Friday, October 16, 2015

The elements of playing well

Oh, yes, and typically it's done in the nude,
or loosely swathed in a bolt of lustrous fabric.
That's key, actually— forget the rest of this stuff. 
If you were wondering what goes into being a good, real, rounded, professional player, here it is. Some of the players in this category are famous and amazing, some of them are not-famous and amazing, some of them are not-famous and not overtly amazing, but are still better than you and everyone you know. If you're not getting the results you were hoping for out of your drumming, it might be that you are missing one of these elements.

It all starts here. You have to be a fan of music, and listen to a lot of stuff. You can't be a writer if you haven't read a lot of books, and you can't/won't be a musician if you haven't put a lot of other people's music in your head. When drummers who otherwise have some stuff together, but don't know what to actually play— or sound disconnected from the music, or feel “uninspired”— this is usually the problem: not enough listening. They're not enough in love with music.

We could also put watching under this heading: listening with your eyes and ears to how a better drummer than you makes it through a gig, rehearsal, or concert. To a small extent you can satisfy this with online videos (they can also be very misleading), but in general I mean doing this live in the same room as the other player. So you can see how loud they're playing, how much stuff they're playing, what they do with themselves between tunes, etc.

Figuring out how to make a drumming performance, in real time, by direct application, playing with other musicians, in any and all settings available to you. You do this at every stage of development— you can't wait until you feel like you “have your stuff together.” It doesn't work that way.

In addition to just learning how to play, you also learn how to play in a way that is agreeable to people, so they don't throw you out of rehearsal instantly, and do actually seek you out to continue playing with them. You're participating in a culture, and learning how things are done.

Many capable genre players will stop here; they'll be very into their one style, and play it with people a lot, and that's about it.

Most playing does not require a whole lot of reading, but you have to know how to do it. It's a basic professional skill, and virtually all professional instructional materials— like the ones on this site— are presented in written format. Reading allows you to take in ideas faster, helps you understand how music is put together, and allows you to communicate clearly with other musicians.

All good players have, at minimum, spent a period of several-to-ten years practicing 4-10 hours a day. Some do it their entire lives until they die.

Some other, unimportant stuff after the break:

Knowing the basic drum beat, and being able to get through a tune on a wide variety of standard styles, particularly the styles being played locally in your city. Usually knowing a style means you know one or a handful of basic beats, any special idioms of the style, and are able to make ensemble accents, fills, and stops with them. With experience, you know the common tunes played (locally, at least) in a style, and you are able to do all of the above with some artistry.

This is all generally acquired through actual playing. Styles are sort of the first level of knowledge you get from that.

General drumming language
Just the ordinary stuff you play on the drums to get from A to B, polished to a professional standard. Get yourself a copy of Joel Rothman's Basic Drumming and flip through it. That.

Ride-hand lead language
For lack of a better term— these next few things I'm calling languages are just general categories of advanced drumming as practiced by the better players. There is a way of playing used by many modern drummers of the 1960s-80s, which is largely dependent on the cymbal hand— usually the right hand. Players will have a number of coordination systems— generally designed to be easy to deploy in actual performance— which fill out and complement rhythms played with the right hand. Some of the methods used with the book Syncopation, as well as Bob Moses's “non-independent” method are examples of this.

Linear language
A way of playing where only one drumset sound at a time is played, with few unisons. Generally based on patterns of singles and doubles with the hands, interspersed with fewer single and double notes played by the feet. It has become a standard element of modern playing. Derived from the first section of the book Four-Way Coordination by Marvin Dahlgren & Elliot Fine, and from methods by David Garibaldi, Gary Chaffee, Mike Snyder, and others.

Independence language
Learning a lot of hard core “true” independence is sort of optional— it's a very labor-intensive way of sounding good, and is often unnecessary; much of what happens in linear and RH-lead areas looks like independence, but is not. A certain amount of this type of thing is helpful, but not all good drummers do a lot with it. For drummers who will be playing a lot of Cuban/Salsa music, it's pretty essential. See the “harmonic” section of Dahlgren & Fine, and Ed Uribe's Afro-Cuban book. There are newer methods, like Marco Minnemann's which I don't necessarily subscribe to.

Snare drum language
Some passably good players derive most of their thing from having a lot of snare drum facility, but not much going on with the feet. We generally frown on that, but it is done— some are able to make something impressive out of that. A lot of snare drum chops are not strictly necessary for playing the drum set well, but most good players have spent some time getting their snare drum thing together.

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