Music & Mindfulness: Making a Tongue Drum Album in Lockdown
One thing that I've been finding a huge help over the past year in terms of anxiety and stress management is my new(ish) favourite thing, the Idiopan Dominus steel tongue drum. I bought one of them from US based manufacturer Idiopan last summer, and it came all the way from Florida to take pride of place on my sofa. That's where it almost always stays now, so I can play it whenever I'm at home and feel the need to. And I've been at home/felt the need to a LOT during the lockdown. I found myself coming up with tune after tune on this wonderful instrument, and after recording three or four tunes I realized I could make an album of chilled, instrumental music revolving around it. So I did. Pretty blog worthy in my opinion.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Dominus tongue drum (which, I imagine, is most people), it's a melodic drum consisting of ten notes, all of which can be tuned by use of magnets fitted beneath them. Its tones are really soothing and the drum itself is a joy to play. I first came across it on YouTube having become obsessed with hang drum music. I then realized that Rob Scallon used it in a video of his, and I was pretty much sold after that – I decided I had to have one.
In terms of my own mental health which has been a huge struggle over the years, I've found the drum to be a godsend. Whenever stress and anxiety levels have been difficult to manage (which is still fairly often for me), the Dominus has become the first thing I turn to. It's helped me overcome stress levels that would otherwise mutate into panic attacks. In terms of more severe PTSD related symptoms, it's helped with grounding. It legitimately has helped keep me calm longer and more consistently, and making bits of pieces of recordings to put on Soundcloud helped with mindfulness and even sleep when I struggled with that. From this point it became clear that I could make an EP intended for mindfulness and meditation.
Drums and percussion, guitar playing and singing have been helpful to me for many years. There's a lot to be said for really affecting an instrument, and physically feeling the interaction with it and sound waves from it. In terms of drumming, especially in rock and metal drumming, that's intense and cathartic. Pummeling a drum kit and making a racket is a great release, and more complex drumming requires a lot of focus and discipline. Drumming in genres like folk and pop often requires restraint, but listening to other musicians can be quite intense. When it comes to singing, you are the instrument, and everything that happens literally flows through you. A lot of the acoustic songwriting I've done deals with mental health head on as a form of therapy. Me and presumably every other songwriter who ever lived!
But the tongue drum is a much more gentle instrument than everything else I've ever played; it feels very unique. It takes very little effort to make a really resonant sound. In fact, how you play the various notes can very much effect the kind of sound they make. Also learning to compose music on something that most people haven't heard of, let alone play, is a really fulfilling experience.
So then, with everyone locked down and stuck inside, and with a sense of very real threat looming and not just my usual fearful anxiety and paranoia, I required focus. I decided that I needed a project. So at the risk of really irritating my upstairs neighbor (sorry, upstairs neighbor, you've been very patient with me!), I realized that a potential EP of tongue drum music could become a full length album. Considering the fact that the pieces I was writing were quite long (mostly around 6 minutes), and gently repetitive, creating an album intended for mindfulness made perfect sense. Plus, let's face it, during the lockdown there was no excuse for me not to get something creative done. I decided to step away from mental health voluntary work for the time being to focus on music, and really give myself the time to do it. This became mindful in itself without me even realizing it at the time. From rumblings of an EP early in the year that got put off, to becoming determined to complete an album, this set of tunes took about three months of writing, re-writing, more concise planning, recording and in some cases re-recording. It required a work ethic approach. I found myself getting quite organized, which isn't something I'm very good at usually!
Naming the pieces became mindful too. I decided early on to make reference to the pandemic, and a piece originally called 'Xonsu' (named after one of the tunings for the drum) became the album's title track, 'We'll Survive This, Then Imagine All The Hugs We Can Have'. That title seemed to fit well, heartfelt quirkiness and all. I miss my friends and our hugs, and I liked the idea of creating a little bit of hope and reflection. We were all going to be stuck with this for a while, with the very real possibility of not surviving. It was and still is legitimately scary. Seeing how badly COVID-19 was impacting things here in the UK, and also the US by that point, hope seemed in short supply. I've felt sick with anger from time to time seeing botched efforts of governments who didn't even look like they were trying to deal with this. When you feel powerless to do anything about current events, music becomes an escape.
Other track titles like 'Sheer Determination' and 'Can't Becomes Can Becomes Do' made reference to the recording process itself, and 'Just Be Here Now' is a reference to the very concept of mindfulness. Plus, I'll be honest, a slightly geeky reference to the last line of The Midnight Gospel, which I may be slightly obsessed with.
The whole process has been a mixed bag for sure. There was self-inflicted pressure to get it right. Not many people are making albums with tongue drums as far as I know, so if you're going to do something like this, it needs to be well thought through and of decent quality. I had to teach myself how to record with the instrument, as resonant as it is. Luckily it came with a built in pick-up, so worrying about microphones wasn't an issue. I'll go into more detail about how I put it all together in another blog – there were several obstacles to overcome. But I'm happy with the end result, especially with a couple of tracks that kind of wrote themselves as I was recording them. 'Sheer Determination' was the most fun example of that. It went from a one riff idea to a full song in one day, and when you've got an instrument as cool as this, it isn't difficult to get inspired. Overcoming hurdles became satisfying. Structuring pieces with more thought and intention became exciting. Applying other instrumentation, from synths to a child's djembe to using a Pringles tub as percussion (yes, really, I'm not kidding) became a ton of fun. That said, some recording elements were stressful, with too many takes than I care to make public! But all the pieces have transformed into something I can just chill out to. I'm proud of that being the product of all the graft. The hard work paid off.
Now that the album is done, I can really reflect on it and view it as big achievement. Another album is in the pipeline already, in the form of an ambient album of reversed tongue drum. It's even more beautiful the sound files played backwards somehow, which I found that out by happy accident. I hope it can be a quirky time capsule to a weird time. It's become a fundraiser too. Work I've done in LGBTQ+ peer support has made me aware of a local cafe here in Leeds called Flamingos that's a friendly space to that community, and that needs financial help on the back of the lockdown. Maybe I can do my bit there.
The next challenge will be working out how to play some of this stuff live. I'll certainly have to use a loop pedal for some pieces so that's fun. And teaming up with other musicians could be really cool too. Hopefully gigs and future albums can follow at some point, and I like the idea of future fundraisers for businesses, the arts and the Black Lives Matter movement. If I'm able, I want to make my music useful for something. If it can help with fundraising and mental health, bring it on.
I'm really grateful to have had the chance to make something with the Idiopan Dominus tongue drum. I reckon I've got a few more albums in me.
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