Sunday, August 15, 2021

Louis Bellson reading text in 4/4

 Here are CRUISE SHIP DRUMMER! we spend a lot of time with the book Syncopation, and not so much with its more expansive, more serious-seeming companion, Louis Bellson's Modern Reading Text in 4/4. I use Reed a lot, I never use Bellson— both in my practicing and my teaching. I've owned Bellson for many years, and have tried using it, but it never stays on my stand very long. Let's take a look at what's in it and figure out why.  

The book is comprised of full-page and half-page composed exercises covering all the variations on a single rhythm idea, or summarizing several rhythm ideas. In Reed, by contrast, the individual rhythm variations are written out on one full four-measure line of music; the longer exercises are the rhythm summaries or composed exercises. 

You can play Bellson the same way you do Reed, playing each measure of the exercise several times, and then playing the exercise straight through, but I prefer the one line format in Reed, especially for teaching students of different ages and abilities. The graphical representation of the four measure phrase is helpful, and it encourages better reading habits— the student can move his eye along the line of music and then repeat back to the beginning of the line, or look ahead to the next line and continue to the next exercise. That's normal reading; looking at one measure in a line of music and repeating it over and over is not so normal. 

Looking at the individual parts of Bellson: 

Whither quarter notes
There is no dedicated section dealing with quarter notes and longer rhythms. I think that's a mistake. Fluency with quarter notes is kind of an overlooked area, and I would have liked some studies including whole notes, half notes, and dotted half notes for use at fast tempos.  

Pages 4-8 - Quarter notes, 8th notes, 8th rests

These are good pages, and a little more in depth than the equivalent pages in Reed— includes many rhythms only written with syncopated-style notation in Reed, which I don't really need.

Pp. 9-11 - Introducing the tie

Ties are important, but to me these pages aren't well balanced for drumming practice. The Reed p. 33 summary of 8th rest/tie/syncopated summary illustrates the concept more quickly and clearly. 

Pp. 12-13

Introduce some 16th note and triplet rhythms, that are rather disruptive to doing systematic drumming practice. We get that stuff from snare drum books— Delecluse, Peters Podemski. I don't really need it for developing drum set reading, and drum set practice systems. 

Pp. 14-25 - Syncopation

The first two pages are summaries of how syncopated notation works, but again I think p. 33 of Syncopation is a better summary of this. The ten syncopation exercises on pp. 25 are fine, I just never use them. They include some non-standard notation, like writing three 8th rests in a row, or putting a syncopated quarter rest between two 8th notes, or tying two 8th notes where the first one falls on the beat, or violating the “imaginary barline” between beats 2 and 3. Yes, reading those probably helps my reading, but learning to read bad notation is not at all my primary purpose in using these books. 

Pp. 26-39 - 16th notes and rests, tied 16ths

These pages cover a large gap in Reed, and should be very useful, but I find them quite tedious. Full pages dealing with a single type of 16th note rhythm, written as many different ways as possible. This is

where the book becomes increasingly focused on creating reading problems. It sacrifices its usefulness as an everyday practice book for the sake of forcing you to deal with exceptional reading situations. Like there's one measure with nine 16th rests. It's exhausting to look at.  

And for all that, it totally ignores some common ways these rhythms are written—the e& page, for example, always writes that rhythm with all 16th notes or 16th rests, or tied 16ths. Never as is it is commonly seen in drumming literature, 16th rest-16th note-8th note.

This section is also not as useful as it might be because on drumset, in real life, I don't have to read many 16th notes. When I need to practice a four note subdivision on the drum set, I practice Reed in 2/2. I teach reading 16th notes with a combination of snare drum and funk books. 

Pp. 40-46 - Ten syncopated exercises with 16th notes
These are not terrible, I just have little use for them. Each exercise is so varied they're mainly only good for comping/independence practice— to do the other interesting and useful things involving filling in the gaps in the written rhythm, we would have to devise some new methods. Maybe that would be worthwhile, I just haven't felt the need.   

P. 47-60 - Eighth note triplets
All about triplets and triplet partials using rests and ties. This seemingly fills a large gap in Syncopation. But we do play a lot of triplets through the usual Reed methods, they're just implied, and not written out. I don't find it to be a problem, from a reading perspective, because, again, I don't often have to read them in music for drum set. 

And once again, this section quickly devolves into graduate-level reading puzzles. At a certain point, this focus on fragmentation begins to detract from the fundamental concept. It's not that ambitious students shouldn't be able to read it; that focus just detracts from the book's day to day usefulness.  

Pp. 61-64 - Introducing the quarter note triplet

Another valuable subject missing from Reed... that instantly descends into flyshit-reading hell. Same goes for the half note triplet section after it. 

Pp. 66-67 - Syncopation with triplets

Not terrible, but random. Put a permanent book mark on these pages, or tear out all the intervening pages. Not worth the effort to me. 

Pp. 68-81 - Fourteen exercises

Regular syncopation exercises with 16th notes and triplets included. These are reasonable, decent reading exercises, but again, the variety of rhythms makes them difficult to use for daily drumming practice— beyond just using them as complicated independence rhythms. 

Pp. 82-85 - 16th note triplets and 32nd notes

Not terrible, but you would have to devise a use for them on the drum set. Or just play them on the snare drum. Delecluse and Cirone are full of stuff like this. I've never seen anything like this when reading for drum set. 

Pp. 86-87 - Introducing double time

This is useful; we get some common syncopated rhythms, together with their double-time equivalent. But once again, the authors can't resist messing with us by writing the rhythms in a bad, difficult to read style. How about if we learn THE CONCEPT, then you can teach us all the wrong ways it might be written?

So this is only partly a rhythm book— it's at least 50% a reading-bad-notation book. I don't know who needs to master performing this level of reading in their day to day professional life— LA studio musicians? Classical musicians? Math-genre people? I think a lot of this is better covered with regular literature written or transcribed for the user's actual instrument. 

At some point with this crap, you're just teaching people bad notation style. OK, we want to be prepared to read “anything”, but here bad notation is way over-represented, and the actual good notation is just part of the undifferentiated notation-bomb debris field. So some composition student works through this thing and thinks “hell yes, I can write a quarter note on the & of 2 any time I want, why not.”

Reed has it's limitations, but as a day to day practice volume for drummers of all levels, it's vastly superior to this— that just isn't what Bellson's Reading Text is. And you can fill in all the major gaps in Reed by just finding a copy of Chuck Kerrigan's out of print Syncopated Rhythms for the Contemporary Drummer. Those two books form a drummer's complete core rhythm vocabulary, to which, having mastered it, you can add whatever other oddball things you want. 

By the way

Bellson's other reading book, Odd Time Reading Text, is even worse. Maybe 15-20 of its 130 pages are useful— which may be good enough reason to buy it. 

UPDATE A FEW DAYS LATER: Compelled to force myself into an embarrassed retraction of this whole piece, by finding a real invaluable drumming purpose for the book— so I'm practicing out of it more than I normally would. So far I'm a little more annoyed than I already was. 

For example, if I know ahead of time that all the 16th notes on p. 30 are on the e&, it kind of defeats the purpose of writing it all kinds of crazy ways to trip me up. You're not teaching me to read crazy notation, you're teaching me to ignore the notation based on prior information. Is that the intended lesson? I don't think so. 

And the formula of repeating a measure with the rhythm notated differently, or repeating the same rhythm except with 8th notes substituted for quarter notes— it gets tiresome. Mix it up, let me pretend I'm playing a piece. 


Scott said...

I have the Bellson book. Every now and then I pick it up and practice some of the pages. The challenging weird notation ones for a challenge. But really, it is a dust collector. I keep saying it is the book I'll get to after I move past the Reed book. Been playing for about 40 years. Uh, sill on the Reed book.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your summations. Bellson’s book always seemed “busy” and laborious to me; much quicker and easier to learn good basic rhythm reading, including syncopation, with Reed’s book. My students always learned quickly with Reed’s more straight ahead format.
Even the Buddy Rich Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments book is a better publication for beginning and more advanced reading.