Saturday, January 11, 2014

HFS III: the book reviewening

NOTE: This is something I started writing some months ago, never quite finished, and was unsure I even wanted to post it if I did. I'm putting it up now just to share some thoughts with a Drummerworld forum member. Please forgive its half-bakedness; maybe there's some entertaining reading here: 

A student loaned me his copies of both volumes of Mike Mangini's book Rhythm Knowledge, and they have rather blown my mind. Mostly not in a good way, I'm sorry to say. I hate to be critical of another drummer's work, but I also hate for drum students to get what I think is unhelpful information, so I'll go ahead and give these a frank review. I'm not trying to be negative, I'm really just trying to understand my reaction to this product, and the philosophy behind it.

I'll start by saying that, if you don't know who he is, Mangini is a rock drummer, and one of the leading guys in the current absolutely insane technical monster field of players, and likely has as much facility as any drummer who has ever lived. I am aware that he won the “World's Fastest Drummer” event at some point in the last few years. As a musician, he is probably best known as the current drummer for the prog-rock band Dream Theater. He also taught at Berklee for several years. Most of what I know about him as a musician I learned from watching this video, from the “WFD” event:

So: The books are unlike anything ever written for the drums, and are extremely ambitious in scope; he's basically attempting to rewrite the methodology of the instrument from scratch. Since there is a good amount of material dedicated to explaining fundamentals of rhythm and meter, including arguments in favor of things as basic as learning to read music, I assume that the books are geared towards novices, which is a good deal of my problem with them.

First: He is in dire need of an editor. There is a lot of text in these volumes, delivered in a frenetic style. He gets so far out into the weeds with parenthetical statements, explaining the meanings of ordinary words, and addressing his readers' presumed misconceptions, that points are completely lost. I'm all for people being exposed to far out concepts that seem incomprehensible on first exposure, but what is here is largely just incomprehensible, full stop. I know this subject well, and recognize most of the concepts he is attempting to communicate, but I have to work hard to grasp his explanations. One example:

To a Musician, especially a drummer, counting is the least intrusive method of connecting yourself to the otherwise intangible concept of time (something tangible is something we can physically feel). Since we use the muscles in our throats to count, we can feel, or be physically connected to, time. Counting also has the advantage of being a very accurate way to keep time. This is because of the relationship between effort and control. The more effort it takes to do something, the less control we have (try touching your nose with the tip of a pencil, then try touching your nose with the tip of a 100 bl. iron bar). Moving our throat muscles requires much less effort than moving our arm or leg muscles, so we can count more accurately than we can play. 

Communication issues aside, I don't know if agree with his premise, completely— most humans are well practiced in moving their arms and legs rhythmically, maybe not so much the voice. The voice connection is very important, not because the voice is better at rhythm, but because it is expressive; we want to make our playing more vocal, less mechanical. It's a small point, but the there are many more of these just-slightly-wrong-to-me things.

More after the break:

Volume 1 is really a loose collection of verbalizing on basic skills, attitudes, and philosophies of music: how to count, hand technique (I liked this section), foot technique, with these as the major exercises:

  • Counting exercises: counting to 5 and counting to 7 100 times. He is to all appearances a fanatic about counting; a reasonable chunk of the second volume is dedicated to counting to five and seven 100 times each. There is an extended discussion of the choice of syllables used in counting.
  • Clockwise/counter-clockwise limb system: An exercise for moving around the tom toms based on 
  • Not-Quite-Doubled: a way of counting odd meters. Much more ink than is necessary dedicated to a very simple concept, in my view. 
  • Two numbers twice: an expansion on Gary Chaffee's rhythmic combinations from Patterns, vol. 1. A major flaw is that there is no explanation of how groupings of, say, 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, or 18 notes-per-beat rhythms are derived from more familiar rhythms. 

A big problem I have is that often he eschews musical mathematics in favor of plain old mathematics— for example, counting repetitions in sets of ten. Our numeral system is base-10, but music is base-4, you could say. Ten measure phrases do occur in music, but four measures is universal. You could say that either one is arbitrary, but one of them is an arbitrary thing that musicians have to do all the time. Why not organize your counting in a way that develops an absolutely required musical skill?

A major portion of Volume 2 is the “All The Permutations” section— really nothing more than an appendix of rhythmic fragments and sticking patterns— a collection of motifs written three ways: as sticking patterns, as fragments of standard notation, and as “binary code.” The student is left to fend for himself in turning these into a practice regime, or, God help him, into music. Learning to play by piecing together mathematical abstractions in this way is to me a little like becoming a writer by practicing typing every possible combination of letters, or by reading a dictionary.

The introduction to that section:

If you confine your learning to a few musical styles, you will only encounter a limited number of rhythmic possibilities. Doesn't it make sense that learning every possible permutation of subdivision (of a space in time — beat) will leave you with much more versatility than the musician who focuses on one or two styles. Would you like be able to recognize (and USE) most rhythms and phrases you hear. 
Take, for example, Frank Zappa, who used every possible combination of rhythms and phrases, incorporating all the note-groups from 19 through 2, VERY routinely. Any musician who learn Zappa's music will, by default, learn all of those rare permutations. As a result, these musicians can play anything... anything ... rock, jazz, latin, you name it! 

Well, actually, no. Those far-out rhythms that occur in Zappa's music are themselves a stylistic element. Learning to play them well does not guarantee you will be able to swing while playing jazz or Afro-Cuban or Brazilian music. It certainly doesn't give you any knowledge of those traditions; that takes years of dedicated study.

At the bottom of all this is a basic philosophical difference in the entire purpose of drumming, and playing music— the perspective here is just very alien to me. Mangini's stated lifetime goals for his playing:

I have two basic goals. On a theoretical level, I want to be able to understand, and expand upon, any rhythmic pattern I will ever encounter or imagine. When it comes to technique, I want to develop my body to the point where I can use all of my limbs in any four-way-coordinated fashion, to play any rhythmic combinations. 

In the end, I have to wonder what a mediocre student of this method would sound like. I think that student would be a complete musical disaster, unable to fulfill the most basic functions of a drummer.


Thomasz said...

Great review - not that I'd go anywhere near these books in the first place. I'd love to hear your commentary on the infamous Dream Theatre auditions that Mangini 'won'...

As Erskine says - 'do the simple things really well', or something like that!

Todd Bishop said...

I don't really know the story about that— except that they assembling a bunch of famously-amazing drummers, and then crowned MM as King Amazing at the end. That world is totally alien to me— nothing about it has the slightest resonance with me.

Oh, here's another one for you:

“[Things that are] complex and busy and amazing all the time are kinda like bad wallpaper after awhile.”
— Peter Erskine

Thomasz said...


Andrew said...

SMH. His method seems overly-esoteric and basically removed from anything musical. Plus how is any of it new? It just sounds like a less comprehensive version of the Gary Chaffee Method.

Scary to think this guy was full-time at Berklee for 10 years teaching this jive.

He's good for the Dream Theater gig.

sublicon said...

I studied with Mike for a semester at Berklee. To be clear, I went the business route at Berklee, not performance, so I'm not an example of his teachings being successful behind the kit and all that, but I have more context to the man and definitely this book.

First off, Todd, you're 100% dead-on in your observations. If you get a sense of him from any recent interviews or even the Dream Theater audition doc someone mentioned previously, he's a quirky guy. It really comes through in these books.

To me, Rhythm Knowledge is brilliant drummer trying to distill the fundamentals of his genius in a two part self-published project. However comprehensible, you feel the energy in the words he's trying to convey. There's a lot of good stuff there, but it is a tad laborious to get through. He had editors, but not ones at Alfred Publishing... they were his friends, colleagues, students, etc. He pretty much financed the publishing of this book himself.

The folks who benefited most from RK were those who studied with him, heard him preach his gospel verbally in person, and then sent us home with the book to work on and read the words to jog our memory of what we were told.

His goal is exactly what he says in his first book, and I'm paraphrasing, but basically to give you the tools to play whatever comes to your mind the moment it comes to your mind. That's pretty much it.

So, again, while I agree with your observations overall, there's more context to really understanding these books. If you're a kid in Kansas picking these up because you liked Mike's work in Extreme or Annihilator, you probably walked away a little disappointed not getting it overall... If you were a student of his and able to benefit from his first-hand teaching at Berklee, you got far more out of them.

That's my 2 cents. He told me a Portraits In Rhythm solo I played was "pissah" once, so there's that.

Love the blog, btw. Keep up the great work.

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks for sharing that-- I figured there had to be more than meets the eye and ear there. I know very little about the man; and he's coming from such a different place from what I know, that he's kind of a baffling musician to me.

It is hard to bring your live persona to the printed page. Tommy Igoe is another one who I wish would stop trying to be cute in print, and just give me the info. I guess these guys are probably great in person, and don't get that words don't work the same way on the page. You can't just spew.

Anyway, thanks again, and thanks for reading!