Life of a Drummer – the Return

After a hiatus of a significant amount of time, I have decided to return to the blog. This blog is essentially my digital journal, relating to my life and career as a musician – specifically, a drummer. If that excites you, read on!

Eclectic Band Studio Session

I have 18 days until the next Eclectic Band studio session. It will be a good one, as well. Steve McCabe makes a welcome début to the Eclectic line-up, lending his considerable guitar skills to the track Courante. If it turns out the way it should, Courante will likely be the flagship piece of the new album, and I, for one, am very excited to hear it. I have heard it, of course. Countless times in fact, both as a concept in my head, and as a poorly rendered midi file through my transcription software. I have also heard it, just once, in a rehearsal session with Dino (bass) and Steve (guitar), in which we played the piece in sections along to a backing track of the piano part. It was enough to convince me that this session will be worth it, as Steve’s guitar tones were just the right blend of colour and variety that was needed.

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For my part, I am being kept busy refining my vocabulary in 3/4 swing. Strangely, I am having to work backwards – I am rather comfortable comping and playing freely in 3/4 swing, yet found myself struggling to stick to a more disciplined ostinato. We all know that in 4/4 swing, it is common to play the hi-hat on beats 2 and 4, and to phrase within that. Likewise, we can place the hi-hat on beats 2 and 3 in a bar of 3/4, or, more to my tastes, the and of 1, and 3. Ironically, in both times signatures I have become more comfortable playing broken time than when playing around these set hi-hat patterns. So, I set about in earnest rectifying this, working through the brilliantly thorough Chaffee material around a backdrop of hi-hat ostinati and ride cymbal improvisation.

Drum Studio

Last month I began work on a dedicated drum studio in my garden. Once the initial preparations are complete, I will film the progress and create a video series documenting the process. I believe this will prove rather popular, as I know there are a lot people who would like to do it, but very few who actually have. I will be doing it all myself (with ample help from my father), which means I can document and explain the entire process from start to finish. It is, however, pouring with rain today, which means the digging of the foundations (by hand, I might add), have ground to a sodden halt.

Thoughts on the Art Form

It seems to me that the drums, today, are thought of less as a musical instrument, and more as a technical enigma. Weekly I must remind my students that they are performing a piece of music. If I ask them to perform and 8-bar solo, they look at me dumbfounded, utterly oblivious as to what I am asking them to do. When, and how, did this happen? When did Max Roach- and Terry Bozzio-esq musical solos become uncool? When did the drum kit stop being a musical instrument?

Part of the answer may lie in the young drummer’s individual motivations. A young student of mine told me, when asked, that he originally started drumming because all of his friends played some kind of instrument. These days, at 13, he finds it enjoyable, but hasn’t yet given too much thought to the artistic side of the drums. So concerned is he with simply fulfilling various criteria, that he is utterly unable to consider the drums as a creative outlet, a tool of artistic expression, or even anything remotely connected to “music”.

For the teachers among you, try this with a few of your students. As they sit down and look to you for instruction, ask them, simply, to perform a small improvisation. Keep it short, 8 or 16 bars, but be strict, as this will test their ability to maintain form. I predict that more than half of the students with which this is tried will be unable to do the task without further instruction. Perhaps this will make you, as it did me, think a little about how you proceed with their tuition.

For inspiration, there are a few places to turn. The in-form jazz solos of the bebop era were rife with rhythmic motifs, where chops simply served to accentuate the musical form rather than define it. Elvin Jones could easily fill 64 bars with just one or two motifs, transposed through various note values, orchestrated over different voices, and splayed over many bar-lines. An exercise I have recently begun working through with my students is to create 1, 4 and 8 bar fills using just one motif. For example, take a right hand paradiddle as crotchets (quarter notes) on the snare drum, but move the sole left onto the high tom. This is a four-beat motif going snare, tom, snare, snare. With this as their only motivation, ask the student (or try it yourself) to create a one measure fill. This can be accomplished with the aforementioned techniques: orchestrate, change various note values, substitute limbs, and using different stickings. The possibilities for this one phrase are essentially endless. Extend this to a four-measure phrase, combining four ideas together, and you may be surprised as how musically the student (or you yourself) is now playing.

The point is, we are wont to forget that, as we play the drums, the whole purpose, the Aristotelian function, is to play music. Not to show off, not as a technical exercise, but to perform, to express, to create. If we are not doing this, we are not fulfilling our function; to Aristotle, we are all bad drummers. By this philosophy, the fastest singles and the quickest bass drum pedal does not make a good drummer. The drummer who produces music, who performs most creatively whether blazing 32nd notes with all four limbs or manipulating a three-beat phrase with the skill of a conjuror, is the best drummer of all.

JC

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