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.