George Marsh’s Inner Drumming
by Elizabeth Walsh
You’re not going to work on any of the standard drum rudiments in this book. The notation is unfamiliar, and awareness of the energy flow within your body is a key component of the method. But Inner Drumming is a remarkable book that can help you improve your overall technique while expanding your horizons as a musician. Instead of remaining focused on the physical actions that create music, Inner Drumming is designed to free you to take your art to an entirely new dimension, or return to your current practice routine with fresh ears.
Author George Marsh, a veteran Modern Drummer Advisory Board member, brings a wealth of experience to his work. Marsh began playing professionally when he was fifteen, and he’s worked within the worlds of jazz, rock, classical, and the avant-garde, recording and/or touring with Joe Henderson, Mose Allison, Jerry Garcia, the Kronos Quartet, Pauline Oliveros, and David Grisman, among many others. As a player he’s never been afraid to explore new concepts. This attitude also applies to his teaching practice. While he agrees that it’s essential to master stick control, Marsh also draws from nonmusical sources like the I Ching, a Chinese divination text also used to generate random selections. In the new, expanded edition of Inner Drumming (the book was originally released independently in 1983 and is now being put out by Sher Music), George draws on another Chinese discipline, t’ai chi ch’uan, to bring the action of practicing inward.
T’ai chi was originally a martial art whose name means “supreme ultimate fist.” It’s since developed into a series of very slow exercises designed to create relaxation of both body and mind. The flow of energy throughout the body is a significant component of the discipline, and it’s an important influence on Inner Drumming. Marsh is a longtime student of t’ai chi, and his teacher, Robert Amacker, appears on the DVD that comes with the book to discuss the concepts behind Inner Drumming. The two even play a duet, Marsh on kit and Amacker on frame drum.
“I learned the power that you can have if you focus on energy movement within your body and feel not only what’s happening externally, but what’s happening internally,” Marsh tells MD. “When I looked at it very closely, I realized that you need to work with one limb at a time. Then you need to work with two limbs at a time, then three, and then all four. Not only that—especially after dealing with one limb, you need to work with the internal movement from one limb to the other limb so that you can deeply feel what’s going on.”
Marsh’s approach to drumming—and, it should be said, to listening—may be challenging at first, but it can be mastered with practice. A concept integral to Inner Drumming is “listening with the limbs.” In this context, listening is not simply the mind’s reaction to a sound created on the drums. It includes much more: the action of the arm or leg, the internal visualization of the energy flow, and a conscious relaxation before and after each stroke.
Marsh insists that students of any level can learn from Inner Drumming. There are hundreds of exercises in the book, based on the many different possible combinations of limbs involved in playing the drums. The goal is to practice different “flows” until the actions and direction of energy become second nature. Each exercise should be worked on as slowly as possible, while maintaining not only awareness of each movement but also the flow of energy between limbs. Eventually the coordination and balance needed to move between the limbs will be something that you no longer think about consciously.
As stated above, you won’t be coming up against traditional music notation in this book. While alternative notation methods have a reputation for being confusing, Marsh has created diagrams that are both informative and easy to understand. Rather than simply representing note values played on specific drums, Marsh’s system traces out the energy flow between limbs. The diagrams give specific instructions about which drum to strike with which limb, and in what order. The DVD is a very useful supplement to the book, especially when it comes to getting started and under-standing the notation.
Marsh says that after spending time with his own method, he found that “the eventual result is that you’re not thinking about the exercises. They become energy flows coming out of all four limbs, which create a heightened awareness of what goes onwhen you’re playing.”
At first, Marsh explains, it may seem difficult to experience the feeling of energy moving throughout your body, but you shouldn’t be discouraged. “All of this internal stuff starts from what I would call your center in your body—the lower belly. As you envision this movement of energy, you may see colors or feel warmth. Or it may start as kind of an intellectual thing. But it actually works. There’s no one way to do it. Just get started and see what happens.
“After you’ve gotten into the concepts of the book by watching the DVD,” Marsh says, “you can start at the very beginning. Anyone can do it. Just make sure you start by working with each individual limb very slowly—not being in a hurry. This is the opposite of what most drummers would do, including me! We want to play fast.”