Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Everything you know about drumming is wrong

Sometimes I get really cranky about drumming conversations on the internet. My paranoid tone here is half in jest. Tune in to the Firesign Theater recording on the left for more laffs


Technique is not what you think it is
Technique is not your grip, it is not how fast you can play, it is not super chops, it is not harnessing the physics of bouncing things off surfaces, anything. It is simply the means you use to get a musical tone from an instrument and handle standard professional repertoire. 

It's about a single rhythm
Drumming is about playing a single rhythm, what you think when you play is a single rhythm, what you actually play is a single rhythm.

There is no independence
That's a word, it's not real. You're actually one guy or lady deliberately controlling one set of limbs to make one rhythm (see above). 

Everything is about expressing time

Every note you play is a marker in the air telling the world about the musical time you are creating for them. There is no “what you're playing” apart from how it expresses time. If you're expressing time badly and pushing the other players around with it, you're playing badly. There may be times when there is some freedom to express it loosely, or out of meter. But it's always time. 

Everything is melody
I'm not talking about ASCAP's definition for determining who gets royalties, or the theory definition. Every series of two or more musical sounds, tempered or not, is melody. It is also rhythm. Everything you do is inherently a melodic statement. Two quarter notes on a cowbell. 

Groove is not what you think it is
It's not about sounding “funky”, or really “feeling it”, or playing with soulful-looking body motion or facial expression, or anything like that that is the musical equivalent of putting on a tie-dye shirt. It's a consistent and precise agreement among the musicians about where is the time and the rhythm.  

Everything on the internet is wrong

It just is. Writing a web site is part of my learning process, I don't expect reading it religiously to be yours. People make videos for the purpose of getting people to watch videos. Video topics are whatever they are able to make a video about, which is usually what they saw someone else make a video about. It's an insular self-referential advertisement for itself; and the target audience is hobbyists avoiding practicing. Internet drumming enthusiast conversations are totally off the map. None of it has anything to do with your real life job of learning how to be a drumming musician.

It's not that complicated
Internet drumming enthusiasts and their drum media enablers want to make the above real life job seem as complicated as possible. It strings people along with little technical snippets and diversions, steers them away from learning real musicianship, excuses their lack of success, while building up the people who excel at that kind of crap as some kind of supermen.

The actual thing is not that complicated. Most professional drummers became competent enough to gig in a few years, in high school, maybe college. They did it by being into music, taking some lessons, doing band and orchestra in school, playing in bands outside of school, playing some gigs.  

Everybody good knows the same stuff

Everybody listens to the same records, everybody knows the same stuff is good, everybody likes them for the same reasons, everybody catches all the same stuff. There are probably 15-20 professional players in Portland who know as much as I know, probably more, and we all know the same stuff. This is what gives me confidence in writing this site— I know that many others like me thought of the same things. The only reason I'm saying it and they might not be, is that most drummers do not verbalize every little thing. I just happened to find an outlet for developing these ideas through writing.     

Even within all knowing basically the same stuff, there is enough room for different experiences and tastes to make it seem like they don't all know the same stuff. People get into different levels of detail on certain topics. But they all know the same stuff, either explicitly or instinctively.  

Learning is when one of those people expresses something you knew but didn't know that you knew. 

Gear is irrelevant for different reasons than you believe

It is about what you play, not what you play it on. But you can't be playing a goofy instrument. You cannot show up to a modern jazz gig with a 24" bass drum— that only advertises your cluelessness to the other musicians. I don't care what Tony Williams or Chick Webb did. The people who can get away with something like that know who they are, and they're probably not you. 

You do have to be able to play on any random garbage instrument, but it's more fun to play good instruments that are suited to the immediate purpose. We get good instruments because they're more fun, and make our job easier, and they reflect our respect for the music and for ourselves as performers. Some of us are very particular about sound. 

Playing is not what you think it is
Playing is what happens in the moment. Playing is playing unknown music. That's the entire skill we're looking to develop, the ability to play unknown music professionally and artistically. It is not about executing a memorized or practiced or rehearsed part, or playing practiced licks.

It's not about expression
Whatever message you want to send to the world, don't try to say it through music. Nobody wants to know what you're feeling. They've got their own problems. Music and drumming in particular are abstract arts. Playing is a construction job, building a well-composed performance with the other players. The higher purpose is to build emotional energy, to motivate people to listen, listen again, buy a record, dance, sing, or enjoy whatever else they are doing at the moment. To turn this part of their lives into cinema. 

There are no deeper explanations 
You will not find anything in writing explaining why people are great, what the meaning of their playing is. Music is music. The total meaning of anyone's playing is an abstract feeling in the mind of listeners, and in the player playing it, and the other players playing with them. That's it. There is no verbal explanation of Paul Motian. 


Adam Osmianski said...

Brilliantly said, Todd. Great stuff right there. I hope much of the internet generation actually stop to read this and take it to heart.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great post - thank you!
I'm wondering about the "It's not about expression" part, though. Could you please elaborate a little bit on it? I take it that you don't recommend to play completely detached from any emotions, but to stay calm and not get carried away by your own playing. Just curious about that!

Unknown said...


Todd Bishop said...

Thanks guys, just letting it all hang out here.

Anon-- I hadn't really thought it out. I guess I'd think about what's the difference between creating emotional energy through your playing, vs. expressing it through your playing. Maybe they're related, to me they're not the same thing.

Expressing emotion = "I'm mad at you" [bangs on cymbal]
Creating emotion = "Time to build intensity, so I'm going to..." [bangs on cymbal]

That's not it exactly, either. It's really not completely one or the other. There are times when you play like "BLAH F* U [zhagaBOOM]". Most of the time things go best when you're just in a state of full awareness and letting things play themselves. You can play emotional sounding stuff in that state without feeling those exact emotions yourself. What are Elvin Jones, or Jack Dejohnette, or Joey Baron feeling when they're playing at peak intensity? Or Coltrane. It's not a 1:1 thing, they're feeling something else.