Sunday, November 04, 2018

Moron bad drumming

We are all Hector Berlioz.
Following up on my bad drummers post from some weeks ago. I hate to even say bad drummers, because playing badly is not an immutable thing. I like to think that even if we're playing badly, we're still learning. There's nothing wrong with not playing well yet, as long as you're working on it and will eventually begin playing well.

I'll give you my own bad drummer experience: 

I was going to USC, in Los Angeles; at that time I was extremely green as a jazz drummer, but I played well enough that they gave me a full scholarship to go there. At least I was able to fool the department heads. I was kind of a brat, very ambitious, and very into Elvin Jones, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. Pretty aggressive drumming— at least their playing I was listening to. I used to listen to Afro Blue before every rehearsal, and I would show up ready to really play. I wanted to kick ass and I wanted the groups I played with to be mixing it up. Hard blowing.

One day I had two rehearsals back to back, and on the break, a bass clarinet player who was on both sessions started talking to someone about “the worst drummer” he just played with. I don't remember the exact complaints, but it was clear it was a very bad drummer who played way too loud and “didn't listen” and was terrible. He probably said some other things. It took a minute for me to realize he was talking about me— he just spent an hour playing with me, neither of us ever left the room, but he started saying this with me five feet away. It's hard to believe anyone would be that unobservant, but when I said “yeah, that was me”, he seemed genuinely surprised and embarrassed. 

The “not listening” part is what got me— because I have always been a very focused listener. It's one of the things I picked up in drum corps, and developed further by doing a lot of hard transcribing. I could hear all of the other instruments in that rehearsal... as has been the case every other time someone has complained about my volume. The conventional wisdom is, if you can't hear the piano/bass/whoever, you're playing too loud— well, you may be able to hear them fine, and still be told you're playing too loud. 

I'm not saying they're necessarily right. There is a common breed of lame-ass musicians who never want to work too hard, and never want anyone else to create too much energy when they play. They survive by attaching themselves to a clique or scene, and leading the policing and criticism of other players. They're always on the offensive, deflecting attention away from their own mediocre playing. The player in my story could have been someone like that, or he could have been a serious player— to me at the time he seemed better than mediocre. He was a bass clarinet player, and those guys think the whole world is too loud. He's probably running a jazz department somewhere in Iowa now. Fine.

It would be great to dismiss people like that as just wrong, unenlightened losers, but we still have to learn something from situations like that.

My problem was, apart from the bit about not listening, I couldn't actually say for sure how wrong he was.

You have to be sure you aren't playing bad. Be aware of what's going on, how loud you're playing, and whether you're maintaining the tempo that was counted off. Are you stepping all over the other instruments? Do you never make it down to a truly soft volume? Are you getting lost and/or turning the beat around, and/or do others seem to be getting lost because of what you're playing?

You have to know those things for sure— you have to have the mental clarity to assess them while you're playing. Usually that means dialing it back; playing less stuff, listening, and picking your spots to be a genius. You also have to know the acceptable tolerances for professional playing— how loud/soft do your local professionals play, how many moments of uncertainty do you hear when they play, how much variance in tempos over the course of a tune. You also have to know the gamut of what's appropriate to play on a given tune and style, which you learn by seeing people play, and listening to a lot of records.

When you know all that about your playing, you'll legitimately be playing better, so you'll get fewer complaints, and complainers will have fewer allies. And getting criticism/complaints is very different when you know they're bullshit, compared to when you're not sure, and are just being defensive because you think the guy is a jerk and doesn't like you.

Finally: you may ask, gee, shouldn't the goal be to never have anyone complain at all?

Probably. At least we want the good players to like us. I think while a drummer is developing, it's very difficult to never offend anyone, ever. This may be the wrong instrument for that. There are a few people who are such expert, finished craftsmen that no one ever says a bad word about them. Many more people make so little an impression that no one ever feels the need to complain about them. But part of our job is creating energy, and if you're the kind of player who wants to create big energy— there's always going to be someone who doesn't want you doing that the way you're doing it. 

No comments: