Monday, March 16, 2020

Book reviews: Two new Stone books

Two new works by and about George Lawrence Stone have just been released:

Technique of Percussion is a compilation of articles Stone wrote for International Musician Magazine in the 1940s-60s. It's over 400 pages long, with hundreds of musical examples in the author's own handwriting. It's a fascinating look at the drumming world in the early to mid 20th century, and it's a major addition to the literature of percussion. If you teach, if you are in concert percussion, or if you have any interest in the history of the instrument, just buy it now. It's an essential library item.

The articles, plus W. Lee Vinson's extended introduction, give a much fuller picture of Stone himself than we have had so far. Most of us only know him through his technical books Stick Control and Accents & Rebounds— typically on the internet he is invoked as a kind of technique oracle, and author of page 5 of Stick Control, and that's it. But he was a complete musician and percussionist, who performed and toured as a vaudeville and classical musician, and ran a teaching studio, and was involved with drum corps and NARD.

The book really illustrates a music centered approach to percussion. There is relatively little about technique in the modern high-performance sense, and much more about execution and interpretation— which is much more interesting and valuable information, to me. This focus feels very familiar, like the basic approach I learned (painfully and incompletely) from Charles Dowd, which Dowd got from Saul Goodman, whose career was contemporaneous with these columns. It's a professional concert percussionist's approach, centered on how you execute a part musically; with technique mainly about sound, presentation, and making the part— less as a means for achieving ultimate virtuosity.

The book also gives a more complete picture of the world of early modern drumming— for me almost a prehistoric period. Early recording technology was not up to the task of recording drums; there were  fewer drum books, many of them hindered by archaic notation and terms; and the authors were largely not genius theorists or communicators. The columns in this book were written in mid-century, but they refer to the entire 20th century, and before— Stone's career in percussion spanned the whole century until his death in 1967, and his father was a professional drummer in the late 19th century. Technique of Percussion gives the first living, relatable picture of that period I have seen. There are mentions of correspondences with Sanford Moeller, Alan Abel, Edward B. Straight, Charley Wilcoxon, Fritz Berger, and many other venerable figures, discussing ordinary problems with students and points of music and technique.

In fact Technique of Percussion shows a remarkable continuity between then and now. Percussionists of that era were dealing with many of the same issues as we do now: discrepancies between “ancient” and modern practices, interpretation of drum notation, and problems with it; points of terminology; use of rebound; whether to play left-handed or right-handed; developing speed. Excuses given by students for not counting out loud. What's a flam. What's a ruff. When to alternate and when to use “side” (non-alternating) stickings. There's a lot about interpreting and executing rolls— still a very poorly understood area. He mentions things I do that I haven't seen others talk about much: “side” triplets (RLL/LRR/RRL/LLR sticking), use of the B (both hands) sticking, for example.

Stone's writing style in the columns is conversational, and quite dated— this is a personality formed in the 19-oughts. But it is readable, his terms are modern, or at least not opaquely old fashioned. The information that is not fully relevant to modern practice is at least very interesting history. This book is essential for anyone serious about percussion. Buy it now.

An index would be helpful for future editions.

The second book is Drum Lessons with George Lawrence Stone, 90 pages long. Written by Barry James in collaboration with Joe Morello— both students of Stone's— and completed after Morello's death. It is advertised as “a personal account on how to use Stick Control” and “based on actual drum lessons” taught by Stone. The beginning of the book reinforces the idea that this is at last the real story of how to practice Stick Control. Vic Firth, in his introduction, calls it “Stick Control 2.”, I consider Accents & Rebounds and Joe Morello's Master Studies I and II to be Stick Controls 2, 3 and 4, but to continue...

Having one “right” answer on how to use Stick Control is a sort of holy grail for a lot of people, but this book is really not about that. I see it more as a practice room companion to Technique of Percussion. It consists mainly of written examples from that book, re-engraved, with re-edited text, and commentary by Morello and James, printed in a more convenient drum book format. I haven't checked to see how many lessons are pulled from TOP, but many are.

There is an effort towards making this a general method book, with an extended introduction about technique, explanation of the level system, and a list of rudiments, and some other fundamentals. It is presented in “lessons”, but the organization feels quite scattered. As a practice book, it's very text heavy, with most of the musical examples are illustrating something in the text. There are practicable materials, but they are scattered throughout the book, which I don't find to be conducive to practicing them in an orderly way.

For example, the subjects of lessons 20-25— from one to the next they couldn't be further afield:

20. Interpreting the single and double drags
21. Alla breve
22. The finger roll
23. Left hand velocity
24. Breaks and solos
25. Embellishments with grace notes

It also includes some things from TOP which are questionably relevant today: “the 6/8 band and 2/4 drummer”, for example— who knows what performance problem (circa 1920s? Teens?) that lesson was addressing. Interesting as a historical item, but not particularly relevant to present day drumming, certainly not something I need to think about in the practice room. The hihat lesson is another example; a major standalone issue for show drummers in the 1930s, today it's just one item in a larger jazz education.

So part of my problem is figuring out what to do with this. It could be thought of as a condensed teacher's guide for digesting materials in TOP. Or a collection of general pointers for serious students and enthusiasts.

This book is a little unsatisfying for my purposes, but it is still worth purchasing— for taking the things in TOP to the practice room, and for James's and Morello's additional insights into Stone's teaching methods. Get it here.


Ed Pierce said...

Great review, Todd. I agree with your assessment about both books. And I especially agree with the fact that it would be really nice to have an index for the TOP book. That book in particular is such a great addition to the percussion literature.

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks Ed-- I was really pleasantly surprised at how relevant it all is!

I forget, did you study with Charles?

Ed Pierce said...

Hey Todd, no I never studied with Charles; but my first drum teacher, Paul Roberts, did study with him at the U of O (I'm guessing in the late 1970's). I took lessons from Paul around 1985-1987; he was great teacher who really helped give me some fundamentals in snare drum technique, reading, and basic drum set independence We went through most of the Funky Primer book (which was a huge help to me). Paul mentioned at one point what a taskmaster Charles was, and I've heard that from other people as well. My percussion teacher in college was Eugene Novotney, at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. While I was in college in the early 90's, Eugene spent a few days with Charles at some sort of percussion event at U of O where they were both judges (I think). I recall that Eugene was impressed with what he saw of Charles's curriculum (at least in terms of the percussion literature they were playing). I think he also mentioned being impressed at how much respect Charles commanded from the students there.