The stick-passing game

This is a great game. I first learned it from my friend and colleague (and all-round inspiring human being) Eugene Skeef. It was during the year I worked in Bosnia with War Child. A group of us had driven out to a town called Ljubinje, in Republika Srpska. This town was extremely isolated – situated near two inter-entity borders, so people there didn’t have a lot of freedom of movement. There was a very motivated and energetic drama teacher there, so our team went out to work with him and his students and give them some support in building a creative and peaceful life.

Eugene led the workshop. He asked all in the group to go outside and find a stone. It needed to be a stone that was small enough (and large enough) to fit comfortably in a hand. Smooth stones were preferable, but not essential; ideally the stones would have a certain robustness too, and not fall apart on impact.

Everyone went out and found a stone to their liking, and came back into the workshop room. Eugene got us all to sit or kneel on the floor in a circle, with our hands on our stones in front of us.

He then explained how the game works:

On a given count, everyone passes their stone to the right. They have to place it on the floor in front of the person on their right. They then pick up the stone that is now in front of them (placed there by the person on their left).

Are you with me still? It is easier to show than to describe.

The idea is to settle into a rhythm that goes like this: put-down, pick-up, put-down, pick-up, put-down, pick-up, etc. Things get fun when someone fumbles a stone (the person next to them won’t have anything to pass on to their neighbour, and so the stones start to pile up. When the ‘Stop!’ is called, the person with the largest pile of stones in front of them is out).

You can also get the group to gradually speed up, or slow down.

Variations include building in some floor taps as well, such as:

One, two, put-down, pick-up

One, two, put-down, pick-up

You can also sing a song at the same time. We will Rock you goes well with the two-taps-on-the-floor-before-passing-on example just above.

Eugene taught us a song from South Africa (he described learning it from his father, and how it told the story of, or was sung by, kids running alongside the trains taking adult workers to and from the mines). The song was called Bombela, and to my regret I never learned the words. I remember the tune and have made up my own (nonsense-language) words. But I’d love to know the real words, if anyone thinks they know the song.

Another variation is to invent a passing pattern in a different time signature. I like doing a 3/4 pattern and singing Eidelweiss with my students.

It is also fun to do a pattern in one time signature and an accompanying song in another time signature. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, as the rhythm established by the passing action is quite strong and grounded, and moves into an automatic mode with the participants.

By the way, you may have noticed that I have called it the stick-passing game in the title of the post, but described the game as being played with stones. Well, here in Melbourne, we are pretty short on stones in our concrete-covered playground. So we use rhythm sticks. They work just as well (although I find it useful to show the students how to put the stick down with firm and decisive hand pressure so that it doesn’t roll across the floor). You don’t have to use fancy polished rosewood rhythm sticks. Cut and sanded pieces of dowel work just as well, and are a lot cheaper to buy.

I find this game builds a great sense of rhythm among the students. They learn to prioritise their actions when they fumble or miss a beat – they don’t have time to catch up on all the actions of floor taps or pick-ups – they have to prioritise putting-down at the same time as the rest of the group (or they risk getting their fingers caught under someone else’s stick or stone!) Enjoy!


12 comments so far

  1. Eugene on

    Hi G, nice to read about our game on your blog. It brought back great memories of our time together at the Pavarotti Music Centre. How I miss those days with all our Bosnian friends. In fact in July 2009 I’ll be going there to give some rhythm masterclasses being organised by one of my drumming students from back then. I’m really looking forward to reconnectng…

    Anyway, here are the Zulu lyrics of the stone/stick/any object passing game:

    Bhombela wes’timela

    Bhombela wes’timela

    Jaz lam’ lesiliva
    Ngal’thenga ngemal’

    Jaz lam’ lesiliva
    Ngal’thenga ngemal’

    The song literally praises the steam train that transports the fathers of the children from their homeland to the bustling cities where they earn their living. The song is in praise of this train because the children look forward to it returning their fathers with gifts. In the case of our song a child fantasises about a shiny silver coat bought with money earned during his/her dad’s migrant work. These migrations could take 9 months, a year, two years or forever…

    I hope this helps you. Let’s stay in touch. My email address is You might also be interested in some other forms of creative educational work I have been developing here in the UK since I last saw you. Here are a couple of links to start with:

    My udu drum site:

    Body percussion as part of my Excite LPO commission in June 2008 (Scroll down the page to watch a short video clip of me):

    Love and best wishes for 2009


  2. bobbiejane on

    Thanks for sharing!

    Eugene if you reside in the UK I would love to meet you the video is fab!

    I have used this game – but used shoes and other items. It is such fun! Haven’t played it in a while though so thanks for refreshing my mind!

    Happy New Year!

    B 🙂

  3. mike spiller on

    Have you heard of the game / product called Yan-Koloba? Check out my website and you will find it there. It is an activity just like this and is in a wonderful package that has a fully detaile DVD and blocks to pass during the game.

  4. More games… « music work on

    […] games | Tags: games, workshops | U.S-based games specialist Mike Spiller added a comment to my stick-passing game post. For people looking for some new games to play with groups as ice-breakers or communication […]

  5. sally bartholomew on

    Please could you send me the words to ‘ Mobako meeno fway’.Sally

    • musicwork on

      Hi Sally,
      I haven’t forgotten this request. The words I can send you here, but I’m trying to work out a good way of getting the melody to you. It’s an opportunity to investigate some ‘notation on the blog’ options! Worst case scenario, I’ll film me singing it, stick it on YouTube and send you the link.
      (Leader) Oh wene maka lay, mobako meeno fway
      (All) Yeah, yeah, mobako meeno fway
      (Leader) Oh wene maka lay, mobako meeno fway
      (All) Yeah, yeah, mobako meeno fway
      (All) Mobako meeno fway, Mobako meeno fway,
      Mobako meeno fway, Mobako meeno fway, (2x for this chorus)

      Thanks for your comment and interest! I’ll do a full post on this song soon, and hopefully add the music somehow.

  6. […] stick passing game that I learned as a stone-passing game from a South African musician. I’ve written in some detail about this game in the past, and the song, Bhombela, that I often teach with it. With the MTeach […]

  7. […] This one describing the stick-passing game, which includes some additional information contributed by my dear friend and colleague Eugene Skeef (who taught me the game in the first place) […]

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  9. […] and sound-invention games, the Clap/Sssh/HiYa! game that I have described in earlier posts, and the stick passing game (also written about earlier) with song […]

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  11. […] Source: The stick-passing game | music work […]

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