible variations of a single idea. As it often happens with tables of permutations, the first hindrance is the challenge of boredom. However, one effect of this systematic approach is that sometimes you might find that on some of the exercises the accents fall in strange places, on subdivisions where you may not have thought of placing one. This may give you new ideas to add to your playing. There are also studies focusing narrowly on certain isolated aspects of conga playing - which may not suggest an immediate application in the existing styles and in what is generally expected from the instrument. You’ll find for example exercises using only open tones, or only combinations of palm-tip strokes.

 

All these studies are there for a reason, and that is that they might open up your mind to different patterns, and suggest different ways to play the instrument. A great deal of the creative process consists in training the mind to look at a familiar object from a different angle, and asking yourself what is it that hasn’t yet been done with that object, what other functions can that object have. Congas playing is a tool for creativity, and whereas you may rightfully smile at a classical composer asking you to play them with sticks and treat them basically as any odd drum, you can certainly hit them with your fist, your knuckles, fingertips, and still remain coherent with the established aesthetic functions of the instrument. These are “extended techniques”, which I have explored to a considerable length in my playing - and whereas they are not directly dealt with in the present publication, some of the studies contained in it point towards that direction.

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