Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cherished notions bite the dust

I need a bushier goatee for this gig.
I've been experiencing all kinds of growth with my playing in recent years, which I attribute partly to me forgetting things I for years thought were really important, or a good idea, or central to "my" thing. Here are a few of those:

1. Learning licks is not the devil. Of the devil. Whatever. My philosophy has always been that music should be learned like a language, without stock phrases and all-purpose licks (funnily, for a long time my use of language was a model of what I thought music should not be- a collection of favorite phrases searching for opportunities to be shoehorned-in). It's actually near-impossible to remain lick-free in real life, and I have been as married to my own naturally-occurring phrases as anyone. The thing I had the real aversion to was learning prepackaged licks. I still think it's a bad thing if you don't understand their logic, and can't do anything else with them. Where my thinking has changed is that I will now use pre-written fills/solo ideas as physical conditioning- getting your hands to move in ways they may not in performance, when I don't want to have to think about mechanics. It also changes the way you think when improvising, in ways I don't fully understand yet.

2. The whip stroke is wack. It's a phrase that drummers like to repeat because it sounds cool, and doing it makes it feel like you're doing something, but this has just taken me down a rutted goat-path to inaccuracy. Seeing the technique of (and I'm not knocking any of these guys- I'm strictly talking about how this has worked with my own playing) Paul Wertico and some other fusion guys, and also seeing Chapin and Famularo doing the Moeller thing back in the late 80's got me thinking that a whole lot of forearm motion was the way to go. It looks and feels like you're really drumming, but I found that it made my hits land late because I was playing off of the feel of the motion rather than off of where the note was sounding. And it's just not necessary at most normal playing volumes. It's also one of the reasons my shuffle always sucked- my backbeat always landed late, I had no dynamic control, and I would get tired out (the true key is to do a fast upstroke with your wrist before the backbeat). Now I think about moving the bead of the stick with as little physical motion, and as direct action as possible, focusing on using the wrist and maybe a little finger. None of my excellent Pac NW players look like they're doing a whole lot physically when they're playing their faces off, and I'm trying to be like them.

More after the break:

3. Playing through the drum = no good. Honestly, I haven't ditched this one altogether, yet. Your notes should be solid whatever the volume; you can't just doink around on the surfaces. But laying into the instrument excessively has at times hurt my sound a bit, and built some tension into my technique which I'm finally starting to work out. I blame it in on drum corps and years of Pinstripes on my toms- you really learn to play a couple of inches through the drum that way. These days I find myself thinking of a concert snare drum kind of touch- of drawing the sound out.

4. The physical sensation/emotion is not the music. The notes and the sound are the music, and they don't necessarily mirror what the drummer is feeling physically or emotionally. This is one I've known intellectually for a long time, but have had a harder time putting into practice- the intensity I was trying to put into the music was translating as physical tension and lack of mental clarity. It doesn't take that much physical energy to generate a lot of musical intensity. My new rule is chill out and play the notes, as much as possible.  A related thing is playing to what feels good- to your physical gratification- rather than what the music needs. As a basis for making musical decisions, this rates slightly above inserting a flashy fill to impress your girlfriend.

5. Listening is not everything. You do have to have really big ears, bigger than most people think is even possible, but at the same time, some players you have to straight up ignore. Soloists who are either rhythmically out to lunch, or playing with no direction, or both. Comping players who put a lot of spin on the time, playing either way ahead or way behind the beat. Bassists with bad time. Leaders who- I want you to sit down now- are not that solid.

6. TRAP IDEAS: everyone is equally responsible for playing good time, and whatever tempo the ensemble settles on is the true correct one. In an ideal world, the former is true, and the latter may be the case in a communal enterprise in which everyone agrees on that as one of the ground rules, but they both go directly out the window when your bandleader, or a more senior musician, or another musician you trust lets you know the group is rushing. Most of the time in real life, no one except the bassist is actually going to be as concerned as you are about keeping the time together. The correct tempo is actually the one that is counted off, unless the entire band (or more importantly the leader) forcefully insists by their playing or by yelling at you that it is somewhere else. Most of the time, everyone will feel free to look to you, the drummer, whenever there is any kind of time issue, real or imagined, so you just want to be really, really solid with this whole area.


Anon said...

Good, cogent points. I disagree with #4, however. While I understand that not all the music we play is going to serve an artistic function (casuals and the like), the main point for me is expression, and sometimes expression is very emotive for the performer (which is to say, me!). "Mess[ing]" with your technique seems to bring up the whole chicken vs. egg conundrum. Is it our technique that informs our playing, or is it our playing that informs our technique? I do believe that physical condition is absolutely imperative, however this technique/expression question still weighs very big with me.

Todd Bishop said...

Oh, yes, no. 4: the worst-written entry, now that I look at it again. I've always been what anyone would consider to be an emotional player- it's definitely about expression for me, too. Though as I get older, what it is that I'm expressing has evolved- taking a little more detached approach has allowed a lot things to come into my playing that my old method of all-out attack did not leave room for. But I'm still not by any means a cool player.

Todd Bishop said...

I made a couple of minor edits- nothing substantive, just phrases that were bugging me.

Anon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anon said...

The evolution of our playing is interesting to observe, especially if we implement a little pad practice, which has been my MO lately (nice to see your post on the subject). All of the sudden, what we were going for is much easier to express! It turns out that, while concept may be king, our physical ability may be queen (if the analogy works).

On another note, I'm so glad to see someone in the interwebs that actually views critical dialogue as a positive thing. Thank you!

Todd Bishop said...

I probably should've made that number 7: the idea that I could play on the level I wanted to without developing a whole lot of general facility- without practicing a whole lot of things I did not feel an immediate need for. At a certain point I hit a wall with that type of approach.

Britt Ciampa said...

This is great. I think #3 is so difficult to really get a handle on. To dig in at any dynamic volume, thats when we start getting into serious business. I love listening to Gerald Cleaver play because he can give you so much power, drive, accuracy, and intensity at such a low volume and that's something I've been trying to get a grip on, playing rock solid at any volume. I'll find myself losing definition at low volumes a lot of the time, or Ill start trying TOO hard to keep the intensity there and I end up trapped in #4. My favorite exercise for to do is actually just setting my metronome to 45 and playing quarter notes with all 4 limbs simultaneously and then raising and lowering the dynamic level of one limb at a time; really focusing on the micro-dynamics of each limb and trying to nail each beat with the metronome. And of course just trying to stay zen. Like I said, this is great. Thanks for posting it.