Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Unpacking Polyrhythms Part 1: The Basics

According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, a polyrhythm occurs whenever two contrasting rhythms happen at the same time. That doesn't nail things down for us very well, especially given that there are a number of terms used to describe polyrhythms. What adds to the confusion is that the book uses the same bit of notation to illustrate several of these terms. So what gives?
Terminology is helpful when it clarifies concepts, and a pain in the butt when it serves only to confuse. So I'd like to offer a few suggestions for interpreting the rather imprecise terms available to describe concurrent rhythms.
Polyrhythm (sometimes called a counter-rhythm)
I want to reserve this word for dissimilar groupings played against a regular pulse. One we're all familiar with is quarter note triplets against a 4/4 rhythm. Nine against 4 would also qualify.
Basic Polyrhythms: 3 over 2, 9:2
Systemic Polyrhythm
A systemic polyrhythm is one that forms the core rhythm of the music. This is a very common practice in, for example, African music, where a rhythm in 6/8 is often played in groupings of both 2 beats and 3 beats throughout the tune. So: 123 - 123 is played at the same time as 12 - 12 - 12.
This is a classical term that refers to a specific pattern of two against three. Originally the time signature was 3/4 and the hemiola rhythm was two dotted quarter notes (2:3; 2 over 3; 2 against 3). Regardless of the underlying time signature, two notes in the space of three is a hemiola, and this figure can be found in every style of music. Memorable examples of hemiolas can be found in the Latin clave rhythm and Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. You'll also see them a lot in pop tunes.
Hemiola in 3/4
Hemiola in 4/4
Cross Rhythm (also known as Poly-meter or Meter Within Meter)
In a polyrhythm as described above, a new contrasting pulse is played alongside the basic pulse. In a cross rhythm, the pulse remains constant and the notes are grouped differently, alluding to an intermingling of time signatures. For example, in 3/4 time, one can merrily play in 2/4 and the modification will hardly be noticed. Similarly, you can play a 3/4 or 5/4 pattern in 4/4 time -- and as long as you keep track of where you are, you can keep it up for awhile, though it can be somewhat tricky.
Cross Rhythm: 3/4 over 4/4 
Harvard Dictionary of Music:

Friday, December 9, 2016

New Resources for Your Ongoing Education

Musician First ... 

Mark Kelso is a bit of an emerging star, even though he's been around for a while and has an extensive resume. Mark took over the Percussion Director position at Humber College in 2005, which appears to have helped make him something of a household name among GTA drummers. When he's not teaching or playing with A-list musicians, Mark leads his own 5-piece jazz fusion group, the Jazz Exiles. And in his spare time he managed to put together a very nice educational DVD.

The title really says it all: Musician First, Drummer Second. Mark plays other instruments and is also a composer, which no doubt has an influence on his drumming. You need only listen to some of his work to appreciate the result. Rather than non-stop drums and drumming, Mark has liberally sprinkled the program with original music crossing a number of musical styles and interviews with non-drummer musicians.
 There's a lot to be gleaned here, but the main notion that I'd like to offer is that Mark is absolutely correct. Every suggestion, every piece of advice has been thoroughly road tested by Mark (and by me, incidentally). The quality of the musicians coming out of Humber College are testimony to Mark’s understanding of what’s needed from today’s professional drummer.

And the guy is quite funny!

Mark Kelso -
Jazz Exiles -
Humber College -

The Jazz Drum Book(s)

What if your family spoke ‘jazz’ while you were growing up? It’s a question fellow Canadian Leonard Patterson poses in his new book, The Jazz Drum Book First Edition. If music is indeed a language, then jazz must one of the more complicated to learn, and learn the language we must.

Patterson’s book looks at the styles and techniques of some of drumming's greatest early practitioners, focusing on the history and language of jazz drumming. Each chapter gives a quick summary of the player's background and importance. Then comes an analysis of playing style. This is reinforced by exercises derived from some of the player's recorded performances, and helpful transcriptions. Because the exercises come from recordings, the student can visit those recordings to see how and why it works, the key point being that the student of jazz needs to listen.

Nineteen drummers are profiled, covering the recorded years 1918 through 1954 (hence the First Edition subtitle). This book is a great introduction to some of the art's greatest influencers and it presents a wealth of useful and approachable study material. BTW, the Second Edition is now available as well.

The Jazz Drum Book, First Edition, by Leonard Patterson
Self published Leonard Patterson

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Carving Out Your Space

Drums are loud. And few if any neighbours would recommend living beside a drummer who practices a lot. So what is a poor, motivated drummer to do? Rent a practice hall? Good idea, but not convenient and not cheap. Just hope the neighbours are OK with it? Ya, I’ve tried that ... pretty risky. Maybe you can fit up a practice room that keeps the sound inside. That would be ideal. It’s also nearly impossible to achieve, but with a bit of time and investment, you can come close enough.

Sound travels through the air. It also travels through solid objects. And although it’s impossible to eliminate these conduits from your practice environment, there are techniques you can apply to minimize sound transmission.

When I rebuilt our basement, I set aside one room to be my practice studio. I then packed all of the framing with sound-proofing insulation bats -- even the ceiling. I doubled up on the bats as much as possible on the walls that faced the outside.

For the ceiling I used slotted metal lathing. This type of lathing hangs off the joists slightly and adds some acoustical isolation. When the drywall is attached, it can still vibrate, but it doesn’t transfer the vibration to the joists very well.

No need to do anything to the concrete floor, but had it been an upstairs room, I’d have put down a subflooring of acoustic foam or micro balloon insulating board, then subflooring, then a carpet or two.

Once the room was dry-walled and taped, and wall-to-wall carpet installed, I tested it and the result was good. You have to stand right outside the house in order to hear the drums. Inside it’s still quite audible, but keep in mind, a drummer lives here. So far no complaints.

To cut down on resonance inside the room, I got some simple Mexican-style rugs from a thrift store. I stapled one to the wall just in front of my drum set and draped another over a blanket rack. I’d been thinking of using office acoustic panels, but they’re large, cumbersome, and a bit expensive. The rug rack works just as well, is easy to move about, and looks pretty cool.

That’s a fairly basic solution and it didn’t cost much to execute. There are some very good articles on-line that can give you some other tips.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Are You Phoning it in

I attended a multi-band event with my brother, who had a very successful teen rock band years ago. Part-way through the third band’s set, he made an interesting comment: "I don't get it. In my day our job was to get the party started." He was referring to the unfortunate fact that many of the performances were lifeless and lacking enthusiasm. The bands played as if they'd been doing it so long it had lost all meaning for them, had almost become a chore.

I suppose it's like any job that you don’t find interesting enough or challenging enough. Or maybe these players have just become too comfortable … too complacent.  Whatever the cause, it would seem that the thrill is gone.

Playing music is awesome; for me, playing is its own reward. And when I'm on stage, I have a responsibility to the audience as well as the other musicians. This is even more critical if I'm being paid.

Music is a great way to create, unwind, entertain, and more. Now, I may not be an exciting player to watch, but when I play I put 100% into the music, the energy, the creativity. In fact my favourite indicator is the dance floor. If it's filled with bobbing heads, then I know I'm not phoning it in. And if there is no dance floor, I watch faces and feet.

What I've found is that a job is generally as interesting as you make it. Even the lousiest jobs can have positive elements. But music is supposed to be our thing -- it’s in our blood, as we like to say. So how can anyone not be as excited as possible to have a chance to play? We may not always have an appreciative audience or a pay check, but even then it should still seem like fun. And if we're playing for money and a crowd, well I think it's our job -- our obligation -- to 'get the party started' and to never phone it in.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

And a One and a Two

That's how we generally start tunes. And it's a very good way. It sets up the tempo and gets everyone on board for the down beat. It can also highlight the basic rhythm: In this case 1 &a 2, which suggests an up-tempo swing.

It's called counting, and it's a very good tool. And it's powerful enough to get the entire band started. But a lot of people don't bother with counting when it comes to the actual playing. Counting can be just as important once the tune is underway.

Understand Internal Structure, the Subdivisions
The expression '1 &-uh 2' gives us an indication of the rhythm, in this case, medium to up-tempo swing in 4/4 time. Counting also helps us to understand the subdivision of the beats. Every type of note and tuplet has a corresponding count, and keeping track of these can help us interpret the rhythm more accurately.

Identify a Tune's Structure
The simple process of counting bars (1234, 2234, 3234, etc.) can unlock the structure of any tune. And if it's a particularly complicated arrangement, just write it down.

Polyrhythms & Other Tricky Stuff
It would be nice if we all could just hear complex rhythms and then play them. Most of us have to find some way of counting them. For example, I learned to play quarter note triplets with 'Pass the gol-durn butter'. I use 'serendipity' to count 5-lets. Doesn't really matter how you count things, as long as it works for you. 

Embed Odd Groupings, Time Signatures
The easiest way to learn to play an odd time signature is to play it while counting. Try playing 7/8 for the first time without counting. It can't be done. Eventually you won't need the counting, but in the beginning, it's the only way to get there.

Fake It Till You Make It
Some things come easily, perhaps naturally. Other things may need a bit of help. There's no shame in counting. In fact, rigorous counting can take you places you wouldn't get to otherwise.

For best results, count out loud!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Just Relax

Reader Bill Wullschleger asked me if I would do something on relaxation. This came about when a poster in the Modern Drummer forum on LinkedIn asked for help with numbness in the hands. My comment in response to the post was “Relax, relax, relax”. Seemed like good enough advice, and it’s something I try to apply as much as I can in my own playing.

A couple of years ago I had a recurring numbness in my lead hand. My fingers went quite numb and the numbness extended nearly to my elbow. I did a bit of medical research and learned that it was caused by, unfortunately, old age. The problem is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s when the nerve ‘tunnel’ in the wrist becomes chronically inflamed so the nerve can no longer slide along smoothly. Carpal tunnel is a tough one because it often requires surgery. My problem was less severe, and the recommended treatment was to relax. And so I did. There’s no trick to relaxing ... you just have to do it. Hmmm, that might be OK in the practice room, but what about when you’re out on a gig and are really feeling the music? Well, the solution doesn’t change.

Step by Step
If you were to take a relaxation course, they’d teach you progressive relaxation, focussing on one thing at a time. My mantra looks something like this: Relax the fingers; relax the hands; relax the wrists; relax the forearms; relax the upper arms; relax the shoulders; relax the back; etc. Take it step by step and don’t address the next body part until the current one is fully relaxed. The best test is to do this while playing.

Opposites AttractA good way to relax is by using contrast. Contract your muscles as much as you can. This time you tense your hands, tense your arms, tense your shoulders, etc. Then let it all go as you exhale. This should quickly put you into a nice relaxed mode.

Revise Your Technique
Here’s something you can work on to help relax your hands and also refine your grip. It’s an ancient rudimental technique called the ‘fourth finger fulcrum’. While it may not be useful on the drum set, it will help you to be aware of your grip and your fingers. And it will help you to relax.

Hold your sticks as you normally do. (If you play matched grip, great because both hands will be the same. For traditional grip, it applies to the lead hand only.) Now shift your grip to the last two fingers -- that’s your ring finger and baby finger, but mainly your pinky finger. Let the other fingers and the thumb go limp. Now make a few strokes on a drum, pad or cymbal. Notice how loose the fingers, thumb and hand are. That’s the type of relaxation you’re looking for.

After working on this for a while, you can begin to shift your fulcrum back toward the first finger. The goal is to control the stick with all four fingers using a very light grip. This should make relaxing easier as the work-load is spread over the entire hand.

I find that when I get into a good relaxed state, I enter a new type of 'zone'. Rather than a physical, adrenaline high, I get to a space where I'm ultra aware, ultra centred ... and it's a great place to be.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The ‘Inner’ Inner Line

"Musical intensity will come from being able to play subdivisions with great specificity and control" - Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine

We were recording an album for a country artist. During a break, one of the rhythm guitar players came over to me and commented on my playing. He said he’d never heard anything like it before. I was just doing was my usual thing: finding a rhythm that fit. I thought I was doing a standard country groove -- right hand brush on the snare plus a cross-stick -- but I’d added a touch of double-time shuffle with the brush. It was a bit like a simplified version of John Bonham’s epochal pattern from Led Zeppelins’ “Fool in the Rain”.

Rhythm is made up of strong notes -- the outer line, and the weaker notes --the inner line. In an 8th-note feel, the main beats form the pulse… the outer line. The 'in between' notes create the inner line, and it’s the inner line that determines the feel.

We can vary the inner line to create different effects. It’s easy to add this concept to any sticking pattern by emphasizing one hand. For example, paradiddles can be played R l R R   l R l l  to good effect. Or the reverse: r L r r  L r L L … two distinct rhythms from one sticking.

Now, how about the ‘inner’ inner line? If we go one step further, we can work with the notes within the inner line. In my case, I was suggesting a shuffle within a straight 8th-note rhythm. My basic pulse for that country rhythm was 4/4. Within that I was playing an 8th note ride pattern. Then, within the ride pattern I was alluding to a double-time shuffle, which would typically be based on 16th note triplets. Here we’re taking the inner line concept and applying it between the 8th notes. Led Zeppelins’ “Fool in the Rain” uses this same concept: 1-uh-&-uh / 2-uh-&-uh etc.

Here’s an interesting application. We think of funk as being very 8th note or 16th note oriented, but a lot of funk actually gets its groove from relaxing the 'inner inner line'. You may think you hear 16th notes on the snare leading into the down beats, but if you listen carefully you’ll notice that those aren’t 16th notes at all, but are based on a 16th-note triplet shuffle played within the 8th note structure of the rhythm. That’s why those beats are so relaxed and funky -- and a challenge to play properly.

From country to Led Zeppelin to funk, it’s all in the inner line … and the line within the inner line.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


There's really no excuse for breaking a cymbal. Let me repackage that: There is no excuse for repeatedly breaking cymbals. Cymbals are incredibly strong. They're made from bronze, virtually the same metal used for the props of ocean-going ships. When chosen, handled and played properly, cymbals can last a lifetime. That doesn't mean that your favourite cymbal won't develop a crack or suddenly cast off a fragment of metal. It happens, but if it's happening often, you're doing something wrong. 
The sad truth is that cymbals cannot be fixed. Chips and chunks can't be put back. Cracks cannot be welded without destroying the temper of the cymbal. But if not attended to, a crack will simply continue to spread until the cymbal is hanging in shreds.

You can have an expert drill, cut or grind out a damaged portion of a cymbal. Or do it yourself if you're skillful with power tools. This can salvage a treasured instrument, but it is no cure -- the cymbal is still broken. But, while such a repair can slow down further deterioration for quite some time, it likely won't stop it. And if the damage is not attended to, the cymbal will soon be lost.

For a crack, the usual remedy is to drill a hole at the very end of the crack. Then, if the crack decides it wants to spread, it has to jump over the gap first. This technique may stop a crack completely, but usually it merely slows it down.

A crack ought to be removed completely. A skilled repair person will use some sort of router to cut a bell shaped piece out of the cymbal that's about 1/2 inch larger then the crack on all sides. As with drilling, this may be a cure or merely a band-aid.

A crack that consumes a large part of the cymbal or that has gone along one of the tone grooves requires a more aggressive approach. Such cymbals are often cut down to a different diameter. Thus an 18-inch cymbal with a 2-inch crack might get cut down to 14 or 13 inches.

Chips and small cracks can be dealt with by excising a large region of the cymbal where the damage occurred. Rather than having a small bell-shaped notch in the edge, the cymbal would look more like a cookie with a bite out of it.

Hopefully this discussion of cymbal "repair" has convinced you that prevention is a far better option. So choose cymbals that can handle the job, mount them loosely on their stands, and don't beat up on them too much.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hey, Hey We’re the Studio Cats

I recently watched an interesting and entertaining video called "The Wrecking Crew". It's the story -- with lots of interviews -- about the coven of ace studio musicians who created almost all of the pop and rock music that came out of California in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

One item that piqued my interest was the Crew's involvement with The Monkees. So I got hold of a “Monkees Greatest Hits” album and listened. The Monkees themselves sang all the songs -- with some success -- but the arrangements and bed tracks were all by the Crew. With only one or two exceptions, the tracks are fabulous and well worth a listen.

These tunes were recorded in a different time in musical history. For the most part, bands back then had no control over song writing (and often song selection), arranging, recording or producing. That was all left to 'professionals'. True, many of the early rock musicians didn't have the training and experience to do the necessary job under the circumstances. Studio time was very expensive, and record executives didn't want to pay for that new band to learn the ropes. Better to go with what you know will work.

So a writing team wrote the tunes, often specifically for the artists. The musical director and producer called in their 'go to' arrangers and players -- the people they knew could create a sellable track in a couple of hours. It wasn't unusual for such a crew to churn out as many as three finished songs before lunch.

The result of this intensive work was a golden age of pop music, when top studio crews created hit after hit. While the industry has changed dramatically in the intervening 50+ years, the practice is still preferred for a lot of studio work.

In the late 1960s, bands with clout, bands  like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and others, were able to take ownership of the recording process. While the Wrecking Crew turned out hits ranging from You've Lost That Loving Feeling to Daydream Believer to Good Vibrations, the other method gave us A Day In The Life, Sympathy For The Devil, and Tommy. 

Obviously there is room, and a need, for both approaches.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

In Praise of Big Drum Companies

I’m a big fan of custom and artisanal drum makers, but that does not diminish my enthusiasm and admiration for the big companies. Where would the small drum makers be if the big guys hadn't done so much of the groundwork over the years. Reliable bass drum pedal? It started with Ludwig. What about double bass pedals? Well, the 1927 Sonor catalogue shows one. In fact, most of what you see on modern drums was invented, refined, promoted, and/or championed by a large company.

Big companies bring a lot to the table, not the least of which is machinery. They have all the tools needed to create stuff: tube cutters, metal benders, lathes, and the like. Plus they have a lot of research and expertise derived from years and perhaps generations of drum building. They also have a pretty good idea of what won't work. Oh ... and they have some talented bodies and significant R&D budgets to play with.

Team Work
Pretty much since day one, companies have leapt at the chance to work with drummers, and perhaps the greatest contribution the big companies made was to listen to the players. Particularly during the first half of the 20th century, drummers asked for changes, and the companies made those changes. Gene Krupa wanted dual tension toms. Leedy made them for him. Big band drummers asked for larger, more powerful cymbals. Zildjian enthusiastically obliged.

Field Testing
An important part of the process is making sure it works. A big company is in a good position to hand out prototypes to see how they function and how they're received. This is a process that all the big companies follow. The artist would make a request. They would make the item and then the artist would field test it. Not quite right? Here are a few more to try. This field-testing and tweaking process was responsible for the broad range and high quality of instruments and hardware that we have today. 

A good idea is just an idea if nobody hears about it. A marketing budget can easily include that hot new product, and then get the message out to drummers who have been looking for a solution.

Quality, Price Points & Guarantees
The big guys have experience with quality control and pricing. They can create products that perform to a predetermined level, and can cater to just about any budget. And their items invariably come with a guarantee.

So I guess the final word would be Thanks!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Adaptive Anticipation or What comes next?

Adaptive Anticipation -- This is my own somewhat overblown term for controlling the sticks in a manner that anticipates subsequent strokes. It also refers to using the time between strokes to move the sticks to where they need to be. So while it's important to know how to make a certain stroke, a certain sound, it's equally important to know what sort of stroke comes next.

Let’s look at the infamous Moeller stroke. It consists of a 'down stroke' and an 'up stroke'. The down stroke is a full-length stroke executed with power, but with no rebound -- the stick tip remains close to the head. This is not a very useful position if you want to make another full-volume stroke, but it's ideal for a tap. Part two of the Moeller is to tap the stick and then lift it back up in preparation for another fuller stroke. Each type of stroke gets ready for what is to follow: The up stroke is a consequence of the down stroke just as the down stroke prepares for the up stroke.

Now let's look at paradiddles. If we play an accented first stroke, we add impetus. If we then keep the stick close to the head, it prepares us for the diddle, which is difficult to play with full strokes. The diddle also buys us lots of time for raising the other stick. This gives you a strong down stroke, followed by three lesser volume strokes, and plenty of time to get ready or the next figure.

So …
        R = Full down stroke while lifting the Left hand
        L = Half stroke
        RR = 2 Taps while lifting the Left hand
        L = Full down stroke while lifting the Right hand
        R= Half stroke
        LL = 2 Taps while lifting the Right hand

I like to use a billiard analogy. You can just whack the cue ball and hope for the best, but serious pool players put a lot of effort into controlling where the cue ball ends up. It's important to make the shot, but if you're not preparing for the next shot, your game will suffer. Same with your strokes.

I think in terms of down & up, slow & fast, accented & unaccented, and modify the end of my strokes appropriately. If I need to make two loud strokes in a row, then I'll use full strokes*. I'll make the stroke and let the stick rebound back to the top of the range. Then my stick is ready for the next stroke.

Down strokes prepare for lighter strokes; up strokes prepare for louder strokes, and free strokes prepare for another loud stroke. So get out some sticks and start lining up your next shot.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Cymbal Minds

Dave Millar is a man on a mission. Dave came across a unique cymbal brand a couple of years ago and was so impressed that he just couldn't wait for them to be available in Canada. So he contacted the company. They weren't ready for market expansion at the time so Dave, who has years of business and sales experiences, said "What the heck ... I'll do it" (or something to that effect) And so Mirat Diril Canada was born.

First a bit about Murat Diril. Murat and his brother Ibrahim began their cymbal making careers in 1984 at Istanbul Cymbal Company (which split into Istanbul Mehmet and Istanbul Agop in 1997). They started their own cymbal business in 2008 and began making cymbals for other companies, mainly Paiste and Meinl. Murat developed Meinl's Byzance line and Paiste's Twenty Series cymbals. Today Murat puts his own name on the Turkish-made cymbals.

I could go on at length about Murat Diril cymbals. They are, in a word, wonderful ... what you'd expect from a first rank cymbal maker. The company currently produces three broad lines of cymbals, and each line has several series. The instruments are categorised by intended use as well as general style. I tried a couple of dozen cymbals covering most of the range, and it was tough to exclude any of the cymbals from consideration. (The 20" Renaissance Flat Ride just blew me away and the 17" Crash/Trash was awesome.)

The good news here is that the pricing is in line with other top-quality cymbals -- not cheap but not overly expensive -- and there are some bargains to be had, especially in the Renaissance line.

Now here's the cool part. Murat Diril cymbals are now available in Canada three years ahead of schedule thanks to Dave. And, rather than trucking his samples from music store to music store, Dave is reaching out to drummers directly. Now, if I were to design a cymbal business, I would do exactly what Dave is doing. He has set up a sampling studio (just north of Toronto) where drummers can stop by and try the cymbals undisturbed. Dave, as host, helps with matching and selection. I think this is the proper way to select cymbals.

Part of Dave's outreach program is to recruit champions (he calls them Local Heroes) -- drummers who are enthusiastic about the cymbals and who would like to feature them in their own studios. Here's how it might work. I have a home-based teaching studio. If enough of my students are interested in the cymbals, then I could act as an agent. Dave would supply me with a stock of cymbals and I would get a commission on any cymbals I sell to my students. I could also make my studio available to locals who want to try them.

So stop by the Murat Diril website, listen to the sound files, and if you like what you hear, get in touch with Dave to arrange a hands-on session or consultation.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Check Your Ego

You probably thought I was going to finish with ‘at the door’, but your ego is actually a very important part of who you are. So it might be productive to check your ego to see if it’s in good shape and functioning properly.

Ego can be thought of as just another word for self-esteem, and we know that’s important. Self-esteem is what gives you the courage, the confidence you need to make it through life. Confidence helps you ask for a try-out for a band you admire. It’s also what enables you to play your best.

But confidence can be a hindrance when it’s out of synch with reality. If you’re a terrific player but lack sufficient confidence, you may never play as well as you could, and you may never get to where you could have gone if you hadn’t been hindered by self-doubt.

We’re all familiar with the other extreme: too much confidence. At its mildest, it’s the guy who’s a bit too cocky about his playing.  At its worst, it’s the arrogant SOB that no one wants to be around.

In my experience, the relationship between an out-of-whack ego and technical capability is often inverse. The biggest egos I've met have usually turned out to be so-so players, whereas some of the best players around are also the most humble. (It would be interesting to work the ‘chicken or egg’ paradigm here.)

The best approach is to honestly assess where you are in your drumming development. You may want to get a wiser, perhaps older musician to help you with this. It can be a real confidence booster when someone tells you you’re doing better than you realize. However, it’s more difficult to have someone point out that your playing doesn’t live up to your ego. The good thing is that either type of feedback can make you stronger and a better player.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Beyond the Notes

Writers obsess over a single word, architects obsess over a single line, athletes obsess over a single motion. So what should drummers obsess over once we have a command of the basics?

Oddly, perhaps ironically, what we need to work on most is the most basic function of all: time, or more correctly, timing. I often see players -- young and old, accomplished and otherwise -- who have picked up the notes in a general sense, but while all the bits appear to be there, for some reason it doesn't seem to work. Just as the composer looks for notes that fit, the drummer should be looking for the strokes that fit. Sometimes drummers will play a lick that may not be suited to the music. Perhaps it's a matter of personal style, but as often it's a disconnect between what can be done and what should be done. But if the lick is appropriate to the style but still doesn't work, then it's usually a question of timing or 'micro-timing'.

The goal is to play with others … as an ensemble. And what holds the ensemble together is that irresistible core of time. If everyone plays the time -- all the time -- then it will work. Now comes the challenge. When you want to add an embellishment to the music, you still are responsible for the time. Everything you do that is not 'playing time' is an interruption of the time. When appropriate and well executed, these interruptions in the flow can be awesome. And when not, they can really toss a wrench into things.

A drummer who tends to speed up or slow down during a fill will throw off the band and the music. Someone who plays the 'correct' notes for a fill but doesn't fit them seamlessly into the framework of the time also makes a bit of a mess. I hear a lot of drummers playing figures that don't work because they are simply un-true to the actual note values. The patterns seem to be correct sticking-wise, but the internal timing is off. The result is that the tune never quite clicks because the drums keep interfering with the time.

So what's the answer?

First of all, listen. And when you choose to depart from the time, listen even more. Try to make your patterns fit tightly, especially with the bass line. listen to how the great drummers to see how their fills fit in. Study, practice, and maybe even take lessons to learn the various note values and to understand how they all fit together.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Miss Manners would certainly advise that you shouldn't talk with your mouth full. There's the visual aspects, to be sure, but there's also the issue of garbled speech with the attendant lack of actual communication. Better to have your vocal system free of debris if you want to be heard clearly and be understood.

Articulation -- the clarity of sound -- is also found in music. There are even musical terms to help describe articulation: staccato, marcato, tenuto, slur, accent, sforzando, legato, and others. Each one gives the player an instruction on how the notes are to be played in order to fit the music.

Imagine if the guitar player or the singer routinely played inaccurate or garbled notes. We'd never tolerate bad notes, sloppy chords and a general lack of caring about doing it right. Unfortunately it's all too easy for a drummer to get away with poor articulation.

Sloppy technique helps to cover up a lot of shortcomings. One trick is to use scratch rolls. Rather than a clean, simple fill, you hear a nondescript bzzzzt. There are some music styles where this might work, but usually the rest of the band will be looking for precise rhythmic statements.

If your notes aren't clear, they can't be heard properly, and nobody will be able to tell if you're placing the notes accurately within the metre, and this obscures the time pulse. As long as you end up somewhere close to the beat, it'll do -- at least that seems good enough for some people. Mushy sounding tuning makes this even easier to pull off. You cannot articulate clearly on a drum that's tuned below its useful range.

Articulation is also an important part of your style. You can spot certain drummers by their articulation alone. Buddy Rich and Bill Bruford are easy to pick out just by the way they make a sound.

So make it a personal goal to speak clearly, both off and on the stage.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Got to be Free

I've read a bit of somewhat negative commentary lately on the nature of jazz and whether it’s relevant or even worthwhile today. Nothing new there. I think most music genres are difficult to truly sort out, and jazz is especially so, in part because so many people who don't understand it attempt to explain it nonetheless. Like the blind men trying to describe an elephant, the result can be a nonsensical jumble.

Personally, I would rather play jazz than any other music style. It's not because I'm particularly good at it, or that I necessarily enjoy it more. To be honest, some of my most memorable and rewarding playing moments have been laying into a deep country groove (and some of my worst moments have been while attempting to play jazz). There's nothing quite like locking in with a solid groove. But though it may feel great, there's often not a lot of room for branching out. Perhaps that's why it's called locking in: you're locked in!

So maybe there's nothing truly new in jazz -- nor in most art forms. The great strides and discoveries were made long ago, and about all we can look forward to now is 'creative repackaging'.

Does that mean that jazz is repetitious and boring? Far from it. Yes, it's all been done before, but with that rhythm? With that feeling? With that instrument? In that time signature? The various parts, though already well explored, can still go together to create something novel, possibly even new.

When I look hard at what I love about jazz, I'm left with three things. The first is improvisation: the cornerstone of jazz. And what is improvisation but permission to do whatever the heck you feel like doing. So the primary attraction is freedom. When playing jazz, I'm answerable to no one. I can do what I think and feel is right for the music and for me in that moment. I can't think of any other situation where I have that kind of freedom.

The second factor is the challenge, and jazz is very challenging. I think all music can be challenging (I also think we should always look for the challenge therein) but with jazz, becoming even a passable player is a tall order. To me, the biggest challenge -- and biggest thrill -- is to constantly improve technically and musically, and with ever greater empathy for the music and musicians.

Finally, there is joy, and I see it in the faces and body movements of just about every jazz musician. We love this stuff … it really is the best kind of high. Plus it's legal, non-fattening and sometimes it even pays the rent.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Let a Few Go By

I love seeing drummers with a ‘unique’ sense of musical taste. They can also be a great source of both good and bad examples. This time I'm thinking about a very energetic fellow who nailed all the shots, all the patterns, every time, in every tune. It was very impressive. It was also rather busy and a bit tiresome. As a result, none of the musical figures were allowed to stand on their own or to rise above the drums because there were no holes, no spaces, and thus, no intrigue. 

An important part of our job is to help define, support, punctuate, and otherwise draw attention to musical figures. This can be done in a variety of ways, only one of which is to play the entire figure. Most drummers will instead opt to play a sub-set of the figure, possibly highlighting the accented parts. It’s also OK to ignore them completely.

Space is a very important musical concept. Space is what keeps everything from happening at once, and without space, music can become a monotonous blur. There are some styles where hitting all the shots works, but even in the most extreme cases, there should still be space for contrast.

Admittedly, it's tempting to fill all the holes, and no musician is immune to the urge. Sometime this is the ideal thing to do, but overdo it and the music will sound more like a drum feature (or vocal or guitar feature).

Of course, being able to play all the figures is quite an accomplishment. It takes a lot of work to memorize and co-ordinate all that stuff. So it's no wonder that we'd want to show it off a bit. OK, point taken. But I still would prefer a more sparse approach.

So trim back the figures and let a few go by. You may even like the result.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

To Click or Not To Click

Whenever the discussion turns to click tracks, drummers like to cry foul (usually accompanied by a sour face). For many drummers, the use of a click track is unnatural, cheating, insulting, or all three. I'm afraid I can't agree.

A drummer's prime responsibility is to keep time. Unfortunately, keeping steady, unwavering time is hard to do. My own journey required countless hours working out with metronome and bass tracks. Unless you were born with a perfect sense of time (which is about as common as perfect pitch) you probably need to work on your time sense now and again.

So is using a click track ‘unnatural’? Yes, but only if you consider good time to be unnatural. I agree that, in a live setting, music can benefit from being allowed to breathe. But even that assumes that you and your fellow musicians can keep time once you've settled into a tempo.

Insulting? If your time is not that good, then a click track should be humbling, and a pretty loud wake-up call. If whoever is in charge simply doesn't trust you (or others) to play in time, then a click track is the best solution. There is also a tendency for musicians to push up the tempo once they become familiar with a tune. This can be even worse if the musicians are getting bored or tired (note how often the 'live' version is played a lot faster than the original studio version).

There are situations where keeping everyone in line is vital to a successful project. A record producer may be adding different tracks with different people at different times and different places. This process would be nearly impossible without a click track.

The best attitude is to simply look at the click track as a tool. It's there to help. It's a consistent and reliable guide. So rather than fight it, why not treat the click as just another member of the band. If you play well with the click, you'll find that it will virtually disappear. And if it doesn't, well maybe it's time to dust off that metronome.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Fear of Trying

The evening started out rather rough. I'd had a tough day; the venue wasn't ready with the loading help they'd promised (3 flights of stairs!); the singer and keyboard player were having a turf war about how to approach a new song; and the bass player was understandably unhappy with it all.

So our first set, while apparently just fine from the audience's point of view, was a bit of a slug for us, and I had to work extra hard to get the crew working as a team.

Now I firmly believe that a drummer best serves the band by pulling the parts together. In fact a lot of musicians call us the ‘glue’ that holds things together. I find it a rewarding role, and not especially difficult … usually.

So, when something is off, it's still my job to make it all work as seamlessly as possible. But, frankly, I'd rather not have to do a speck more hard labour than is necessary. You see, I can't play well if I'm loaded down with extra work. This is not the same as working hard -- that's a rewarding part of the process. The work I'm talking about is the energy-draining type that ends up sucking you dry.

“If things don’t go well with the drummer I’m left with an incredibly sore lower back by the end of the gig, the product I suppose of trying to force the music into a smooth, relaxed flow” -  Steve Swallow

Jazz bassist Steve Swallow knows the pain of working too hard. It's not the bass player's job to carry the drummer, nor vice versa. It's just too much work, and the music will always suffer. Plus it can affect all the players -- physically as well as emotionally.

The best playing situation for me is when I can just relax and do my job. My head is more in the game, I'm free to let out my creativity, and I'm not afraid to step outside from time to time since I know the band will be there when I get back. It doesn't mean I'm not working hard, but my best effort can go toward making better music rather than labouring just to cope. 

So working hard? Go for it. But hard work? Once I hear that count-in, I’ve got better things to do.