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Body Percussion to Bucket Drumming…Exploring Rhythmische Ubung

buckets (1)By David Birrow, Minneapolis, MN

Rhythmische Übung, by Gunild Keetman[1] is a primary source rich with rhythm content. The 78 pieces in this concise collection cover a wide variety of meters, phrase lengths, and orchestrations. Keetman’s own rationale for the book is as follows:

“The essence and purpose of these exercises is (along the development of a feeling for form, a rhythmic-musical memory, and a sense for dynamics and phrasing) also the gaining of confidence in rhythmic ensemble playing, which for all instrumental music-making is indispensable. Moreover, these exercises give the teacher who has no or few instruments at his disposal the possibility of involving all students in the same way.”[2]

Bucket drumming has become a staple in music classrooms, but the opportunities for exploring movement with these ensembles is often overlooked. The goal of this article is to suggest three approaches for combining movement with bucket drumming.

Note: Each of the examples below presumes that you have thoroughly taught the piece to students with body percussion first. “Buckets” refers to the 5-gallon buckets commonly found at big box home improvement stores.

Mapping Timbres and Upper Body Movement –  Exercises #1-32: Patting, pp. 5-8

The first section of Rhythmische Übung utilizes patting on legs only. The most obvious way to use material from section one would be to simply map the body percussion timbres onto different timbres on the bucket. For instance, instead of their patting legs, the student would hit the top of the bucket. Another option would be to mix body percussion and bucket sounds.  Let’s take a look at the possibilities using exercises #11-26: right and left leg patting exercises.

Have students sit in a circle, placing buckets to the left and right of each student. Instruct students to hit the top of the bucket to their right with their right hand instead of hitting their right leg while the left hand still hits the legs. Immediately the piece sounds very different, but feels familiar. Then do the opposite: students hit the bucket to their left instead of left leg and keep any right leg rhythms on the right leg. YouTube video example using #11

We can then increase the musical texture by including a rhythmic and/or movement ostinato using various sound sources. Perhaps make a mini-arrangement that starts with body percussion and then segues into right then left hand drumming. This is the perfect opportunity for students to provide input to determine the final performance of the composition.

Sliding Buckets with Partners – Exercises #33-50: Patting and Clapping (pp. 9-12)

The second section (#33-50) introduces opportunities for students to work with partners and create pieces with more vitality.

Let’s use #34 as an example. Have students face a partner while kneeling on the ground with about six feet between them. Each set of partners needs one bucket, turned upside down.

The clapping in this piece will stay intact, but change the function of the patting to a “floor stomp” in measures 1 and  3. During a “floor stomp,” students lift the bucket and hit it firmly on the floor. Have the students clap as indicated for the remainders of measures 1 and 3. On the half note in measure 2 and 4, the students slide the bucket to their partner.

So far, the timbre sequence would be: “floor-clap-clap-clap-slide.”

This approach continues in measures 5-8 as the students perform: “clap-clap-clap-slide” with the bucket passing between the partners rapidly. Encourage students to continue the body percussion even when they don’t have possession of the bucket and not to worry about catching the bucket as it may throw off the timing. YouTube video example of sliding.

Musically the sliding adds variation to the piece as well as a bit of fun as students are challenged to slide the bucket in time to their partner. Alternatively, you could perform this in a circle with the sliding going counter-clockwise. This approach addresses Keetman’s goal of instilling confidence in rhythmic ensemble playing. The students literally have to work as a team since somebody is sliding a bucket at you!

Sliding works very well on non-carpeted floors, but suppose your floor surface is not conducive to sliding? Not to worry! Students will love the opportunity to explore ways to solve the problem. Challenge them to find new ways to pass the bucket. Are there other ways they can move with the bucket to show the longer durations. The possibilities are endless!

Gross-Motor Movement – Exercises #51-57:  Stamping and Clapping, (p. 13)

Keetman’s musical crafting in this section is ripe for exploring movement in combination with a variety of bucket sounds. The score is limited to just 2 levels. The introduction of alternating stamping allows for lively movement. Although clapping is the only other body percussion indicated in these exercises, that doesn’t mean we have to work with just one timbre on the buckets!

In this section there are many possibilities to consider. What other sounds can be made on the buckets? How can we travel with the buckets? Are there ways to “clap” on the bucket? What about bumping the bucket with a partner? Will everyone hold buckets or will some students work with with sticks? Will the score be interpreted between two people? A small group?  A larger group?

I often begin encouraging my students’ explorations by introducing “bucket claps” and “bucket bumps.” “Bucket claps” are achieved by holding the bucket at chest height and clapping your hands onto the sides of the bucket. A “bucket bump” is performed by pushing the bucket directly in front of you at arm’s length. If you are standing alone, you simply get a motion, but if there is another partner facing you, the buckets collide creating a satisfying “thump.” YouTube video of example using Exercise #51.

Of course this is just one suggestion to get you started. You will find many other ways to transfer Exercise #51 to buckets and movement. Consider what would happen if one partner had sticks. What if this were performed by a large group? How could we use the details that Keetman intended with alternating left and right foot stomps? Students often suggest the challenge of moving in a double circle (one circle inside the other). The outside circle faces the center, the inside circle faces out so that each person has a partner. The alternation of left and right offers opportunities for switching partners. YouTube example with a double circle.

Rhythmische Übung provides us with the opportunity to look at original source material in creative new ways by incorporating 5 gallon buckets. While this article gives a few jumping off points, ultimately it is the students who will revel in the opportunity to find ways to play these classic gems. This year, put a new twist on an old favorite; try bucket drumming and movement with your students!

[1] Gunild Keetman, Rhythmische Übung, Schott Musik International, Mainz 42915

[2] Gunild Keetman, Rhythmische Übung, Schott Musik International, Mainz 42915, p.3 (translated by Kurt Schmidt, Assistant Principal, East Ridge Middle School, Rancho Rio, NM)

David Birrow is a percussionist and teacher with experience teaching K-12 general music in both public and private schools. His book, The Bucket Book: A Junkyard Percussion Manual, was released last year. He teaches in Minneapolis for the MacPhail Center for Music and Breck School. Learn more at