|don't let this happen to you|
This is part of a question came up on the Cymbalholic forum:
I'm supposed to solo over the form and I should know where I am in the tune so that I can get in and out of the solo in the right sort of way. But I'm not nailing it. I'm losing track of myself and the tune.
He went on to ask for some “resources” for learning to do this. I'm not aware of any. It's really a thing that happens in your head, at your drums. Contemporary drumming is very enamored with the idea of muscle memory— that your body can just figure out how to do everything great if you do a lot of calisthenics. Maybe that kind of conditioning works for paradiddles, it doesn't work with higher order functions like keeping track of a larger context while playing creatively on the drums.
It's about awareness
Everybody knows the Charlie Parker quote:
You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.
The problem is, everyone's in a rush to forget what they never knew in the first place. Playing without thinking at all is a false goal; or rather, it's a rare thing— it's a very special occasion when you can play that way. Most of the time you have to know what you're doing. As I've said elsewhere, it's not about playing “intellectually”, it's about awareness.
Know the tune
You do have to know the tune, and you can't forget it while you play. Be able to sing it, however badly, and count through the form. Over time it takes less effort to be aware of the tune while you play. At first you have to prioritize thinking about the tune over what you're playing.
Start from nothing
Can you sing the tune by itself, while not playing anything? Can you count through the form without getting lost? Then you can solo without getting lost. Sing or count, and add things on the drums as you are able, without forgetting where you are in the form. You'll have to start with single notes, on downbeats, leaving a lot of space, and build from there.
Start from time
Can you play time and comp while singing the tune, or counting through it, without getting lost? Do the same thing as above— play along, and do more soloistic things as you are able, without losing track of the tune. The time itself is your solo, so you don't even have to do that much. Going from time to playing soloistically is much easier if you do the next thing:
Practice Reed-type methods
The Reed methods teach you how to play a lot of different ideas accompanying a jazz-type melodic line, and to integrate those ideas with each other, moving seamlessly from time to soloing. You can then solo by directly interpreting the rhythm of the tune, or by improvising your own lines. Practicing that way gives you the world's easiest transition from practicing to real world playing. This is what I've been trying to tell you all this time.
Think in phrases
If you can improvise in 4/4 without losing track of the 1, you can then begin thinking in 2, 4, and 8 bar phrases. Once you can play 8 measures without getting lost, awareness of the larger form becomes a simpler matter, learning to play blues, then 8 bar phrases in an AB form, and then an AABA form, and beyond.
Musical significance of the sections
The different parts of a form have to have some musical significance to you. Blues is eight bars of “free time” plus a four bar turnaround. A 16-bar AB form is simply a matter of 8 bars solo / 8 bars contrasting solo. AABA is 8+8 bars of blowing time, a contrasting bridge, and an end. For 32 bar tunes with a tag (e.g. All The Things You Are), you can do that same basic thing, and remember the extra four bar ending.
Awareness on longer forms
If you listen to a lot of blues tunes, you should know what the turnaround, the last four bars of the form, feels like. If you listen to a lot of tunes based on I Got Rhythm, which is an AABA form, you know what it feels like when you hit the bridge. Both of those things are very common, particular musical feelings, which you can express as a change of feeling in your playing. It takes a little more imagination to distinguish the last A of Rhythm changes tunes from the other As; you have to keep a general feeling of this is the last A while you play; that section is dedicated to setting up a return to the top of the form. On an AABA with a tag, you do the same thing, but then use the 4 bar tag to set up the top of the form really clearly.
So you have to be able to create contrasting phrases when you play; you have to be able to sound like you're at the top of the form; you have to be able to play something that sounds like an ending, that sets up the band to come back in. As you listen more and play more, you'll get more ideas of how to express those things in your playing, and more ideas about the broad meaning of different parts of the form, and different directions you can go with them.
Tunes to start with
It's a good idea to start with tunes that are commonly played, that are rhythmically active, and very singable. For example:
Blues: Bags' Groove, Sonnymoon For Two, Mr. PC, Things Ain't What The Used To Be, Sandu. Listen to John Coltrane's album Coltrane Plays The Blues, which has several tunes that are simply an 8 bar vamp plus a turnaround.
AABA: I Got Rhythm, or anything based on it: Ornithology, Scrapple From The Apple, Oleo, Rhythm-a-ning. I like playing over Bye Bye Blackbird; it's easy to hear the last A as the end of the form. Don't Get Around Much Any More is an easy medium tempo AABA tune. Doxy is a 16 bar AABA tune with four bar sections.
AABA with a tag: All The Things You Are is really ABCD, or A-A1-B-A2-tag. It may the most common tune of this type that you will play.