Thursday, December 7, 2017

Holding it All Together

The band was about to play their final number and the leader was introducing the band members one last time. It was a bit redundant because the line-up was a who's who of Canadian jazz players. Finally the MC announced the drummer, adding that he was the glue that held it all together, and all the band members nodded in agreement.

That struck me as a bit odd. These were simply the ‘best of the best’, so why would any glue be required? These musicians could do anything. Still, the consensus seemed to be that the drummer was the one who kept things on track.

It's both a flattering and an intimidating assessment. It's nice to have someone say you're such an important part of the ensemble, but its also a lot of responsibility.

In a way, the drummer is the ‘floor manager’ of the music. While the leader may pick the tunes, set the tempos and kick things off, successful completion of a tune requires someone to take care of how it all develops. And the drummer is the ideal choice. A good drummer, one with the right skill set, helps to illustrate the time, solidifies the rhythmic structure, marks the different points in the tune, and manages the energy level during solos and different sections of the tune.

A drummer has quite a bit of power. Even in a high-volume situation, the drummer can usually compete, and our drive (or lack of) can have a big effect on the music. We're like the tiller of a ship. We can determine the direction with a simple adjustment. We can also make things a bit scary if we're too heavy-handed on the tiller.

A drummer is a go-between. We communicate the time and energy to the other band members. For example, in a jazz band, the bass player's job is to lay down a steady bass line. The drummer can then help communicate the time to the other players. This will also give the bass player more freedom and lighten his/her load.

And we’re arbiters. If you have two musicians pulling in opposite directions -- guitar player plays on top, bass player plays behind, for example -- the  drummer can find a spot in the middle and help these two work together.

Sure it's a big job, but somebody's got to do it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Re-visioning the Snare Drum

It's somewhat ironic that the snare drum is the centre of a drummer's universe and yet it’s not often exploited for the rich assortment of sounds it can produce. Here’s a quick guide to some of what you can find in a well-adjusted snare drum, and where to find it.

The Rule of Thirds 
Think of the playing area as a target. The bulls-eye sounds the driest is and usually the loudest. The very middle of that region -- a spot about the size of a quarter (see Fig. 1 below) -- gives the fattest, driest sound. It’s also the least interesting, but move slightly off centre (Fig. 2) and the sound begins to liven up with lots of oomph and very little ring. The middle band of the target is your sweet zone (Fig. 3). Hit anywhere in that area and it will usually sound good, with a nice balance of volume, resonance and overtones. The majority of your playing will likely be in this zone

The region near the rim (Fig. 4) is the quietest and also the ringiest. It’s where we put tape and other stuff to control the ring. But ring can be a good thing -- this area is great for Latin type sounds.

That’s four potential sounds. But wait ... there's more!

Special Effects 
Stick Shot: This is not a rim shot. It’s when you put the bead of one stick on the drum and hit it with the other stick.

Cross Stick: This is not a rim shot either. It’s when you lay your stick across the drum and click one end of it on the rim. This can yield a lot of different sounds depending on where the stick meets the head, where you hit the rim, and whether the stick is butt first or tip first.

Rim Shot: There are three types of rim shot. The basic rim shot is played by striking the rim and the head at the same time, in this case, within the sweet zone (as in Fig. 3).

Gock Shot: This requires a bigger bite with the stick. Play a rim shot, but extend the tip of your stick past the mid-point of the drum for a very fat sound (Fig. 5).

Ping Shot: This is the one you hear a lot in Latin music. It’s a rim shot played in the outer third of the drum, producing a cutting, high-pitched, timbale-like sound (Fig. 6).

There are more possibilities, but this should be enough to get you started.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Drummer's 7 Stages of Enlightenment

These are stages that I think I've passed through on my journey.  Please note - this is my totally made up view of a drummer’s possible emotional evolution based on one drummer’s patchy memories. I repeat: I MADE IT ALL UP! That said, do any of these sound familiar?

Stage One: Having Fun Making Noise
The drums -- perhaps a gift from unsuspecting parents or a well-meaning uncle -- are new, fun, LOUD. So goal number 1 is to play hard, fast, loud, and with total abandon. Even better if some of it actually sounds like a beat.

Stage Two: Having Fun Making Music
You have a few decent beats plus a couple of fills in your arsenal, and now you've been asked to join a band. You may be the least or most capable player in the band. No matter, it's a real band and you're making real music -- your music.

Stage Three: Hero Worship
Your journey to becoming an actual drummer is going along well,  and then you hear/see the drummer who changes everything for you. So you get hold of every recording this person has made and study them over and over and over. Your passion knows no limits.

Stage Four: Getting Serious
You’re admiration of ‘drummer X’ has blossomed into an obsession with technique.  Plus your list of hero drummers has grown too long -- there are just too many good drummers. The only way to handle this is to branch out and embrace other techniques, other approaches.

Stage Five: Anger
Some call it a plateau., but that’s too gentle a concept for the feeling you get when you’ve put in hour after hour in the practice room and yet see no progress in your playing. Anyone would be pissed.

Stage Six: Disillusionment
My left foot sucks. My hands suck. My funk playing sucks. This isn't just a plateau. I'm getting nowhere. Maybe I'm doomed to suck ... I probably should just pack it in.

Stage Seven: One-ness
Well, I survived all the 'stages', and it wasn't all that bad. I learned a lot from all my perambulations -- blind alleys included -- and today I feel good about my playing and about where I am, both musically and professionally.  Now I can really focus on the music without all those distractions.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Are You Looking At Me?

I was waiting for something or other, and picked up a magazine to help pass the time. In an article on career management, I came across the most disturbing question ever, and it's a concept that I've kept in mind ever since. The question is this: "Who's watching your career?" ... Ouch!

Well, who is watching? Worst case answer is nobody, but I seriously doubt that there is no one who is interested in you and your musical journey. The challenge then is to discover who is interested in you and whether that interest can be nurtured toward some positive outcomes.
Society has rediscovered only in the last few years the importance of mentors. There's always something to be gained from having someone more experienced to look up to. And if that person is hip to the “pay it forward” concept, there will be two of you looking out for your progress and your career. This can be a great morale booster.

Mentors are invaluable for elevating your craft in a number of ways. They help you to learn the ropes and avoid the pitfalls, and to set goals and targets. They also model 'best practices'. They may even introduce you to their network.

The best situation is when a top pro takes an interest in you. It can be as simple as an invite to jam, and it can be as involved as a mentor grooming a mentee for greater things. It means other people -- talented, connected, influential people -- are keeping an eye on you. Even better, they’ll likely think of you when opportunities arise. A lot of careers have been launched when a teacher recommended a student for a high-profile job.

Teachers quite often evolve into mentors. My own student-teacher relationship was like this. My teacher and I spent a lot of time together outside the lesson hall and we became good friends. I've tried to repay this by carrying his message to my own students and mentees.

A mentor can be from any industry, although it makes sense to favour someone from the music business. Teacher, band-mate, music store personnel, agent/manager, good friend ... all are potential mentors.

Or maybe you're the one who's in a position to mentor a young (or at least newer) player. This is always a great experience, as the benefits go both ways. Aside from all the warm fuzzies involved, it's good experience, it helps build your character, and you can connect with your passion for music in a variety of ways.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Voice Of Doom

We were sitting around discussing our usual topic: drums. When we got around to the topic of tuning, the more senior drummer among us (defined as someone who'd actually had some real gigs) said:

"A drum should go Doom."
 He was absolutely right, and I've kept this as my model for tuning ever since because it works in almost any situation.

Is it envelope or envelop?
The scientific way to look at sound is to analyze its envelope from start to finish. The sound envelope consists of Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release (ADSR). The attack is that initial spike, which quickly yields to the decay. Then we have sustain. That's when the sound continues on for a bit. And then it goes away, the release. We may not think of drums as having much in the way of sustain, but it's critical for resonance and getting a good tom sound.

And there it is: Attack/Decay: 'D', the Sustain: 'OO', and the release: 'M'. Here's how it fits against an ADSR graph:

Glissando (a.k.a. Pitch-bend a.k.a. Twang)
When you strike a drum head, you stretch it ever so slightly. This causes the pitch to rise ... slightly. Normally you won’t really hear this, but certain tunings can make the ‘twang’ quite noticeable, hence the 'falling' nature of the Doom analogy.

Boom vs. Doom
Since childhood, we’ve all accepted that the bass drum in a parade beats out “Boom-boom-boom-boom”. It’s just physics. A large object resonates at a lower frequency and also produces fewer high overtones. So the sibilance that gives us the attack in Doom is missing in the bass drum. Hence the softer attack of a ‘Buh’ rather than 'Duh'.

So I guess all that remains is to ask, are your drums doomed?

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Bit of Beginner's Luck

I was glancing through a potential student's exercise book and noticed a comment he'd added on a page of rock rhythms: “I can play these easy.” However, from watching him play it was clear that he could not. So what gave him the impression he could? Likely he was able to play them a little bit ... at one time ... in isolation ... alone in the practice room. 
When you're working through a group of exercises, it's not uncommon to be able to breeze through a 
few of the more advanced ones after a good warm-up on related items. To me this amounts to plain beginner's luck, and it's too easy to conclude that you’ve reached some major milestone. Yes, you did play them, and probably well enough ... for a few bars. But they won't have become part of your vocabulary. That takes a lot more than a few lucky executions. 

A practice standard I like to use is to play an exercise for a full 5 minutes non-stop. It's a practical length of time -- about as long as a song might last. If I can play something for 5 minutes, I'll probably be OK out in the field. But I’ve notice an interesting phenomenon with this approach. 

The beginner's luck idea might predict that you'd be able to play a new exercise, more or less, for a few bars at least, and often more. Press on and you'll likely find that things start to fall apart around the 1 minute mark. Struggle onward and you might be OK until around the 4 minute mark, where it begins to fall apart again. And while that last minute may be a challenge, pressing on will be worth it. 

I've always been intrigued by the consistency of this phenomenon. Of course I have no explanation for it, but it does suggest that anything practiced for less than a minute -- the beginners luck zone -- doesn't get you anywhere, and even 2 to 3 minutes might not suffice.

The key to all mastery is repetition, repetition, repetition. (It’s also possible that the struggle is an important part of the process.) So don't be misled by beginner's luck. If you can play it for a few bars, that's nice. But to really get it, shoot for 5 minutes daily for at least a week. Then it will truly be yours to keep.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The P-p-p-power of Love

I'd like to dedicate this post to the memory of Jim Blackley, the man who I will always call “teacher”.

James David Blackley
One of the best teaching tips I've come across is this: You've got to love your students. Sounds a bit extreme, but it's not, really. One of the key symptoms of the '60s was universal love -- "Make love, not war", “The summer of love". It simply meant that we wanted peace, love and respect for everyone. It was true then, and years later I think the philosophy has not lost any value.

Keep in mind that love is both a noun and a verb, and as a verb, love compels us to action. We give gifts because of love. We help out in emergencies because of love. And of course we raise and nurture our children because of love.

So how does one 'love' a student without coming across as suspect? Just the way you do with anyone you respect and want the best for. You love your friends, you love your band mates (I hope), and so you treat them accordingly. You're not looking for intimacy or a long-term commitment. You just need to want things to work out for the best for your students. 

Some of the most useful things my teacher taught me were not technical. Sure, he showed me stuff and helped me learn it, but he wanted more from and for his students. To get that, he had to communicate and engage beyond the mere technical.

I spent one lesson with a youngster listening to a Katie Perry tune. This fellow was just beginning to be interested in music, and the tune really spoke to him. I like to work with real world examples that mean something to the student, so we listened to the tune and talked about it. I pointed out things the drummer was doing that were things we'd been working on. For his next lesson I prepared some exercises that he could play along to the tune. We spent maybe 6 minutes on the drums that day, but it was one of the best lessons ever because  he got it, and he got it because it meant something to him.

Sometimes the only way for a student to move forward is to talk about non-lesson stuff. Playing music is a very emotional activity, and someone who is distracted may be dealing with some  baggage. There are all sorts of reasons why someone may not be making progress, and if I can help them get past this, then I'll do what I can to help (provided I have the knowledge and experience ... and wisdom).

Also remember that sometimes the best gift we can give is to just listen. Add a little compassion and you're off to a great start.  

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Getting To Know You

The missus sent me a link to her niece’s boyfriend’s website. “An incredible guitarist”, she said. So of course I had to go online and check out both his and his band’s websites. In mere minutes I was able to get an idea of what they were all about. Pretty cool!
This level of convenience is truly astounding. There was a time when the only way to see someone play was to get your butt out to a club or concert. And if that artist had a habit of avoiding your neighbourhood, then you had to make do with the occasional TV appearance or a road trip.
Now we just have to 'Google it' and voilà -- gobs of good stuff that might have taken years to discover in olden times!
I like to stay informed, or I should say I really hate being out of touch or behind the times. So if I hear about an interesting drummer, I often will look them up online. I like to look for a live performance. It’s the best way to get the full story and it's almost always entertaining. And seeing a performance -- even on grainy video -- is educational and inspirational.
While I’m investigating contemporary music, I'm also checking up on the competition. It's good to know what others in your field are up to so you can stay both up-to-date and relevant. So naturally I always investigate what other drum teachers are doing online. It can be a good source of ideas for what to do and what not to do as a teacher.
But there’s dark side to this abundance. We can too easily take things for granted. If I can see it any time, then why hurry? It'll be there tomorrow. True, it likely will be there, but it won't be where it counts: as part of your experience.
Conversely, it's easy to overload ourselves with information. For example, after a day of watching drums solos on YouTube, you'll likely be more confused about soloing than before. Also, don't mistake idly watching videos for actual research.
So don't put it off. Go online and find out what other people are up to ... and then get out and see some live music.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Memo To Phil: Be careful what you wish for

Well, Phil Collins is back in the news lately.  Remember when he was the guy every rock drummer wanted to be? Then he became a front-man, then a break-out star, then a pop icon, then the stalwart of the housewives’ hit parade. Even though Phil and I are nearly the same age, he was my idol. We all followed his progress from promising young prog-rock drummer with the shy manner and even shyer voice, to the most respected and most wanted rock/pop drummer ever. I've just finished Phil's autobiography and I heartily recommend it. 

Phil’s bio seems to be primarily a form of catharsis. Actually, this is one of Phil’s specialties. When it comes to writing, Phil seems to have two modes: cutesy pop tunes and maudlin, introspective, heart-on-the-sleeve chargers. You may hate everything about “Susudio,” but I bet you join in on the chorus. And then there are tunes like “Against All Odds.”

Phil’s was a career path that anyone would envy, at least until you read his autobiography, Not Dead Yet. Yes, Phil paid his dues, and in the process he fell into a few of the traps that abound in this business. The music business can heap obscene rewards on talented workaholics. It’s usually only toward the end of the journey that anyone weighs the actual costs.

OK, enough about Phil’s fall from grace. I want to talk about Phil’s fill. You know the one:  du-Da du-Da du-Da du-Da DA DA. It’s now regarded as the most famous drum fill ever, and when I first heard it, I thought, “That's brilliant!!!” 

Here’s the deal. That fill was already one of the most overworked and tired of drum clichés. It’s a drum lick that I purposely avoid … it’s just too corny. And yet when Phil does it, it works. Why?

Burning up on Entry
First of all, the fill is totally in your face. The tune thus far had been so low key that the listener has settled into a quiet reverie. And then BLA-A-A-A-A ... a major wake-up call, by which Phil means “I’m changing the game”. That works on a number of levels.

Familiar Face
One bit of advice writers offer other writers is to avoid clichés. Good advice, but I happen to like clichés or, rather, familiar expressions. I call them comfort phrases. They work because the reader recognizes them, is comfortable with them, and can relate to them. (There’s a limit, of course; a horrible cliché is a horrible cliché.) So when Phil chose to use a familiar drum break, he was actually trying to make us more comfortable and to help us relate, and then he added his own spin.

This is the genius part. If you’re going to play a cliché, play it with face-melting conviction.

Not Dead Yet - The Memoir, Phil Collins
Hardcover: 384 pages
ISBN-10: 1101907479
ISBN-13: 978-1-101-90747-4 ISBN

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Rudiments Are Very Important ...

“... and some day I hope to study them."

I've actually heard a number of excellent drummers say this. While I think most drummers would concur that rudiments can be important, I also think that, while they do hope to study them, they admit it’s at the bottom of their bucket list.

So I have to ask, if rudiments are so flaming important, how come nobody is working on them? Well that's not quite true. I've seen a lot of articles and online videos that use rudiments as a basis for rhythmic development. But basing something on a rudiment is a long way from studying “The Rudiments.”

Simply put, the traditional 40 rudiments are not very relevant in today’s music environment. You heard me... not relevant. I'm not saying useless or without value. There are some real gems among the rudiments, and some people have come up with some inspired interpretations. But as core study material, the rudiments have little to offer today's drum set player.

The rudiments were developed to manage the movements of an army. Each rudiment sound was a signal that conveyed a specific meaning: go forward, turn left, duck. The sounds are also pretty good accompaniment for marching tunes, but they are military all the way. Some of the patterns have been around for a thousand years or more. Most of them are a few hundred years old at least. The drum set itself, barely a hundred years old, came along well after the rudiments were laid down.

I know you've learned some rudiments and that you use them all the time. That's good. You find good ideas wherever you can. But isn't it about time we stopped looking at the rudiments as some sort of holy grail or revealed truth? And maybe while we're at it, we should stop feeling guilty about not finding them useful … or even interesting.

So the old saying applies: “Take what you like and leave the rest.” And don’t worry if you never get around to the rudiments. You have lots of company.

Want to find out more about rudiments? Check out these organizations:

Percussive Arts Society -
National Association of Rudimental Drummers -

Friday, April 21, 2017

Keeping Up With The Jetsons

I was at a panel discussion for drum teachers when the question of electronic drums came up. The drummer-educators on the panel seemed to agree that electric wouldn't do unless there was no other way. These were seasoned pros and perhaps a bit old school, but the message was clear. 
The main issues seem to be nuance and ‘feel’. True, electronic drums aren't as sensitive to touch as acoustic drums, they can lack a convincing rebound, and they can have a compressed dynamic range, but with developments in sensors, software and ‘head’ material, the gap appears to be closing.

Then, aside from the sensitivity thing, what's so wrong with electronic drums?

Require power: Without some sort of power source, you have a fairly elaborate set of practice pads. So batteries and headphones at a minimum, and more if you want to play live.

Too small: The pads typically are smaller -- e.g. 10" snare pad, 12" cymbal pad -- and just plain harder to hit.

Too limited: Finite sounds, instruments and settings; finite control over settings; and the racks can be hard to adjust.

Don't look impressive: In the days of techno bands, fine, but I can't see a metal drummer sitting behind a set.

Good ones are expensive: And so they should be, comparable to quality acoustic setups.

Not-so-good ones proliferate: Below a certain price point (e.g. under $500, with a few exceptions), you're looking at toys, not musical gear. Avoid.

Well, what's right then?

Dozens, even hundreds of sounds at the touch of a button: Pretty hard to top this.

Try different tunings, styles with less fuss, risk: It's a great way to experiment with new sounds to see if they work for you without messing with your acoustic instruments.

Change voices mid-song: Imagine having two or three or more sets available at the same time (depending on the nature of the controls).

Compact, easy to move (mostly): Even take them on the road for practice.

Play at 4:00 AM at full volume: With headphones, of course.

Better response than a practice pad: Head feel can be very good; some are nearly as physically and sonically responsive as real drums.

Dynamics getting pretty good: Modern triggers now incorporate a number of sensors and better sound processors, giving a big boost to dynamics.

Rock out in your own little world: I don't usually play heavy rock, but when I do I like to switch my e-kit to 'Bonham mode'.

So if you've been toying with the idea of an electronic set, I really can see no reason not to make like George and jump right in!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Thinking of Buying Online?

Online shopping is big business. Like the catalogue stores of yore, all manner of goods are available in virtual shops. You can browse the photos and make your selection in minutes, and your purchase will arrive at your door in a matter of days -- except when it doesn't.

Most of the time, online shopping is painless, reliable and secure, and for hard to find items, may be the only option. Online stores earn their reputations by reliably filling their commitments in a timely manner. I've also found that customer service can be first rate, and the people really know their way around the products.
So, is on-line purchasing all good news or will you be giving up some important perks and conveniences? Let’s see.

A few on-line stores offer free shipping or may include it above a certain dollar amount. Otherwise it's a function of order size, weight and shipping distance. It can get expensive and it’s not refundable.

The product warrantee should be the same, but how do you act on it? You'll likely have to ship items back. And who will pay for shipping? Both ways? The process should be as pain free as possible.

Bait and switch
It looked so good on the web page. And what a great write-up! But when it gets to your door, what the ???? It’s rare, fortunately, but it happens. Many of the larger want ad sites offer vendor ratings. Some credit card companies provide protection for online purchases.

International Orders
A real shocker here in Canada, and a constant source of frustration, are excise tax and customs duty on international shipments. If a broker is involved, expect the tax bill to be anywhere from 20% to 80% of the order's value! This can be a deal breaker, so find out ahead of time.

Direct Sales
Some companies are opting to sell directly to the consumer, bypassing the normal sales and distribution channels. This can be good for the consumer since two levels of price mark-up have been avoided. And remember, there are still the issues of shipping and returns.

Try before you buy?
A good way to burn up good will at your local music store is to try out stuff there … and then buy it on-line. But people do it all the time (and then wonder why music stores are struggling to survive). Better to stick with commodity items that are familiar or fairly generic if trying is an important part of the process.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Don't Look Now

My doctor put me on a new drug that actually made me a bit stoned for the first few days. I was prepared for this and planned my days accordingly. What I didn't realize was how it would affect my playing. Being a little bit high (from whatever cause) can help you get into the music. Best case is to be high on the music alone. Less desirable is to be in enough of a fog to forget to pay attention to, for example, the guitar player trying to catch my eye because he wants to end the tune.
Paying attention through listening is vital for playing good music. But vision can often be just as important on the bandstand. I like to communicate musically, and can usually respond quickly to musical cues. Visual cues, on the other hand, are trickier.

In general, musicians don't have a clear method for communicating visually. There are standard signals for certain music forms. Jazz has a pretty comprehensive set, but it unfortunately isn't common knowledge. Otherwise people resort to whatever makes sense to them: a shake of the head, a dip of a guitar neck. It's pretty limited and often not terribly successful.

It's good to work out some signals with other band members beforehand. That way everyone is on the same page. Signals can be visual, musical or verbal. Whatever gets the job done.

When there are no established signals, there are still a lot of visual clues. You just need to look for them. Some players are very physical, and their movements on stage can be very telling. Your guitar player always goes to the front of the stage for her big feature solo, and you've noticed she takes two or three steps backwards as she's about to wrap it up. That's helpful information. Soloists often make a physical change near the end of the solo.

Whether or not you have some signals worked out, it's important that you remain visually connected to the band. It can be as simple as being aware of what people are doing, which you can't do if you're in the habit of zoning out. Nor do you have to keep constantly vigilant. That's overkill and, frankly, kinda creepy.

Here are some hand signals used in jazz:

Friday, March 3, 2017

Be Kind to Your Support System

I had an interesting time playing a “back line” set.  It was a high quality set – very complete – but with a few weak points. The main issues were the hi-hat, snare and bass pedal. Wait a minute ... aren't those the most important tools for a drummer? With a part missing from the hi-hat, a jammed snare release and a bass pedal badly in need of some grease, I had to be vigilant just to 'TCB' which, of course, takes away from playing music and my mental health.
What helped drive home this message came the very next day when I spent a half hour working on a stool I'd loaned to a friend. Had he set up the stool correctly, it would not have been damaged and I wouldn't have had to get out the tools and fix it.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents kept telling you to take better care of your stuff? That was good advice. And with drums, as with most things, it's easier to keep things from falling apart prematurely than to fix them after the fact.

All drum hardware is well engineered. The designers continually look at what drummers need and then do their best to come up with a solid solution — one that could last for years and years. But in the end, it's up to us to understand and work with those solutions.

Here's another example. I bought a fancy, highly rated bass pedal, but I found it rather disappointing. So I went online and looked for hints and comments. What I found was a video by the pedal's designer explaining and demonstrating the pedal's design principles. It took no time at all to get the pedal to where I wanted it ... once I understood the ideas behind the technology. (Drum and hardware makers often have online videos and tutorials to help you understand their equipment.)

It may take a bit of time and perhaps some research to figure out how your hardware works. But it's well worth getting to know all the features that were put there for your benefit. And then you should use them properly. This means thinking about how the thing works, how it goes together, what can fail and why. It also means operating the item within its design range.

So choose hardware suited to the job, learn how it works, try not to abuse it, and see to repairs at the first sign of trouble. Aside from saving time, money and aggravation, it may very well save the day when an inadequate or poorly maintained part might have broken down at the worst possible time and place. I suggest you treat your drums at least as well as you treat your car.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bad Habits

In the days before electronic tuners, I played with two guitar fuss-budgets. They were great players, but were ruthless about playing in tune. And so they tuned (and tuned, and tuned...) and, although basically a good thing, it could get tiresome.

Some drummers have habits -- some useful, some not -- that can drive people nuts. Here are a few that come to mind.
Long noisy setup at an inconvenient time
Arrive during the dinner hour, make lots of noise while setting up, do a lot of 'sound checks', and drag it out for an hour and a half, and you'll not make many friends.

Taking up too much room 
Having a huge drum set can be cool, but is it really appropriate for the venue? For the music? Or maybe you like to plunk down your modestly sized kit in the centre of the stage and expect everyone else work around it. Not cool.

Diddling between tunes 
Nobody came to the show to hear the drummer demonstrate triple-flub-a-doubles between numbers. Noodle on your own time.

By all means, try new stuff on the gig, but save out-right practicing for home. Something that needs improvement or that has nothing to do with the song has no place on the band stand.

Too busy, attention-seeking, etc.  
There's a difference between exciting playing that propels the music forward and obnoxious noise that simply says, "Hey, check me out!"

Not listening 
A band is an ensemble ... a team. So be a part of the team by keeping your eyes and your ears open. 

Playing too loud 
A real give-away here is someone who likes to say, "I'm a heavy hitter." What it usually means is that this drummer is going to play as loud as possible no matter what.

Lack of respect: to band, employer, other musicians 
You're there as a guest and as a professional. Act like it. Also remember the golden rule and never dis’ other players (who may be friends of the people you're working with/for).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Hitting Bottom

I’d only been playing for a few years and was about a year into my studies with a world-renown teacher, but at this particular lesson I was bombing. I didn’t know why I was bombing. My teacher, who didn’t often say much, was pacing the room slowing shaking his head. “Let’s try it again,” he said. That meant another month of the same material. So I knuckled down and did it all again. I was good at knuckling down. I had the discipline and determination to master the material I was assigned. And I HAD mastered it. Or so I thought.

My next lesson went about the same way as I played the required grooves. I thought I was playing them 'even better‘ than last time -- more accurately, more precise. Same reaction: “Let’s try it again”.

My next lesson was approaching. I’d now spent nearly three months on the same material, and I’d totally run out of ideas of how to fix it. It was a bit of a “Zen and the Art of Archery” situation. The master wanted me to realize something, but my habit of analyzing and intellectualizing things always got in the way. That is, my roadblocks were self-induced.

I started working on the material once more (my lesson was just a few days away),  and I was feeling pretty dejected. So, in a complete funk, I played the first line. My need for precision had gone out the window, and I wasn’t focusing on my technique the way I usually did. I was depressed about the whole situation, but after a couple of minutes of practice, I felt a change. I swear I could feel the rhythm sinking into my body all by itself, and I began to groove with it. Not that I hadn’t grooved the lines before, but this time it somehow really hit home. I played through the rest of the lines with the same result, and then took a very gratifying break. I walked around the neighbourhood, enjoying the fine weather and reveling in my 'accomplishment'.

At my next lesson I began to play the lines, and I saw a big smile break out on my teacher’s face. Life was good. It seems he didn't care if my technique was correct. He wanted me to get in touch with my emotions and apply them to music. And I couldn't do that as long as I was intellectualizing and working on ‘technique’.

I now look for the groove in everything I do. Some exercises won't groove no matter what you do, but it's amazing how often the groove is there, if you just let it happen. I still attend to the technical side but, as they say, 'it don't mean a thing' otherwise.

I’ve developed a habit of seeking out these ‘a-ha’ moments, when things fall into place oh so well. As a teacher, there is nothing more gratifying for me than to see this in a student. It’s not really possible to tell a student how to think or how to feel. Sometimes you just need to suggest a direction and then just wait it out. And then a light goes on!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Unpacking Polyrhythms Part 2: The Others

Metric Modulation
This is a unique application of a polyrhythm, where a pulse is alluded to and then adopted as the new time signature. For example, if you play quarter-note triplets in 4/4 time, you are playing a polyrhythm. If you abandon the 4/4 pulse and use the triplets as the new pulse, then you have modulated to 6/4 meter at a new tempo. And you can go the other direction as well: 6/4 to a hemiola (2:3) to 4/4.

Metric Modulation: 4/4 to 6/4

Asymmetrical Phrasing
Similar to a cross rhythm, this technique uses two or more phrases of different lengths rather than a standard phrase, for example, playing a bar of 5 beats and a bar of 7 beats rather than 3 bars of 4. This is a technique used in some jazz heads. Have a listen to “Straight No Chaser” by Thelonious Monk or Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” for asymmetrical phrasing applied to melodies.

Asymmetrical Phrasing: 5 + 7

Rhythmic Displacement
This is not technically a polyrhythm, but the effect is somewhat similar. Say you play a simple rock rhythm: 8th notes on the cymbal, 1 and 3 on the bass drum, 2 and 4 on the snare. If you then switch to playing 1&, 3& on the bass drum and 2&, 4& on the snare, you have displaced the pulse by a half a beat, giving the impression that the down beat is no longer where it used to be.

Of course this is not an 'official' interpretation of these terms. I just find that they work for me and help me to understand and apply different polyrhythmic ideas.