Sunday, February 20, 2011

1985 Modern Drummer interview: Alan Dawson

Have I mentioned lately what a great resource the Modern Drummer digital archive is? Here are my excerpts from a 1985 Modern Drummer interview with one of the great teachers of the drums, Alan Dawson.

Wikipedia describes his methods:
His teaching style emphasized the music as a whole rather than concentrate on percussion alone. He stressed the importance of learning the melody and structure of the tune to better fulfill the role of accompaniment. For this purpose, he had students play over standards while also singing the melody out loud. He constantly strived for balance between musical ideas and strict technique. He was big on rudiments and wrote extensive exercises intended to be practiced with brushes. He believed using brushes with his "Rudimental Ritual" would reduce stick rebound allowing the sense of "picking up" the sticks. 
The interview:

[T]here are a lot of analogies between dancing and playing. In fact, I use that a lot if I talk about the cymbal rhythm. I always use the vision that the player should have the stick dancing on the cymbal. I think about that as a definite contrast between the approach to dancing and the approach to marching. When you march, you tend to march on your heels. I was in the army, of course. They told you to march on your heels. The reason is that it keeps you from bouncing up and down. When you walk on your toes, you bounce, and that's too nonuniform for marching. But if you dance, you dance on your toes to get that buoyant feeling, rather than clomping around.

That, I suppose, is the basic difference between a person having a good beat and a person swinging something and having a buoyant feeling. There's a difference. Having a good beat would be laying the beat down and being definite about it with straight tempo. If that was all there was to it, then a metronome would be better than any drummer.

I don't necessarily try to get a drummer to play like I play. I have certain convictions in what I like to play and listen to. But as far as dealing with students is concerned, sometimes I'm hesitant to say, "I teach drums," although that's broader than saying I teach jazz drums. But even broader than that, I like to think that I teach music, and the drum happens to be one of the instruments with which to create and communicate musical ideas.

In teaching someone, I want that person first to be a musician. I don't mean that the student has to be able to write charts or even play a melodic instrument, although these things are helpful. I mean that the pupil must have an understanding, appreciation and respect for the music itself, which is not made up of rhythm alone, although rhythm is probably the first ingredient. The two most basic, important things in all music would be rhythm and melody. Harmony may or may not become a part of that. The basic things I try to stress are rhythm and melody, and how they complement each other in all music of all ethnic persuasions. So if somebody asks me if I teach funk, I say, "No, I don't teach funk. I just teach how to play music. If you want to play funk, you'll be able to play funk." I don't start out with the idea of developing style itself. If you're exposed enough to music and have enough appreciation and respect for music, I think you will develop style eventually and you will develop style in whatever area you particularly like. In some cases, you might develop style in all types of music.

Q: From 1963 to 1970, you were the house drummer at the legendary Boston jazz club, Lennie's. You had to adapt to the various styles and feels of countless jazz greats on the spot, without any second takes. How did you handle such a challenge?

AD: Well, there are some people who would get a hold of two, three, or even twelve records of someone they knew they were going to play with. I never did that. I had heard their records over the years, but I never did cram for these jobs. I felt that, in everything you play, you have to have a personal conviction. It has to come from your deepest, innermost being and feelings, and cramming would not do it.

Instead, I would think about the things I had heard these people play, rather than thinking so much about what their drummers had done. What I pride myself on is listening as intently as possible and, in some instances, trying to transcend the feeling that, "I'm the drummer, and that's the piano player, and that's the bass player." I try to say, "Well now, get in the practice room, and try to get all the technical coordination together." Then when I get on the gig, I throw that out of my conscious mind. I've worked on that enough for it to come across at the appropriate time. And then I forget I'm even the drummer. When I listen to people playing, I try to play some music behind them if that's what's called for, or with them, if that's called for.

Hopefully, I will inspire them and drive them. I don't have a formula for that.

I admit that it often takes a long time before you can take the time to look back, or before you have the respect for the music to look back. That was the case with me. When I started playing, it was Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford. I wasn't particularly interested in Fletcher Henderson or Louis Armstrong. But as I matured, I realized that you have to have an idea of what you are playing. It didn't just drop out of space somewhere. It has a history. I'm sure a lot of people playing rock don't realize that a lot of it goes way back. Rock didn't start in England!

Q: What do you tell a student who says, "I can't make use of all this advanced technique training in the gigs I

AD: It's true that you're not going to wind up using all of this in one tune, in one night, one month or even in one year. But there's a certain amount of security in having "something in the bank."

[...] and by having something in the bank I'm not talking about money, of course. Musically, you're not spending every bit of knowledge that you have on every tune. That's operating so much on the brink that you're bound to fall into the abyss. I don't think there's such a thing as having too much knowledge. On the other hand, I don't think that the mere fact that you know how to play something is a reason to play it.

Q:  One of your practices is to have students do hand-foot drumset coordination exercises to a chosen tune that they keep in their minds or sing aloud. Special attention is paid to song form both in playing time and in soloing.

AD: When we speak of melodic drumming, we aren't actually playing melody per se. What we're doing is a case of sleight of hand. We're making people "hear" melodies by dealing with approximations of pitch—basically going up or down— and by the combination of the rhythms that go with certain melodies. It can actually make you think you're hearing it, but you're really not. However, in playing, when you're thinking melody, it becomes much more obvious that you're thinking melody rather than strictly rhythm because the phrases wind up being more fluid. Phrases in melodies tend to overlap rather than being strictly in blocks of two, four, or whatever. If a person thinks more melodically, it seems that the solos tend to be less boring than if the player is strictly thinking in patterns. There's no question about the benefits of this when you're playing with other people, because knowing the melody and form helps you to accompany better. Regardless of what little devices you might use to make contrast between different sections of a tune, you know where to do them, rather than if you were strictly dealing with blocks of measures.

In the early '50s when we heard about the West Coast and East Coast players, people talked about melodic drummers being on the West Coast. At that time, it seemed to be almost a minimalistic type of playing—a "ting" here, a bell there— hardly playing time but rather playing effects and colors. That's not what I mean
by melodic playing. I mean using the melody as a guide, because depending on the tune itself, that can be more or less obvious.

For instance, if a tune is very rhythmic, you can use a lot of the rhythm of the melody and people would certainly hear the melody. But if the melody isn't rhythmically active, obviously, you wouldn't hear as much of the melody in somebody's playing.

I can give you two examples. You can take a tune like "Oleo," which is very rhythmic. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for you to sing that and not play it, as opposed to another very common tune, "Caravan." The melody is very sparse rhythmically, so if you were to use it as a basis, it probably wouldn't be that interesting. All the whole notes and notes held for two measures don't give you much of a guide to the phrasing of the tune.

The first jobs that I did on the vibraphone were jobs where I played drums also. I found it very, very difficult to go back and forth. I would play one or two tunes at the most on vibes. Even though you're thinking melodically when you play drums, it's a different thing when you have to think of all of the notes and harmonies of a tune. If you get yourself too immersed in those intricacies, when you go back to the drums, that could get in the way rather than be a help.

[I]t's best for every drummer to play some melodic instrument. My reason for that is not because it's good to know harmony, but because it's good to get a perspective on what's happening from the other side of the drumset. Unless you do it, you'll never know how it feels. It crystallizes your likes and dislikes in what you would prefer to hear. It doesn't mean that every drummer should play what you like, but it does give you a good idea about what might sound good to a drummer even though it doesn't sound good to the front player. Much of it is subjective. You're not going to find a formula that works for everybody. One man's food can be another man's poison. The insight, perspective, and not just empathy, but sympathy, that you might have [laughs] for a player trying to get something going in front of you can make quite a difference in your drumming.

The first words I would hear from [the conductor] would be "Shhh!" All of a sudden, when you have to play super-soft, you find when your sticks get down close to the drum that there's a certain amount of shaking in your hands. The result is that you play some notes that you didn't mean to play, and you miss some notes that you aim for. That's something that I brought back to my teaching. When you start having to get that precision way down near the head, naturally you're going to learn from it. For that reason, when my students work with snare books, I have them play on snare drum along with a metronome. The metronome fulfills two purposes. One is the time, but even more than that, you've got to play pretty soft to hear it above the snare.

There's always a difference in time conception even among jazz players. Having people from different feels compounds it. There's not generally a really smooth transition between orchestral ensemble parts and jazz parts, for instance. There's usually a feel difference in there. But the better conductors would follow the jazz
group in the jazz parts rather than trying to conduct. Some of the die-hards would try to conduct, but the difference was there regardless. You feel it especially when playing with this massive ensemble, and suddenly you're freed up from that. It's almost like being let out of the cage.

I found that you had to think a lot more in terms of downbeats when you played with orchestra. If you started playing anything with a lot of 2 and 4, before you knew it, the 2 and 4 would be 1 and 3. In fact, I noticed that recently when I played with Oscar Peterson and the Boston Pops Orchestra at Symphony Hall. All of a sudden, I turned around and thought, "Oh! They're hearing my hi-hat as if it's on 1 and 3!"

When I was teaching at Berklee, my studio was right next to another studio. Every morning in my studio, I used to go through a pretty elaborate warm-up on the pad. I would start with heavyweight metal sticks. Then I would go down to pretty big 3S wooden sticks and then I'd go down to a rock stick size. Finally I would go down to the sticks that I play with normally. After I had warmed up to that point, I would go to the drumset. Just about the time I sat at the drumset, I'd look up at the clock and it would be time to start teaching. So I
thought, "I'm not getting to the drumset this way. I've got to find a way to warm up without driving everyone crazy and still get to the drum right away." So I started warming up by playing brushes. The original idea was just not to play too loud. That gradually gravitated towards working with the rudiments individually. And doing
that, I gradually realized that I was developing better chops for the sticks.

It gives you that sense of picking up. But you can overdo anything. I got to the point where I almost never practiced with sticks on drums. I didn't have any problem manipulating the sticks after that with one exception. However, it was an important exception. In playing brushes constantly, I started playing more and more high handed, and when I picked up the sticks, I realized that I was playing very loud. It was getting difficult to play softer. So I realize now that what I should have done in the first place was to do it both with brushes and with sticks.

Q: You spoke of warming up from heavy to light. Wouldn't that also throw you off?

AD: You know something, I have thrown that out completely. It throws off your sense of touch. And the fact is, it's the same thing I saw happen with brushes. When you play with very heavy sticks, you're getting used to a rebound that is more than it is with a lighter stick. You might be building up just plain strength, but it takes a lot more than just strength to play drums. If that were not true, then I'm sure that any one of the Patriots linebackers would be a better drummer than you or I.

Control is the thing you should try to develop mostly. Strength is going to come to some extent from repetition. But if you use a big, heavy stick and then go on the gig with a light stick, you will find that you won't have any control. Not only will you have trouble holding onto the sticks, but you will have trouble in the rebound.

In all kinds of artistic endeavors and specifically in drums, we've gone from one theory to another. As I mentioned before, you don't make progress without making some mistakes. It's a process of elimination.

Originally, people used to use heavy 3S drumsticks to practice with and then go to smaller sticks. There is validity to that, especially with beginners, because with large, heavier sticks, it's easier to control rebound. But switching from big to small throws off the hand hold and fulcrum.

Around the late '40s, when these metal drumsticks came out, the idea behind them was to have a stick around the thickness range of what you would use in actual playing and that had the heavy weight. It was a valid premise. What I found when I used the metal was that, at first, I had a heck of a time getting used to them, and the more I got used to them, the more problems I had with the wooden sticks. I found that it's best to use something close to the size you would use on drumset. I don't think you should dig such a hole for yourself that you say, "I use 5A sticks and nothing but 5A," because obviously, you're going to use different sizes for different types of things.

About ten years ago, I began to take long winter walks. I was never one for the cold weather. I'd step out into the cold and think, "Boy, I know it's cold out here." So I'd automatically hug myself tightly. This would constrict my circulation. The thing to do in the cold is to relax, stretch your arms, and keep loose. Your circulation will be better, and you will tend to stay warmer. That happens in playing, too. There's a physical thing that happens when you play faster and faster, or for longer periods of time where fatigue and tension come in.

There's also the mental part when you're thinking, "Hey, this is getting hard," and you start to tense psychologically. What you really need to do to play fast is to loosen up. So it's very much like the control some people have to relax enough to put themselves to sleep—actually willing individual parts of the body to relax one by one. But physically you actually are aware, with stick in hand, that you have to loosen up, not at the fulcrum, but with the fingers to allow the stick to rebound more and take more advantage of the rebound in the work of your fingers. You also consciously loosen up as things get harder to do.

Q: Is there a common denominator that you recognized in your students who were later to become major players?

AD: I certainly saw talent in all these students. But in terms of their becoming outstanding to the point that they've become, I had no idea that that would necessarily happen. I remember saying to Tony Williams many years ago, "You know, Tony, you're going to go on out there, and you're going to be worth one thousand students to me." But that wasn't said in any kind of clairvoyant way. I knew he was very good but I didn't realize that he was going to wind up being maybe the strongest influence on drums in the '60s and '70s.

Q: He must have been very advanced even then.

AD: Yes, he was, but nowhere near what he is now! [laughs] Now you probably think about Tony, "Boy, this guy has some chops!" Obviously, that's not all he has. He has a whole lot more than that, but his chops were not outstanding at all when he came to me. I'm not saying he got it all when he was with me. At some point, he decided to work hard on that particular thing. I can't say really that I would recognize absolutely outstanding talent. I recognize talent in each student that I have. Frankly, I'm as proud of one student as I am of another. Definitely some are more talented than others, of course. Some talented ones, for one reason or another don't
become famous. Maybe they don't have the drive, or maybe they don't have the opportunity. But I'm as proud of them as I am of Tony.

You've got to play, in public as well as in your basement. So if you're going to jealously guard all your secrets, then you better not play out in public [chuckles], because everybody who's pretty hip can pick up on what you're playing. So rather than delude yourself, you might as well give freely. I don't think I've ever given
anything to anybody where I haven't gotten that much back and more.

That's something that happened before I was teaching formally and continued as Iwas teaching formally. Even if it's someone who is a beginner, I may not be learning how to play from that person, but I'm learning some approaches I might not have thought about before. Teaching itself is introspective, too. Once you put something that you do into words, you start to examine yourself once more and you start to find ways to communicate things that you have been doing instinctively. It's a two-way street. What you give, you get back.

Several years ago, I was playing with Dave Brubeck at the Schlitz Festival. Dizzy Gillespie was at the festival with his group. He had a Schlitz hat on, and Gerry Mulligan came up to him and said, "Hey, that's a nice hat you've got there. Where can I get one like it?" Diz, without a word, just took the hat off and put it on Gerry's head. Gerry said, "Hey, man, I just meant where can I get one. I didn't mean to take yours!" Diz said, "Well, the only way I can keep this hat is to give it away." Now that was a pretty profound statement.

It immediately dawned on me what he meant about that. The only way that knowledge is going to survive is for you to pass it on.

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