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.