The Percussive World of Jack Van der Wyk
Being intrigued by the standing advertisement in MD for a book of percussion exercises bearing the title Choom-Boonk, I decided to investigate to see if I could learn what it was all about. I contacted Jack Van der Wyk, the author of Choom-Boonk, and arranged for an interview.
Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Van der Wyk has spent almost all of his life in California. “My first job was when I was 16,” he recalls. “I was the timpanist in the Pasadena Symphony. I studied with Charlie White, who was the timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and who wrote the book Drums Through the Ages.” Van der Wyk joined the Oakland Symphony “around I960” as a timpanist, also performing with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. For more than a decade, he has been the principal percussionist with the Oakland orchestra.
FK: What motivated you to write the Choom-Boonk books’?
JV: I had been studying tabla, but due to various circumstances in my life at that time, I was unable to make the large time commitment that’s necessary in order to become an adequate tabla player. But I was profoundly influenced by it and I had very good teachers. Mahapurush Misra was my first tabla teacher.
I imagine a lot of people got into studying Indian music the same way I did. You hear it, and then you say, “Well, I’m a professional musician. I guess I’ll learn how to do that and then I can do it.” There’s a rude awakening for any Western musician who goes in with that attitude, because it’s quite different and there are many, many things to learn. But in the first few lessons I discovered that there are a lot of complex rhythms that were being played and we were unaware of their complexities because of the way we were learning them. Each finger coordination had a syllable describing it, and these syllables were put together to form words and sentences. You were aware of the rhythm and the sound of these words and sentences, but you weren’t consciously aware of the interplay between the two hands and the various finger combinations. So you can get almost a dozen different sounds on the tabla and they occur at different rhythmic intervals. It’s like several voices playing drums at the same time.
At that time I was also teaching, and those who were trying to work out independence were working with the books that had the standard notation. I don’t want to give any negative feeling towards these books, because I respect them a lot, but they had the disadvantage of notationally providing a visual roadblock for anybody trying to follow them. It seemed to me that there was an easier way to do this, so I started experimenting.
The first thing I tried to do was take tabla compositions and transfer them to the drum set. That can be done using the Indian language for it, but what you get is quite a distorted translation of the original music, because there’s nothing on the drum set that approaches the sound and spirit of the original Indian instrument. They’re quite different. I have a lot of respect for the American drum set. That is a beautiful instrument because it allows players to use all four limbs at the same time and really express themselves in a very complex way. At the same time, you contrast it to the Eastern instruments, which are made out of wood and leather thongs and that sort of thing, and which have a soul and a spirit to them, you might say. Some Western instruments are made out of wood, but the hardware is necessarily made out of very heavy-duty stuff. They’re built like a tank. Western percussion instruments have evolved from military fore bearers. They were originally military signals before we had field telephones. There’s quite a difference in the spirit of the two instruments, so if you translate tabla notation to the drum set, it’s not appropriate. Despite what I’m saying, I have a lot of feeling for military music. My next book will be a rudimental application of Choom-Boonk, in fact.
After some of that experimenting, I found out that it really wasn’t going to work. I had to come up with my own language. So that I did. The words I developed are essentially my own. I tried not to take any of the Indian words, out of deep respect for that culture. I began writing pieces and exercises in it and found that it worked.
FK: Approximately what year was that?
JV: It was in the early ’70s. I had an eye operation in ’72, and that meant being on my back for a couple of months in a dark room. A lot was formulated at that time.
FK: Were there any particular problems that you encountered?
JV: There are problems, of course. One is, you get a phonetic combination that works with one combination of strokes and then you have a rhythm that involves a different combination, and you find that you have a tongue-twisting situation. So that you find that it’s necessary to have more than one syllable to represent everything. That’s true of the Indian system, too. They have several syllables to represent a stroke, and sometimes there’s some ambiguity to it. So I had to develop alternatives and try to develop words that would be easy to learn so they would have a logic to them. For example, “ba” is the left hand and “oom” is the right foot. If you play both at the same time, the word is “boom,” which is a combination of the two. And actually, “boom” isn’t far from the physical sound that you get at that point. So I feel fortunate that I was able to come up with things that had a logic to them that weren’t too difficult to learn. There are 28 syllables or words to learn, which cover the 15 possible combinations of hands and feet.
FK: There are 16. The sixteenth way is not using either your hands or your feet.
JV: That’s right, that’s important. The word for that is “dash.”
FK: That’s the converse of “chomp,” using all four limbs.
JV: Yeah. I have to admit that “chomp” was inspired by Li’l Abner’s “charmp.” I’ve always been intrigued by the turnip eating termites charmping away on the turnips.
FK: So you appropriated that and modified it.
JV: Right. I hope this doesn’t bring on a lawsuit.
FK: You definitely look at pieces in the Choom-Boonk system as things to be sung or chanted or said aloud. That’s the emphasis, isn’t it?
JV: Well, any music instruction book can be used many different ways. The classic example would be Ted Reed’s Syncopation, which can be used a thousand different ways. So I suggested in my book that people actually vocalize these syllables in learning them, only so that they gain the advantage of training themselves to automatically perform these coordinations. There’s a theory that stimulus and response is actually hypnotism. Whether or not it’s hypnotism, if you vocalize them as you read them or see them, sooner or later, when you see, hear or speak that symbol, you’re able to physically do it. And you practice rather fast.
FK: Faster, in fact, than you can say the words.
JV: Yeah. I hope that someday the language will be more facile.
FK: I think that’s just an inherent limitation of the human tongue.
JV: Well, we haven’t practiced it. The Indians modify their language when they shift gears into high. When they go faster, they aren’t saying the complete syllables. It isn’t done as a matter of carelessness; it’s just a different way of pronouncing it. So maybe that’s possible. However, I’m not concerned about that. I think the big function of Choom-Boonk is to learn to play things that are difficult to coordinate easily and rapidly, without the hangup of trying to go through visual notation. Not that you shouldn’t learn visual notation—that’s the basic form of communication for musicians. But if you’ve done any teaching and you find that you can teach the bossa nova beat in ten minutes, then you would appreciate the value of Choom-Boonk.
FK: Can you teach the bossa nova beat in ten minutes?
JV: If the person understands the language, all you have to do is express it. Of course, there’s variation between students. But it can be read right off. I’ve beat my head against the wall trying it the other way. It’s a very complex beat, very hard to explain. Even when you see it there and you know what you’ve got to do, it’s harder to learn it reading it horizontally than conceiving it vertically, which Choom-Boonk does.
FK: There are numerous systems that make use of an oral system of teaching. For example, the Suzuki method in teaching violin; the Italian solfeggio for ear-training; and the oral tradition in African drumming. Have you studied African drumming at all?
JV: Well of course I knew about the Africans and other societies that had these systems, so that’s one reason why I went ahead with the concept. I knew it wasn’t new and that it had already been proven. It was just a matter of coming up with a language that would be appropriate to the American drum set.
FK: Has it facilitated your teaching and proven itself in practice.
JV: I’m very pleased with the results. It isn’t for everybody. I don’t use my books with all of my students. You can’t use the same book on all of your students unless you’re going to screen your students by saying, “Either you play these books or I can’t teach you.” So it doesn’t work for everybody. About 80 percent of my students use it.
FK: Did an interest in cross-rhythms and polyrhythms contribute to the inspiration for writing the book?
JV: I’ve been fascinated with how other cultures do so much with cross-rhythms. If you listen to African music, it seems like anybody can sing in cross-rhythms. I don’t know if it’s true or not; maybe they have to study as hard as we do, but in other cultures, it’s quite common.
FK: I’ve been reading about African music recently, and one of the things that is apparent is that rhythmic tension is part and parcel of everyday African life, beginning in infancy when a mother sings to her baby in three beats against two. So it isn’t study in the sense that we talk about study; it’s more absorption from the environment.
JV: I would think so. I really don’t know; I’m not an expert on it. But I do know that even in our culture, just everyday language is very complex rhythm, and children pick it up right away. And not only rhythm, but also inflection. If we had to graph or notate what we speak, it would be an incredible undertaking. Yet we’re able to hear these things and almost anybody can imitate inflections and rhythms of other people without reading from notation. So whether or not you go for Choom-Boonk, I think one has to accept that rhythmic phonetic notation has a lot going for it. However, it’s not a substitute for the other kind of notation; you need that also.
FK: It does seem that European and American music is rhythmically less rich than music from Africa and Asia.
JV: Well, in a certain sense I think that is true. Artistically, there’s nothing lacking in any culture’s art form or style. We make up for the lack of one element by adding something else.
FK: Right. In the case of European music, there is harmonic elaboration rather than rhythmic complexity.
JV: If you add rhythmic complexity to a style, it may not be appropriate unless you subtract something else so you still have a balance. But the fact is, I think continued on page 35 most drummers realize that there’s a lot more that they could be doing, especially after listening to the great tabla masters and listening to African music. In terms of phonetic notation, we overlook the fact that almost every musician learns solfeggio, which is certainly phonetic. That’s one reason why I feel that I’m presenting basic skills that people really need to have in order to be well-rounded and creative percussionists.
FK: In addition to the demands on your time from playing, you seem to be constantly busy teaching. Perhaps you could comment on that.
JV: I teach at a small conservatory-like school in San Francisco and at Holy Names College. Most of my teaching is done in my studio at home or at a nearby music store. There’s a limit to how many people you can take on and not go crazy, because the demands of teaching are something else. If you’re teaching with a feeling of responsibility, it’s almost a parent relationship, and it draws on you. So I feel I can handle about 30, but I think the ideal is maybe 15 or 20.
Right now I have two students that are 3, and I don’t know what this will lead into. I took them on with the acknowledgment that I hadn’t had any experience dealing with that age; and, of course, we’ve both been learning. My wife is a Suzuki violin instructor and I’ve been influenced by that. They come here for their violin lessons and they see the drums. Some of them say, “Well, gee, I’d rather learn the drums.” And that’s sort of how that has happened.
With real young children, what happens very often is they’ll study for a while and then they’ll quit. But very often, they’ll come back one or two years later, having realized, “Hey, I want to do this.” And then they’ll go into it with a lot of fervor. So there’s some value in studying at an early age. It’s very tricky and it takes a great deal of patience. They really haven’t learned to walk at three, but if they continue, they will have a fantastic advantage. We work with just basic rhythmic concepts. You can forget about teaching them the right way to hold the sticks; their fingers really aren’t ready for it. But you can work on concepts of alternation and hearing music phrases, that kind of thing.
FK: What do your students want to study?
JV: I get set drummers and I get those who want to be classical musicians and those who aren’t certain. Oddly enough, I feel it necessary to teach both groups the same way. I teach all classical musicians from the drum set, unless they oppose it vehemently.
FK: Why do you do that?
JV: First of all, whether you’re using your foot or not, the implication is there—you’ve got to play against it. And second of all, I can’t understand anybody who wants to play music not wanting to be able to use all of his limbs to produce something. Most of the classical musicians feel that way. And of course today, if you get into a symphony orchestra and you’re good on set drums, you can be very valuable to them, because the set is becoming more and more a part of contemporary symphonic music. Not too much at this point, but it’s happening; and certainly in the pop concerts, set drummers are needed.
FK: My concept of a symphonic percussionist was someone who wasn’t as likely to feel at home at a set of drums as he would at the tympani or a xylophone.
JV: What you’re at home with depends on what you happen to be on top of at the moment. In the life-span of a percussionist, you’ve got a lot of instruments to learn, and also you’ve got a lot of instruments that you may be called upon to play. In the casual classical world, you tend to be type-cast for different periods of time. You may be called upon to play vibraphone, and people say, “Yeah, he’s a vibraphone player.” And then suddenly someone sees you play tympani: “Oh, hey, he’s a tympani player.” So you’re best at what you’re playing the most of at the moment, no question about that. The rest is personal variances or what you put your developing energies into.
I didn’t get to the other side of the coin with students. I feel that somebody who’s going to play a drum set should learn how to read music. I put the youngsters into ensemble groups, where they read what is basically classical music. Learning to read music is learning to communicate, because that’s the basic communication musicians have going now. And learning to play together is what music is all about. You can’t do that much in a private lesson, although I use the piano a lot so at least they get the feeling they’re keeping the beat with somebody else.
FK: What prompted you to write the Choom-Boonk books that are in preparation now, the ones that deal with rudimental drumming?
JV: I write with a concern for a need, and I find that in all of my students, there’s a point where they’ve got to develop chops. At the point where their hands are strong enough to grip a pair of 2B sticks and really mean business with them, and you can trust them to use the proper grip no matter how difficult the music is, then we get into rudimental work. The virtue of rudimental music is that it’s mostly sixteenth-notes; it’s always going, there’s always involvement and it’s raw technique. There are some moments of it that are also very beautiful.
I can see learning to play without learning rudimental concepts, but I think that for developing strength and technique, rudiments are necessary. It’s an area of drumming that everyone should be aware of, because it’s a beautiful part of our heritage. I’m working with excerpts from the rudimental books with my students now, and I use one word to represent a right flam, another word to represent a left flam, and of course the other Choom-Boonk words that represent a left stick and a right stick. If you’ve ever tried to teach someone how to play a flam paradiddle or a flam accent, you get an idea of how this approach can save a lot of time, both the teacher’s and the student’s.
FK: I know what you mean. I think that the most difficult section in the Stone Stick Control book is that on flams, and that’s simply because of the notational problems.
JV: In that generation, you could write a textbook without concerning yourself with how easy it was to use the textbook: the burden was on the student. Today, a good teaching book has to have everything step by step; the very smallest little step must be accounted for or the student says, “What do I do now?” I don’t know why it must be that way. There could be a good reason for it, I really don’t know. But the fact is that books have to be that way or it’s very difficult to work with them. So that’s what I try to achieve in my books.
An interesting thing came up with the words. I found that two of the words that I’m using in the rudimental Choom-Boonk have already been used for a couple of centuries in Switzerland in their phonetic notation. I didn’t know this.
FK: Do the Swiss have a system of phonetic percussion instruction?
JV: Yes, they have a phonetic system for rudiments, as the Scotch do. I understand they have schools to turn out these Scotch pipe drummers. You hear all this drum talk.
FK: To change the subject, I’d like to ask you about this contraption sitting off to the side and mounted on a bass drum.
JV: It’s a glissando attachment that fits on a bass drum. The glissando is achieved by a steel roller rolling back and forth against the head, and it is controlled by a pedal that the drummer’s right foot operates while playing the bass drum pedal.
If you’ve ever listened to tablas, you’ve heard this constant conversation of the drum played by the left hand of the player which is all inflections in pitch, going up and down. When I was trying to transcribe tabla parts to the drum set, one thing that occurred to me was that we can’t get that on set. I put something together using a broken bass-drum pedal and a few other things and discovered that it worked. And then I really got down with my brother designing one that would really work and getting a patent on it. So far, I haven’t carried it much further than that. Just for fun, I like to go through my Choom-Boonk exercises, and whenever there’s a bass drum part, I wiggle that pedal and get this wavering effect. I think it adds more interest to it. As to what its usefulness is to the working drummer, that’s their own individual matter to decide on. Anything can be incorporated into a drum set. It’s not what’s in the drum set but how it’s used, in the end.
FK: When do you anticipate that we’ll be able to go down to our neighborhood drum store and buy one of these devices?
JV: I can’t predict that now; I know it won’t be very soon. It needs a little more refinement before I’m going to market it.
FK: What about incorporating it into a symphonic setting?
JV: Well, the principle can be used on any drum. It can be used as a stationary kind of tuning device—you turn a knob and it changes the pitch by means of pressure being applied to the head. That’s what the patent includes and I’ve been meaning to come out with that type of attachment. It’s definitely being planned in my head, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Copyright Frank Kofsky, 1981, all rights reserved.