The Cajon – An Amazing Teaching Tool - by Janet Van Valey

As many directors have experienced, ringers often find it difficult to maintain a consistent, steady beat. Add to that the demands of shaping a phrase, observing tempo changes, meter changes, and dynamics. Over the years I have used a variety of metronomes amplified for all to hear, drum sticks, counting out loud, and when they are playing a hymn tune, singing the hymn. Singing a line is a great way for the ringers to experience the desired sound, but it still falls short of developing a common sense of musicality throughout the entire ensemble.

Then Malmark introduced their line of Cajons. This was a new instrument to me and I had no idea how it could fit into my rehearsals. I did learn some basics about the Cajon but it was desperation that finally taught me the real utility of this instrument. While working on a fast, syncopated composition the choir was struggling with holding a steady beat. I started giving the beat on a Cajon and immediately everything fell into place. I quickly learned that I could shape a phrase, change dynamics, and enhance pulse just by how I played the Cajon. I was impressed with how fast the music came together, and even more pleased by the response of the ringers. The Cajon is clearly more musical than a metronome, saves time in rehearsals and has become a favorite learning tool of the ensemble.

This experience was reinforced when I took a Cajon to a coaching session. The choir I was coaching was struggling to achieve level 2 music, and had no concept of a common beat. Through specific technique drills and keeping a steady beat with the Cajon, this choir achieved more music than they ever expected was possible. They too now use a Cajon in their rehearsals.

To get you started with your new Malmark Cajon we offer some basic tips and rhythm exercises from James Mobley, Educator, Musician, Consultant and Clinician who teaches and directs music at Woodhaven-Brownstown School District and is an alumnus of Eastern Michigan University. James is a colleague and customer of Jan's and both have enjoyed collaborating on the use of the Cajon.

Prepared by Jim Mobley

  • Definition: The Spanish word "Cajon" is derived from "caja" which means "box," "crate" or "drawer."
  • Origins/Early History: The Cajon is a percussion instrument of Afro-Peruvian origin, created by West African slaves during the time of Spanish colonialism of Peru and South America. Unable to bring instruments from their homelands, slaves created the Cajon out of scrap wood crates and boxes. The resulting instrument closely resembled some of the box-like drums they had played in their homelands. Slaves were forbidden to play music by the Spanish colonials. So, in an effort to hide their instruments they would use the instruments like stools or drawers.
  • Types: There are three common types of Cajons – Peruano, Flamenco and Cubano – each can be made in various sizes, wood selection (including solid wood and plywood) and styles. We will only be focusing on the first two, which originated in Peru, and where the performer sits on the Cajon:
    • "Peruano" or "Peruvian" Cajons – most closely resemble those originally created by African musicians during the time of Spanish colonialism. They have wood on all six sides. The front playing surface (called the "tapa") is made of a thinner ply than the other five. The back surface will have a large sound hole to increase resonance and projection.
    • "Flamenco" and "Snare" Cajons – first came onto the music scene in the 1970's when Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia was in Peru working with percussionist Caitro Soto. Soto took a guitar string and placed it against the inside of the playing surface, creating a snare drum-like quality to the sound. De Lucia took the Cajon back to Spain and introduced the instrument to his fellow Flamenco musicians and fans. While the "Flamenco" Cajon is still popular many manufacturers have gone to manufacturing "Snare" cajons, replacing the guitar string with a portion of the snares from a snare drum.
  • Posture on the instrument: When sitting on the Cajon focus on just two simple things:
    • Sit as far back on the Cajon as you can, with your legs spread comfortably apart. You need to be able to place the palm of your hand on the top front corners of the Cajon.
    • Sit up! You should never need to hunch over the Cajon to play properly. Sitting up straight but relaxed, will keep you from placing strain on your lower back.
  • Strokes: The basic strokes are very similar to some of the strokes used on other Afro-Cuban and African hand percussion instruments.

If you are ready to continue, see the practice exercises from Jim Mobley here:

Jim Mobley has been an educator and professional musician for nearly 25 years. He currently teaches instrumental music at Brownstown Middle School, in Brownstown, Michigan. He is also the Associate Director of the Saline Big Band, where he has been the drummer for 20 years. In addition, he is currently the drummer for St. Luke Lutheran Ann Arbor, and the Depot Town Big Band. He also performs with various acts in the Ann Arbor area, and is an active clinician. Mr. Mobley is a member of the Vic Firth education team.

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