Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Counting the grid

It's a *mechanical* tool, from way back.
I had a conversation with a student about counting subdivisions when you practice— “the grid.” It's a common thing to do, that I don't recommend— not all the time. It's an execution aid for playing rhythms accurately, that I find to not be great for general musicianship. My students who learned it from someone else have been prone to reading errors— they often don't seem to know what rhythm they're playing.

General principle: open your copy of Syncopation, turn to page 34— each of those repeating one measure rhythms is a piece of language, a clave. Particular rhythms like that are our point of reference for everything we do on the drums.

The grid is not a rhythm, it's a pulse. It's shapeless. If you tell your brain to think of everything as 1&2&3&4&, you're not really learning rhythm, any more than reciting the alphabet teaches you words. Thinking primarily in terms of grid, and being shaky on your basic fluency with rhythm, you're giving up creative awareness and control.

Some thoughts and guidelines:

Count the rhythm 
Be able to count the rhythms in Syncopation exactly, without saying any syllables that are not sounding in the written part. Count them in 4/4, and also in 2/2, using the syllables 1e&a 2e&a. If counting e&as with Syncopation is weird, do it with the 16th note exercises in Louis Bellson's reading book, or the reading exercises in The New Breed.

Set ups and anticipations 
Implied additions to syncopated rhythms, with special meaning for drummers, that help the other musicians play their part, and help maintain accuracy. On ensemble rhythms starting with an 8th rest, drummers will typically set up the rhythm by playing a note on the rest— that's an absolute nutshell description for playing big band style kicks. On anticipations— long notes on an &, or the equivalent with a rest (again, an extreme nutshell definition)— we want to know where the following downbeat is, for accuracy.

Two single measure examples, with the set up added, and with the downbeat after the anticipation:

Note that the second example would be problematic if you played it as a repeating rhythm, as in the one line exercises in Syncopation: on the repetitions there would be no room to add the set up on 1.

Locking parts
Grid orientation is more useful if you think in terms of interlocking parts. There is still a primary rhythm, but we are also aware of the rhythm of its gaps; together they form an interlocking grid. It's a useful way of thinking in funk and rock drumming; in jazz it sets up a rubadub type of feel.

Count before you play
Generally, I'm just not a proponent of always counting while you're playing. In music listening— even to yourself— is as important as anything else, and it's not easy to listen while you're talking.

Count beats, measures
This is a normal skill, that appears similar to counting a grid, but that actually serves a different function— counting quarter notes— 1234— while you play. Or counting 1234 2234 3234 4234. The purpose of this is just to stay oriented in 4/4, or within a larger phrase. Counting a grid is an aid for playing grid notes accurately. It's a different purpose.

“Think like a horn”
A standard piece of advice for playing the drums more musically, less like a drummer. Horn players don't typically count a grid. It's not conducive to lyrical phrasing. When counting the Syncopation rhythms, I suggest that you sing them with a horn like phrasing, with the correct note lengths— drummers will tend to sing the rhythms with all staccato sounds.

For another approach, see Dave di Censo's Rhythm And Drumming Demystified. He has developed what appears to be a very effective method for grid playing. See also my related post from last year, Time and Whatnot.

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