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 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