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?

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Bit of Beginner's Luck

I was glancing through a potential student's exercise book and noticed a comment he'd added on a page of rock rhythms: “I can play these easy.” However, from watching him play it was clear that he could not. So what gave him the impression he could? Likely he was able to play them a little bit ... at one time ... in isolation ... alone in the practice room. 
When you're working through a group of exercises, it's not uncommon to be able to breeze through a 
few of the more advanced ones after a good warm-up on related items. To me this amounts to plain beginner's luck, and it's too easy to conclude that you’ve reached some major milestone. Yes, you did play them, and probably well enough ... for a few bars. But they won't have become part of your vocabulary. That takes a lot more than a few lucky executions. 

A practice standard I like to use is to play an exercise for a full 5 minutes non-stop. It's a practical length of time -- about as long as a song might last. If I can play something for 5 minutes, I'll probably be OK out in the field. But I’ve notice an interesting phenomenon with this approach. 

The beginner's luck idea might predict that you'd be able to play a new exercise, more or less, for a few bars at least, and often more. Press on and you'll likely find that things start to fall apart around the 1 minute mark. Struggle onward and you might be OK until around the 4 minute mark, where it begins to fall apart again. And while that last minute may be a challenge, pressing on will be worth it. 

I've always been intrigued by the consistency of this phenomenon. Of course I have no explanation for it, but it does suggest that anything practiced for less than a minute -- the beginners luck zone -- doesn't get you anywhere, and even 2 to 3 minutes might not suffice.

The key to all mastery is repetition, repetition, repetition. (It’s also possible the struggle is an important part of the process.) So don't be misled by beginner's luck. If you can play it for a few bars, that's nice. But to really get it, shoot for 5 minutes daily for at least a week. Then it will truly be yours to keep. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The P-p-p-power of Love

I'd like to dedicate this post to the memory of Jim Blackley, the man who I will always call “teacher”.

James David Blackley
One of the best teaching tips I've come across is this: You've got to love your students. Sounds a bit extreme, but it's not, really. One of the key symptoms of the '60s was universal love -- "Make love, not war", “The summer of love". It simply meant that we wanted peace, love and respect for everyone. It was true then, and years later I think the philosophy has not lost any value.
Keep in mind that love is both a noun and a verb, and as a verb, love compels us to action. We give gifts because of love. We help out in emergencies because of love. And of course we raise and nurture our children because of love.
So how does one 'love' a student without coming across as suspect? Just the way you do with anyone you respect and want the best for. You love your friends, you love your band mates (I hope), and so you treat them accordingly. You're not looking for intimacy or a long-term commitment. You just need to want things to work out for the best for your students. 
Some of the most useful things my teacher taught me were not technical. Sure, he showed me stuff and helped me learn it, but he wanted more from and for his students. To get that, he had to communicate and engage beyond the mere technical.
I spent one lesson with a youngster listening to a Katie Perry tune. This fellow was just beginning to be interested in music, and the tune really spoke to him. I like to work with real world examples that mean something to the student, so we listened to the tune and talked about it. I pointed out things the drummer was doing that were things we'd been working on. For his next lesson I prepared some exercises that he could play along to the tune. We spent maybe 6 minutes on the drums that day, but it was one of the best lessons ever because it he got it, and he got it because it meant something to him.
Sometimes the only way for a student to move forward is to talk about non-lesson stuff. Playing music is a very emotional activity, and someone who is distracted may be dealing with some  baggage. There are all sorts of reasons why someone may not be making progress, and if I can help them get past this, then I'll do what I can to help (provided I have the knowledge and experience).
Also remember that sometimes the best gift we can give is to just listen. Add a little compassion and you're off to a great start. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Getting To Know You

The missus sent me a link to her niece’s boyfriend’s website. “An incredible guitarist”, she said. So of course I had to go online and check out both his and his band’s websites. In mere minutes I was able to get an idea of what they were all about. Pretty cool!
This level of convenience is truly astounding. There was a time when the only way to see someone play was to get your butt out to a club or concert. And if that artist had a habit of avoiding your neighbourhood, then you had to make do with the occasional TV appearance or a road trip.
Now we just have to 'Google it' and voilĂ  -- gobs of good stuff that might have taken years to discover in olden times!
I like to stay informed, or I should say I really hate being out of touch or behind the times. So if I hear about an interesting drummer, I often will look them up online. I like to look for a live performance. It’s the best way to get the full story and it's almost always entertaining. And seeing a performance -- even on grainy video -- is educational and inspirational.
While I’m investigating contemporary music, I'm also checking up on the competition. It's good to know what others in your field are up to so you can stay both up-to-date and relevant. So naturally I always investigate what other drum teachers are doing online. It can be a good source of ideas for what to do and what not to do as a teacher.
But there’s dark side to this abundance. We can too easily take things for granted. If I can see it any time, then why hurry? It'll be there tomorrow. True, it likely will be there, but it won't be where it counts: as part of your experience.

Conversely, it's easy to overload ourselves with information. For example, after a day of watching drums solos on YouTube you'll likely be more confused about soloing than before. Also, don't mistake idly watching videos for actual research.
So don't put it off. Go online and find out what other people are up to ... and then get out and see some live music.