Sunday, October 16, 2016

This Idea of "Texture" - 3

If you approach drumming seriously, then 
everything you put together to make your 
sound brings you to your own, unique world.
 — Robyn Schulkowsky

Texture. This is where percussionists can shine. 

texture  /teksCHər/  noun
noun: texture; plural noun: textures1.
1. the feel, appearance, or consistency of a surface or a substance.
"skin texture and tone"

Musically, texture is the quality of the sound you make. Think of sound as a surface (as in the definition above), is the sound you are making smooth, rough, rippled, watery, gaseous, solid, etc.? The fact that percussion can be just about anything, means that we not only have unlimited sound, we have unlimited textures

Texture as Instrument

We have a lot of instrument choices out there. Percussion is made from:


These instruments can be:


The playing surface can be:


Now take all the above and throw them in a blender and you get an idea of all the sort of available percussion variations. Now add to that been a seemingly endless array of striking implements that can be made from:


Within these materials we can have such a wide variety of strikers:

Sticks (thick/thin/different size & type tips)
Mallets (felt/wool/yarn/cord/rubber/cork/etc.)
Brushes (heavy/light, metal/plastic/nylon)
And various metal rods & tubes, plastic rods & tubes, bows, 
and whatever you can think of, including using one instrument on another (striking/rubbing/scraping).

So you have all these possibilities. Now what? The first thing is to know your sounds. How does that cowbell sound when played with a felt mallet? Or that dumbek? You need to experiment in your practice studio to find and understand the different sounds that you have at your disposal.

When you play live, or in the recording studio, you draw upon all of this homework that you've done. I know that for me, it becomes a very instinctive activity. I hear something being played by the other musicians and react to it, grabbing a striking implement and setting it upon an instrument. Or perhaps just using my hands. But it's never a conscious decision, with me thinking, “I should grab this small Gong and hit it with this yarn mallet.” That would take too much time while the live music was advancing forward. So again, it all comes down to knowing your sounds, know what you are doing.

In the studio, there is the luxury of being able to work things out, perhaps discuss it with the other musicians. Then you can do different takes with different textures. Again, for me, it becomes an instant decision of not only what pitch/note (high, low, somewhere in-between), but what the texture of that note will be. And then there's the factor of what is the pitch & texture of the notes being played before and after that particular note: do I move from a scrape to a hit and then rub 2 instruments together? 

And finally, how does all of this sit and fit within the music being played by the other musicians? Do I scrape this corrugated metal over this double bass part? Or would these gourd shakers be better? Or maybe both? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Concept, gesture, and texture. 3 important ideas to build your percussion performance upon.

How do you build your performance?

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Sunday, October 9, 2016

This Idea of "Gesture" - 2

This is a companion piece to last week's blog on concept. Percussion/drums are very visual instruments, so gesture is a natural part of performance. There is a lot of movement, both from the arms and, from the whole body itself. Not to mention the movement of the mallets/sticks we play with. Unless you are playing a particular theatrical piece of music, that might have gestures written out, gesture itself is usually given little thought.


  1. 1.
    a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning.
    "Alex made a gesture of apology"

Think of the rock or metal drummer behind their kit, with arms raised and flying away. Or watch a marching band/drum corps, with each movement heavily choreographed for visual effect. This is what most people notice, what most drummers think about, the visual aspect. But what part does gesture play on the sound?

On my first solo percussion album, Stars Show The Way, I recorded a number of tracks that I called, Small Gestures. These were short interludes between the longer pieces, and they featured small percussion instruments (mostly hand percussion) that could be played in small ways. The idea was for the sound to not be imposing, like percussion normally is, but to perhaps make the listener have to reach for the sound themselves.

In these small gestures I played them with just that, small gestures. No grand and dramatic waving of my arms or shaking things above my head (besides, in the recording studio, who would see that anyway?). So I I made small gestures moving things in small ways, looking for the small, unobtrusive sounds. 

In live performance, I still play pieces that use small gestures, to make the sounds intimate, personal. But I also use other gestures, with both my mallets and my instruments. Big sounds require big gestures. So I'm often moving my arms around in big arcs, up over my head, around in circles. But this is more than just show.

If you play any sport with a racket/bat/stick, you are taught the importance of following through with your swing. You don't just hit the ball and stop your movement. You hit the ball and continue on, your momentum moving through the arc of motion. And so it's the same with percussion. You don't just hit something and stop dead. You hit it and there is a natural rebound, or glancing stroke, that continues the energy and motion you have started. And this type of motion/gesture can affect the sound. Small/short motions will yield small/short sounds. While large, sweeping motions will yield large, sweeping sounds.

Small gestures, medium gestures, fluid gestures

Take a look at yourself playing. Use a mirror if you have one. How is your motion? How does it change from instrument to instrument, sound to sound? How do different motions change your sounds? These are important questions to ask yourself. 

Another good way is to video record yourself. This gives you the chance to sit down and analyze what you are doing. I record most of my performances and watch them specifically to see how I am playing, how my motions are, and if there's something I can do to improve my technique/performance. I check out my posture, my movement, how I sit or stand. Because I have such a large set up, I'm always looking to see if my motion is fluid in moving from one instrument to another. Athletes do this all the time, so why not musicians?

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Sunday, October 2, 2016

This Idea of "Concept" - 1

Concept. Do you have a concept. or do you even know what it means? Merriam-Webster defines concept this way:



noun  con·cept  \ˈkän-ˌsept\

  1. 1:  something conceived in the mind :  thoughtnotion
  2. 2:  an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances
In a general arching definition, a concept is an over reaching idea that covers what you think and do about something. As a drummer/percussionist/musician, let's look at what the great Vinnie Calaiuta said about concept in an interview:

(Concept) That’s my new word. It’s the word that everyone is going to be sick of hearing me use. What does it mean to me? It is the highest understanding of how you experience music. And it is accomplished by total immersion. In a way, it's beyond a cognitive understanding. It is an inner understanding of total immersion. Developing a concept is a long process. It starts by being able to understand what music represents to you as a whole; then, understanding what that music is saying to you. Only then can you, as a musician, begin to understand what you are within the music. And it has to come to you in that order, not the other way around.

Let's look at this:
It is the highest understanding of how you experience music.
How do you experience music? 
What does it mean to you? 
How does it affect you? 
These are questions you need to ask yourself.

It is an inner understanding of total immersion.
It's an inner experience, something personal that others may not understand. It is solitary, your own. And it's not something to just do casual. You need to jump in, to immerse yourself.

Developing a concept is a long process.

Coming up with a concept is a life long process. It is an ongoing evolution, as your concept can change as you grow, mature, and understand more. 

It starts by being able to understand what music represents to you as a whole; then, understanding what that music is saying to you. 
How often have you thought about what you do? Or do you just play without regard for what you are doing? People often look at improvising musicians and think they have no concept, no idea of what they are doing. They just get up on stage and start playing, making random sounds. This may be in some circumstances, especially with a neophyte improvisor, but the true improvising musicians must above all have a concept of what they are doing. And this concept takes years of hard work, years of experimenting, years of wrong turns, to develop. 

What have you done to develop your music, your playing, your concept beyond just reacting or playing by rote.


mechanical or habitual repetition of something to be learned.

Be sure that every note you you play has meaning. Don't just play notes for the sake of filling space or demonstrating technique. 

Think before you play. 
Think, “Is this note necessary?”

Instead of thinking just about the notes in the moment, think about the long play, the whole song. How does this note fit in with all that came before it and, all that will come after it? 

Often less really is more.

This is what concept means. This is something all musicians, in fact, all artists need to develop.

Take a look at what you do. Do you have an overall idea about what you are doing, or do you just do it without any real regard for what you are doing?

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Saturday, September 24, 2016

What In The Hell Am I Still Doing This For?

Getting ready for last night's gig, I found myself struggling to haul all my equipment up and out of my studio and into my van. I found myself thinking, “what the hell am I still doing this for?” After all, I'm not a kid anymore and, I usually have to do this alone. While my gear is compact and only 8 cases, those cases get heavier every year I do this. 

The original heavy metal: bronze, nickel-silver, 
iron, steel, & aluminum, waiting for the gig.

To top this off, I have developed arthritis, especially in my elbows and hands, and my right hand has been pretty useless these past 2 weeks. I've even experimented with different grips to try to be able to play. At least with the Gongs and such, it's not a hard hitting gig like playing a couple of hours in a rock band.

So I went to the gig and set up everything. And I still get that pre-gig rush of energy and wonder. I still have that same spark like I did as a 12 year old kid playing drums for the first time. Yeah, things like that aren't only in your blood, they're in your DNA. This stuff runs deep.

And when I started playing, I forgot all about how much my hand hurt, and how my fingers don't always want to cooperate. I just played. And for that time I was transported somewhere else. This morning I posted this on Facebook: 

Sometimes, especially when I have so much gear to carry, I wonder why I'm still doing what I'm doing. Then, I play a gig, either solo or with other musicians, and I know why, because it's always a transcendent experience for me and everyone else…

Yeah, transcendent. I think this is why most of us musicians continue to get out there and play. I hope I never lose that transcendent feeling…

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, September 16, 2016

Drummers VS Soundmen

This post is inspired by more internet discussions, this time on the seemingly endless battle between drummers and soundmen. It seems every drummer has their story about evil soundmen wanting to modify their drum heads with tape and/or a razor blade, in order to get a better sound while miked. I'm sure that there are as many stories that soundmen tell about drummers and how stubborn they are when it comes to getting a good sound out of their drums through the sound system. So what's it all about?

Like most drummers, I've had my run ins with a few soundmen, but I've always tried to look at how to work with them in any given situation. So let's look at a few Don'ts & Do's:

DON'T immediately think of any soundman (or woman) as being stupid. A lot of them have studied as hard and as much as you, and they also take pride in doing their job just like you.

DO treat them with the same respect that you want to be treated with.

OK, I'll admit that I've come up against some soundmen who really didn't know much about what they were doing, and who's idea of mixing things was to just turn everything up and throw some reverb on it. But for everyone who didn't really have a clue, there are a majority of people who do know what they are doing and do it well.

DON'T cop an attitude and start arguing with the soundman. Also, never start calling them names, or calling them stupid, dumb, etc. Remember that your music is in their hands and ears, and you want them to produce the best sound possible for your audience.

DO introduce yourself and be professional. If you have a specific sound you want, discuss it with them (especially if you use a bass drum with no hole in the front head). Rather than getting all, I'm the drummer and I know what's best for me, be willing to listen to their ideas and suggestions.

I don't use a typical rock drum sound/tuning, so I've often been a bit of a puzzle for some sound guys. I usually don't have a hole in either bass drum head and also minimal muffling, so my bass drum rings a bit, giving a sound that's more boom than thud. I also tend to tune my toms higher than a lot of rock drummers, so again, the sound isn't a typical boing or boom.

If I'm playing percussion or solo, I use my horizontal bass drum, which has no muffling and lots of boom. This can really throw a sound guy into a panic. But I always talk to them about the what & how of what I do. I've been in so many different rooms and situations, that I have some idea of what works both mic and sound wise.

DON'T ignore/refuse advise from the sound guy.

DO realize that if they are professional, they want you to sound great too! After all, they don't want the audience to think that they suck at their job.

It's one thing if you are in a big enough band to travel around with your own sound guy, but that's rare. Most often, you will end up using the house sound guy. This is a case of where you need to put some trust in them and their ears. Again, if they are professional, they know their room. After mixing every night in the same space, they often know what works and what doesn't. They can also hear things out front that you can't hear on stage (surprise, the house sound usually sounds nothing like what you hear sitting on your drums). So if they want to add a little bit of muffling to a drum, they are wanting to do it to get a better sound out front, not to just boss you around. Maybe that rack tom has a frequency that rings through the sound system and needs to be tamed. A little trust in their expertise can go along way.

Another important aspect of making friends with the soundman is return engagements at the same venue. Things will run much smoother, and your sound will be easier to get, if you haven't been a complete jerk on your previous visit. Kindness costs noting and gets you much further than anything else.

OK, sometimes you come up to a situation where no matter how much you discuss/bargain/negotiate, you just can't seem to reach any sort of mutual understanding. What then? First, keep your cool. Second, be firm in your needs, but don't be a jerk about it. Stay professional, do the gig, and move on.

What can you do to help your situation as a drummer? The best thing would be to learn all you can about mics, mixing, and sound systems. Take a course on sound. If you have a friend who is a soundman, see if you can hang out with them, ask questions, and observe what they do. The more you know, the more you can speak their language and talk to them on their level.

And most of all, don't forget to thank the soundman at the end of the night. Maybe buy them a drink. Just saying thanks goes a long way in the music biz.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, September 9, 2016

Be A Pro Or Go Home

I recently joined an online drum group that looked interesting. For the most part the discussions have been interesting. But there's also a sizable amount of people posting who seem to be whiners. 

For example: the current whine is from a guy who is playing a free, 1-hour benefit that will be supplying the drums. He's complaining, and wants to bring his own drums.
But I just found out that they are supplying the drums (a crappy set), and goodness knows what cymbals and peddles (sic) they will have. Some people don't understand that drummers take pride in their sets, and our muscles are accustomed to our layouts, and the tensions of our peddles (sic)? You just can't play your best in a strange set.”

Rule #1 - If you are a drummer, you need to learn that you can't always use your own drums and cymbals for the gig. 

Your challenge, should you accept, is to make music with these. 

Many times drum sets are supplied as part of the backline (amps, drums, keys, etc), or maybe the club has a house kit. No, it might not be vintage Gretsch with K Zildjians, or a brand new DW. It could be an old TAMA Swingstar with Sabian B8 cymbals on it. I regularly play at a series here in town that uses an old, inexpensive, well tuned drum kit (I don't even know what kind of drums they are). All the drummers bring their own cymbals and use the kit. No one complains. No one in the audience complains. The music is great!

I've played my share of gigs on backline, rental, and house kits, and I've never let that get in the way of making the best music I can. Yeah, some kits aren't the best (like a big muffled, power tom rock kit supplied for a jazz gig), but suck it up buttercup, and play the gig! If I was playing a free, 1-hour benefit gig, I'd be glad to just show up without having to haul my drums, play the gig, and then leave.

Being a drummer is hard. To be a drummer is a life force. You have to be motivated to even deal with this instrument. - Roy Books

Playing you own kit, set up the same way every time, is a luxury. Even big name drummers play supplied kits to save on travel expenses (have you ever paid to fly a drum kit?) Playing a kit du jour is a challenge and keeps you on your game. You have to be focused and make music. Rise to the challenge.

I realize that a lot of drummers out there are hobbyists or weekend warriors, but you still need to be professional and understand that drums are often supplied for you. Don't let not being able to use your own drums get in the way of being a musician.

I leave you with the words of the great poet, Ranier Maria Rilke:

“No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger”
 Embrace the danger.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Monday, August 29, 2016

Nature as Nurture

I've been hanging out in California for almost 2 weeks. In that time I've been to the ocean, I've been to the mountains, and I've been to the city. In each case, I've spent a lot of time listening to the sounds around me and absorbing the rhythms. There is so much we can learn from our surroundings just by paying attention. How often do we just go through our day giving little regard to the natural things happening around us?

Oceans of rhythm

I spent this afternoon at the beach, walking in the surf, listening to the waves crashing, paying attention to everything going on around me. I heard new and different rhythms. I felt new and different impulses in my nervous system. I learned from the wind and waves things that I can bring back to my music. I learned things you can never find in books.

Wherever you live: ocean, desert, forest, or city, take the time to listen to the world around you and absorb the sounds and rhythms.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™