Friday, June 21, 2013

Are we having fun yet?

At one point I was practicing compulsively, and it was getting to me. It was becoming an unwelcome grind. So I decided that I wouldn't practice at all unless I really felt like it. It surprised me when that lasted only a few days, because I realised that I liked practicing. So I practiced ... a bit. My practice schedule soon got longer and longer, but never to the point it had been at before. I still enjoy practicing, but if it feels at all like a chore I'll just fool around for a while or get off the drums completely and go do something else. 

That suggests to me that having fun is a factor that can enhance both my dedication and my productivity. Hmmm … so what else does ‘fun’ affect?

I've always believed that I learn better if I'm enjoying something. Education theory has finally caught up with that notion and now declares that learning should be fun! It seems that being anxious, fearful, irritated, bored, resentful, etc. is not conducive to learning. I know that my students do much better, learn more, and put a lot more effort into their work when they enjoy it. And I'm a pretty demanding teacher.

Your level of enjoyment also affects your playing. If I'm not in a good headspace, things can get pretty dicey. I've missed more than a few cues because my mind was somewhere else. Even if you're not preoccupied, your playing will not be as good if you're not grooving on the moment. Even your creativity suffers, so you owe it to yourself enjoy the moment the best you can.

My wife, a social worker, always tells her clients to ‘reframe’ … take the idea or issue that's bothering you and turn it around. Look for a positive viewpoint of that same issue and let that define your attitude. When I took a job with a country band years ago, I thought that I'd drifted irrevocably away from my dream. I was lucky in that the musicians were great players and great people, but I still had to reorient my thinking. And it wasn't long before I found that I was playing in the best country band around, thanks in part to my ability to adjust and reframe. Had I sat there and moped about not playing jazz as I'd hoped to do, chances are I'd have found myself out of work on top of being miserable.

So rejig your mindset if necessary and get out there and have some fun. You'll be much better off in so many ways.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Cheap Tricks

The 30-minute Rule 

Just about anything can be mastered in a half-hour -- i.e. 30 minutes of solid, concentrated practice. Here’s how.

Take something you want to accomplish, and practice it non-stop for a full 5 minutes. Don't skimp. If it seems too hard or falls apart, don’t worry; just keep at it until the bitter end. Then move on to something else. The next day, put in another 5 minutes on that pattern. After just three 5-minute sessions, you’ll have a pretty good handle on it. After six sessions, you’ll probably have it. Of course more is even better, but at minimum, practice something new at least six times using this method.


Count to Five

I find that if I practice routine stickings (singles, doubles, etc.) and count in 4/4, I inevitably fall into a rhythm. Normally this is a good thing, but to develop even articulation, four-to-the-bar can work against you. So sometimes I count in 5. And not even 5/4 -- just five with no groupings (i.e. no 3 + 2 and no 2 + 3). This helps prevent me from introducing any rhythm or dynamics and to play the strokes more evenly. Interestingly, it also helps me keep in time. (And it certainly can’t hurt to spend some time counting in fives.)


One Thing at a Time 

Simplify, modify and generally do whatever it takes to help you understand a figure. I was working on some advanced funk studies (though I don't seem to have a funky molecule in me) and in order to hear the rhythms, sometimes I started by playing the snare part with one hand and the bass drum pattern with the other. So no cymbal, no hi-hat and no actual bass drum -- just the basic rhythm plus the side-to-side feel of the right/left/right motion. Once I began to hear the rhythm, I then moved it to the set and added the other parts. Sometimes it’s easier to begin with a rhythm and apply the sticking later rather than approaching it the other way around.


Play the Rhythm

Always try to hear the rhythm. I practice many things very slowly (40 bpm and sometimes even less) but at very slow tempos the rhythm isn't always evident. In a case like this, I'll play the figure at a more normal speed until I can hear and feel it. Then, when I slow it down, I'm better able to hear and understand the figure despite the dirge-like tempo.


Dazed and Confusing 

Sticking patterns are a mixed blessing. Sometimes they revolutionize your playing; other times they just complicate and confuse. For example, playing multiple strokes with each hand (e.g. RRRR LLLL etc.) has limited use and limited benefit. More complex exercises may be good for warm-ups, but they too are limited in what they can do for you. But I have discovered one exception (this one comes from Joe Morello). I call it the 'Dazed & Confused' technique.

At the close of this Led Zeppelin song in 6/8 time, the band finishes with a staccato statement in the form:  1-and 2-and 3 / 1-and 2-and 3 / 1-and 2-and 3 etc. It turns out that this is a wonderful sticking exercise that has a lot of benefits, and if you're curious about the Moeller technique, here's a good way to work on it.

Play the 5-stroke figure with one hand. Strike on the down stroke, bounce on the next three strokes, and lift on the last stroke. 

So:  Strike, tap, tap, tap, lift  /  Strike, tap, tap, tap, lift

This gives you a wrist stroke on the down beat, three controlled bounces, and a 'pick up' stroke to get ready for the next sequence. Done correctly, you'll find yourself carefully working those bounced strokes for feel and consistency. Try this exercise slowly with each hand singly, as alternating strokes, and with both hands together. 

How to Listen and Analyze

When you encounter a new tune that grabs your attention, find your place in it by first figuring out the tempo and finding ‘1’. Then start counting to find the time signature. Finally, count bars to determine the structure and to locate the beginning. (Melodic instrument players follow this procedure, also deciphering the key once they’ve found ‘1’). 

Once More, Without Feeling

Similar to the ‘One thing at a time’ approach, this one removes all semblance of nuance from a figure. To master a new figure AND make it swing is sometimes a tall order. So, play it as mechanically as possible so you can concentrate on the sticking and co-ordination. Once it begins to feel comfortable, then go ahead and play it ‘with feeling’. 

Creating Visual Clues to Simplify Setup 

Here’s a simple trick that makes drum setup just a bit easier.

When putting top heads on drums, I always align the drumhead logo with a useful reference point on the drum. For floor toms, I place the logo over the drum’s logo. This way I know where the ‘front’ of the drum is without having to look. The drumhead logo marks it for me, making it easy to place the floor tom(s) without having to look.

For mounted toms, I place the logo above the mounting attachment. A quick glance at the drum tells me instantly where to find the mount, making it a snap to orient.

For the snare drum I put the logo over the snare release. That way I always know where the release is, which makes for easier setup and fool-proof playing. 

Lighten Up 

Many drummers hold their sticks too tightly. There is a long-running debate about whether to use wrists or fingers. Fingers win, hands down (sorry for the obvious pun). My favourite example is the king of heavy hitters, John Bonham. Despite his reputation for ‘bringing the thunder’, Bonham plays in a wonderfully loose and relaxed manner. Another great example is Buddy Rich, who sometimes looked as relaxed as you can get, despite the ferocity of his playing.

Sometimes you need to work with solid wrist strokes, but most top players go for as relaxed a grip as possible.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It Works for Me

A trap many of us fall into is the assumption that what's true in one instance or situation will be true everywhere else as well. A large part of our existence is spent simply trying to sort out life’s stuff -- separating the good from the useless -- and in a field as complicated and subjective as drumming, sorting things out can be a full time job.

There are more superb drummers in the world today than I would have ever thought possible. And it's so easy to watch these people in action via the internet. At one time you had to go to a club or concert to see how they did it. Now you just have to 'google' it. And that makes it easy to compare ‘the way it is’ with how it really is. I especially love watching ‘educational’ drum videos on YouTube and the like, and I get a big kick out of drummers who flatly declare, "This is how it's done; this is the way." Oh, really?

Take the right hand grip -- the hand that the majority of drummers use for the cymbal. I don't think I've ever seen such a wide variety of approaches to the grip and to striking a cymbal as there are today. Traditionalist drum teachers must be horrified to see the way some people approach the ride cymbal.

What I glean from all of this is that there is no single right way. There are many, many ways. Some work well and some don't work very well at all (your teacher can help you avoid the poor choices). There is also a lot of latitude for how you adopt and adapt the best practices.

So when someone says, “This is how it's done", take the information as a suggestion. Try it on for size, if it makes sense. It may be what you were looking for. I think a better approach would be, “This is how I do it, and it works for me.” Perhaps it will work for you too. If not, don't sweat it; there are lots more opinions and options available.