Friday, October 11, 2019

All Diets Work

It’s true. According to recent scientific studies, all diets lead to weight loss. However, some diets are good for you, some are not so good, and some can actually hurt you. Some are straight-forward, while others are too hard to understand or difficult to follow. No matter … they all work. And here’s why: When we diet, we pay close attention to what we eat and how much we eat. When not dieting, we’re not as observant. So if we want to lose weight, attending to what we eat and how it might affect our lives is a good idea.
The same might can be said of drum exercises. They all work because they all get your hands (and feet) moving. But, like diets, not all exercises are equal. Some will transport your playing to the next level, while others won’t have much impact on your actual playing, and some may send you off in the wrong direction. A few can even cause damage. (Fortunately, damaging routines are pretty rare.)

If you've found that your practice schedule has become bloated or seems unproductive, here’s a simple litmus test to eliminate the ‘bad foods’ from your drum diet.

1. Is it useful?
Can I relate the material to the music that I play? If I can’t think of a tune or a place in a tune where the material would be a good fit, then I'll likely take it off my schedule.

2. Is it achievable and in a reasonable length of time?
I like to do a return on investment analysis on exercises. What am I going to get back from this and how long will that take? If the ROI doesn't make sense, then I’ll move on to something else.

3. Is it “me”?It’s important that what we work on helps us to express ourselves and our personal musical sense. While it might be useful and achievable, does it fit with what I want to do on the drums?  As with a diet, if it doesn’t suit me, there’s not much point in spending time on it. 

There is so much material around these days that there's no excuse for working on stuff that won’t get you to where you want to go. The challenge, then, is to separate the wheat from the chaff to make your practice schedule both lean and nutritious.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Inspiration From The Stars

I picked up a copy of the Sabian publication “Create: 2017 Cymbals & Sounds”. It’s a 40-page full colour magazine provided free by Sabian and distributed through music equipment outlets. It’s really just a catalogue of their various products, but it delivers quite a bit more. The book is filled with information about cymbals: how they’re made, how they’re used, how designs came about, what different features mean. There’s lots of cymbal lore and history too. If someone wanted to quickly learn about cymbals, this edition would be a great place to start. And it’s free! 
 When I was still saving up for my first cymbals, I cherished similar books from Zildjian called “Cymbal Setups of Famous Drummers”. While these publications may be thinly disguised sales tools, they give us is an intimate look into the personal sound choices of the premier drummers of the day. I found it helpful to know what cymbals my favourite players were using to make the sounds I heard on recordings. It helped me to develop a short list of cymbals to investigate. (My current cymbal set-up is very much like the set Joe Morello used on "Take 5", which I find quite interesting.)

But there’s an even bigger dividend that these books can deliver: enthusiasm. I find it hard to not be pumped when leafing through the Sabian book, just as I did with the Zildjian books years ago. I read about the history of the company, the different methods used and how methods have changed over the centuries. I learned about the different sound options that new designs give us, often with commentary from the artist who helped create the cymbal or series.

What I value most about these books is that they make cymbals and cymbal history interesting, and that can lead to enthusiasm. The stories invite us to join the cymbal community and to cherish the rich culture of cymbals -- and that's an exciting prospect. 

My hope for young and new drummers is that they find a vehicle that can help them get excited about cymbals and cymbal lore. And for those of us who are teachers and mentors, perhaps we can help foster and sustain this enthusiasm. 

You can download a PDF copy of the 2017 edition from Sabian:

Friday, September 6, 2019

Today I'm going to teach you ...

I see a lot of instructional videos these days that take the approach that if I demonstrate something and throw in a little (or a lot of) explanation and serve it up online, then I’m teaching. Well, I’ve been a teacher for too long to think that a one-time demonstration on a computer screen will get the job done, no matter how good the demonstration and explanation might be.

Over the millennia, teaching has evolved to accommodate numbers, sometimes to the detriment of the individual. My first-year sociology class is a perfect example: 700+ students in one room. It's impossible to 'teach' a class of 700 people! Yes, you can get the material out there, and most will pick up enough of it to pass an exam. But is this teaching? Taken to the next level, it’s a lot easier, and a lot cheaper, to reach students over the internet.
Great artists study with great teachers, and not in a class room or by video. Always have; always will. It’s one-on-one ...  no exceptions. Teaching is -- or should be -- coaching. I show you, you try it. I explain the philosophy and purpose behind what I’m showing you. I present the material that needs to be mastered and in an order that’s right for you. I reframe it if my explanation didn’t work for you, and reframe it again and again until you get it. I monitor your progress. And I’ll only introduce new material when the student is ready. Too often new material is given as a matter of course, or as a reward for simply showing up,
I've spent a lot of money on lessons and musical education for myself. I've also spent a lot of time figuring things out on my own. And I've been in classrooms and I've sat thru DVD and on-line lessons. What I remember most is the time I spent with a skilled teacher. And while the lessons may have seemed expensive at the time, they paid for themselves over and over because the lessons kicked off an entire chain of insights and accomplishments. I cannot say the same about DVDs and online videos.
I'm not saying that formal lessons are the only way to go, but in my experience, one-on-mentoring and coaching will bring far greater long-term rewards than any other method. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Case For Complexity

Bass player 'A' had ended the last song of the set with an exceptionally busy send off. Bass player 'B', who was of a different mind-set, later asked, "Why play something complicated when you can play something simple?" Bass player A replied, "Why play something simple when you can play something complicated?"
Naturally, bass player B was somewhat taken aback and didn't have a response for this. And neither do I. I'd love to be able to lay out a solid, convincing, unassailable argument for keeping it simple.
Simplicity Can be Beautiful
Some of the most moving drum parts I've heard were dirt simple. It might have worked with a more ambitious interpretations, but the simpler one just seemed magical. True, playing simply can be challenging enough, but there are good reasons for not keeping it simple.
Meg White vs. Matt Gartska vs. Max Roach
Different music styles require different levels of busy and different levels of complexity. A thrash metal drummer who isn't busy just won't do, and no one wants the drums front and centre throughout a ballad. Becoming familiar with the milieu will let you know what the standard practices are.
How Dense Can You Be?
I like the notion of musical density. Some music is sonically quite full; other bits are more on the light side. This concept can give some idea of what sort of playing might be appropriate. If I'm playing busy music with busy musicians, then I can stretch out a bit. And if the music is spare, then I may choose to fill it out or I might prefer to imitate wallpaper.
Part Of The Milieu
This goes along with density. Some genres are more dense and thus require more input from all players. Think progressive jazz, prog-rock, fusion, death metal. Power trios benefit from a busy drummer who can help fill things out.
Personal Milestones
The overall busy-ness of your playing changes over time. Most of us go through a honeymoon period, when more is always better. Also, as you grow musically,  you can handle more complex situations. So while we may overplay in the beginning, most of us adapt to the music before too long. We may then go on to learn to deal with more and more complex music.
It's part of the fun
First of all, raw energy is compelling. Pushing the music hard can get the entire room jumping, and complexity can deliver a lot of energy. Complexity is also inherently rewarding. There's the challenge of doing something complicated, and also the resulting buzz.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Some of my Favourite Drummers are Invisible

I was sitting in a club listening to one of my drum heroes when I asked myself what it was that I found so appealing about his playing. I listened carefully as he played through the head, backed each soloist, took a solo, and wrapped things up. His playing rose and fell beautifully with the music, but for the most part, he seemed to be barely there: supportive but unobtrusive ... almost invisible. Some of the very best drummers are virtually unheard of.  When it comes to the needs of music, visibility -- or, rather, audibility -- is often not high on the list. There are high profile drummers we admire who have the ability to disappear as well as get noticed. Vinnie Calaiuta is a great example. When it calls for flash, you couldn't want for more. But look at Vinnie's recording credits and you'll find loads of examples where he takes musical invisibility to heart.

A lot of drummers who qualify as invisible: Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer,  Clem Catini. Even the more flamboyant drummers -- Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, Mike Portnoy -- fade into the background when it suits the music. They all played out front when necessary but were just as happy sitting back and grooving their butts off. What it comes down to is that these players could be anybody during the body of a tune, but when their creative skills were needed,  well there’s no mistaking a Hal Blaine fill.
Being invisible doesn't mean not contributing or not being creative or not being sensitive to the music. Quite the opposite. Being a musical drummer means that you can sense what the music needs and then deliver just the right thing -- no more, no less. You are part of the recipe, the way that leavening is a part of the cake. So when the drums belong in the background, that's where they should go.
I love the supportive aspect of this approach. These drummers sit in the mix in such a way that the music is fully supported and carried along by the drum beat, it's just that it's not obvious and sometimes you have to listen for it. 
Next time you're Listening to any well-produced track, note whether the drummer is sitting quietly at the back or way out front. Which do you prefer? Which is better for the tune?

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Diversify and Conquer Part II

There are lots of gigs within the music industry that do not necessarily involve playing drums. Here are just a few examples.

Second Instrument
Good drummers who are also good singers will always be in demand. So how about a drummer who can double on another instrument: keyboard, sax, wobbleboard -- lots of possibilities. If you're good enough on another instrument, maybe you can get some work with that. I once had a student who got more gigs on trombone than on drums.

Music Store Polymath
During my university years, I worked at a pro music store where I matched drummers (and others) with equipment and provided technical solutions. I also did repairs and so I got to work on a lot of great instruments and a lot of great people. And it turned out to be a good source of students and gigs.

In the Supply Chain Perhaps you'd excel as a wholesale or manufacturer’s rep. Drum companies and their agents need people to demonstrate and educate as well as to look after their customers. There's also a constant need for organizers, promoters and communicators.

Benevolent Overlord
Maybe you were destined to manage or promote. The music business needs people to TCB. That includes managers, road managers, personal techs, booking agents, PR & promotion… . There are many possibilities for someone who is organized, energetic  and proactive.

Author, Author
Think making a living as a musician is tough? It can be a cakewalk compared to writing. Still, there are opportunities for good writers who can find a niche and an audience. Many authors write as a means of marketing. An instruction book, for example, is very good marketing tool. Other avenues for authors include magazines, blogs, guest blogging, educational publications, and industry materials (e.g. PR, catalogs). People will always have a need for good writers, editors and communicators.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A Bright Idea

When we speak of tone, we often use terms like warm, round, dark, and the like. Each tone quality has its place, but the one that many drummers seem to forget about is bright. It's one thing for our drums to sound great when we're seated behind them, but what does it sound like out front?

If we look at the physics of sound, we see that high pitches travel better than low pitches. That means that higher sounds -- i.e. bright sounds -- project better than low-pitched or dull sounds. In short, they 'cut'. And yet a lot of the drummers I see tune their drums to pitches that are too low to project well. Yes, it sounds pretty funky from the driver’s seat, but how much of that sound is actually getting out past the singer? 

Low tuning has other shortcomings. It's easy to 'under-tune' a drum. Different sized drums have different usable ranges<see Tessitura>, and a drum can only be tuned so low before it can no longer do its job. You end up with what I call a ‘baggy’ sound -- a little like banging on a stack of paper grocery bags -- or ‘boxy’. The worst case is that the different drums will all sound pretty much the same out front. Tuning too low also forces you to hit harder.

Low sounds can interfere with other instruments, especially the bass. This can result in a muddy bottom end to the music.

If your drums are being closely mic'ed, then you can tune pretty much any way you want. The sound system will take over the job of projecting your mix. But if there is no audio assist, then tuning your drums more toward the middle of their range to increase the high frequency content can improve projection.

High and mid-range tuning tends to work well in most situations. In a small club, you can usually keep up with any assortment of instruments. In a larger room, higher tuning may provide all the cut and volume you need. And in a large concert with full sound system? Just listen to Dave Weckl or David Garibaldi to see how effective higher pitches can be through a PA.

Higher tuning's many benefits:
  • Be heard in the audience with less effort
  • Avoid clashing with other musicians
  • Get the best tone quality from your drums
  • Enjoy decent stick response and drums that are less tiring to play
  • Reduce dependence on microphones and PA

Monday, May 13, 2019

I've Got You Covered

It was a headline intended to shock: “Thirteen Huge Hits That Are Actually Covers.” Imagine ... more than a dozen major records that made it on the backs of -- shudder -- tunes that the band didn't write themselves, and worse, that someone else had already recorded!

First, let's clear the air. In the early days of recorded music, a cover was defined as a recording of a song that someone else had already recorded. Nothing more. Over the past few decades, the term has expanded to encompass any performance of any tune that isn't an original, and in the process, it has acquired a bit of attitude. Let's see what the options are.

Tunes you wrote and recorded
This is what we're all hoping for. You've got something to say and you want to take it to the world. Go for it! This pretty much depends on having some song-writing talent, BTW.

Tunes you recorded but didn't write
At one time, writing your own material was almost unheard of (although it seems to have worked well enough from the Jurassic era right up until big recording companies appeared). Writers wrote and players played. Fact is, not all of us are song writers, and not all song-writers are performers.

Cover version, original concept
When someone takes another crack at a previously recorded tune, the results will sometimes over-shadow the original: "Blinded By The Light" (Manfred Mann vs. Bruce Springsteen), "All Along The Watchtower" (Jimmi Hendrix vs. Bob Dylan). A different artist can often add a lot of value to an existing tune, often adapting it to a different genre. And when well done it's a thing of beauty.

Cover tunes
The music business relies on recorded tunes that someone else wrote. It's a vast and ever-growing catalogue (check out the Billboard 100 from time to time). Most musicians get their music from recordings. If they didn't, the music business might just grind to a halt. It's value added for artist(s), keeping their music alive, and it's what a lot of audiences are in the mood to hear.

And in conclusion
All musicians play cover tunes … it's where the majority of music comes from.  And all bands are cover bands, at least in the beginning. Artists depend on the tunes and the tunes depend on other artists. But sadly, the term cover seems to have morphed into almost an insult. Nobody is offended when they remake a movie, such as Godzilla (not once but twice!) And no way would anyone protest, “It’s just a cover of the Ishiro Honda movie” or suggest that the film-maker had cheated or copped out.

In the end, a great tune is a great tune, and a great rendition is a great rendition, no matter where the tune came from. If you're in a so-called cover band, you are part of the foundation of the music industry, and you should be proud to be a member of this thriving musical community.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Let's Get Married

No, not really … this is just the term I use for how I like to approach playing: I try to 'marry the bass player'. By this I mean that I try to play the time and feel (and volume) as closely in sync with the bass line as I can. The customary term for this is 'pocket', the reference being that you try to put the beat in the bass player's back pocket.

The way to gauge the pocket is with your lead hand and foot. I'm right handed, so my goal is to place my right hand strokes and my bass drum figures right on top of the bass player's line. Of course you can vary this by playing ever so slightly ahead of or behind the beat for either an energetic or a laid back feel. But smack on top of the bass line is where you usually belong.

Is this always the right way to play? Not necessarily. There will be times when you'll have to handle things a bit differently. Perhaps you're teamed with a bass player who doesn't lay down a solid line. Or maybe someone in the band just doesn't connect. In either case my recommendation is to work with the strongest or the weakest player.

Here's what I mean.

Let's say you have a strong singer, much stronger than the others in the band. If you 'marry' the singer, the two of you will then form a solid team that can create a good foundation, and that can help pull things together.

The other situation is a bit trickier. Say you're backing up someone who is sort of all over the place, and providing solid time just isn't working. The solution is to marry this player. Sorry to say, the person most likely lacks the ability to effectively work with the team. So your best option would be to play as tightly as possible with him or her. Then you become a sympathetic anchor for that player. You also become the guide for the rest of the band, and the liaison between the band and the ‘loose cannon’ in times of distress. If something odd happens -- a bar of three perhaps -- you can catch it and communicate it to the rest of your team with the offender being none-the-wiser.

Now, I happen to have done a fair amount of this sort of compensating for assorted musicians and their varied approaches, and I don't mind admitting that I'm pretty good at it. But I would far rather marry a good bass player. Just sayin'.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Is Moeller Wrong for Today's Drumming?

Everywhere you turn these days, someone is talking about, writing about or demonstrating something they cheerfully call "Moeller". But here's the thing: There appears to be a lot of different techniques being presented as Moeller.  So I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of the apparent confusion, and here's what I found out about our friend "Gus" and his teachings.

Sanford Gustav Moeller's goal in his 1934 publication was to document and explain the techniques used by old-time field drummers. In those days, drummers used the German grip in the right hand, with the butt of the stick held out to the side. Moeller further recommended the 'open' right hand grip (also known as the 4th finger fulcrum). To achieve power on the somewhat loose calf-skin heads of the day, the trick was to hold the stick with the 4th & 3rd fingers, letting the other digits remain loosely wrapped around the stick. Well, there simply is no possibility of using finger control with this technique!

Moeller never specified a whipping motion, although he did acknowledge its usefulness. The motions he described come mainly from the forearms and wrists. The whip only comes into play when extra power is needed. (BTW, Billy Gladstone was the champion of the whip stroke.)

Did early field drummers ever play fast one-handed triplets on their period drums? I doubt it. The combination of German grip and primitive tensioning systems made articulation difficult. Double strokes at 140 bpm? OK, but that's where it'll top out. Moeller merely documented how the drummers could get some speed under these conditions, and he showed how the technique could be applied to the more modern drum and the then-recently-invented drum set.

The bottom line here is that Moeller is not about arm movement or finger control or bounces. Moeller's real message lies in what happens between the strokes. Controlling what happens at the end of each stroke gives us command over the next stroke, and that's vital for developing control and speed.

I must admit that I use Moeller and Moeller derivatives. A lot. I didn't set out to. I just copied what my teacher showed me. I also closely watched the hand work of my favourite drummers. It was actually years later that I learned what this key motion was. Somehow, I doubt Mr. Moeller would be surprised.

The Moeller Book - The art of snare drumming, Sanford G. Moeller.  (Long out of print and very hard to find)
Ludwig Masters: (1956)
ISBN-10: 157134689
ISBN-13: 978-1571346896

Friday, March 1, 2019

It's Just an Outline

I’m a big fan of structured writing, also known as outlining. All of my notes are in the form of an outline, as are my shopping lists and todo lists. But there’s another type of outlining I like to do, and it’s very handy around the drum set.
Outlining is the technique of playing a rhythmic pattern with one hand while filling in the 'missing' notes with the other hand. (Actually, any two limbs/voices/instruments will work.) The concept is simple, is easy to learn and has great pay-back.

Pulling it Apart
Let's start with a familiar sticking pattern -- paradiddles. If you play all the strokes on the snare at the same volume, then it's just da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. But lean into the right hand strokes and you get a rhythm: DA doo DA DA / doo DA doo doo. The DA's give us the outer line and the doo's play the inner line. We can re-voice this by putting the R strokes on a cymbal and the L strokes on the snare. The cymbal is now playing the outer line and the L strokes on the snare then become the inner line.

Swing Thing
We can apply outlining to swing just as easily. All we need to do is fill in the 'missing' triplets with the other hand. Here the lead hand plays 1 2-uh 3 4-uh or R R-r R R-r. With outlining, it becomes Rll RlR Rll RlR. The swing ride plays the musical line and the inner line makes it sound a bit like Elvin Jones.
Steve to the Rescue
Now let's look at Steve Gadd's Mozambique, which sounds pretty complicated. The cymbal pattern -- the Mozambique proper -- is based on eighth notes. All we need to do to complete the outline is play the other eighth notes on the snare.

Outlining can be very exciting, and the result sounds much more difficult than it is. It can be applied to just about any sticking to reveal new flavours. Move it around the set and it gets really interesting. You can also try emphasizing the inner line for some unique effects.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Thousand Points of Light

I've been reading some musician biographies lately. By the time a biography is warranted, the musicians are usually in their later years, which means that their formative years were quite some time ago. In the case of the first crop of great jazz players, they came up in a time before the internet, before television and in some cases before radio and recording. Early rockers were not as limited, but recordings were sometimes scarce, and live TV appearances not that common.

One theme that runs through all these biographies is early influences. Interestingly, for some of the old guard there usually weren't many. Often as young enthusiasts they would make do with sitting outside a club where their hero was playing.

Fast forward a half a century and we have the complete opposite. You can now view all of the great players (with a few exceptions) any time, 24/7. Add to that a veritable avalanche of online lessons and demos and you have an insane amount of influence and inspiration to choose from. 

You'd think that having few opportunities to hear/see good players would be rather limiting. And yet all the great jazz players seem to have fared just fine having absorbed inspiration from a relatively small number of players.

I recently tried to summarize my own influences, and it wasn't an easy task. I started with a very long list of drummers who I really dig. Yes, I absolutely love listening to these players. But when it came down to naming the people who'd influenced me the most, the list was extremely short, perhaps 3 or 4 names only. And that makes sense. It simply is not possible to emulate a long list of players. I also find that the influences are situational: if playing rock, I 'borrow' from my favourite rock drummers. Playing jazz, same thing.

The key here is to go ahead and be influenced. Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding influence --  that's a great way to stagnate. And don't feel you need to master a plethora of styles. Just be sure to pick up enough different material that, when combined, it expresses who you are and what you want to say musically.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Diversify and Conquer Part I

It's never been easy to make a living with music. In fact, some of the players you most admire just might be semi-professionals -- i.e. they have to do other things to make a living.  Gigs are simply harder to find these days. One way around this scarcity of opportunity is to do other things. It's possible to diversify your activities without giving up your choice of music as a career.

Here are some areas you might check out to (a) find more work and (b) find rewarding jobs in and around of music.


Of course this is what we all want to do, and there really are a lot of options. In general, you will be either a member of a band (or several bands) or a freelancer/contractor. Here diversity means being able to play in a variety of styles and situations.

Touring: As a hired sideman or as a member of a band, the touring musician's career is on the road. Some musicians tour constantly, and time spent at home can be a rarity.

Local: It's tough but not impossible to make a living locally. The trick is to live in or close to a place where there is a lot of work. This is why musicians gravitate to places like New York, Nashville and other music cities. 

Studio: Music centres often have lots of recording studios. This type of work calls for an abundance of high-end skills, but the rewards can be excellent.
Shows: Dance troupes, theatres, broadcasters, and others all need drummers, and these can be great steady gigs. Hal Blaine honed his chops playing for strippers.


There are actually a number of options for dedicated teachers.

Music store: This setting gives you instant credibility and visibility. Plus the music store does all the marketing and paperwork. On the downside, the pay may not be great and you need to play by someone else's rules.

Private studio: This is a tougher way to do it, but you get to be your own boss and keep every dollar you collect. Be prepared to spend a lot of time marketing and developing your reputation.

Institutions: Colleges and universities have high skill requirements, but if you qualify, the work can be both rewarding and lucrative.