Thursday, July 17, 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, July 3, 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.