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Monday, 22 December 2014

Any Educational System Must Cover ALL The Bases

For drums, education must include hand control, strength training, reading, musicality, and ideas for creativity. Many teaching strategies focus on just one or two of these areas, but as a complete musician you need to develop all these skills, and to a high degree.

Hand Control
The bottom line is that we want our hands (and feet) to do the things we want them to do. So lots of practice on sticking patterns and basic rhythms is in order. Control also determines speed, articulation and facility with dynamics.

Strength Training
 Drums are physically hard to play, and it takes quite a bit of muscle to get through. A single demanding song can wear you out if you're not prepared. Speed also comes from strength, so be sure to include exercises and routines that push your speed as well as your endurance.

Reading music has a number of advantages. At the very least it allows you to access the ideas on the page. A systematic course in reading will not only teach you the notes, it will clearly lay out how different note values are related to the beat and to each other, and this can help you put the notes where they need to be. Plus if you can read reasonably well, it's not that big a step to reading charts, and that can make you more valuable.

Your course of study should include analyzing tunes and working on form, melody and perhaps even harmony. It's nice to have practiced '1001 rock beats', but how do they fit the music, if at all? And if you intend to be a freelancer or generalist, then your study should include all of the genres you might encounter on a gig.

Ideas & Creativity
My approach to everything is to work with building blocks: specific exercises to build strength, others to develop control, etc. To that end, I tend to avoid overly specific beats. I prefer the freedom of creating my own beats derived from the music. So my regimen includes lots of idea builders --basic patterns that have broad applications in music.

One of my favourite proverbs is "Work hard and never hurry". The skills you need cannot by rushed, so forget the time table and focus on your overall musical education. And remember that curiosity is the best motivator.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Layered vs. Linear

There are two types of drumming -- layered and linear -- and they are very far apart in every way.

Layered drumming is what we all do most of the time: bass drum on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, ride rhythm on top. The instruments and the figures are in layers: a layer of cymbal, below that a layer of snare, and a layer of BD as a foundation.

Layered drumming requires a lot of coordination. It also requires the ability to play at least a couple of ostinatos at the same time. An ostinato is simply a repetitive pattern: ba-bump/ba-bump/ba-bump on the bass drum, ding-dinga-ding on the cymbal. The idea here is that some limbs will play an ostinato while other limbs might play in a less regimented manner. Most rhythms are just a pile of ostinatos.

The rule for linear drumming is that no two limbs will strike at the same time. Traditional drum training has neglected linear playing, but it is coming on strong. Linear style can range from the simple to the complex. Usually the practitioner will work out a number of interesting patterns and intermingle them in a tune. So our layered rock beat can be reinterpreted as linear: BD Cym SN Cym / BD Cym SN Cym / BD Cym SN Cym.

Linear playing will take some work to master, and because it is radically different from what you're used to, your existing technique may get in the way from time to time, so one of your objectives is to unlearn the old ways. One of the best books for this is "4-way Co-ordination" by Dahlgren & Fine.

Another approach you might try is mixing things up with ”Stick Control”. Alan Dawson reinterpreted “Stick Control” by playing the R strokes with alternate sticks and the L strokes on the bass drum. So a paradiddle -- RLRR LRLL -- would yield RH BD LH RH / BD LH BD BD. You can take it a step further by alternating feet as well. Try this: play your right hand on the ride cymbal and left hand on the snare. For R, play alternate hands; for L, play alternate feet. So our paradiddle now becomes Cym BD SN Cym / HH SN BD HH.

You don't have to play linear patterns all the time. Even a little bit of linear variation can add interest to a conventional rhythm. Plus working on linear patterns will help free your limbs to do more interesting ostinato patterns.

4-Way Coordination: A Method Book for the Development of Complete Independence on the Drum Set, by Marvin Dahlgren & Elliot Fine
ISBN-10: 0769233708
ISBN-13: 978-0769233703

Stick Control For the Snare Drummer by George Lawrence Stone, 1935
ISBN-10: 1892764040
ISBN-13: 978-1892764041

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

How to Practice Part II

8. Practice very slowly
We all want to play fast, and sometimes speed will be necessary. But speed comes gradually, and it cannot develop where there is a lack of control. A great principle is to practice everything as slowly as you can stand it, with the metronome set at 40-60 bpm. Once you become comfortable with a new technique, you can begin to work on it at faster tempos. Especially watch out for your personal ‘comfort tempos’, which can lead to an autopilot approach. Better to pick a tempo that forces you to concentrate to keep it together, and that usually means slow it down.

9. Practice very fast
You will sometimes need to play very quickly, so don’t concentrate only on control at the expense of speed. Spend some time moving your basic beats and patterns up the metronome scale. You don’t want to enter a situation where the tempo is so fast that you can’t do what you need to do.

10. Practice on pads
There are several reasons for using practice pads. Portability and convenience come to mind, as does noise level. Add to this the health of your ears, which will suffer if you don’t give them a break from live drums. A big advantage is that a pad lets you hear your strokes much better. Try playing alternating flams for a few minutes and you’ll see.

11. Practice on drums
Yes, practice pads are a great invention, but they do not have the same feel and response as live drums. You need to play the drums in order to, well, play the drums. Don’t become a monster practice pad player who is unaccustomed to real drums -- and remember to wear your hearing protectors.

12. Practice with music
That’s what it’s all about. You should also practice different styles of music. When you get a call for a gig, they’ll ask you if you can play a certain type of music, not if you know certain figures and rudiments. There are ‘music minus one’ recordings available, or just play along with some of your favourite bands’ CDs or downloaded tracks.

13. KISS: Keep It Short And Simple
Simplifying things can help you to understand and keep it together. If you’re working on a new pattern that involves all four limbs, try adding one part at a time. Maybe drop the cymbal or hi-hat or both to concentrate on the interaction between the snare and bass drum, and add the other bits when the foundation is more solid.

14. Practice stuff you’re interested in
Just heard a cool figure? Go ahead and analyse it, then hit the practice room -- make it your own. The people we listen to today learned by imitating the people they admired, who learned by studying the people they admired, and so on. Ironically, the more ‘borrowed’ material you master, the more individual your style will become!

15. Try to play as much as you practice
Don’t become a practice addict. The end goal is to play live music, so get out there and play every chance you get. -rb

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

How to Practice Part I

1. Always practice with a purpose
Make sure you know why you’re practicing the things you intend to practice, and avoid mindlessly repeating exercises or routines that have no particular goal.

2. Use a metronome
Just about everybody’s sense of time can be improved, so working with a metronome is always appropriate. I suggest using it perhaps a quarter to a third of the time -- it’s equally important that you don’t get dependent on it.

3. Practice what you’re not good at
If you do something well and comfortably, there’s not much point in having it on your practice schedule. Stick with new stuff and the things that are giving you trouble.

4. Keep up on the basics
Spend some time polishing the ‘meat & potatoes’ -- doubles, singles, buzz rolls, basic grooves … the stuff you use all the time.

5. Practice ‘SMART’
Specific: Know what it is that you’re working on. Write it down.
Measurable: Have a solid objective and write it down, e.g. “To work through all of the ‘Zen of Disco Drumming’ book in six weeks.” You either get there or you don’t.
Achievable: It has to be something that’s humanly possible in the amount of time you have. To set a goal of being as fast as Barret Deems or Derrick Roddy in a week and a half is not realistic. Dream big, but set your immediate targets where they can be reached.
Relevant: How does it fit into the grand scheme? Will the technique you intend to work on make you a better drummer and musician or is it just ‘busy work’?
Time Framed: This applies to both time spent and when it’s to be accomplished: “I will practice my basic rock beats every day, 5 minutes each, for one month.”
6. Practice stuff that’s useful
As Buddy Rich said, “Why practice something you’re not going to use?” ‘Nuff said.

7. Practice stuff that’s hard
Working on difficult material will actually spill over into other areas. After working on the ‘next-to-impossible’ for a bit, the extremely hard becomes almost easy by comparison.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Century Drums - A Place for Vintage Drum Addicts

I ventured into the big city recently to check out a new drum store and possibly buy a drum featured on their website. The drum was a mid-70s Ludwig Supraphonic with a brass shell! It turned out the drum had just been sold, but I still ended up having the most 'drum fun' ever.

Greg Millson opened Century Drum as a store front in Toronto's west end to cut down his reliance on road gigs and also to indulge his 'drum nerd' side. Far from nerdy, Greg is a humble guy with tremendous enthusiasm for and knowledge about old drums. While the store does have the occasional newer item, the majority are pre-1970.

The main focus is on snare drums. This, after all, is where drummers do most of their business. It's also the most personal drum in a drummer's set-up, and finding the right one can be a life-long quest. Well, I had no problem targeting a half dozen drums I'd gladly own -- and not just snare drums. (The first drum I noticed was a Leedy 11" tom that sounded unbelievable.)

The front room of the store is mostly snare drums. The walls are lined with snare drums, as is one wall of the adjacent hallway. In the middle of the floor was a line of newly arrived vintage Leedy, Ludwig and Slingerland drums, and the front window sports a couple of extreme vintage sets.

The hallway leads to a cymbal room, a teaching studio, and a drum set room. There are cymbals of every era here. My favourites were an old pair of 16" K Zildjian hats and a UFIP ‘reverse’ Chinese. The back room has mostly Rogers sets at this point, plus a couple of Ludwig kits.

Across the board, the quality of Greg's inventory is top notch. If a drum needs a bit of TLC, Greg has the knowledge and skill to bring it as near as possible to its original state. Obviously Greg is in this to make a living, but he's wisely chosen a mid-line pricing model. His drums are all affordably priced. Yes, some of the numbers are high, but they should be. When a re-issue of a classic drum sells for $1000, I think picking up an original one for $650 is a coup.

Century Drum Shop
985 Dovercourt Road (Just north of Bloor St,) Toronto ON
647 956-9035

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Let Me Rephrase That

Many of the drum exercises I see in books and on blogs and websites seem to completely ignore phrasing, which is unfortunate. I see some very good ideas presented in an  interesting manner but with no context. Ignoring phrasing is a disservice to all musicians. Musical phrases are what music is all about, so anything that a drummer does should relate to the tune’s phrasing, and anything you practice should translate easily into musical applications.

Phrasing is not difficult. The humble 4-bar phrase is so pervasive that anything else can stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Four-bar phrases are rooted in nature. Before we had instruments, we had only the voice, and most vocalists (and therefore wind instruments players too) have enough lung power for roughly two bars. So if you sing a 2-bar line and then stop to take a breath, chances are you'll naturally fall into a 4-bar phrase: a 2-bar musical statement followed by 2 bars of breathing space (or meditation or whatever). Thus the 4-bar phrase is born.

It’s a good idea to practice everything in 4-bar increments. The best way to do this is to count the downbeats of the bars: One 2 3 4 / Two 2 3 4 / Three 2 3 4 / Four 2 3 4. BTW  if  you put three 4-bar phrases together, you have the framework for a 12-bar blues.

OK, that settles the length issue, now how does a drummer approach phrasing musically. I like to use the classic ‘call and response’ method. I think of the first two bars -- the musical statement -- as the call (this is usually the vocalist's bit) and the next two bars would be the response.

So:|  2-bar statement  |  2-bar response  |
|  2-bar set-up  |  2-bar resolution  |

Listen to any blues guitarist for splendid examples of 2 bars of vocal line followed by 2 bars of guitar embellishment. Drums can do the same.

The opposite form will also work -- but is less common -- where, for example, a drummer might do some 'colour commentary' for the first two bars and then play more simply for the next two bars. This can be an ideal model for soloing, though.

While the 4-bar phrase may be the basic unit, lots of music is cast from 8-bar phrases. Well that's just two 4-bar phrases. Count the down beats and use a call & response style, this time with a 6-bar of time followed by a 2-bar resolution, or 7 bars of time and a 1-bar resolution. We call this technique a turn-around, and it’s an important concept. Don’t just put stuff in ‘cuz you feel like it. In fact, you’ll find that the end of a phrase will often call out for some sort of recognition … a fill or a figure.

So play in 4-bar phrases or 8-bar phrases, depending on the music form, and listen for the call & response structure. Listen also for the 'resolution' at the end of a phrase, which is your opportunity to help finish off one phrase and usher in the next one.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Let It Breathe: T / F?

A lot of people are under the impression that a wine should be allowed to breathe. As the author of a best-selling book on wine (and two others, equally awesome), I can say with some authority that this is a myth, an obsolete concept passed down through the centuries. 

There are a lot of musicians who believe that music, too, should be allowed to breathe, that the flow of time will sound stifled and un-natural if it is too accurate. Interestingly, most of the music created in the past 20 to 30 years was recorded with a ’click track’. In order to help the musicians play steady time, recording studios often play a metronome click in the players’ headphones, and the musicians play to this click.

Hmmm ... that also means that most of what we've been listening to -- for quite some time -- must lack this element of breathing. And yet no one seems to have noticed. I've never seen a dance floor suddenly empty when the DJ put on some techno loop, which sure as heck doesn't breathe. 

I've ranted about keeping good time before, so let me see if I can keep it light. In the real world, people have varying aptitude for keeping a steady beat. A few are lucky enough to have the rhythmic equivalent of perfect pitch. But most of us have to work at it, which means spending a lot of time with a metronome and remaining vigilant when playing. 

A wee bit of flux in the time can be quite acceptable. It's easy, even desirable, to get enthusiastic when the music gets cooking, and just as normal to lay back when the music cools down. But I would offer that only a very small amount of variation in tempo is acceptable. Nor would I say that such variation is necessary. We've all heard -- and grooved to -- many click-track regulated recordings and never twigged to the fact that the time was rock steady. I've even found myself admiring the steadiness of the time on certain recordings. Even before click tracks, there were recordings that had awesome time, and no one complained about it.

Many bands these days are starting to use a click track during live performances. Given the high playing level of some of these musicians, I doubt they’d use a click track if it detracted from their music.

So go ahead and play great, steady time. I’m sure no one will mind.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Coming to Terms with Triplets

One of my pet peeves when it comes to counting rhythm is the abundance of ways to count triplets. I saw a couple of instructional videos that presented lessons on triplets that just didn't make sense to me. One wag began by saying that triplets are a way of playing three notes in the place of two. Nonsense! Triplets are triplets and have absolutely nothing to do with replacing other note values. Triplets are, simply, divisions of three. They have a specific feel, and that feel is triplets, not 3 in the place of 2.

I like things that are simple … things that make sense. Plus I like consistency and not having to make pointless adjustments. It's also easier to learn the simple before tackling the complex. And stuff that makes sense is easier to learn than stuff that doesn't. An important bit of learning theory is that it's much harder to learn a new method if you first have to first unlearn an old method -- a phenomenon called proactive inhibition. (Don't believe me? Did you upgrade from Office 2003 to Office 2007? How did that go?)

The instructors in the above-mentioned videos advocated the same counting method for triplets: 1-&-uh / 2-&-uh. I've heard this many times before and, quite frankly, it ticks me off. These syllables have already been assigned to eighth notes and 16th notes, so why are they being redeployed for something that's completely unrelated? It’s a recipe for confusion. An even more puzzling suggestion was to count 16th note triplets the same way, resulting in a real tongue twister:  1-&-uh-2-&-uh / 2-&-uh-2-&-uh / 3-&-uh-2-&-uh ... Arrgghhh.

I've also heard from teachers who teach the 1-&-uh method in the beginning but then require students to change later on ... proactive inhibition alert! Why not just teach the 'right' way to begin with?

I have a straight-forward counting system that I was taught way back when, and I've yet to find a situation where it doesn't work or a system that works better. Now, it doesn't really matter what mnemonic you use for counting as long as it helps shape the rhythm, is easy to remember, and doesn't conflict with other methods. So in principle you could count ‘1-kum-quat, 2-kum-quat’. A little odd perhaps, but it works just fine and it fulfills all the requirements.

So here is my method of choice for counting triplets:

       1-trip-let / 2-trip-let / 3-trip-let / 4-trip-let
It's easy to remember, easy to say, yields a good triplet feel, and doesn't step on any of the 16th notes' toes. You can easily count syncopation and broken triplets, such as: 1-x-let / 2-trip-x / 3-trip-x /x -trip-let. It can also be mixed freely with 8th notes and 16th notes without confusion :  1-&- / 2e&- / 3-trip-let / 4e-uh. That would be rather tricky using the 1-&-uh system.

A bonus is that this method can handle 16th note triplets just as easily. It may not be elegant, but it is effective: 1-trip-let-AND-trip-let / 2-trip-let-AND-trip-let. Works rather well, I think.

(An odd twist on this method is to count “Tri-pul-let / Tri-pul-let / Tri-pul-let”. While it may seem to be the equivalent of the above, it eradicates the number count on the down beats. How are you supposed to count the beats … or the bars. So ignore this one as well.)

Monday, 18 August 2014

End Plate End Game

The coiled-steel snare wire is a wonderful invention and a huge improvement over, uh, animal parts. But making it happen required the simultaneous invention of the ‘end plate’ (or ‘butt plate’), and that opened up a real can of worms.

The original snares 'wires' were made of leather, usually some type of gut (intestine linings). Coupled with thin leather heads, gut snares worked well. All that was needed was a bit of relief in the rim and at the edge of the drum shell and all was well. Ordinary humidity would ensure that the head would mould itself to the snare bed, and the gut snare strands would quickly form themselves to that same contour.

With the introduction of the butt plate, the game changed completely. Because snare wires are made of metal, they must be welded or soldered to something that's strong enough to hold them (plastic was tried for a time, but soon abandoned). The butt plate is a slice of metal slightly wider than the set of wires and about 1/2-inch deep. It’s metal --  it doesn't flex. The snare wires don't flex much either, and they don't flex at all where they join the butt plate. So where you once had soft, flexible gut strands that easily conformed to the drum head, you now have two chunks of inflexible metal that sit right plunk on the snare head at both sides. And that's a problem.

In the olden days, the snare gate and snare bed combo offered just enough clearance to let the gut strands do their job. After the introduction of metal snares, the snare gate was gradually made larger over time, but the snare bed remained almost unchanged for a long time. It's common to see snare drums made quite recently that have old-style snare beds: fairly deep and only marginally wider than the snares themselves. I might mention here that plastic heads don't sit well on deep, narrow snare beds … double jeopardy.

There were some very creative attempts to solve this problem that mainly involved changing how the snares were attached to the drum. Leedy, Slingerland and a few others added cages and guides outside the snare gate at each side of the drum. The snare cords or straps travelled over the guide so they ran parallel to the snare head where they entered the snare gate, keeping the butt plates from pressing into the head. The Rogers Drum Company decided to mount the snares in a special rack that kept the butt plates off the snare head completely. This trick had a second advantage in that the tension along the snares could be adjusted separately from the up and down tension. Rogers ‘Dynasonic’ snare drums are still highly prized.

One of the more successful approaches was to run the snares all the way across the snare head and completely out each side. Drums such as the Ludwig SuperSensitive and Premier 2000 have a beam running through the drum that holds the snare mechanism and the butt plates well outside the drum head area. Of course the objective was to have a snare that could be adjusted both vertically and horizontally, but getting the butt plates off the head was also a priority.

Other solutions, and I'm sure you've seen them all, were to play around with the attachment material and/or the mounting holes in the butt plates. Rather than go into detail on the different approaches to snare strings, plastic strips and the like, let's just say that it's a mixed bag that has had mixed success.

As for the mounting holes in butt plates, some real science has gone into this, and also into the design of the butt plates themselves. Slots, channels, lifters, bends, and what have you ... who'd have thought that something as small and simple as a butt plate could have such an impact.

Some drum companies have discovered -- finally -- that an enlightened snare bed design can virtually eliminate the butt plate problem. I played about with snare beds years ago and discovered that a wide, shallow snare bed could completely negate the influence of the butt plates and plastic heads. Moreover, a well-designed snare bed can accommodate many different sizes of snare-wire sets and attachment methods. If the snare bed is cut properly, the drum will act as if the butt plates don't exist, and what you get is pure snare sound, increased response and no choking.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Do our drum heroes still practice?

A very common question asked in interviews, and especially during the Q&A portion of a drum clinic is, "Do you still practice?" Usually the target of the question is a well-established and very competent player, and the answer is almost always the same: "Not really".

When just starting out, your body is not accustomed to all the co-ordination required to play drums, nor have you built up a library of drum knowledge. There's no other way to acquire these than to literally pound things into your muscles and your brain. It's called practice, and it takes a lot of time and effort. But after years of working at it, the list of things you can't do gradually gets shorter. In the beginning, it may be a struggle to play a basic beat, but in time it happens pretty much automatically.

As your reservoir of skills and knowledge gets bigger, you have less need to practice the basics, and it's perhaps rare that you're called on to do something that requires real 'wood shedding'. And as time goes by -- as skills and knowledge accumulate -- the nature of practice necessarily changes. So I would suggest that a more appropriate answer to the "Do you still practice" question would be, "Well, it's different now."

I'm sure there are players who are so awesome that they never need to touch the drums between gigs. And there are those who are so busy that there's simply no time for formal practice. But I think the majority of good players want to grow musically, and to do that they must -- and will -- spend some time 'sharpening the saw'.

Some people want to improve their golf swing. Some want to trim a few minutes off their 5K run. I practice quite a bit because I get the same sort of kick from having my hi-hat foot do what I want it to do regardless of what my bass foot is doing.

So the next time you're tempted to ask the question, consider asking instead, "What do you do now to stay sharp and keep growing musically?"

Thursday, 17 July 2014

How to Learn a Tune

After many joyful hours of practicing polyrhythms, mastering linear beats and honing your soloing chops, you may at some point be required to play actual music. I find that many drummers know a lot of tunes, but don't really know how the tunes work.  And the more abstract and convoluted the tune, the more important it is to analyse and master the ‘way the tune is put together.

It's not enough to be interested in a tune, or to have a pretty good idea of what it's about. Tunes have specific components, all of which you should know (within reason; see below). Tunes are built using rhythm, melody, harmony, and structure. To learn a new tune, tear it apart, learn it, devour it, own it. And it's not a lot of work. Begin with the structure. Count beats and bars to find out the time signature and to determine the basic form (I often use my fingers to do this). Is it a blues? Then it's 12 bars long in three 4-bar phrases. Something else? Just count. You don't have to read music to count beats and bars and to identify patterns.

The biggest help here is the melody, and most tunes are mostly melody.

Pop tunes, for example will usually have a verse, a chorus and perhaps a bridge. These parts will always be the same, so all you need to figure out is how long and in what order the sections appear, e.g. V, C, V, C, B, V, C, C is quite common.

All contemporary western music uses harmony. Most of the time this simply means chords, and understanding chords will give you access to the fundamental flow of the time. When there is no melody to fall back on, the chords will still be there, continually mapping your course through the tune. If you play a melodic and/or chording instrument, you may already have a good handle on harmony as well as melody and rhythm. But there is no need to learn another instrument. While some drum teachers insist that you learn piano, it's not really necessary. Helpful, yes, but many great drummers only knew how to play drums -- and how to listen -- and you don't need a piano to do this. But you do need to master the tune. You need to know the melody well enough to sing it (and if you're a non-singer like me, nobody needs to hear your attempts). You need to know the structure: how many bars are in each section and how the sections are arranged. You do not need to know the chords. You just need to be able to hear them and follow them through each part of the tune.

If sheet music helps, get hold of a copy. I often seek out a lead sheet for tunes that are a bit challenging. They summarize the whole tune, often on a single page. Go ahead and make notes on the sheet music or in a notebook. These days I use file cards.

BTW, don’t spend a lot of time practicing tunes you know. Bottom line: you already know them. Move on to something new.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Speed Limit in Effect

The most profound practice technique I've ever encountered is to practice ‘dead slow’. This may seem counter intuitive, especially when speed would seem to be such a basic requirement for a drummer, but taking it as slowly as possible has some amazing benefits.

First of all, slow tempos can be difficult to maintain, so practicing with your metronome set from 40 bpm to no more than 60 bpm will give you lots of practice at slow tempos.

Secondly, when you slow it down, you can hear the relationship between various strokes. Does your hi-hat sync with your snare hand? Do your feet and hands hit together? Are you rushing sixteenth notes? Dragging triplets?

Slowing down also forces you to think about things. It's often possible to play something reasonably well at a comfortable tempo and yet not be able to truly play it. Take any pattern you like -- one that you're fairly familiar with -- and try playing it at 60 bpm. My guess is it will take some time to get the various parts under control. When you practice painfully slow, it's more difficult to switch into ‘auto-pilot mode’. Your instincts and experience can't bail you out, so you have to think about and take control of every stroke and movement.

Perhaps the best outcome of slow practice is mastery of the rhythmic feel. Again, it's counter intuitive: How can you 'feel' anything when it’s almost too slow to recognize it as a rhythm? Slow tempos give you time to examine your articulation, and how one stroke plays against the next. You can't tell if your strokes are well articulated and evenly spaced if they're flying by too fast to monitor.

Same with rhythms. When played up-tempo, things usually sound more or less OK, but playing slowly will show you exactly what it sounds like and whether it adheres to the parameters of the music. An easy way to spot a lack in this area is by listening to swing or shuffle rhythms. Drummers who have not practiced these rhythms slowly -- and have not mastered the basics -- usually don't play them very well.

Now, having said all this, slow practice is not the whole story. You need to have speed, so practice that as well. But when trying to master new things, set your metronome to 60 bpm (40 bpm if you can stand it) and stay on it until the movements are second nature. And when it's time to play those same patterns up to speed, you may be amazed at how easily they will come to you and how good they will sound and feel.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Mastering the 11 1/2 bar blues

My musical schooling taught me a lot about music theory and song structure. Everything I studied and practiced was in nice, logical, symmetrical phrases -- four bars, eight bars, 12 bars -- until it was totally ingrained in my playing.  So when I found myself in a situation that had a large contingent of unschooled performers, my training wasn't always helpful. There are musicians who don't appreciate that phrases are ?supposed to be? four bars long. These people are inclined to think that a line is a line, and once it's sung it's time to move on. Hmmm. The result is something I like to call 11 1/2 bar blues.

I learned the hard way that sitting at the back of the bandstand and expecting -- even insisting on -- 'correct' doesn't fly. Untrained musicians are sometimes not skillful enough to pick up on any irregularities and make an adjustment. So it's up to the rest of the band to cope. As a professional, I sought to work out these occasional wrinkles so they would come across as seamless. All it takes is a bit of thought and mechanical work.

First of all, start listening and counting. What is the basic structure of the tune? Most of it will be logical phrases. Then watch for the oddities -- usually an extra half bar or a dropped half bar at the end of a phrase. And despite this little bit of creative license, singers/songwriters rarely go out of time by adding or dropping a single beat (but watch out for the occasional bar of 3).

Now, where does that odd bar occur? Likely it's consistent: the end of the phrase leading into the chorus, for example. Once you're aware of the adjustment, all you need to do is remember it's there and play it as if it's a normal part of the tune ... which it is.

This is not meant as a criticism of musicians who weren?t ruthlessly schooled in traditional phrasing. I played with a songwriter who threw in all sorts of creative phrasing. It took some effort, but I managed to cope. It wasn't until I had a chance to sit in the audience and listen to these same tunes that I was able to hear that the phrases were perfectly logical given the nature of the song's lyrics.

And really that's all there is to it. It comes down to learning the tune, no matter how unusual the phrasing and structure might be. And if there's no chance to rehearse and learn the tunes beforehand, let your ears be your guide. And remember to count.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

There and Back

I don't play a 'kick' drum. I don't even own a kick drum. What I have instead is a rather old-fashioned item called a bass drum. It's a lot larger than my other drums. It lies sideways on the floor. I play it with a pedal -- a 'bass drum' pedal.

My bass drum is tuned to a lower tone than my other drums, but it's a tone that complements them. I play it strategically, that is, it's a voice, just like my other drums. Sometimes I play steady time, just marking the beats. Other times I use it in combination with other drums to create rhythms. I can play it between other notes for contrast, or at the same time to add emphasis. I can play syncopated rhythms between my hands and bass drum. I can do all sorts of things. What I cannot do is 'kick' it.

Kick is not even a musical term. My theory is that it comes from early sound technicians who didn't think in musical terms. Perhaps they thought the drummer more or less kicked the drum. Now, if you look back at the evolution of sound reinforcement, you'll find that sound technicians did a lot of nasty stuff. That's OK. It was a young technology back in the 60s and 70s, and it was a challenge to fill an arena with sound. Still is. Many times the solution was to remove all semblance of the instrument's character. Listen to a bass guitar that's been plugged straight into the 'board', for example. It sounds pretty bad, but it works very well for the sound technicians.

When it came to amplifying drums, drummers didn't want to give up their prized instruments in favour of something like drum triggers (which were barely available back then). So the technicians worked their magic to get microphones, drums and stage monitors to behave. It started with removing the bass drum head. No longer able to produce lush, round tones, the bass drum was demoted to a thud or -- worse -- a splat ... ugh!

Next, the toms: way too much ring (something we used to call 'tone'). So let's cover them with crap to keep them from producing any unwanted sounds. Tape, foam, sanitary pads ... you name it and it was stuck on the toms in order to kill the resonance. Even better, take the bottom head off. Then the drum can't resonate at all! We can even shove a microphone up inside and capture just the 'splat' from the toms as well as the bass drum.

Thankfully, sound technology has progressed to the point that we can once again use real drums on stage. The missing bass drum head has been replaced by an access port, restoring some of that lovely depth and resonance. We're even seeing bass drums with added resonators, something that would have terrified the sound crew of 40 years ago. Toms are now praised for their rich resonance, and modern microphones deftly capture all the nuances of the drum set.

Now, if we can just get the terminology to reflect this wonderful progress, maybe we can get back to playing a bass drum instead of kicking a wet paper bag!

Friday, 2 May 2014

"Sounds good, but it fits"

This was a wonderful slip of the tongue that the guitar player said to the drummer -- or vice versa -- after a particularly nice lick. Of course we always want it to sound good, and ideally we want it to fit. But here's a shocking bit of news: It can actually sound somewhat awful and still be acceptable . . . in the case of drums, at least.

I went to see a group of touring 'jazz professors' who put on a performance of fairly avant guard jazz. The drummer stood out for me because I thought he was quite horrid. Most of what he played outside of straight time just sounded bizarre and sometimes even wrong. And yet it fit!

How can this be?

First of all, I would never suggest that bizarre is the way to go. But any one of us can have a quirky night, be in too unfamiliar a context, lack the experience and/or technique to do a proper job, or perhaps just have too much freedom.

So here's the reason that the avant guard drummer's playing worked. He had AWESOME TIME. If you hit everything dead on -- neither rushing nor dragging -- it's going to work, regardless of how it actually sounds.

So go ahead, have fun, branch out, experiment. As long as it's played in time, things will likely turn out OK. (Although if you start to get odd looks from the other band members, it might be a good idea to tone it down.)

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

“Lead, follow or get out of the way”

When I first heard this expression, I decided it was a philosophy that could easily be applied to music. It means, simply, that as drummers we can lead or follow or work unobtrusively in the background.

One of the best examples of a drummer who leads is Buddy Rich. Yes, it was his own band, and of course he led it from behind the set. Another leader, oddly, is Charlie Watts. From the opening notes of any Rolling Stones tune, it's quite evident that Charlie is in charge.

Staying with our theme of ‘60s relics, two not-too-obvious ‘followers’ are Keith Moon and John Bonham. Despite all the flash and bravura, these guys sat on their band mates’ coat tails. Keith Moon followed Roger Daltry; John Bonham took his cues from Jimmy Page.

You might think that getting -- or staying -- out of the way would be a bad thing, a sort of non-performance. Again an unexpected example: Vinnie Callaiuta. Monster player, but a lot of the time he's very nearly invisible. Whether he's backing up Paul Simon or Jeff Beck, he works subtly in the background, content to let the music come first.

Of course on any given gig, the drummer can move through all three roles, depending on the music, the ensemble’s needs and, naturally, the mood. If  the band is struggling to lock things in, a strong drummer can take the lead and help sort things out. If the band has a strong leader -- the vocalist, for example -- the rest of the band can pick up on his/her direction and run with it. And when the whole band is grooving, just settle back and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Heat Shrink Solution

I dropped by a local drumstick maker to say Hi and to get caught up on recent developments. They'd added a new stick to their line-up, which I rather liked, but I thought it might benefit from a rubberized grip. Well, they had one in stock. Not one pair, just one stick -- a sample, I guess. I asked if they had any more. The shop’s owner grabbed a few sticks, sound-matched a pair for me and then had his technician put grips on them. I liked the result, and for a short time I had a pair of exclusive, custom-made sticks! 
In an unrelated excursion, I was cruising the aisles of an electronics store and came across a display of heat-shrink tubing. Now, the above-mentioned drumstick maker had switched to heat shrink grips to get away from the mess and chemicals involved in dipped type grips (kudos to John at I figured that I could use some of the tubing to bulk up a pair of brushes that I found too thin. The result was excellent, so I set about retrofitting a few sticks as well. I'm now totally addicted and have added the material to all of my sticks … even some mallets and timbale sticks.

The tubing comes in a lot of different diameters. I found the 3/4" to be ideal for most uses. The 1/2" is good for very thin sticks and/or brushes (or timbale sticks). The product comes in a variety of colours, so I've colour-coded the pairs. Just for fun, I pulled a couple of worn out sticks from the trash and wrapped these as well. Bonus: the sticks are now usable again. 

The material is easy to work with. You need to cut off a piece about half the length of your stick. Then you just slip it over the grip area and apply heat. I use a heat gun, but a candle will do. The tubes cost $4 for a four-foot length. Using a standard 8" length, I can cover three pairs of sticks at a cost of about $1.35 per pair. I’ve even made my own ‘blasticks’ and brooms.

Note that this is an electrical product. I don't know if it's hypo-allergenic, though my research didn’t point to any obvious problems. If you're sensitive to plastics, rubbers and synthetics, you may want to keep an eye out for any reactions.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Maybe It Wasn't ‘Broke’

I finally got the small tom on my new 'jazz' kit sounding just the way I want. I bought the kit because I had the same type of set years ago and it has always been my favourite. But the new drums just didn't have the vibrant, open, rich sound of that classic set. Yes, many years have gone by and my memory has no doubt idealized the situation, but that didn't deter me from trying to figure out what was up with the drum.

First to go were the clear heads, replaced by medium-weight coated heads as on the originals. Unfortunately, swapping heads and playing around with tuning wasn't getting me where I wanted to go, so what else might I look at. The rims are lighter, but that's an issue I'm not prepared to finance right now. Hmmm ... my original set had the small tom ‘bolted’ to the bass drum. This new one had it hanging from a ring. So maybe I should try it without the suspension ring.

I don't drill holes in my drums without some sort of visceral reaction, but it seemed like the right thing to do. So I drilled the holes, bolted the bracket directly to the shell and tuned it up. The result was surprising. The sound was much fuller and more controlled. The drum was also easier to tune. Basically happy with the result, I left it for a few weeks to let the change settle in.

As good as the direct mounting was, it didn't get the drum to where I wanted it. My original drums had the tension casings bolted directly to the shell. For years now, drum makers have been putting isolating pads under the casings. The idea is to separate all that metal from the drum which, theoretically, would let the shell breathe and resonate more. On the other hand, I've always wondered whether packing a bunch of rubber against the shell was a good idea. So my next modification was to remove the spacers from all the tom's lugs. 

Actually, I have a competing tension lug theory. Aside from possibly damping the shell with lumps of rubber, the spacers can prevent the tension casings from coupling solidly with the drum. My reasoning is that, if the casings are firmly attached to the shell, they then become part of the resonating system and work with the drum rather than against it. Now, I can't say whether my theory holds water, but the instant I struck the drum 'sans spacers' I was struck by the difference (and, yes, I'm aware of the pun). That was more like the sound I had been expecting. It was rich, full, well controlled, and a lot of unwanted overtones had disappeared completely. The drum now has an authoritative bottom end and faster response.

In my case, the isolating tom mount took the drum in the wrong direction. So did the tension casing spacers. I'm not advocating that you throw away your RIMS system, but many of the classic drums we revere today had none of the modern 'enhancements'. So it's OK to occasionally ask, "But was it actually broken?" Because, as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Got What It Takes?

No, this is neither a challenge nor an ultimatum. I would simply like to have a look at the core qualities needed to be a successful professional drummer so we can determine which traits we might be ‘born with’ and which will need work or a work-around.

For example, I have an abysmal memory (even the people at the memory institute were impressed when I went for memory training). There are some things I remember fairly well and fairly consistently. Other things? Well, let's not go there.

A good memory is very useful
Even though my memory is generally poor, I have a pretty good memory for music, and by that I don't just mean a memory for tunes. I understand and remember how music works. This actually isn't surprising. I have a reasonably good memory for patterns, processes and relationships, and these are some of the building blocks of music. Interestingly, I have almost no ability to remember the words to a song, often can't remember the melody, and rarely recall the tempo (which is why I usually decline to count in a tune). But once the tune starts, a different type of memory kicks in.

Recognition is not the same as recall
Recognition is what gets you through multiple-choice tests. It will also get you through familiar tunes reliably because it's easier to recall what's coming up than it is to try to generate something out of nothing. So just count it in and then let me do my thing because my recall will see me through.

Play and chew gum at the same time
Many people do not have a great deal of co-ordination beyond the basics. The good news is, you don’t need all that much. But you do need enough co-ordination to execute the basic beats required of you. In most cases, a bit of practice and streamlining will get you there.

Juggling many balls (i.e. Multitasking)

There you are, sitting in with a big band. There's a chart in front of you, a dozen or so other musicians on all sides, and a director up there somewhere. So here's your job for the next 5 or 6 minutes:
  • Pay attention to the conductor
  • Read along in the music
  • Listen to and play along with the rhythm section
  • Listen to the rest of the band
  • Read ahead in the music to anticipate the shots and figures you're expected to play
  • Think of creative ways to introduce those shots and figures, and also how you'll wrap them up and get back into the tune
  • Listen to how your shots work, and think about how to approach it next chorus
  • By the way, you also have to catch unexpected changes in the music, as well as provide complementary backing for the soloists.

As a drummer, you have the prodigious task of bringing together a lot of different skills to get the job done. So you need to know where you’ve been, where you are, where you’re going, and what everybody else is doing … and then some.

Not much to say here. Drummers tend to have lots of energy. Just don't forget to put some of that energy into your relationships in the business as well the music.

I can't think of a better prescription for living an interesting and rewarding life than 'be curious'. I love figuring out how things work, and I love hearing something new in music or on the drums. I pull things apart -- the physical and the intellectual -- to see how it all fits together. The result is that I'm easily engaged and I'm always discovering interesting things. Curiosity is one of the qualities that makes childhood such a great time of life, and I see no reason to give it up.

What courage can it take to get up on stage and do something you love? Whether as part of an established band or freelance, you will be required to go new places, meet new people, encounter new challenges. You may also need to go against the current or take risks. All can have an emotional toll, so be prepared. 

Here’s one of those qualities we often take for granted. Unless you have been dealing with ADD all your life, you may have never given much thought to your ability to concentrate, but a great deal of concentration goes into music. Consider the percussionists in a symphony. They often go a long time without a note to play, but they must concentrate fully on the score and be ready to play when needed. You also need to deal with complexity. Music can be pretty complex.

You may think of discipline as applying solely to your practicing. Yes, it takes discipline to set and stick to a practice regimen, but discipline applies to every facet of your playing and also to your habits and professionalism. It's simple things: studying the music, showing up on time, showing up for rehearsals, listening, taking direction, being willing to put the music ahead of any personal agenda. "Clean living" should also be a part of your discipline. E.g. , tossing back a few brewskies before or during the gig can have a detrimental effect on your playing and possibly your reputation.

Love of music
Some musicians love their instrument. Some love being a musician. Some love the lifestyle. The best love the music.

Monday, 17 February 2014

WYSINNWYG - What you see (and hear) is not necessarily what you get

Sometimes the drums you hear on recordings and at live concerts are not necessarily a good indicator of what those drums truly sound like. In the studio, the drums have been damped, mic'ed, EQ'ed, compressed, and otherwise processed to get the best sound in that situation. Same thing on stage, where the raw drums will often sound completely different in person from what you heard at the concert. If your favourite drummer plays a "TrashMaster 9000" kit, it means he or she likes those drums under their particular playing conditions. But if you check out the same drums in the showroom, don't be surprised if you can't get the same sounds out of them.

I attended a drum presentation recently and was eager to hear the featured drums in a live setting. Unfortunately, the drums were so heavily mic'ed and modified that it really wasn't possible to determine what they sounded like. I know these drums to have a clear bright tone, wonderful resonance and lively sound, but they ended up sounding like every other drum set in service to a PA system.

I find that ‘top end’ and resonance are often lacking, and yet these are the very qualities that people are inclined to defeat. You need top end for projection, and resonance provides 'body' and musicality. When these are missing, the drums lack clarity and authority, and will fade into the background. And, frankly, they’ll sound like just about any other drum … ho-hum.

So next time you're swept away with a drum sound, check out the context. You may find that the sounds have been treated to the sonic equivalent of PhotoShop. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s good to have a reality check now and then.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Can hearing protection actually improve your playing?

You launch into you first number. It’s a killer piece -- total excitement -- and your drums sound great. You can hear the crack of the snare, the thump of the bass drum, the sizzle of the cymbals. All is well. Second set … the crowd is a bit louder; can’t hear the monitor quite as well. For some reason the cymbals don’t seem as bright, but that’s OK. Still sounds great. As the night wears on, the drums -- the whole band -- takes on a more mellow tone, despite the fact that you know you’re now playing louder and harder. The performance over, you step out into the night air. Your ears are ringing slightly, but you’re used to it. It’s all part of the job, right?

It should at this point be very apparent that something is going on with your hearing. If at the end of a gig your ears are ringing, you feel a tightness in your neck, a fullness in your ears, and an altered sense of hearing, then you should be concerned. But at a more 'artistic' level, what are these changes doing to your playing?

Our ears were never meant to live in a world that’s as noisy as this one. Ears are a remarkable gift from nature. They are always on, listening for threats even while we’re asleep. And while doing that, they’re proactively ignoring sounds that don’t matter. The ears also regulate volume, both mechanically and intelligently. In loud situations, they do a pretty good job of shutting out the noise, but that was in the good old days, when a noise that was loud enough to cause hearing damage was also close enough to kill.

As the musical night goes on, you are in fact hearing less and less, so you play louder to compensate. And that affects the quality of your playing. Your dynamics go out of whack, you don't hear the full range of your instrument, and you're not hearing the other instruments properly. (You also put greater strain on your muscles and tendons.)

Wait … there’s more.

Too much volume, too often, can make you go deaf, or at least partly deaf, and that will affect your playing … if you're still able to play at all. All of the available ear ailments -- some of them at least as bad as deafness -- can have a dramatic effect on your overall well-being as well as your musical future.

Tinnitus, the dreaded ringing, can affect your sense of pitch as well as drive you to hysterics. Hyperacusis, phonophobia and misophonia (see previous posts) all affect your comfort level with sound. Imagine having to give up playing because you just can't tolerate the sound levels that were comfortable not that long ago. The worst of the lot is recruitment, a debilitating type of noise sensitivity. That can end your career real quick.

One you might never have expected is equilibrium problems. Noise damage to certain parts of the inner ear can affect your balance mechanism, causing you to become dizzy and even nauseous when sound exceeds a certain level. Ugh.

And just how do you avoid all this? Let's put that aside for a moment and keep our focus on quality of playing.

Because your ears are 'self-adjusting' they can adjust to improved conditions as readily as they adapt to noisy ones. Properly designed hearing protection reduces sound energy across the board. So the sounds reaching your ears will be essentially the same when wearing hearing protection. If you were to use, for example, <ER-15 > ear protectors, you'd hear the same music, just 15 dB less of it. Your ears would quickly recognize this and increase their sensitivity to accommodate. In this situation, the ear isn't being pushed so hard that it needs to protect itself, and your hearing will stay truer through the course of the night. Your perception of tone, timbre and dynamics would also be truer. And because the ear is giving you a better sense of what's going on, you'll be less likely to alter your playing style as the job progresses, so you‘ll also be saving your muscles and tendons.

The usual argument against wearing hearing protectors is that you can't hear as well. But the actual case is quite the opposite. You’ll hear very nearly as well, and that will continue throughout the night, the week, and your career. Plus you have the added advantage of not being quite so deaf in old age.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Your First Drum Set

Truth is, your first drum set probably won't be your last. And, unfortunately, it may not even be suitable. A musical instrument is a very personal item, and the chance of latching on to the ideal kit on the first go is somewhat remote.

On the plus side, drums from a decent maker these days will be good instruments, and whether new or used, upscale or entry level, they will deliver good performance and hold their value fairly well compared to ‘cheap’ sets.

So the first question is, should you buy new or used?

It's a personal choice really. Some people simply want something that's new. New instruments have the latest features and quality enhancements. They always carry a warranty, and may even come with a guarantee from the seller. The stores I frequent all have a 'satisfaction guarantee' that gives me up to 30 days to return an item if it's not suitable. Buying new also means you get exactly what you want. So, new is good. And if you can’t find the brand and/or configuration you want in the used market, new might be your only option.

Used drums, on the other hand, can be a great bargain, and they let you instantly 'trade up' in quality. A drum set sheds about half its value once it leaves the shop, and if the original buyer loses interest and decides to sell, that’s good news for the bargain hunter. On the down side, you won't know how the drums have been treated. Some drummers are quite abusive (although I'm sure they would call it something like 'spirited'). Drums are very rugged, but they have limits. Cymbals, even moreso. Still, you’ll get more for your money and also lessen the financial blow with used stuff.

What about budget? One savvy musician gave this advice: “Save up a lot of money and buy the best equipment you can find. Then save up a lot of money and buy the best equipment you can find. Then save up a lot of money ….” (I believe it was John Entwhistle.)

The message here is to buy the highest quality instruments you can afford at the time, and then start saving for your next upgrade. Keep in mind that a bargain isn't a bargain if the item is hard to tune, hard to play, falls apart, or you just don’t like it -- so quality is a prime issue. And while you're enjoying your quality set, you should be already thinking about enhancements and/or improvements.

As your playing develops, it’s likely that your tastes will change. So will your needs and your style of playing. That may force a decision: try to adapt your current set or look for something else. My choice is always to get more stuff. Nothing wrong with having two (or more) contrasting setups, if the budget and floor space permit. 

As for choosing cymbals, well that’s an entirely different topic.-rb

Monday, 13 January 2014

Why Jazz Matters

Have you listened to any jazz today? I’m sure you have. If you keep your ears open, you'll quickly discover that jazz and its influence are everywhere. In the elevator, at the grocery store, sitting at Starbucks, or watching TV, you'll hear plenty of jazz and jazz-derived music. There are even some forms of music that, although nothing like jazz, owe their very existence to jazz.

Now, we often think of jazz as that 'ding-dinga-ding' stuff, but jazz has a very complex history that draws from many sources. And it has influenced much of what we take for granted in music today. The popular story is that jazz began when sidemen, tired of playing it straight all night, would get out their instruments after the guests and dancers had gone home, and just play. The emphasis was on freedom, improvisation, breaking the rules, and just generally having fun with it. There were no masters and few, if any, rules.

Jazz drew from many traditions that were popular in America in the early 20th century: blues, ragtime, gospel, military, and various Latin idioms. This fusion of styles has been hailed as America's great contribution to music, and yet jazz often doesn't get the respect or recognition it deserves. (One of the saddest examples of this was when a US president, while hosting a gathering of European composers at the White House, lamented the lack of significant American composers -- despite Duke Ellington being among the guests.)

From the Beatles to Bernstein to Bootsy, jazz has had an impact on almost all forms of contemporary music. Over the years it has served as a conduit, borrowing from various sources, repackaging it, and sharing it with the world at large. It is this ability -- perhaps the need -- to emulate, integrate and evolve that has made jazz such an important music form.

Jazz is the original 'bad boy' of music. The style was born out of an emotional and spiritual need to break out of established norms, to investigate new ground, and to challenge both authority and the technical limits of the instruments and the players.

Over the years, jazz evolved into something of an elitist art form, and while the form is open to all players, it seems to attract the “crème de la crème” of improvising musicians. This tradition of pushing boundaries, dispensing with rules, and pursuing technical and musical excellence has been adopted by players of other forms. Would we have seen such bands as Cream in the '60s, Genesis in the '70s and a host of others if the course had not been laid out so well by the jazz pioneers of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s? Listen to country swing, prog rock, MOR, uptown country -- almost anything these days -- and you’ll hear jazz’s influence.

You'll also discover that many top drummers regardless of preferred musical genre seek out a jazz teacher. Neil Peart and Freddie Gruber, Danny Gottlieb and Joe Morello ... it's a very long list. And most contemporary music schools base their programs on jazz.