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. DoomSince 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 best and 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 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 10 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 emotional baggage. There are all sorts of reasons why someone may not be making progress, and if I can help someone 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 voilà -- 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.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Memo To Phil: Be careful what you wish for

Well, Phil Collins is back in the news lately.  Remember when he was the guy every rock drummer wanted to be? Then he became a front-man, a break-out star, then a pop icon, then the stalwart of the housewives’ hit parade. Even though Phil are I nearly the same age, he was my idol. We all followed his progress from promising young prog-rock drummer with the shy manner and even shyer voice, to the most respected, most wanted, rock/pop drummer ever. I've just finished Phil's autobiography and I heartily recommend it. 

Phil’s bio seems to be primarily a form of catharsis. Actually, this is one of Phil’s specialties. When it comes to writing, Phil seems to have two modes: cutesy pop tunes and maudlin, introspective, heart-on-the-sleeve chargers. You may hate everything about “Susudio,” but I bet you join in on the chorus. And then there are tunes like “Against All Odds.”

Phil’s was a career path that anyone would envy, at least until you read his autobiography, Not Dead Yet. Yes, Phil paid his dues, and in the process he fell into a few of the traps that abound in this business. Yes, the music business can heap obscene rewards on talented workaholics. It’s usually only toward the end of the journey that anyone weighs the costs.

OK, enough about Phil’s fall from grace. I want to talk about Phil’s fill. You know the one:  du-Da du-Da du-Da du-Da DA DA. It’s  now regarded as the most famous drum fill ever, and when I first heard it, I thought “That's brilliant!!!” 

Here’s the deal. That fill was already one of the most overworked and tired of drum clichés. It’s a drum lick that I purposely avoid … it’s just too corny. And yet when Phil does it, it works. Why?

Burning up on Entry
First of all, the fill is totally in your face. The tune thus far had been so low key that the listener has settled into a quiet reverie. And then BLA-A-A-A-A -- a major wake-up call, by which Phil means “I’m changing the game”. That works on a number of levels.

Familiar Face
One bit of advice writers offer other writers is to avoid clichés. Good advice, but I happen to like clichés or,  rather, familiar expressions. I call them comfort phrases. They work because the reader recognizes them, is comfortable with them, and can relate to them. There’s a limit, of course: A horrible cliché is a horrible cliché. So when Phil chose to use a familiar drum break, he was actually trying to make us more comfortable and to help us relate. And it seems to work.

This is the genius part. If you’re going to play a cliché, play it with face-melting conviction.

Not Dead Yet - The Memoir, Phil Collins
Hardcover: 384 pages
ISBN-10: 1101907479
ISBN-13: 978-1-101-90747-4 ISBN

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Rudiments Are Very Important ...

“... and some day I hope to study them."

I've actually heard a number of excellent drummers say this. While I think most drummers would concur that rudiments can be important, I also think that, while they do hope to study them, they admit it’s at the bottom of their bucket list.

So I have to ask, if rudiments are so flaming important, how come nobody is working on them? Well that's not quite true. I've seen a lot of articles and online videos that use rudiments as a basis for rhythmic development. But basing something on a rudiment is a long way from studying “The Rudiments”.

The traditional 40 rudiments are not terribly relevant in today’s music environment. You heard me... not relevant. I'm not saying useless or without value. There are some real gems among the rudiments, and some people have come up with some inspired interpretations. But as core study material, the rudiments have little to offer the drum set player.

The rudiments were developed to manage the movements of an army. Each rudiment sound was a signal that conveyed a specific meaning: go forward, turn left, duck. The sounds are also pretty good accompaniment for marching tunes, but they are military all the way.

Some of the patterns have been around for a thousand years or more. Most of them are a few hundred years old at least. The drum set itself, barely a hundred years old, came along long after the rudiments were laid down. Well, if the rudiments were never intended for drum set use, does it even make sense to drag them into the drum set arena?

I know you've learned some rudiments and that you use them all the time. That's good. You find good ideas wherever you can. But isn't it about time we stopped looking at the rudiments as some sort of holy grail or revealed truth? And maybe while we're at it, we should stop feeling guilty about not finding them useful … or even interesting.

So the old saying applies: “Take what you like and leave the rest.” And don’t worry if you never get around to the rudiments. You’ll have lots of company.

Want to find out more about rudiments? Check out these organizations:

Percussive Arts Society -
National Association of Rudimental Drummers -

Friday, April 21, 2017

Keeping Up With The Jetsons

I was at a panel discussion for drum teachers when the question of electronic drums came up. The drummer-educators on the panel seemed to agree that electric wouldn't do unless there was no other way. These were seasoned pros and perhaps a bit old school,  but the message was clear. 
The main issues seem to be nuance and ‘feel’. True, electronic drums aren't as sensitive to touch as acoustic drums, they can lack a convincing rebound, and they can have a compressed dynamic range, but with developments in sensors, software and ‘head’ material, the gap appears to be closing.

Then, aside from the sensitivity thing, what's so wrong with electronic drums?

Require power: Without some sort of power source, you have a fairly elaborate set of practice pads. So batteries and headphones at a minimum, and more if you want to play live.

Too small: The pads typically are smaller -- e.g. 10" snare pad, 12" cymbal pad -- and just plain harder to hit.

Too limited: Finite sounds, instruments and settings; finite control over settings; and the racks can be hard to adjust.

Don't look impressive: In the days of techno bands, fine, but I can't see a metal drummer sitting behind a set.

Good ones are expensive: And so they should be, comparable to quality acoustic setups.

Not-so-good ones proliferate: Below a certain price point (e.g. under $500, with a few exceptions), you're looking at toys, not musical gear. Avoid.

Well, what's right then?

Dozens, even hundreds of sounds at the touch of a button: Pretty hard to top this.

Try different tunings, styles with less fuss, risk: It's a great way to experiment with new sounds to see if they work for you without messing with your acoustic instruments.

Change voices mid-song: Imagine having two or three or more sets available at the same time (depending on the nature of the controls).

Compact, easy to move (mostly): Even take them on the road for practice.

Play at 4:00 AM at full volume: With headphones, of course.

Better response than a practice pad: Head feel can be very good; some are nearly as physically and sonically responsive as real drums.

Dynamics getting pretty good: Modern triggers now incorporate a number of sensors and better sound processors, giving a big boost to dynamics.

Rock out in your own little world: I don't usually play heavy rock, but when I do I like to switch my e-kit to 'Bonham' mode.

So if you've been toying with the idea of an electronic set, I really can see no reason not to make like George and jump right in!