Thursday, September 19, 2013

When in doubt, listen

Here’s a very common question: If you could give just one tip for playing musically, what would it be?

It's unlikely that anyone would ask this sort of question of a piano player or saxophonist, and yet it seems OK -- almost required -- to ask it of drummers. My first inclination would be to ask, "What song are you playing?" Certainly it would be easier to provide some guidance if I knew something about the musical context. But I have a simpler, more direct answer.

If I were to offer up one 'secret' tip about playing musically, it would be this: Listen. By the time you get on the bandstand, it's too late to start thinking about how to play musically. It really is something you should be thinking about all the time. And you need to listen all the time too. Listen to the greats -- the masters. Don't just listen to the drum part. The best drummers tend to play with the best musicians, and those drummers are thinking about the music, not about how cool that last lick was or the next one will be.

Seek out your favourite drummers, and then listen -- deeply -- to the rest of the band. Study how the tunes work and how the drummer fits into the whole thing. And listen to the drummer just as intently. What is the drummer doing to make the music better? How do the drums and bass work together? How does the drummer relate to the ‘comping’ instruments?

When I'm faced with an unfamiliar tune, I'm never at a loss for what to play. It's not because I have a huge war chest of beats and patterns -- I don't. Nor do I feel the need of one. Everything I really need is contained right in the tune, and it's just a matter of hearing it and then following along. Of course I want to bring my own interpretation to it, but the fundamental rhythm is already there, as are the phrasing and dynamics.

So the next time you approach a tune, listen to the bass line. Listen to the rhythm that the ensemble is playing. Then all you have to do is come up with something that fits. Later you can dress it up, but begin by fitting in and letting your playing contribute to and reflect what's going on in the music.

Monday, September 9, 2013

“Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly” Dalai Lama

I knew some young musicians who refused to be influenced by other people's music and musical opinions. They were so dedicated to this course that they stopped listening to recordings, stopped going to see other bands, and refused to take lessons or study music. Their plan worked: They remained uninfluenced by any music that had gone before. They also remained un-enriched, uneducated, unrepentant and, ultimately, unoriginal.

After a couple of years of isolated practice, they developed a banal style that hinted at musical trends that had long since died out or been abandoned. True, they had avoided outside influences, but they had also avoided knowledge, history, the example of great players, the technical advantages taught by teachers, and more. They also missed out on the mistakes and blind alleys of the past and ended up needlessly stumbling through them on their own.

Imagine how different this group's end result might have been had they been aware of what had already been tried? If they’d become technically accomplished on their instruments? If they’d listened to both past and present music to broaden their scope?
We all want to be unique, to develop our own style. But what's the point if that style is based on ignorance and lack of competence. It's fine to go against the current, but how can you possibly do that if you don't know which way the current is flowing. As the Dalai Lama points out, you can't very well bend or break the rules if you don't know what the rules are. Nor can you develop an original style when you don't know what styles are already out there.

There's a wonderful saying that you might have heard: Good musicians borrow; great musicians steal. The more material you ‘lift’ from other sources, the more you make it your own. In time it will all meld together to become ‘you’. In this case, more really is better. And you’ll also have a better idea of what rules you can break, and how to break them.