Wednesday, March 19, 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, March 5, 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.