Thursday, August 29, 2013

What do you call a person who hangs around with musicians?

It's a very old and rather tired joke, but it wasn't all that long ago that music contracts specified "4 musicians and a drummer". It's not really a case of drummers not getting the same amount of respect as other musicians. It's simply that many non-drummers don't realise that playing drums well requires every bit as much training and knowledge as any other instrument.

There's a lovely video on Youtube in which Travis Barker is warming up before a gig. In case you didn't know, Travis is highly trained, highly skilled and highly disciplined. The fellow there with him -- also a band member -- remarks in a disbelieving tone, "You mean you actually practice your instrument?" Oh my.

There are a lot of drummers who are not interested in studying or practicing ... or even in improving. But that's not peculiar to drummers. A lot of musicians don't seem to put in much effort after learning those first few chords and songs. There have even been music movements that eschewed any sort of education or training. It's a personal choice, but consider the long-term consequences of that choice.

The less you know about your instrument and about music, the less valuable you are as a player. That means the better gigs will always go to someone else. There's also a limitation on opportunities. Perhaps you enjoy teaching. Well you won't attract many students if you can't read and don't know the basics, or if you don't understand how to get from one level of playing to the next.

I certainly want more opportunities rather than fewer. But for me the real bottom line is how I feel about my playing and the quality of the work that I do. I don't like half efforts, and I tend to put a lot of energy and care into everything I do. Drums are no different. And if I want to do a high quality job -- for me if not for any other reason -- then I owe it to myself to continually hone my craft.

And the best part? It feels great to cover new ground and develop new competency. And the positive feedback is pretty good too.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Beware of a Perplexing Legacy

I thought in honour of Ginger Baker's 74th birthday (Aug. 19) I'd post a short review of an excellent documentary on the cream of 60s drummers.

Take the power of John Bonham, the orchestral sense of Keith Moon, the "This is how I hear it" creativity of Max Roach, the attitude of a junk yard dog, and stick it all inside a massive ego and -- beware -- you have Ginger Baker.

Of course I'm referring to the image one gets of this iconic drummer as revealed in the documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker" by independent filmmaker Jay Bulger, which won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at the South by Southwest film festival in 2012.

The film presents a quick review of Baker's career, and retraces much of his musical path both before and after Cream. Some scenes use cartoonish-yet-tasteful illustrations to set the mood. There are plenty of the requisite clips of past performances and interviews with associates and admirers. I believe it was 'the Fonz' who said "Live hard, live fast, you leave a good looking corpse". Not so Mr. Baker, who has certainly lived hard and fast. Years of smoking and substance abuse have left Ginger looking only slightly less like a corpse than Keith Richards. In one scene, he's shown on oxygen.

One has to ask whether Baker was always as acerbic as we see in the film, and whether he abused those around him the way he abuses the film's maker. Bulger keeps coming back to Ginger's upbringing and the loss of his father (a casualty of WWII) at a young age. It seems Peter Edward Baker had to learn to use his fists early on, and that appears to have stuck with him. Eric Clapton summed Baker up rather interestingly. He felt it would be too dangerous to be around him, but would 'always be there for him' -- a substantial tribute.

If you've not made up your mind about Ginger Baker -- the drummer or the person -- this film might help. Suffice it to say, he had a mighty impact on drums, drumming and the rock milieu. He was not the first to use a 14-piece drum set, not the first to use double bass drums, and certainly not the first to carry a jazz influence onto the stage. But his influence on drummers of the time and since is unmistakable and wide-spread.

What I found most interesting is that, despite all his bluster, Ginger Baker doesn't appear to be egotistical about his playing. Perhaps that's an important part of the formula that made him a mega-super-star.

Beware of Mr. Baker
Writer/Director:  Jay Bulger
Producer: Andrew S. Karsch, Fisher Stevens

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Are we boring you?

The singer said it well, and for all to hear: "You can always tell when the drummer's bored."

He's right. It's easy to tell when a drummer is bored. It's when he/she throws in all kinds of stuff that isn't relevant to the music. It's a different sort of thing from merely being too busy or not being faithful to the style. You can overplay and yet still be working hard to make good music. The bored drummer, on the other hand, tries to generate some excitement when it's completely uncalled for. You can often tell from the drummer's facial expression. It's one of attention seeking, looking to the band or audience as if to say, "Did you notice me?"

Is there a cure? There is, and it's surprisingly simple. Just remember why you're there: to combine your efforts with those of the rest of the band to produce quality music. You are there to serve the music, no more, no less.

Not appropriate for the style?
One reaction to an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable situation is to disallow all knowledge and interest in the subject. So you play what you feel like playing rather than what's right for the music. Say you're a thrash metal player and you've landed a fill-in gig with a blues band. I'm sure you've played plenty of blues before, and you've likely heard enough authentic blues to be able to mimic the style if you give yourself permission to do so.

I find that the core rhythm can always be found in the music. While I may not know a tune or even the genre, the rhythm always forms the foundation of the tune and all I have to do is listen for it. If you find that you’re not clicking with the genre, a bit of homework and listening will pay off.

You’re distractible?Ah yes, the ADD problem. The interesting thing about people with ADD is that they typically put a lot of effort into overcoming the difficulties that accompany the condition. The frustrating part of ADD is not the inability to pay attention but the inability to control it, to make it do what you want. People with ADD can attend just fine, right up until the moment their thoughts shift to something else with no warning and no rationale.

One trick to living with this peculiarity is to keep progressing. Always look for the new and novel, which all music contains if you take the time to look for it. It's important to be as stress-free as possible on the gig. This is critical for someone with a wandering mind. It's also a good idea to have reminders available, so charts and notes might be a worthwhile  addition to your setup. If you happen to be the distractible type, use whatever coping tools that will help you keep on track. (By the way, ADD and just not paying attention are not the same thing.)

You’re truly bored?One of the main reasons drummers overplay is because they're bored with the music. In my experience, boredom comes from within. If you crave excitement, that's a choice. You can also choose to crave a challenge. There are potential challenges in every musical situation. Can you play it more authentically? More empathically? Can you hold the time rock steady? Can you pay fills only at the end of complete phrases? Can you play fills that are shockingly simple? Can you follow the dynamics of the tune throughout the volume spectrum? I find I'm never bored when my objective is to do a better job and to always improve what I'm doing.

And if you're simply bored, either get un-bored or step aside and let someone else have a go.