Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The hard way

Lately I've been noticing a lot of talk about doing things the hardest way possible— among
drumming students there's a great fear of “crutches” and “cheating.” The path of least resistance offends people's protestant work ethic, or it doesn't jibe with their athletic sensibility of no pain, no gain.

This mindset is all wrong. Craftsmen in every field economize and mechanize, and use whatever tools are available to them to make their job easier, and give them reliable results. Work smarter, not harder, is what they say.

Take a look at an pre-computer cartooning or commercial art how-to book— we had books like that around when I was young— the entire project is based on doing everything the easiest, most repeatable way possible, while keeping the hard parts to an absolute minimum (which is not to say there are no hard parts). You're producing on a deadline, and you can't just draw everything freehand directly from your mind onto the page. They have an entire arsenal of tools and techniques that are essentially cheating, if you have the above attitude.

If I were to apply a pure production mindset to drumming, I would probably be doing a lot  with sequencing, using electronics, triggering, click tracks, quantizing and editing in Pro Tools to make the few things I had to actually play “freehand” absolutely perfect. There are people who do that, and that's their job.

Most of us are not doing a lot of commercial work like that, and we're more concerned with how to create a complete, professional creative performance in the moment. How to economize that aspect is largely the subject of this entire blog, so there's not really a quick answer for that. How you actually engage that mindset gets very particular. Very broadly speaking, though:

Become economy-oriented. This is a great time to re-read William S. Burroughs's The Discipline of DE.

not this
Know what you're trying to do. You're looking for the easiest way to learn to play creatively and appropriately in the moment while listening to the other players, playing the music, maybe reading, and not getting lost, while grooving the entire time.

Understand that it's one instrument played by one person. We have a complex job, playing a four-limbed instrument while doing all the things I listed above, and we need to look for ways to simplify and make the parts work together—there's just one person working the controls, so there's really no choice. Most often, everything is derived from, and reduces to, a single idea. There are a number of ways of accomplishing that, including, but not limited to, all the things we do with the book Syncopation. It's why I harp on that book so much.

Simplify. This doesn't mean you can't play busy, or that you have to play quarter notes the rest of your life. It means, look for ways to sound good with a minimum of technique. My general approach is oriented around exploiting singles and doubles, unisons, and simple multi-limb patterns for example. I lot of drummers use simple ostinatos, as well. Bob Moses's “non-independent” (or “dependent”, he'll say at other times) method is another example of what I'm talking about.

Everything is not a muscle— stop trying to develop playing skills like one. Not all of them, and not all the time, at least. Look into Pilates, Yoga, or Tai Chi for an alternative mindset.

Another book you might want
to pick up.
Be realistic about the hard stuff you practice. Am I ever going to perform this? If not, what exactly am I trying to accomplish? Will doing it this way help me perform? Is it worth the time I'm investing in it? Is there something else I can spend my practice time on that will help my real playing more?

Learn to spot pointless rigor: for example, in a recent online discussion a player was advocating improving time by practicing very slowly without subdividing. I'm not saying this is a pure waste of time, but it's a little like a carpenter trying to build a house without a tape measure— or any measuring device. Maybe after completing that messed-up project he'll be a little better at guessing how long a yard is, but not enough for any practical effect on how he does his work. He's always going to need his tape measure. Likewise, there's never a reason not to subdivide, and never an instance where you'll be deprived of that ability, so there's little to be gained by imposing that pointless handicap.

Learn licks and techniques. This is a common approach on the internet: learning a particular little technique for doing one thing— a certain kind of bass drum lick, an uptempo ride cymbal thing, whatever. I do very little of that; Metal drumming is almost all that. To me it's a formulaic approach to playing which I do not like, but it has its place, and it's a relatively easy way for players to sound impressive regardless of whether they actually have anything to say musically.

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