Friday, February 28, 2020

Progressive Steps to Syncopation - an itemized critique

I spend so much time talking about how great Ted Reed's Progressive Steps to Syncopation (commonly known as “Syncopation”) is, and how you can do everything with it— and should— and how it's the only book you ever need to own. Along with my derivative book, Syncopation in 3/4.  So let's talk about what's wrong with it.

If this were YouTube this would be titled IS SYNCOPATION USELESS? or BISHOP EVISCERATES REED, with a picture of me looking surprised for no reason, holding up a copy of the book. But this is just a little editorial critique.

I'm going to refer to it by “lesson” numbers from the new edition. I'll try to just talk about what is there, and not about things I wish were included. 

First, read the introduction to the new volume so you can appreciate the quite insane amount of work that surrounded its creation. This wasn't written by some guy trying to make a name for himself musing about drum patterns— it was written by a man with a ridiculous student load, and no photocopiers or printers because they didn't exist, who was desperately fending off tendinitis from doing hours of repetitive writing every day.

So when I point out something I don't like, that's just speaking for my own purposes. Certainly everything included had an important purpose in Reed's teaching practice. 

To begin: 

Lessons 1-3: Quarter notes and rests— with running bass drum, SD/BD unisons, linear. People don't do enough with the quarter note sections of the book. The linear quarter notes section should be as well known as the first page of Stick Control. 

Lesson 4: 8th notes and quarter notes. People don't use this enough, either. I use it a lot for teaching rock beats, for a cut time funk bass drum work out, and for teaching kicks and setups.

OK, this is a really long post, and really of interest only to major geeks, so let's put a page break in it:

Lesson 5: Dotted 8th/16ths and quarter notes. Do we really need to see Lesson 4 rewritten with dotted 8ths/16ths? You're supposed to interpret the swing rhythm. And when they do write it out, nobody writes the swing rhythm as dotted 8th/16ths today. 

Lesson 6: Triplets and quarter notes. Sort of useful for introducing students to triplets— though I prefer a regular method book for that— and for developing singles on the snare drum. First place where the formulaic structure of these early pages begins wearing a little thin. 

Lessons 7-8: Triplets and 8th notes / dotted 8th/16ths. I don't really use these. I can probably think of things to do with 7; 8 is useless. But whatever I did with them, I could probably do the same thing with other sections of the book that look more like normal reading. You don't often get called on to interpret a page of running 8th notes and triplets like this. 

Lesson 9: 16th notes and quarter notes. A nice clean page for introducing students to 16th notes. 

Lesson 10: Full beats of 16th notes and 8th notes. A good page, but again, the formula makes it rather boring to practice. And the page is getting a little dense to look at. I attempted to make a rock fill method out of it, and didn't feel it was real successful. 

Lesson 11: Four pages of mixed 8th and 16th note rhythms. Should be very useful, but is so relentlessly thorough, while leaving out some possibilities, that it ends up being a real grind to practice it. For fluency with 8th/16th rhythms, I would rather use something in a regular method book.  

40 and 48 bar exercises: Long and relentless, perhaps out of scale for the attention spans of students just being introduced to those rhythms. I could have stood for them to be broken up into four shorter exercises. 

Lesson 12: 8th note rests. This is an important couple of pages, but usually just preliminary for the later syncopation section of the book, which is more interesting. Could be a page longer, including two beats in a row with rests. 

48 bar exercise: Good page. I don't use it much. 

Syncopation set 1: Really a reference page explaining the notation in the rest of this section of the book. I wish ties received a fuller treatment, equal to the 8th rest section. 

Syncopation set 2: Four pages of one-line syncopation exercises. The beginning of the true heart of the book. There are a few duplicate lines. No ties across the bar line. There are 21 lines (out of 48) that have a long note on the & of 2, but I always feel like the & of 2 is not represented enough. Maybe I could have used more of them on the first page. 

Exercises 1-8: Full-page syncopation exercises. The Bible, if you're inclined to think in those terms. The exercises generally feel somewhat repetitive— which makes them function more as a sight reading challenge within one general idea and level of density, rather than a full exploration of rhythmic possibilities. The new edition has the famous p. 37 exercise on p. 38, which feels very wrong. Ex. 2 sucks and is no fun. Ex. 4 uses more dotted quarter notes and has a little more space. Ex. 6 has the running 3/8 rhythm near the end, which I would have liked to have seen explored in Set 2, with some two measure exercises. Ex. 7 has the repeating three-beat syncopated idea near the end— another thing that could have been developed more fully elsewhere in the book. 

Exercise 9: A decent Wilcoxon-like full-page swing style snare drum solo, including some things not covered elsewhere in the book. 

Lesson 1 - accented 8th notes: Again, this is needlessly thorough about simple things— too many lines with only RH or LH accents— and short on the more interesting possibilities. Good 28 bar exercise. 

Lesson 2 - accented dotted 8th/16ths: The previous thing rewritten in that rhythm. We don't need this.  

Lesson 3 - accented triplets: Jeez, Ted, thin it out a bit for me a bit. Five punishing pages— mainly to your patience. The uniquely useful patterns get swamped by the endless permutations of basic things. I'm going to start keeping a 1" black marker on my stand for bootleg edits. In the course of doing patterns 37+, you realize you're just doing the rhythms from p.34 with a swing interpretation, with the triplets filled in— then you can just mark a giant black X over these pages of the book. 

36 bar exercise - accented triplets: A good exercise. 

Lesson 4 - triplets with mixed stickings: Really these are samples of possibilities for other parts of the book. I have these memorized, and teach students how to do them with the rest of the book, so I rarely look at this page. 

Lesson 5 - accented 16th notes: He wisely switches to a one-line exercise format here, because it would get really tiring looking at all that ink if he wrote out four measures of this. Once again he wears you out running through all the permutations of accents on the beat, on the es and &s (but not as?), before getting to the more interesting patterns.     

Other comments: 
You've noticed that the entire book is written with quarter notes played on the bass drum. I never do that, or teach it, but I don't mind that he's done it, and I maintain that convention with my own writing. It is a pain to constantly have to clarify that you don't play the bass drum part, and that what we are really doing is interpreting the melody part, the “snare drum” part, but that's fine. For some students it's helpful to have that part there as beat marks. 

The book doesn't get into complex 16th note rhythms, which could be seen as a big omission. But since you can play the syncopation section in 2/2 and have functionally the same thing, I don't have a problem with this. That connects your funk materials with your jazz materials, and helps with clave based music, or Brazilian music, which are built on two measure phrases— usually two measures of 2. And people tend not to be great at reading in cut time generally. 

For me this book is mainly a library for making drum applications for common reading situations. I almost always interpret it, to make something different than what is on the page. For that it covers jazz style rhythms in 4/4 and funk/Latin style rhythms in 2/2 quite thoroughly, with a couple of things missing— mainly quarter note triplets. I also use it for teaching beginners to read basic rhythms, for which it is pretty good, not perfect. Much less often, I will just play it directly as written for developing drumming facility. But for the first, most important purpose it succeeds very well, which is why it still is the main practice text for professional drummers 60+ years after it was first published. 

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