Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Bobby Hackett Method

When asked if he did anything special to prepare himself for a performance, the great jazz coronet player Bobby Hackett said, "I just go out there and try to do it right."


 
Hmm ... doesn't seem like an overly difficult job description. We could assume that the cornetist just hoped to make no outright mistakes. But for a musician of his calibre, mistakes are pretty much a non-issue. So what, then, did he mean by do it right?

Deciding what's right can be difficult. The difference between good and not-so-good is often subjective, and the interpretation can be very personal. And doing it right can include knowing what not to play.

Then there are the times when doing what's right isn't the right way to go. I'm sure you've been in a situation where the theoretically correct thing didn't work for that tune. It's also possible to miss opportunities when trying to play something 'by the book'. Playing with correct technique may not suit either. Then it's time to do it wrong, and that can be a great stimulus to creativity and discovery.

Here's the list I use to help me do it right:

  • Be as competent as I can be: Continue to grow musically and never stop learning
  • No mistakes or clunkers: Know the material inside-out
  • Right style, tradition: Assumes I've done my homework
  • Right energy, feel and passion: It has to work for the song and the context
  • No extraneous crap: Always be tasteful
  • Creative: Try to bring something new, fresh
  • 'Busyness' level: I've played too busy and also not busy enough!
A simple and always valid goal is to try to do it 'better than last time'. And if you are keeping all these other things in mind, then you're ready to go!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Know Your Limits

... and then plow past them as hard as you can.


We're not talking about a gambling habit here. If you're serious about drums (and life in general) you'll put some time into identifying both your personal strengths and weaknesses.

Working with our strengths is easy because it's self-rewarding. If you try something new and it works out well, you're rewarded and are therefore more inclined to try it again. Our weaknesses? Well we'd rather not even think about them, or maybe we're more comfortable denying them altogether.

Confronting our weaknesses will often make us stronger. The mere fact that we're tackling the issue can give us confidence and a feeling of competence. Acknowledging and working on a weakness will also help to minimize its impact on our lives and can even open up opportunities and discoveries.

I believe I've mentioned before that I have a poor memory. It's pretty hard to ignore because something or someone will point it out to me just about every day. And so I've worked on various techniques to help me remember, or at least to not lose track quite so badly. For example, I analyze tunes extensively to help me remember them. I chart them, make cue cards and sometimes even transcribe them. These exercises and systems have resulted in some respectable improvements.

Sometimes a simple work-around will get the job done when things just aren't coming together. Having trouble playing fast tempos? Find some stickings and patterns that give you a fast sound with less stress. Can't get your head around some complicated beat? Reduce it to its essential components:  pare it down, eliminate some of the complexity. Have trouble remembering things? Keep a notepad handy. Trouble identifying tunes? Create a database of first lines and keep it on your cell phone.

No matter what 'limit' is giving you trouble, you can probably find a solution. So don't be afraid to acknowledge your stumbling blocks, and then look for creative ways to overcome them.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Holding it All Together

The band was about to play their final number and the leader was introducing the band members one last time. It was a bit redundant because the line-up was a who's who of Canadian jazz players. Finally the MC announced the drummer, adding that he was the glue that held it all together, and all the band members nodded in agreement.

That struck me as a bit odd. These were simply the ‘best of the best’, so why would any glue be required? These musicians could do anything. Still, the consensus seemed to be that the drummer was the one who kept things on track.

It's both a flattering and an intimidating assessment. It's nice to have someone say you're such an important part of the ensemble, but its also a lot of responsibility.

In a way, the drummer is the ‘floor manager’ of the music. While the leader may pick the tunes, set the tempos and kick things off, successful completion of a tune requires someone to take care of how it all develops. And the drummer is the ideal choice. A good drummer, one with the right skill set, helps to illustrate the time, solidifies the rhythmic structure, marks the different points in the tune, and manages the energy level during solos and different sections of the tune.

A drummer has quite a bit of power. Even in a high-volume situation, the drummer can usually compete, and our drive (or lack of) can have a big effect on the music. We're like the tiller of a ship. We can determine the direction with a simple adjustment. We can also make things a bit scary if we're too heavy-handed on the tiller.

A drummer is a go-between. We communicate the time and energy to the other band members. For example, in a jazz band, the bass player's job is to lay down a steady bass line. The drummer can then help communicate the time to the other players. 
This will also give the bass player more freedom and lighten his/her load.

And we’re arbiters. If you have two musicians pulling in opposite directions -- guitar player plays on top, bass player plays behind, for example -- the  drummer can find a spot in the middle and help these two work together.

Sure it's a big job, but somebody's got to do it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Re-visioning the Snare Drum

It's somewhat ironic that the snare drum is the centre of a drummer's universe and yet it’s not often exploited for the rich assortment of sounds it can produce. Here’s a quick guide to some of what you can find in a well-adjusted snare drum, and where to find it.

The Rule of Thirds 
Think of the playing area as a target with three regions. The bulls-eye sounds the driest and usually the loudest. The very middle of that region -- a spot about the size of a quarter (see Fig. 1 below) -- gives the fattest, driest sound. It’s also the least interesting, but move slightly off centre (Fig. 2) and the sound begins to liven up with lots of oomph and very little ring. The middle band of the target is your sweet zone (Fig. 3). Hit anywhere in that area and it will usually sound good, with a nice balance of volume, resonance and overtones. The majority of your playing will likely be in this zone

The region near the rim (Fig. 4) is the quietest and also the ringiest. It’s where we put tape and other stuff to control the ring. But ring can be a good thing -- this area is great for Latin type sounds. That’s four potential sounds. But wait ... there's more!

Special Effects 
Stick Shot: This is not a rim shot. It’s when you put the bead of one stick on the drum and hit it with the other stick.

Cross Stick: This is not a rim shot either. It’s when you lay your stick across the drum and click one end of it on the rim. This can yield a lot of different sounds depending on where the stick meets the head, where you hit the rim, and whether the stick is butt first or tip first.

Rim Shot: There are three types of rim shot. The basic rim shot is played by striking the rim and the head at the same time, in this case, within the sweet zone (as in Fig. 3).

Ping Shot: This is the one you hear a lot in Latin music. It’s a rim shot played in the outer third of the drum, producing a cutting, high-pitched, timbale-like sound (Fig. 5).

Gock Shot: This requires a bigger bite with the stick. Play a rim shot, but extend the tip of your stick past the mid-point of the drum for a very fat sound (Fig. 6).

There are more possibilities, but this should be enough to get you started.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Drummer's 7 Stages of Enlightenment

These are stages that I think I've passed through on my journey.  Please note - this is my totally made up view of a drummer’s possible emotional evolution based on one drummer’s patchy memories. I repeat: I MADE IT ALL UP! That said, do any of these sound familiar?

Stage One: Having Fun Making Noise
The drums -- perhaps a gift from unsuspecting parents or a well-meaning uncle -- are new, fun, LOUD. So goal number 1 is to play hard, fast, loud, and with total abandon. Even better if some of it actually sounds like a beat.

Stage Two: Having Fun Making Music
You have a few decent beats plus a couple of fills in your arsenal, and now you've been asked to join a band. You may be the least or most capable player in the band. No matter, it's a real band and you're making real music -- your music.

Stage Three: Hero Worship
Your journey to becoming an actual drummer is going along well,  and then you hear/see the drummer who changes everything for you. So you get hold of every recording this person has made and study them over and over and over. Your passion knows no limits.

Stage Four: Getting Serious
You’re admiration of ‘drummer X’ has blossomed into an obsession with technique.  Plus your list of hero drummers has grown too long -- there are just too many good drummers. The only way to handle this is to branch out and embrace other techniques, other approaches.

Stage Five: Anger
Some call it a plateau., but that’s too gentle a concept for the feeling you get when you’ve put in hour after hour in the practice room and yet see no progress in your playing. Anyone would be pissed.

Stage Six: Disillusionment
My left foot sucks. My hands suck. My funk playing sucks. This isn't just a plateau. I'm getting nowhere. Maybe I'm doomed to suck ... I probably should just pack it in.

Stage Seven: One-ness
Well, I survived all the 'stages', and it wasn't all that bad. I learned a lot from all my perambulations -- blind alleys included -- and today I feel good about my playing and about where I am, both musically and professionally.  Now I can really focus on the music without all those distractions.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Are You Looking At Me?

I was waiting for something or other, and picked up a magazine to help pass the time. In an article on career management, I came across the most disturbing question ever, and it's a concept that I've kept in mind ever since. The question is this: Who's watching your career? Ouch!

Well, who is watching? Worst case answer is nobody, but I seriously doubt that there is no one who is interested in you and your musical journey. The challenge then is to discover who is interested and whether that interest can be nurtured toward some positive outcomes.
Society has rediscovered only in the last few years the importance of mentors. There's always something to be gained from having someone more experienced to look up to. And if that person is hip to the “pay it forward” concept, there will be two of you looking out for your progress and your career. This can be a great morale booster.

Mentors are invaluable for elevating your craft in a number of ways. They help you to learn the ropes and avoid the pitfalls, and to set goals and targets. They also model 'best practices' and may even introduce you to their network.

The best situation is when a top pro takes an interest in you. It can be as simple as an invite to jam, and it can be as involved as a mentor grooming a mentee for greater things. It means other people -- talented, connected, influential people -- are keeping an eye on you. Even better, they’ll likely think of you when opportunities arise. A lot of careers have been launched when a teacher recommended a student for a high-profile job.

Teachers quite often evolve into mentors. My own student-teacher relationship was like this. My teacher and I spent a lot of time together outside the lesson hall and we became good friends. I've tried to repay this by carrying his message to my own students and mentees.

A mentor can be from any industry, although it makes sense to favour someone from the music business. Teacher, band-mate, music store personnel, agent/manager, good friend ... they all are possible mentors.

Or maybe you're the one who's in a position to mentor a young (or at least newer) player. This is always a great experience, as the benefits go both ways.  Aside from all the warm fuzzies involved, it's good experience, it helps build your character, and you can connect with your passion for music in a variety of ways.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Voice Of Doom


We were sitting around discussing our usual topic: drums. When we got around to the topic of tuning, the more senior drummer among us (defined as someone who'd actually had some real gigs) said:

"A drum should go Doom."
 He was absolutely right, and I've kept this as my model for tuning ever since because it works in almost any situation.

Is it envelope or envelop?
The scientific way to look at sound is to analyze its envelope from start to finish. The sound envelope consists of Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release (ADSR). The attack is that initial spike, which quickly yields to the decay. Then we have sustain. That's when the sound continues on for a bit. And then it goes away, the release. We may not think of drums as having much in the way of sustain, but it's critical for resonance and getting a good tom sound.

And there it is: Attack/Decay: 'D', the Sustain: 'OO', and the release: 'M'. Here's how it fits against an ADSR graph:


Glissando (a.k.a. Pitch-bend a.k.a. Twang)
When you strike a drum head, you stretch it ever so slightly. This causes the pitch to rise ... slightly. Normally you won’t really hear this, but certain tunings can make the ‘twang’ quite noticeable, hence the 'falling' nature of the Doom analogy.

Boom vs. Doom
Since childhood, we’ve all accepted that the bass drum in a parade beats out “Boom-boom-boom-boom”. It’s just physics. A large object resonates at a lower frequency and also produces fewer high overtones. So the sibilance that gives us the attack in Doom is missing in the bass drum. Hence the softer attack of a ‘Buh’ rather than 'Duh'.

So I guess all that remains is to ask, are your drums doomed?