Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How did we get so distracted?

When I first picked up a pair of drum sticks, my goal was simply to create a rhythm that fit a song. I later began taking lessons (mainly ‘reading and rolling’) but when I played with friends, it was always a case of trying to play the drum part to a song. Then something changed. I don’t know how or when, but at some point technique -- chops -- became important. There were periods where technique was more important, far more important in fact, than making music. So here are some of my thoughts on how that might come about.

Teacher orientation
Some people see tradition as being immutable, sort of like ‘old time religion’. If it was good enough for my teacher and his/her teacher, and the teacher before that, then it must be good enough. And that means focussing almost entirely on technique, as laid down in drumming’s military roots.

What else is there to teach?
A teacher who has been traditionally schooled may see technique as the only objective. I know my early training dealt with reading and rudiments and never touched on playing music. In such a musical vacuum, technique is all that would seem to be available.

Lack of music education
It may not be the teacher who lacks a commitment to studying music. Perhaps you had no access to a teacher, or the teacher failed to engage your interest. Maybe you just didn’t see any point in studying. I’ve known musicians who refused to study – or even to listen to – music for fear it would ‘influence their creativity’.  There are many reasons or excuses for not studying, and not one of them holds true.  Those who study always turn out to be better players and better musicians.

Lack of interest in music
If all you care about is the drums and you’re not really into what the rest of the band is doing, then you may not be able to see past technique. I’ve seen a lot of out-of-work musicians who think this way.

Demands of more sophisticated music
Have you seen the videos of drummers auditioning for Dream Theatre? Without exception the candidates were technical monsters (tough choice for DT's members). As our tastes in music evolve, often the music we lean toward is more challenging. It’s natural to want our performance to keep up, and that usually means more technique. In this case, acquiring technique is beneficial -- so long as it's in service to the music.

Peer pressure
If we hang around with other drummers, it’s inevitable that we will compare notes. But eventually a challenge is issued and then it’s easy to move into a competitive mind-set. I went to an all-drummer college for a while, and we seemed to always be in ‘drum mode’. We constantly discussed music, drums, drummers, and technique. And we compared. We compared ourselves to our school-mates, to local drummers we knew, to the drummers we admired, to whoever was in town. And we compared famous drummers to other famous drummers. The result was educational, but it also fostered a bit of an obsession with technique. And it inevitably showed in our playing.

Maybe I just want attention -- from the audience and from other drummers. If I sit at the back of the bandstand trying not to be noticed … well, what fun is that? So I’ll throw in something impressive, something that shows off my awesome chops! And the more I want attention, the more likely I am to show off.

This goes along with the ego thing. If I’m not finding things interesting (or can’t orient my thinking to making it interesting for myself) then I may be inclined to do something other than contribute to the music. And that usually means either showing off, woodshedding on the job, or just goofing around. Again, technique wins and the music suffers.

I had a heck of a time when I began to get a lot of country gigs. It took me a while to figure out what the problem was. Actually the problem was simple: I tended to overplay. By that I mean that I played fills and turn-arounds quite liberally. A lot of times that just doesn’t fit the music -- country or otherwise. I managed to change my habit easily enough, but I was always curious as to how I got into that space. Now I know, and I blame Keith Moon! If you check out the more ambitious bands of the ‘60s -- the music I cut my musical teeth on -- you’ll notice that a fill every two bars was standard procedure. That’s what I learned to do and that became my ‘style’. There are still such music styles around, but mostly not. When you come across a new musical style, spend some time studying its traditions.

I would love to be able to play, like … oh just about anyone. There are just too many great drummers to envy and to emulate. There’s no inherent problem with that, but when imitating your favourite player takes over, it might be a problem. I had a friend who loved Carl Palmer. Now Carl is a highly technical player, and in ELP he had a lot of freedom. But your work-a-day gig is not ELP, nor Rush, nor Dream Theatre. Besides, it’s always better to play like ‘you’ (which my friend eventually did).

Just don’t care
“It’s all about me; it’s always about me.” This one’s right up there with “I do what I want when I want”, and “Nobody tells me what to do”. Pity.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Zero to Sixty in Four Pages (or less)

One of my long-standing pet peeves is when otherwise competent educators miss the point entirely when compiling a course of study. I’ve seen it in every field I’ve taught in, and it continues to drive me nuts. My guess is, it also drives student’s nuts when they’re trying to make a bit of progress but the lesson essentially abandons them part way.

What I’m referring to is groupings of exercises that jump from introductory to advanced with no warning. How often have you seen a basic pattern on page one and a complex pattern on page three? I’ve even seen complicated patterns thrown in on page one!

The way you learn is through ‘baby steps’. You master a little bit, then you add a bit more or change it around slightly. You don’t -- and can’t -- jump from the basics to the advanced without going through the intermediate steps.

So why do some teachers do this? One theory is that they want to show off. I’ve seen instances where I know this to be the case, and it’s disturbing to see a teacher putting an ego boast ahead of the student’s learning needs.

Perhaps the authors simply don’t know any better. This could be the result of either of two teaching faults. One is not understanding the material well enough to lay it out in an approachable manner. That’s not a good sign (and possibly motivation for looking around for someone different to study with). The other possibility, and I think the one that is most pervasive, is that the teacher knows the material well, but has forgotten that the student doesn’t have the background to unpack it and fill in the blanks. This is not exclusive to drums or music. I see it everywhere.

The best teaching advice I’ve heard is to assume the student is just as smart as the teacher but knows almost nothing about that topic. I expect my students to be able to figure some things out for themselves, but if they haven’t been given proper preparation, it may be too obscure or frustrating. The lesson must move from simple to advanced in logical steps. Even a gifted student may not be able the make the mental leap we experienced players made long ago and perhaps after years of experimentation and cogitation.

So if line 3 seems much too hard compared to lines 1 and 2, ask if the author has created a reasonable, logical progression or if line 3 is perhaps in the wrong place.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Lessons From A Really Old Drum Tune

When I was a youngster and just getting interested in drums, the bar had been set -- likely unknowingly -- by a drummer named Ron Wilson. Wilson played with a band called the Surfaris and their single hit record was a drum feature called Wipe Out. After a creepy witch-like voice cries "Wipe Out", Wilson tears into it with 16th notes on the tom tom. The band joins in with a one-figure blues riff, and the rest is rock and roll history.

Although drums are a vital part of all modern music, it's rare to see them front and centre. So Wipe Out gets a nod for putting the drummer out there. But there are other features of the tune that are worth noting.

The basic rhythm pattern for Wipe Out is pretty simple -- one bar of straight 16ths and one bar of syncopation -- but its implications are far reaching. That bar of straight 16ths provides a lot of forward motion and quite a bit of primitive rhythm. The second bit is a structure that has been found in music for hundreds of years and is showing no signs of fatigue. There's an accent on the downbeat, another accent in the middle of the second beat and a final accent on the fourth beat. The effect is a bit like three beats where there ought to be four. Quite provocative (and also part of the important clave rhythm of Latin music). If we were to count out the pulses in 2/8 rather than 4/4, the first bar’s rhythm would come out as | 12 | 12 | 12 | 12 |. The next bar would flow out as two groups of 3 plus a group of 2 (3 + 3 + 2 = 8). Thus: | 123 | 123 | 12 |. Look around and you'll find this figure -- 123 123 12 -- almost everywhere. (For the theoretically minded, the structure is called a hemiola.)

According to Pat Connolly, bass player for the Surfaris, Wipe Out was inspired by a paradiddle ‘drum cadence’ that Wilson was working on for his high school parade band. If that's the case, then it's entirely possible that he was playing paradiddles throughout, and the easiest way to get that Wipe Out rhythm is to use groups of 2 and 3, i.e. single and double paradiddles:

    Singles:  RLRR | LRLL | RLRR | LRLL
    Doubles crossing the bar line:  RLRL | RR  LR | LRLL | RLRR
    More singles:  LRLL | RLRR | LRLL | RLRR
    And finish with doubles:  LRLR | LL  RL | RLRR | LRLL

The tune itself is 12-bar blues in its most basic form. The first 4 bars is a riff played on the tonic. The next four bars are the same riff, two bars on the fourth and two bars on the tonic. The final four bars wrap it up by playing the first bar of the riff on the fifth, repeating that on the fourth, and then finish on the tonic. Thus, the basic blues changes:

    1 | 1 | 1 | 1
    4 | 4 | 1 | 1
    5 | 4 | 1 | 1
And there you have the basic form and changes for 12-bar blues.

Interestingly, Wipe Out is one of the most recognized pop music drum tunes of all time, and has been featured in more than 80 movies.


Friday, November 2, 2012

A Simple Fix

Drummers are fortunate these days. There are so many makes and models of drums available that there's something for everyone. But the real good news is that drum quality is at an all-time high. Many brands offer a bewildering away of choices, often starting at entry-level prices (and then heading off into the stratosphere). And some of these lower priced drums are diamonds in the rough.

The main differences between modestly priced drums from good makers and their more expensive siblings are the quality of the raw materials and the attention given to the drum during assembly. An easy way to keep costs down is to skimp a bit on parts and labour. What this means is that less expensive drums can often be improved considerably with very little cost and effort.

I recently bought a used snare drum produced by one of my favourite makers. These drums are solid, but are the company's second lowest tier. Looking closely at the drum, what I saw was a high quality, well-finished shell, decent enough hardware, budget snare wires, medium quality heads, and a snare butt plate that's probably going to fall apart before long.

The first thing I did with the drum was remove the heads and snares. A quick check of the bearing edges and snare beds showed that they were well done. No need for attention there. Next I got out my socket wrench and tightened all of the components attached to the shell. If the tension casings aren't snug enough -- and they weren't -- the drum won't stay in tune. (In fact, the reason the drum was for sale was because the original owner complained it wouldn’t stay in tune.)

I like to lightly sand the bearing edges with very fine sandpaper -- just a few swipes with 600 and 1000 grit to polish them. This makes it easier for the heads to seat themselves. Then I give the bearing edge a light coat of paraffin. 

And now let's reassemble. 

I gave all of the tension bolts a wee drop of general-purpose oil. Never use grease here as this can promote loosening. I opted to keep the snare head, but replaced the batter head with a top quality one. When tightening the tension bolts, I keep them as even as possible, counting turns -- half-turns actually, where 1 twist =1/2 turn.

I set aside the snares to use on another drum and installed a better set. While doing this, I had a look at how the snares are attached. It's surprising how much difference a change of string can make here, and it’s a good idea to experiment with different strings and straps. I discarded the original plastic straps and used the fine string that came with the new snare wires. When installing the snares, I positioned them so the butts are at the same distance from the edge of the shell on both sides while under tension.

And that's all there is to it. This is a small bit of maintenance that you can do with any drum, and it's pretty much guaranteed that your drums will sound and feel better, and that they’ll stay in tune longer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Blind Tempos Up Close and Personal

I'm not sure of the tune or even the context, but I recently sucked whilst playing. And in public too! The good news is that most people didn't notice. But I sure did, and I’m sure the band did as well. It felt just awful, and I was both frustrated and embarrassed.

The problem was a ‘blind tempo’ -- a tempo that neither my training nor my body were prepared for. I had the rhythm and sticking more or less correct. I even had the tempo under control. What I did not have was the feel. Technically what I was playing was correct, but it didn't contribute positively to the music and it didn’t ‘lock in’ because the tempo just didn’t feel natural to me.

I can't really tell you how to fix this if it happens to you. I can't even say precisely how I fixed it. All I did was stop thinking and just listen. I also simplified my playing to almost quarter notes until it fell into place. Once it began to feel ‘right’ I added back the rhythmic elements, and both the tune and the band took off.

To avoid a repeat of this fiasco, I headed back to the practice room and got out my metronome. My objective is to play every tempo using every rhythmic style. Tall order? Not really. I began by setting the Metronome to 40 bpm and played the basic rhythm for 5 minutes. I can cover most of the basic music styles in 30 minutes or so. The next day I moved to 42 bpm and did it all again. This way I will eventually cover every tempo all the way to 208 bpm. And because I'm starting at a slow grind, I'll have a better chance of developing control and an appropriate feel.

So in just 39 sessions (the number of settings on my metronome; to go higher still, go back to 104 bpm and play double time), I should be able to say goodbye to the 'blind tempo blues'.

Monday, October 8, 2012

When in Doubt, Improvise

Lately I‘ve been trying to get caught up by checking out as many drummers as possible on YouTube and elsewhere. The range of drumming styles (and abilities) on view is astounding these days, but I consistently see one factor that stands out. The drummers that are getting the job done with the biggest name artists invariably aren’t overly exciting players -- that is, unless you find an excellent groove exciting … and I do.
I’ve always admired drummers who almost don’t seem to be there, drummers who just sit back there and make it happen. Charlie Watts is a good example, as are Larry Londin, Jim Keltner and the late, great Levon Helm. Far from invisible, these players meld so perfectly with the music that they’re often barely noticeable. And yet when you take the time to listen, their playing really stands out.
I played a bit of a party gig recently and was rather compromised – I didn’t have a drum set! The guy who was supposed to deliver it never showed. I had the basics with me and so I decided to go ‘old school’. I put my snare on a chair, set up my hi-hat and a couple of cymbals, and jury-rigged a bass setup with a pedal, trap case and bungee cords. Actually, it sounded pretty good!
With the snare 6 inches lower than normal, a ‘bass drum’ that kept wandering, and a pedal prone to falling over or getting caught in the legs of the ‘snare chair’, it was , let’s say, a challenge. And so I played it straight. Now, I like to think that I always play straight -- as in not muckin’ about too much -- but this time there was no fooling around. It was just too dangerous, uncomfortable and at times scary. Ever try to do doubles on a trap case? How about creating some variety in a fill using just a snare and hi-hat?
In the end I was almost glad the drums never showed, otherwise I’d never have had the challenge of pulling something playable together, nor would I have had the opportunity of using such a minimalist approach.
One lesson I learned is that if you ‘lay it down’ in its simplest form, things can really cook. My second lesson? Next time, take a few more drums.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Drumset for Preschoolers by Andy Ziker

I'd been looking for an instruction book for very young children with not much luck when I came across a notice for Andy Ziker's book, Drumset for Preschoolers. Intrigued by the introductory videos he made available online, I ordered a copy and, let me tell you -- this is one terrific product.

The book is subtitled “A guide for parents/teachers of 2-6 year-olds”. Kids can be a tough market, as the extremely young usually can't read. So the book is targeted to adults who then can work with the student without the child having to read.

 The book follows the traditional drum book format, with sections on drum hardware and music basics, but with a difference. The drum illustrations are just that: illustrations that don't complicate. The music basics section presents just enough to get going. Then it's on to the ‘concept’ and the exercises.

 And it's the concept that I find so marvellous. Ziker has integrated the popularity of the video games 'Rock Band' and 'Guitar Hero' by adding the same colour codes to the drumset and to the exercises. For example, the snare drum is represented by red, as is the snare in Rock Star. While the exercises appear in standard drum staff notation, they are colour-coded as well, so the student who is inclined to follow just the colours can still grasp the lesson. To facilitate set-up, Ziker includes an ample number of coloured stick-on dots so you can code your teaching set to the book.

 As if that wasn't clever enough, the lessons are actually based on tunes. What a wonderful way to get students to equate drumming with making music from day one! It's a rare child that won't have fun picking out 'Old McDonald' on the drums. And because the exercises are written in standard notation as well as colour coded, the child is also getting exposure to proper reading. As a long-term teacher, I readily saw the wisdom of pairing the familiar with the new, and calling upon different aspects of cognition and memory to give the student the maximum potential of 'getting it'.

 I can hardly wait to start using this method with very young students. I also think it will help me, as I will have to orient myself to working with simple musical interpretation rather than focussing on abstract theory and technique.

 You can order the book from most on-line bookstores and Jamey Aebersold’s jazzbooks.com. You should also see if your local book or music store has it or if they can order it for you.

 Drumset for Preschoolers: A guide for parents/teachers of 2-6 year-olds
Try Publishing
ISBN: 9781934638231 
60 Pages

Monday, September 24, 2012

Metalworks Drum Festival Rocks!

I attended the Metalworks "First Annual Drum Festival" on the weekend and came away more than impressed with both the event and the Metalworks school*.

The day started at 10 am, although I arrived for the 1:00 session with Chris Lesso. Sessions were held in the school’s two auditoriums, which are laid out and equipped much like TV studios. Chris was demonstrating “Rhythm in Motion” in the North Auditorium, and his playing was suitably impressive. This was followed by Nathan McLaren showing the latest goodies in Roland electronic drums. Again, an impressive performance shot through with a thorough demonstration of the virtual set's capabilities -- a very exciting instrument.

Then off to the South Auditorium for a clinic titled 'Odd Things' with Metalworks instructor Dave Patel. As Dave explained, odd time signatures are only part of the story. He then proceeded to amaze the audience with a stream of polyrhythms accompanied by plenty of explanation. I felt the need of a dinner break at this point, so I missed much of “Real Life Drums” with Chris Sutherland -- an overview of playing in a recording situation. I managed to catch the tail end of it though, and was very impressed.

Then it was time for the guest of honour. One of the goals of the event was to highlight and recognize people who have made a significant contribution to the craft. The first honouree was (my teacher) Jim Blackley. Now 85, Jim seems to be coming into his own as a drum celebrity. The presentation was punctuated by a tribute from Dave Patel (also a Blackley student).

The day wrapped up with a clinic featuring Gavin Harrison. I'd seen a number of youtube videos of Gavin, and was prepared to see some amazing stuff. And he certainly blew us all away with his playing. But what made this the single most enjoyable and beneficial drum clinic I've ever attended was the man's openness and honesty, complemented by well thought out answers, a rigorous musical philosophy and a riotously good sense of humour. Had he played nothing at all, it would have been worth paying to attend. Given that this was a free event and Gavin presented for more than an hour and a half, I'd say the value of the day was immeasurable.

 Be sure to watch for future events event. If you contact Metalworks, they'll put you on their emailing list.

* Metalworks Institute is an accredited Ontario college, so start dusting off up those RESPs. http://metalworksinstitute.com

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ambivalent About Ambidextrous

“Always lead with your non-dominant hand.”

That's the advice I got from many helpful drummers back when. At first I took it to be gospel, and so I struggled to shift my focus away from my dominant right hand and to lead instead with my non-dominant left. It was not pretty. Now here I am years later, and I still find it nearly impossible to lead with my left hand under most circumstances. I regularly practice leading with my left, but my brain continually says, "Ain't gonna happen".

I have two ‘aha’ lessons from this. The obvious one is that my right-handedness wiring is very strong. Despite years of trying to force my left hand to take the lead, I’m still almost entirely right-handed when holding a pair of sticks.

The other ‘aha’ is that the time I spent fighting against my internal wiring was not time well spent! What if I'd spent that practice time doing something useful, something that would have brought me a better return on my investment?

Once again I turned to the pros -- the greats -- to see if they could shed some light on the issue. I love YouTube because you can find just about everything ever recorded in seconds. So I called up dozens of videos ranging from Chick Webb and Max Roach to Buddy, Gene and Louie to Dave Wekel, Steve Gadd and a host of others. Almost without exception, I found that these players work mainly off the dominant hand. Yes, they all have ferociously powerful and useful non-dominant hands, but on closer examination you’ll see that the right-handed tend to lead with the right almost all of the time.

So why fight it? Instead, look upon your dominant-handedness as a strength. It’s great at leading, so let it. Let it be your main speaking voice. Yes, it’s important to work at building up your lesser hand, and if you can make the switch to ‘other handedness’, great, but it’s not necessary. Over time your other hand will become as strong and as useful as your dominant hand. And if that hand remains merely a ‘helper’ to your dominant hand, well what’s wrong with that? Your hands are a team and the best way to manage a team is to focus on a member’s strengths rather than try to force it to become something it wasn’t meant to be. Of course you also make your team practice -- a lot -- and encourage them to work on their weaknesses.

An interesting exercise to try is to be a switch-hitter for a month. Try doing everything with your other hand that you would normally do with your dominant hand. If you’re right handed, try brushing your teeth and stirring your coffee with your left hand. There’s no guarantee that it will do anything for your playing, but it will make your other hand more useful and make you more aware of it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ears: Next Phase

I never did follow up on my recent hearing aid trial. The idea was that the correct units would help with my recruitment. Well, no such luck. Hundreds of dollars poorer, I'm back to square one.

Or am I?

My various little jerry-rigged gizmos. (See my ‘$50 Headphone’ post) have all led in a specific direction: cut out ambient sound and then control the volume level using technology. While playing with the aforementioned hearing aids, I tried plugging them straight into ear moulds that normally held ER-25 filters. The result was promising (but not worth $3700).

My next stop was a visit to another audiologist who specializes in musicians. Rhonda and Glenn at Hear for Life were very enthusiastic about my little idea, and they set me up with a hearing-aid maker who is eager to tackle the problem. So the next step is to meet with two of their top technicians to see if we can come up with a solution. And here's the best part: Because they are the manufacturer, they propose to build something from the ground up tailored to my hearing condition and my goal of a 'personal, self-contained monitor system'.

I'm very excited about this project because if it works, it's a solution that other musicians could use. In fact, I've already got two orders should the item do the trick. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Staying Ahead Of The Pack

It’s oft been said that 90% of success is showing up. So what’s the other 10% made up of? I’ve always said that my personal keys to success as a musician were: show up, wear the right clothes, and play in an appropriate style. That simple formula made me a successful, albeit mostly unheard of, musician. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I made my living exclusively from the art/craft I loved. I even managed to buy a current model up-market car at one point.

OK, enough bragging. There’s got to be more to it. And so there is.

You really do have to show up. It may seem like a no-brainer, but there are people who don’t show up, and for all sorts of reasons: forgot, got a better offer, decided not to, couldn’t make bail. And not showing up is one of those things that gets around. People talk, and they’re quick to say, “Great player, but unreliable.” And if not showing up is inevitable -- broken leg, heart attack, beri-beri -- give the band leader lots of notice and suggest possible replacements along with a phone number. (Email and facebook are no way to deal with something quickly.) Better still, line up a suitable replacement yourself. Just be sure to clear it with the band leader.

Visual presentation is a part of the business. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t care what colour drums you played, right? Wearing the right clothes is a sign of respect -- for the band, the band leader, the audience, and the profession. And if you’re not prepared to dress the part, perhaps it isn’t the right gig for you.

Playing the right style can be a tall order. There are an awful lot of music styles out there, and if you present yourself as a freelance ‘generalist’, you’d better have some inkling of how to do just about everything, On the plus side, the mechanics don’t vary that much from style to style. A Polish polka is only slightly different from a Hungarian polka, which is amply covered by a Dixieland or country two-beat. But if you don’t know even one style, it could be a challenge. Fortunately, band leaders and members will help you if they know you’re new to the genre. So study all musical styles and don’t hesitate to ask for advice.

I’ve studied just about every musical style, and although I may not impress anyone with my merengue, I can at least play a merengue when required. Name a style and I probably can do at least a presentable job of it, and that’s a skill that you can build a career on.

I originally set out with a modest goal: to be better (i.e. more desirable) on a bad day than the next guy on a good day. It turned out not to be all that difficult – some drummers have ‘musical myopia’ -- although it did take a lot of work. It meant that I had to woodshed to the point that I could make it through the night … any night … no matter what.

I’ve met a lot of drummers who were frequently out of work because they would not ‘compromise’ their musical standards. That’s their choice. But if your goal is to survive and even prosper without having to take a day job (now where are those precious standards?) then it’s time to adopt a new standard: Don’t compromise on the quality of your playing, regardless of style. If you land a gig playing behind a C-list exotic dancer, do you have what it takes to make it the best C-list gig in town?

Of course, this is just my point of view.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Teacher's Value

There’s a wonderful expression floating around -- origin unknown -- that goes something like this: A teacher can fix everything except a lack of practice.

This is a two parter.

First, there is the importance of practice. There is no substitute. In fact, practice will often get you through when everything else is going against you. At my very first "professional" gig, (i.e. not a teenage garage band), I was very uncomfortable. I knew none of the people and none of the music. I’d never played my set in a hall like that before, and it felt totally alien. And yet I not only made it through, I got high praise from the band leader. Why? I'd had good training and I’d practised a lot.

Part two is about one of a teacher's most important functions: to correct. It's not that students are habitually screwing up and getting it wrong. Learning is about working your way toward a goal, usually in manageable steps. It's easy to forget, confuse, misconstrue, or get distracted. What seemed so obvious during the lesson may mystify once you get back to your practice room. So you do the best you can, knowing that your teacher will patiently guide you in the right direction at your next meeting.

The classic way of teaching -- and the superior way -- is one-on-one with a skilled coach. Classrooms are OK for theory, but for the intense physical and mental study needed to master a musical instrument, there is no substitute for a hands-on approach. It might be tempting to pick up a video-based course that contains all the material you need to learn your craft, and if there are no teachers in your area this might be a worthwhile option … or the only option. But who is going to clear up misinterpretations and keep you from forming poor habits? Who is going to help you define your goals and set a course on how to get there? And who is going to give you that much-needed feedback on your progress?

Teachers do far more than correct. They encourage; they inspire; they challenge. They are reservoirs of music knowledge and history. They are a hub of potential networking. Above all, they are teachers, and no matter how expensive the lessons may be, a good teacher is always an incredible bargain.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Does time fly when you're having fun?

For some musicians, when the music gets exciting their time goes along for the ride. In short, they tend to speed up. And when the music relaxes again, they slow down. Drummers seem to be particularly prone to this in the early stages of their development. In fact, legendary studio bass player Carol Kaye says she's never met a drummer who didn't speed up during fills! That’s tough news.

We all have tempos that feel natural to us. We also come across tempos that we seem to not be built for. The solution is to work on ALL tempos. A good general rule when practicing is to concentrate on stuff you have trouble with, including tempos you find hard. You need to be able to play whatever tempo is thrown at you and do it without speeding up or slowing down. That doesn't mean you have to be rigidly metronomic. Music must flow, and sometimes a bit of tempo creep is unavoidable -- perhaps even desirable. But if a tempo feels awkward or unnatural, that’s a tempo you need to work on. Your ultimate goal is to keep better time and not drift to your ‘comfort tempos’ – the tempos that your body is most comfortable with and would prefer to work toward.

The place to really focus your attention is fills. When playing straight time, you're more able to focus on the music. But when we attempt a fill, it's common to shift our attention onto what we're doing rather than listening, and that’s when we get into trouble.

My advice is to always put the music first. In fact, let the music lead. When playing time, think in terms of ‘participating in’ the time andi tempo rather than ‘creating’ it. Don't thnk of yourself as THE timekeeper or even A timekeeper. The whole band is responsible for tempo, and it’s so much easier to just join in rather than try to force it to happen. Listen to the band -- especially the bass player -- and then just play along.

When it comes time for a fill, your job is to play something that fits into the music. Keep one ear on the band so you can hear how your interpretation fits against the tempo and tune. If you tailor your fills to be a part of the music, you shouldn’t have any problem with the tempo getting away from you, even if your fill is a bit of a crowd pleaser.

One trick you can use is to watch for visual clues. Every musician has a way of marking time … tapping a foot, rocking, head bopping (I sometimes wonder if Steve Gadd will have neck problems from rocking his head the way he does). If you’re unsure of where the time is, watch how the other players feel it. A quick glance at a tapping foot can reassure you or show you that you’re a bit off.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How to glean insane amounts of info in a manner of minutes

… and then schedule time to master most, if not all, before your next gig.

If you ‘Google’ something like “top 100 jazz standards”, you’ll be presented with hundreds of links to websites compiled by all sorts of jazz standards enthusiasts – all the way from academics that have put together well researched, well qualified lists along with analysis and history, to street bums who panhandle for coins to spend at the local internet cafĂ©. Many times you’ll find sheet music, arrangements and commentary from composer and/or arranger. And if there isn’t a sample performance to listen to, you can easily find one with another search.

With this much FREE information at your fingertips, it shouldn’t take any time at all for you to locate, download and print the sheet music, arrangement and lyrics, and then find an exceptional performance by a great artist that demonstrates why this tune became a standard in the first place.

Then internet is a great research tool. Every part of the process has been laid out and even partly digested for you, so you have no excuse to put off learning the standards.

BTW, www.jazzguitarlessons.net led me to its page on Giant Steps where I also found a link to a lead sheet plus a karaoke like run-through of the original.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How to make a pair of $300 practice/studio headphones for just 50 bucks

Practicing on live drums is pretty hard on your ears. Practicing on live drums in a small room for hours on end is just plain dangerous. So a good pair of isolating headphones is a really good idea if you want live drum response without damaging those irreplaceable hearing cells.

I tried a number of commercial and ‘drummers’ headphones but found them not isolating enough, too small, too uncomfortable, or too expensive. All I wanted was a decent pair of protective headphones with some means of plugging them in to a music player. The ideal solution -- high-end drummer headphones that were way too expensive -- looked suspiciously like off-the-shelf airport grade headphones, and that gave me an idea.

I picked up a pair of Peltor H10A “earmuffs” at a local safety supply for $35. They are large and comfortable (I have fairly big ears) and have a noise reduction rating of 29dB, plus they make my drums sound awesome. I cut two short pieces from a soft plastic hanger, and wedged a plastic ‘stick’ into each ear cup. All I had to do then was add something to produce some sound. I tried a few types of ear buds and settled on an inexpensive pair from Panasonic, although any decent unit will do. There you have it: gourmet hearing protection for under $50. I also picked up a $25 headphone amp, so I now have my own portable monitoring system that can tap into any sound source. Sweet!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Small price - Big impact

Whenever I've felt the need to upgrade the ol' drum set, it's always been a matter of 10s or more often 100s of dollars. So imagine my delight when I picked up an innocuous product for under $10 that solved a problem that had been plaguing me for years.

I bought a few Cympads a few months ago, just to try (and managed to lose all but one on the way home; so much for "I don't need a bag; I'll just stick 'em in my pocket.") I was not blown away by the device, but when I went to the company's website, I discovered that my expectations were out of whack. It seems these trinkets were originally developed for studio work, so my style of banging around might not be the best test.  I decided to look around for a sample pack, which has a number of the disks in different diameters and thicknesses.

Well my local drum shop didn't have the sample pack, but they did have the hi-hat pack. I was in the market for new clutch felts anyway, so for a few dollars more I got two clutch washers and a bottom plate washer.

Now, before we go any further I'd better tell you about my hi-hat set up. I use an old Ludwig Atlas hi-hat that is the sweetest thing going. I bought a pair of 13" "Dyno Beat" cymbals about 15 years ago. The top cymbal just says "Top Hi-hat"; the bottom cymbal weighs about as much as a refrigerator. The sound is awesome, but they've always been a bit temperamental. I have to get the clutch tension just right, and then I'm always fussing with the bottom cymbal. Worth it? Usually.

So, back to the Cympads ...  They are made from hard, dense, closed-cell foam and look pretty ordinary. The bottom washer is rather thick, but not too thick to fit on my antique stand. Putting the clutch together was a bit of a chore as the washers tend to grip the metal rather than slide like felt does. But without too much straining I got it all back together.

And the result? Remarkable! I love the authoritative "chup" sound of these hats, but in the past I had to be content to hear it only about 75% of the time. A bigger annoyance was up-tempos. The cymbals tended to lag, which could be quite off-putting. Now with the Cympad  washers, every note is crisp, clear and well defined. At faster tempos, the left foot no longer sounds like it's playing with some other band. And I'm not always trying to "fix" the bottom cymbal. 

I'll definitely keep any eye out for that sample pack and see if it can tame another problem child cymbal I have.

Cympad “Optimizer Hi-hat Clutch & Seat Set”
Price:  $9.95
Website: http://www.cympad.com

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Living with hearing damage - Part III

“Grandpa, time for dinner.”



“You don’t need to shout. I’m not deaf you know.”

Well, actually grandpa is deaf. He also suffers from a condition called recruitment. And he’s not alone. Most people with hearing loss have recruitment, whether that hearing loss is from noise damage or normal wear and tear. Recruitment is both a marvel and a menace, and dreadfully difficult to understand. It can also be a challenge to live with.

When the hearing cells in a certain region of the cochlea have died off, they can no longer capture and process sound. When sounds in the damaged range hit the ear, the hearing mechanism does a wondrous thing: it recruits other cells to help out. Trouble is, those cells are already working full time interpreting sounds in their own range. The result is that the recruited cells have to put out more energy. The more cells that are recruited, the more energy created and the more the cells are overworked. Hence the impression that the sound is abnormally loud. In extreme cases, the recruited cells will also push the ear into pain.

Dead hearing cells stay dead. Your hearing in that range stays dead as well. And if this hearing loss is accompanied by recruitment, then the recruitment is also permanent. There is no solution other than to keep those sounds away from the ear or within limits that don’t cause distress. In my own case, I have “profound” damage in the region from 2400hz to 3000hz. Sometimes this is called a ‘hi-hat hole’, and for good reason. A hi-hat puts out a lot of energy in this range and is usually just inches from a drummer’s head. I have hi-hat damage in both ears, though less so on the non-hi-hat side. (I attribute the damage there to a succession of screaming lead guitar players, to remain un-named -- but it was very nearly worth it to have played with those people.)

So, what can we do about this?

Unfortunately, there are not many options. Recruitment is permanent and may worsen as more hearing cells die off with age. The only treatment is to prevent sounds from reaching the affected area of the inner ear. This can be tricky. If the damage is in a critical area, such as the area responsible for hearing speech, then cutting off these sounds can have unfortunate consequences. But we don't need to go to drastic lengths here. You may be able to live quite nicely by adopting a quiet lifestyle. I went from professional drummer to computer programmer, working with nice, quiet computers. Not my first choice, but I wasn’t in a position to argue.

You can also get ear moulds that filter out certain frequency ranges. It's not a very flexible approach but it might be sufficient. Ear moulds can be a bit pricy but are well worth it if they help you get through the day without distress. Think of the initial cost as about a dollar a day – less than your daily hit of lattĂ©.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Living with hearing damage - Part II

When I was first diagnosed at the Musicians Clinics of Canada years ago, one of the terms thrown out was hyperacusis. It simply means a hypersensitivity to sound (or anything else, actually). It's as if the whole world's volume control, normally set at 3 or 4, has been jacked up to 5 or 6. The cause is unknown, although people with tinnitus frequently complain of hyperacusis as well.

I tend to think of it as possibly unrelated to noise exposure. I frequently found my snare drum too sharp sounding, and I always sought out quieter gigs. Lately I've taken to cutting the labels out of my shirts because they drive me nuts. I guess I’ve always been a sensitive guy. But let's get back to the ear thing.

Again the people at the Tinnitus Centre shed light on this for me. Like tinnitus, hyperacusis is mainly a benign, stable, non-life-threatening condition. That doesn't mean it can't be bothersome or even distressing. It's also a condition that can feed off itself. That leads me to two other conditions: phonophobia and misophonia.

Misophonia is a dislike of a sound. Interesting, but hardly a problem – I just thought I'd throw it in to keep things scientific. Phonophobia is a fear of sound. Neither ailment seems like it might be relevant to a musician, but they can trigger a snowball effect.

If you are concerned about your ears -- perhaps you have a bit of tinnitus or hyperacusis, or you’re finding certain sounds uncomfortable lately -- you may have decided to take a proactive approach and protect your ears from routine sounds. It seems like a good theory, but your ears are self-regulating, and they can't do that if they're detached from reality. If you habitually wear hearing protectors in ordinary circumstances because you're afraid of harming your hearing, you are conditioning your ears to live in a quieter world. In effect, you're teaching your system to have hyperacusis.

The treatment for hyperacusis is to reaccustomize the ears to normal sounds. If you are disturbed by normal sounds, try slowly reintroducing sound into your life. Put the earplugs away when you're in a quiet place. Try to go without them for ten minutes, half an hour, an hour. Work your way up to the point that you only need the plugs for extremely noisy situations. Even then they may not be necessary. I sat through half a Jeff Beck concert before I realized I didn’t have my earplugs in, at which point I figured, why not just enjoy it?

Here's an important tip: If you decide to try using sound to 'recondition' your hearing and you have tinnitus, make sure you can always hear your tinnitus. Do not use sound therapy to mask the tinnitus. Although it cannot make your tinnitus worse, it can interfere with your brain’s ability to cope with it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Living with hearing damage - Part I

Now that I’ve decided to ‘come out’ about my hearing issues, a lot of people have been asking me for some insight. It seems I’m not the only one who has paid a price for playing too loud for too long. And let’s face it, you will have a tough time finding a musician who has not had at least some hearing damage; it’s a risk of the trade. So I thought I’d spend a bit of time sharing what I’ve learned about what can go wrong and what can be done about it. There is some good news and some not so good news, but I think the most important thing is to be armed with accurate information so you know what you’re dealing with.

First up: Tinnitus (TIN -i-tus)

Tinnitus is defined as any sort of a sound than you can hear but is not caused by an external source (that’s my own definition; the specialists are still arguing about the technical minutia and are using words even weirder than ‘minutia’). Tinnitus can range from a short-lived ringing that lasts just a few seconds, never to return, to a sheet metal works living inside your head. It can be caused by a variety of things including certain diseases and drugs as well as head injuries. It also seems to be tightly linked to noise exposure.

The range of potential phantom noises is quite something. I remember once going from room to room looking for a radio someone had left on – it was playing oldies from the late 50s – only to discover that it was in fact my tinnitus. Sports professionals talk about freight trains, bells and explosions, but more often it comes down to a simple ring or hiss.

Medical professionals, for the most part, have no clue. They fall back on two remedies: live with it or cover it up. Well, it’s easy for someone who doesn’t have it to tell someone else to live with it. The other ‘solution’ is to hide it under designer noise. One audiologist I visited early on in my venture prescribed masking devices. Looking like hearing aids, they would be tuned to my tinnitus and then produce a noise that would block out the ringing. And they cost a mere $400 each. On the way home that day, I stopped at Canadian Tire and bought a $20 fan that produced enough sound to ‘mask’ my tinnitus enough to let me sleep.

Incidentally, that fan was a great revelation. I later wrote an article for a tinnitus newsletter about the fan and my take on why it worked. The sound it produced was nowhere near loud enough to block out the noise, but it did give my brain something else to focus on, and that was the gist of my article. What I also got from the article, and my brief subscription to the newsletter, was that focussing on the tinnitus was actually a large part of the problem.

So my solution has been to try to ignore it. Doesn’t sound like much of solution, but it turns out to be the core of a successful tinnitus treatment. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) attacks the problem by teaching the brain to focus on something else. I won’t go into details here, but the retraining helps the brain rediscover how to ignore sounds that don’t matter, and to apply it to the tinnitus. The Tinnitus Centre in the UK reports an 80% success rate, so it may be worth looking into.

I think the main message I want to get across here is that tinnitus is a permanent condition, but it is not a death sentence. It also is not a degenerative disease. If you are no longer mistreating your hearing, there is no reason your tinnitus should get any worse. While saying ‘live with it’ may sound facetious, it really is the only option. Most of the people I’ve talked to are bothered by their tinnitus, and often their degree of distress is as much a problem as the tinnitus itself. If they can find a way to not worry about it, things will improve. The one piece of advice I can give is this: Don’t hide from every day sounds. They give you something else to focus on.

And when the tinnitus is bothersome, maybe it’s time to head to Canadian Tire.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Trial by Fire

Well tonight I bit the bullet and attended an extended jam session. Nothing too ambitious, but it was live drums and electric instruments in a confined space. I managed to stick it out for a full two hours. I’ve not sat behind a drum set for more than 20 minutes since my ear condition put me out of the business many years ago, so it was a bit of a test to see if the recruitment retraining I’m attempting is having any effect. Too early to tell, but I didn’t feel any adverse symptoms during or immediately after the jam. My tinnitus is pretty much normal so the sound level doesn’t seem to have affected it. Tomorrow I’ll know for sure if there will be some payback. I certainly hope not, since that’s a horrible experience – ears that feel like raw hamburger – plus I’m enjoying the notion of being able to call myself a drummer and musician once again.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

It feels good to woodshed again

Discovering my old study material has reawakened my curiosity. So I've been going back over some of the material and getting my limbs back in shape. There have been two additional discoveries from this process. The first, and most obvious, is the sheer joy of rhythmic movement. I find jazz rhythms particularly relaxing despite the fact that they are often physically and mentally challenging. There’s nothing that compares to sitting there, settled in to a groove with, ironically, time standing still.

The other discovery -- and one that threatens to get out of control -- is to realize where ideas come from and how easy it can be to be creative. I'm not saying it's a cakewalk, just that within each exercise, each figure, each rhythm, there lies a host of variations that can provide a lifetime's worth of study. All it takes is a bit of imagination ... then sufficient practice to pull it off.

So I guess I'd better get started!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Good place to check out

I read somewhere that there are no good drum blogs. That's certainly not the way JON McCASLIN of Calgary sees it. His blog is excellent, frequently updated and a treat to visit.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

May as well jump in with both feet

I've been away from the music scene for some years. Something to do with devastating ear damage. Who knew? Anyway, a recent discovery on my part is that there is hope for people with tinnitus, hyperacusis and recruitment. Tinnitus is a major annoyance, but the recruitment was a show stopper for me. It meant that my pain threshold dropped from the normal 120 dB to as low as 90 dB. But I learned of an approach lately that seeks to recondition the ears to tolerate noise. So I'm sitting here with ear-buds in playing pink noise that's just slightly less loud than my tinnitus. The regimen calls for 24/7 exposure but I'm not sure I can listen to pink noise that much. The tinnitus is bad enough.

In the meantime, I'm back to banging around on my old set in the basement and have dragged out my old drum studies material. Ironically, I gave away a heap of classic drum instruction books not too many months ago assuming I'd never be able to look at them again. Now I may end up re-buying them. What has me most buzzed it that I've discovered all the original material from when I studied with Jim Blackley, Claude Ranger and Paul deLong. Lots of incredible material that will keep me busily 'reviewing' for quite some time. I thought the Blackley stuff was brilliant years ago and today it looks like he's still ahead of his time. (Jim turned 85 just last week and still has a full teaching roster!)

Anyway, this diatribe comes from the sense of rebirth I feel having discovered that drums can be a part of my life, and not just something that I have to hide in the basement. Despite several careers -- both successful and wrong choices -- I never lost the feeling that I was a drummer showing up at the wrong gig.