by Author Jenny Beer

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Artistic Director Jo Wills reflects on Drum Works' response to lockdown

It probably goes without saying that finding a way for a project like Drum Works, that is so heavily based on face-to face-interaction, to function through a global pandemic has been the hardest challenge we’ve faced in our 12-odd years of operating in east London. Sitting at this end of the summer term and looking back at what we as a team and all the people in the Drum Works family have achieved in that time makes me feel really proud of the amazing people I get to work with and this wonderful community of people that has evolved over the years. Realising that despite all the restrictions, our community was still there and the issues we try to tackle in our work were as present as ever, we had to find a way to keep going and fast. We got down to work over the Easter break, recording, editing and learning and managed to move almost the entire Drum Works programme online.

From the participants’ point of view, involvement in Drum works now looks like this:

  • Weekly online sessions run over Zoom with your usual creative team. We use Ableton to offer decent-quality audio for people to play along to, and which also allows us to strip beats down and practice parts slowly etc.
  • Access to our ever-growing library of musicjelly interactive videos - users can turn sections of video on and off so they can choose which parts they want to learn or jam along with (see an example here:
  • Taking part in devising and creating our mosaic videos which replaced our end-of-year shows this year

The back-end for all of this has been a pretty epic amount of recording and editing! The aim is to record all the parts of all the Drum Works material (bearing in mind that there’s a vast lexicon of ‘correct versions’ of the 80+ beats we play and the actions and traditions that go with them, which only exists in the great Drum Works hive mind, not in any single place). These get programmed in to our Ableton master page, which is available to all our team to use as they see fit in sessions. Then we use that that to create our interactive musicjelly library. We were lucky enough to Work with Ben and Zahara from musicjelly a few years ago at the Barbican, and as soon as lockdown came in we got in contact with them to see if they’d be up for working with us to create an interactive online teaching resource. Essentially these are videos where you can turn sections of the audio on and off, so a plot screen of all the parts of a beat being played and you choose which bits to play along with. The results have been brilliant, and really helpful as teaching aids, as well as giving participants that have struggled with zoom sessions a way to access our music and play along.

The final challenge has been creating performance videos. Performances have always been at the core of the Drum Works programme, and these videos, while maybe not as exciting as our usual live summer events, have offered something for participants to work with us towards. Participants have been involved in the whole process: generating sets, then recording their parts and finally seeing these epic videos all brought together. Again, it’s been a massive effort behind the scenes to get these things made, from chasing up and helping people who were struggling with the tech or the concepts, generating and teaching all the necessary bits of material, then editing and mixing the final films. It’s involved pros and volunteers alike – a real giant team effort. The final product is amazing, and something we’re really proud of. (Watch all the videos here)

Looking ahead, we hope to develop an online drum sequencer so that we can get back to creativity being at the heart of what we do. Composition is one of the areas that has suffered the most through lockdown; finding ways to write collaboratively and smoothly when you’re not in a room together is tough. Hopefully, we’re close to finding another technological aid on this front.

While we’ve managed to run almost all of our sessions over the past few months, there has been a drop in numbers particularly amongst our most vulnerable participants, and we’re looking at ways to combat this as we move into the Autumn term.  Crucially, we’re also working hard to find ways to get together and – safely – play drums as a band again.