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.