This is a follow-up to Cece’s Jam. It’s about her drum lesson, that part that I saw when we re-entered the studio. Mitch was teaching her a basic drum beat. He’d put together another traps set-up in the studio and they faced one another.
What made it tricky was that it involved three different limbs, the two arms and one foot. The foot was playing the bass drum with a kick pedal; the right hand was playing a cymbal; and the left hand played the snare drum.
The right hand played a steady uninterrupted stream of (eighth) notes. The kick drum was on the first and second beat, the snare on the third. The ear picks up the kick-snare pattern as the rhythm while the stream of eighth notes on the cymbal is background. Here’s a crude depiction:
I couldn’t really hear what Cece was doing with the kick drum, but it was obvious she was having trouble keeping the motions of her two hands – actually, the whole arm – separate. Abstractly, you’d think that would be easy since the left hand had only one hit while the right hand had eight. But the one left-hand hit had to be exactly timed with the correct one of those right-hand hits, and the same for the two foot kicks.
Keeping those things separate the first time is tricky. The tendency is to strike everything on every beat. I’ve had similar problems in playing the tongue drum, and that only involves two limbs (see this post on three against two and this one on free drumming). Adding a foot into the mix makes things even more complicated.
The thing is, that steady right-hand pulse on the cymbal is going by so quickly that you can’t consciously count the beats and synchronize the left-hand to the proper count in the right-hand. You have to solve the problem some other way; you have to feel your way to a solution. So you've got to trust your body, allow mistakes, and have the patience to keep at it and keep calm while doing it. If you get uptight, you'll freeze up and then nothing's going to work right.
On the one hand, this tells us something about how the motor system is organized and timed. Gaining differentiated control over different segments of the system requires practice. (I’ve got a few remarks on motor control in the post “Visible Hands are the Devil’s Workshop”.)
On the other hand, I’m reminded of Piaget’s various remarks on the relationship between mathematical knowledge and the organization of behavior in Biology and Knowledge. For example (p. 334):
…logico-mathematical knowledge, although it originates in the general coordinations of actions, is always knowledge of an object, because action, in the normal course of events, does not take place in vacuo but is always applied to an object.
Does that make physical training a precursor or even a prerequisite of mathematical training?
I note that a long tradition extending back to the ancient Greeks sees a close affinity between mathematics and music. One aspect of that tradition is grounded in the ratios governing various pitch intervals. I’m wondering if the connection between motor control and making music isn’t a deeper one. Motor control is about cycles, and cycles within cycles in the proper ratios.