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.