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.