Friday, October 11, 2019

All Diets Work

It’s true. According to recent scientific studies, all diets lead to weight loss. However, some diets are good for you, some are not so good, and some can actually hurt you. Some are straight-forward, while others are too hard to understand or difficult to follow. No matter … they all work. And here’s why: When we diet, we pay close attention to what we eat and how much we eat. When not dieting, we’re not as observant. So if we want to lose weight, attending to what we eat and how it might affect our lives is a good idea.
The same might can be said of drum exercises. They all work because they all get your hands (and feet) moving. But, like diets, not all exercises are equal. Some will transport your playing to the next level, while others won’t have much impact on your actual playing, and some may send you off in the wrong direction. A few can even cause damage. (Fortunately, damaging routines are pretty rare.)

If you've found that your practice schedule has become bloated or seems unproductive, here’s a simple litmus test to eliminate the ‘bad foods’ from your drum diet.

1. Is it useful?
Can I relate the material to the music that I play? If I can’t think of a tune or a place in a tune where the material would be a good fit, then I'll likely take it off my schedule.

2. Is it achievable and in a reasonable length of time?
I like to do a return on investment analysis on exercises. What am I going to get back from this and how long will that take? If the ROI doesn't make sense, then I’ll move on to something else.

3. Is it “me”?It’s important that what we work on helps us to express ourselves and our personal musical sense. While it might be useful and achievable, does it fit with what I want to do on the drums?  As with a diet, if it doesn’t suit me, there’s not much point in spending time on it. 

There is so much material around these days that there's no excuse for working on stuff that won’t get you to where you want to go. The challenge, then, is to separate the wheat from the chaff to make your practice schedule both lean and nutritious.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Inspiration From The Stars

I picked up a copy of the Sabian publication “Create: 2017 Cymbals & Sounds”. It’s a 40-page full colour magazine provided free by Sabian and distributed through music equipment outlets. It’s really just a catalogue of their various products, but it delivers quite a bit more. The book is filled with information about cymbals: how they’re made, how they’re used, how designs came about, what different features mean. There’s lots of cymbal lore and history too. If someone wanted to quickly learn about cymbals, this edition would be a great place to start. And it’s free! 
 When I was still saving up for my first cymbals, I cherished similar books from Zildjian called “Cymbal Setups of Famous Drummers”. While these publications may be thinly disguised sales tools, they give us is an intimate look into the personal sound choices of the premier drummers of the day. I found it helpful to know what cymbals my favourite players were using to make the sounds I heard on recordings. It helped me to develop a short list of cymbals to investigate. (My current cymbal set-up is very much like the set Joe Morello used on "Take 5", which I find quite interesting.)

But there’s an even bigger dividend that these books can deliver: enthusiasm. I find it hard to not be pumped when leafing through the Sabian book, just as I did with the Zildjian books years ago. I read about the history of the company, the different methods used and how methods have changed over the centuries. I learned about the different sound options that new designs give us, often with commentary from the artist who helped create the cymbal or series.

What I value most about these books is that they make cymbals and cymbal history interesting, and that can lead to enthusiasm. The stories invite us to join the cymbal community and to cherish the rich culture of cymbals -- and that's an exciting prospect. 

My hope for young and new drummers is that they find a vehicle that can help them get excited about cymbals and cymbal lore. And for those of us who are teachers and mentors, perhaps we can help foster and sustain this enthusiasm. 

You can download a PDF copy of the 2017 edition from Sabian:

Friday, September 6, 2019

Today I'm going to teach you ...

I see a lot of instructional videos these days that take the approach that if I demonstrate something and throw in a little (or a lot of) explanation and serve it up online, then I’m teaching. Well, I’ve been a teacher for too long to think that a one-time demonstration on a computer screen will get the job done, no matter how good the demonstration and explanation might be.

Over the millennia, teaching has evolved to accommodate numbers, sometimes to the detriment of the individual. My first-year sociology class is a perfect example: 700+ students in one room. It's impossible to 'teach' a class of 700 people! Yes, you can get the material out there, and most will pick up enough of it to pass an exam. But is this teaching? Taken to the next level, it’s a lot easier, and a lot cheaper, to reach students over the internet.
Great artists study with great teachers, and not in a class room or by video. Always have; always will. It’s one-on-one ...  no exceptions. Teaching is -- or should be -- coaching. I show you, you try it. I explain the philosophy and purpose behind what I’m showing you. I present the material that needs to be mastered and in an order that’s right for you. I reframe it if my explanation didn’t work for you, and reframe it again and again until you get it. I monitor your progress. And I’ll only introduce new material when the student is ready. Too often new material is given as a matter of course, or as a reward for simply showing up,
I've spent a lot of money on lessons and musical education for myself. I've also spent a lot of time figuring things out on my own. And I've been in classrooms and I've sat thru DVD and on-line lessons. What I remember most is the time I spent with a skilled teacher. And while the lessons may have seemed expensive at the time, they paid for themselves over and over because the lessons kicked off an entire chain of insights and accomplishments. I cannot say the same about DVDs and online videos.
I'm not saying that formal lessons are the only way to go, but in my experience, one-on-mentoring and coaching will bring far greater long-term rewards than any other method. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Case For Complexity

Bass player 'A' had ended the last song of the set with an exceptionally busy send off. Bass player 'B', who was of a different mind-set, later asked, "Why play something complicated when you can play something simple?" Bass player A replied, "Why play something simple when you can play something complicated?"
Naturally, bass player B was somewhat taken aback and didn't have a response for this. And neither do I. I'd love to be able to lay out a solid, convincing, unassailable argument for keeping it simple.
Simplicity Can be Beautiful
Some of the most moving drum parts I've heard were dirt simple. It might have worked with a more ambitious interpretations, but the simpler one just seemed magical. True, playing simply can be challenging enough, but there are good reasons for not keeping it simple.
Meg White vs. Matt Gartska vs. Max Roach
Different music styles require different levels of busy and different levels of complexity. A thrash metal drummer who isn't busy just won't do, and no one wants the drums front and centre throughout a ballad. Becoming familiar with the milieu will let you know what the standard practices are.
How Dense Can You Be?
I like the notion of musical density. Some music is sonically quite full; other bits are more on the light side. This concept can give some idea of what sort of playing might be appropriate. If I'm playing busy music with busy musicians, then I can stretch out a bit. And if the music is spare, then I may choose to fill it out or I might prefer to imitate wallpaper.
Part Of The Milieu
This goes along with density. Some genres are more dense and thus require more input from all players. Think progressive jazz, prog-rock, fusion, death metal. Power trios benefit from a busy drummer who can help fill things out.
Personal Milestones
The overall busy-ness of your playing changes over time. Most of us go through a honeymoon period, when more is always better. Also, as you grow musically,  you can handle more complex situations. So while we may overplay in the beginning, most of us adapt to the music before too long. We may then go on to learn to deal with more and more complex music.
It's part of the fun
First of all, raw energy is compelling. Pushing the music hard can get the entire room jumping, and complexity can deliver a lot of energy. Complexity is also inherently rewarding. There's the challenge of doing something complicated, and also the resulting buzz.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Some of my Favourite Drummers are Invisible

I was sitting in a club listening to one of my drum heroes when I asked myself what it was that I found so appealing about his playing. I listened carefully as he played through the head, backed each soloist, took a solo, and wrapped things up. His playing rose and fell beautifully with the music, but for the most part, he seemed to be barely there: supportive but unobtrusive ... almost invisible. Some of the very best drummers are virtually unheard of.  When it comes to the needs of music, visibility -- or, rather, audibility -- is often not high on the list. There are high profile drummers we admire who have the ability to disappear as well as get noticed. Vinnie Calaiuta is a great example. When it calls for flash, you couldn't want for more. But look at Vinnie's recording credits and you'll find loads of examples where he takes musical invisibility to heart.

A lot of drummers who qualify as invisible: Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer,  Clem Catini. Even the more flamboyant drummers -- Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, Mike Portnoy -- fade into the background when it suits the music. They all played out front when necessary but were just as happy sitting back and grooving their butts off. What it comes down to is that these players could be anybody during the body of a tune, but when their creative skills were needed,  well there’s no mistaking a Hal Blaine fill.
Being invisible doesn't mean not contributing or not being creative or not being sensitive to the music. Quite the opposite. Being a musical drummer means that you can sense what the music needs and then deliver just the right thing -- no more, no less. You are part of the recipe, the way that leavening is a part of the cake. So when the drums belong in the background, that's where they should go.
I love the supportive aspect of this approach. These drummers sit in the mix in such a way that the music is fully supported and carried along by the drum beat, it's just that it's not obvious and sometimes you have to listen for it. 
Next time you're Listening to any well-produced track, note whether the drummer is sitting quietly at the back or way out front. Which do you prefer? Which is better for the tune?

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Diversify and Conquer Part II

There are lots of gigs within the music industry that do not necessarily involve playing drums. Here are just a few examples.

Second Instrument
Good drummers who are also good singers will always be in demand. So how about a drummer who can double on another instrument: keyboard, sax, wobbleboard -- lots of possibilities. If you're good enough on another instrument, maybe you can get some work with that. I once had a student who got more gigs on trombone than on drums.

Music Store Polymath
During my university years, I worked at a pro music store where I matched drummers (and others) with equipment and provided technical solutions. I also did repairs and so I got to work on a lot of great instruments and a lot of great people. And it turned out to be a good source of students and gigs.

In the Supply Chain Perhaps you'd excel as a wholesale or manufacturer’s rep. Drum companies and their agents need people to demonstrate and educate as well as to look after their customers. There's also a constant need for organizers, promoters and communicators.

Benevolent Overlord
Maybe you were destined to manage or promote. The music business needs people to TCB. That includes managers, road managers, personal techs, booking agents, PR & promotion… . There are many possibilities for someone who is organized, energetic  and proactive.

Author, Author
Think making a living as a musician is tough? It can be a cakewalk compared to writing. Still, there are opportunities for good writers who can find a niche and an audience. Many authors write as a means of marketing. An instruction book, for example, is very good marketing tool. Other avenues for authors include magazines, blogs, guest blogging, educational publications, and industry materials (e.g. PR, catalogs). People will always have a need for good writers, editors and communicators.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A Bright Idea

When we speak of tone, we often use terms like warm, round, dark, and the like. Each tone quality has its place, but the one that many drummers seem to forget about is bright. It's one thing for our drums to sound great when we're seated behind them, but what does it sound like out front?

If we look at the physics of sound, we see that high pitches travel better than low pitches. That means that higher sounds -- i.e. bright sounds -- project better than low-pitched or dull sounds. In short, they 'cut'. And yet a lot of the drummers I see tune their drums to pitches that are too low to project well. Yes, it sounds pretty funky from the driver’s seat, but how much of that sound is actually getting out past the singer? 

Low tuning has other shortcomings. It's easy to 'under-tune' a drum. Different sized drums have different usable ranges<see Tessitura>, and a drum can only be tuned so low before it can no longer do its job. You end up with what I call a ‘baggy’ sound -- a little like banging on a stack of paper grocery bags -- or ‘boxy’. The worst case is that the different drums will all sound pretty much the same out front. Tuning too low also forces you to hit harder.

Low sounds can interfere with other instruments, especially the bass. This can result in a muddy bottom end to the music.

If your drums are being closely mic'ed, then you can tune pretty much any way you want. The sound system will take over the job of projecting your mix. But if there is no audio assist, then tuning your drums more toward the middle of their range to increase the high frequency content can improve projection.

High and mid-range tuning tends to work well in most situations. In a small club, you can usually keep up with any assortment of instruments. In a larger room, higher tuning may provide all the cut and volume you need. And in a large concert with full sound system? Just listen to Dave Weckl or David Garibaldi to see how effective higher pitches can be through a PA.

Higher tuning's many benefits:
  • Be heard in the audience with less effort
  • Avoid clashing with other musicians
  • Get the best tone quality from your drums
  • Enjoy decent stick response and drums that are less tiring to play
  • Reduce dependence on microphones and PA