The Djembe Slap

This is the sound everybody wants to get right on the djembe
A lot of advice and strategies are given here and there, during workshops, regular classes and… on the web. First class teachers teach what they do while some good-sounding musicians don't feel comfortable when it comes to breaking the process down in pieces. Unfortunately a lot of lucky guys teach unlucky students ways of getting the slap sound that pros don’t use. In these last case a novice can stay stuck for years with a poor-sounding still-painful slap.

"Cleaning before building", I will first tell you some basic not-to-do before going any further. I will not list all the bad techniques, just demonstrate why the most relevant false techniques/beliefs out there are guaranteed not to work.
Evaluate your effort
Getting a nice sound, feeling comfortable in your own body when playing is something more accessible when your activity includes both effort and release. Let’s do an experiment with the common binary groove of figure 1.

figure 1

Let’s say you play this pattern at 120 for a quarter note (half a second per beat). Each pattern will then last 1 second. Keeping this tempo (120), the pattern will be played 60 times by minute so 3600 times per hour. The pattern being composed of 5 notes you will then perform 18000 notes during 1 hour. If we focus on slaps only, you actually perform 3 slaps per second, 180 per minute and 10800 per hour. Yes if you play this pattern during one hour at a moderate, 120 for a quarter note tempo, without any solo or heavy loaded variations, you will perform 10800 slaps.

Obviously you have to optimize your effort.
False techniques
Using the wrist
The wrist is appropriate with the use of sticks because the length of the stick gives a large leverage. The leverage given by the length of the hand is not sufficient for the kind of sound we are looking for on a djembe.

You MUST use your elbow. The elbow becoming your wrist your arm the stick and your hand the contact zone of the stick. Playing slaps means using your elbows first, hand and fingers finishing the job.

Not convinced? Go back to numbers. Keeping in mind that playing during one hour you would perform 3600 slaps, just move your wrist with your hands open 36 times (18 times each). This is 100 times less than you would do when playing for one hour and you already feel the effort, right?

Now do the same using your elbows. Easy.
Stretching the hand
While some players (including myself) enjoy to stretch the hand on a casual slap to visually and mentally reinforce their motivation on a specific moment, the stretching has in fact no physical effect on the slap itself. If used as standard technique it will just make you tired sooner.

Not convinced? Move your arms up and down, stretching your hands when you are up, 36 times.

Now do the same without stretching. If you are not convinced yet, do it again with stretching, 360 times - which correspond to 10 mn of regular playing.
Contracting during impact
It's during the impact that you should be the most relaxed. Contraction at this moment will just weaken your sound and make you feel tired sooner.
Playing loud
Most still believe you need to play loud to get the slap tone. The slap comes out from which parts of your hand impact the wood and the skin and how your fingers are able to get into the skin.
Working tips
Now that the place is cleaned up of the four worst mistakes you can make, let’s see some tips that will help you to get a nice slap. 
Letting the fingers go freely
Step 1
Put one arm in a vertical position with an open hand - not stretched. Now try to let your fingers FALL DOWN. I mean it! Don’t close your hand, just stop keeping it open. Practice this until you feel the weight of your fingers.

Step 2
Put one arm in a vertical position leaving your fingers naturally down without any command. Now, without moving your wrist, use your elbow to move your arm forward and backward letting your fingers go where they want. After a minute the last phalanges or your fingers should touch your palm each time you move forward.
Using your elbow as a bow, your arm as an arrow
When an arrow is projected toward its target it stays inert until the impact. The weight of the arrow increased by speed makes the head of the arrow get through the target.

This is what you want to do. Project your hand to the skin leaving your arm inert from the moment you throw it.

Not trying to get the sound from the wrist doesn’t mean it has to be stiffed.
Contacting the wood with your proximal phalanges & letting the fingers go
Your arm and your hand are stopped in their trajectory through the skin when you touch the wood of the djembe. If your proximal phalanges are free of any vertical control, the fingers will keep going down onto the skin with that maximum dynamic you engaged.

Because performing is easier to associate with contraction than inertness, it can be tricky to get your arm inert just after you initiate the movement. Here’s a simple tip that helps. Look at your arm, you must see your muscles shaking during the impact.
Your arm must be inert during movement and impact while your fingers have to be free to move on their own down by their own down onto the skin, when your arm and hand are stopped by the wood. What makes the all thing difficult to get is that you also have to keep your fingers together so that they hit the skin in the same time. You let them go BUT together. All you need here is a minimal vertical control.

Your hand and arm weight a little more than 2% of your body weight (1,5 kgs for 70 kgs). In accompanying situations at both moderate tempo and volume, the effort to get the sound should be more about lifting up your arm than throwing your hand down or even letting it go down.
Getting sound from a drum is a "throw" thing not a "push" thing
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