Friday, July 3, 2015

Working Through Creative Blocks

It's happened to all of us, things are going along fine, you are successfully doing your music/art, and then suddenly things stop. You have no ideas, you have no inspiration, you have no energy to go on.

The Artist's nightmare: hitting a brick wall…

You feel like you've hit a brick wall. All your hard work and momentum stops. Try as you might, you can't get going again. Things are at a standstill. 

What do you do?

  1. Don't panic.
  2. Realize this is normal and happens to everyone at sometime.
  3. Refrain from getting angry or frustrated. This only deepens the block.
  4. Introduce a disruption/distraction to what you are doing: go to the beach/park/forest, or go to the cinema/concert/museum. This can help reset your brain and creativity.
  5. Take a nap. Another way to reset.
  6. Take a walk and leave your phone at home. Get out of your workspace and get some fresh air and exercise. This can help clear your head and reset your brain.
  7. Realize that most blocks are imaginary! They are often brought on by fatigue, overwork, or some other external factor—when was the last time you ate a decent meal?
  8. Work on something else unrelated to what you were doing.
  9. Bounce your ideas off a trusted friend—they may be able to help you get a new or different perspective on things.


This sort of thing happens to me all the time, whether working on my music, art, or writing, such as this blog. Sometimes the ideas just aren't there. 

It's a desert. 
Everything has dried up.
The well has run dry. 
My brain is empty.

Realize that most blocks are imaginary!

We just need to take the time to reset ourselves before we begin again.

But sometimes the blocks are real and very big. This may be a signal to actually stop. Stop what we are doing because it's a dead end and we are wasting our time trying to push ahead.

Sometimes dead ends are real and we have to admit it. Admit that the project/idea is dead and it's time to move on to something new. That's not easy to do, especially if we devoted a lot of time and energy to it: “If I just keep going on, it's bound to pick up again.” Well, not always.

Sometimes dead ends and blocks are just temporary. We need to put something on a shelf until some later time when we are in a different/better situation, and can pick it up again. Dead ends can come back to life after weeks, months, or even years. That's why I always keep files of all the work I've done, even the dead ends/failures, because I can always go to my files to look for ideas when I don't have any. Often old ideas will either trigger something new, or can be reworked into something new.

I've written almost 400(!) blog posts over 3 different blogs in the past 4 years, and it's not always easy to think of something to write about. That's why I keep an idea file of both old and new ideas. When I get blocked on what to write about, I can look through my saved ideas and either find something there, or be inspired to write about something else. My phone is full of idea files that I write down whenever I think of something.

And dead ends are sometimes just that. Dead. Ends. We can take what we learned from them and leave the rest behind, moving on to something new.

So don't let creative blocks get you down. You can get past everything.

~ MB







Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Importance of Phrasing

Today's post is directed primarily at the drum set player. Many of today's players develop amazing technical proficiency through hours and hours of practice. But just what do they practice? Most drummers seem to concentrate on 2 main things:


  1. Pure technique, like triplets or paradiddles around the drums, double bass chops, speed and precision.
  2. Beat/rhythms/grooves.
This is all well and good, as we need to master many of these skills, but I've seen too many young drummers concentrate strictly on these. When it comes to playing in a band, they have the technique, but not the means to successfully apply it to the music in a musical way. They often end up sounding like they are playing exercises out of a drum book, which is what they are doing.

You can learn to be a better drummer by listening to great singers…

I'm all for technique, but not at the sacrifice of the music. An important thing for drummers to do is to listen to both singers and horn players. There you can get a real sense of phrasing and how the music is put together to form a song. I listen to a lot of singers, from classic ones like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, to more modern ones like Joni Mitchell, Ann Wilson, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, and a lot of ethnic/world music singers, like Mari Boine, Wimme, Tanya Tagaq. I listen to the words and notes they sing, but also how they breathe, how they emphasize and accent the words, and most importantly, how they bring the words to life. Listen to Sinatra, he wasn't considered a great singer just because of his voice—a lot of singers have great voices—but he knew how to phrase everything, how to present the lyrics in a way that communicated with the listener. This is so important!

You could get 10 different singers to sing the same song and you will have 10 different versions of that song. This is easy to do. Pick out a classic vocal song, like Fly Me To The Moon, or, Georgia, and just go on YouTube. You'll find a lot of different version of the songs. Each singer brings something of themself to the song. The same can be said for instrumentals. Listen to horn players. Both sax and trumpet are very lyrical instruments that share a lot in common with the voice. Listen to a great sax player and how they connect the notes, creating melodic phrases. Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond—each has their own sound, their own emphasis on the notes.

So when you are playing drum set with a band, don't just think rhythm and beats/grooves, think melody and phrasing. Imagine yourself as a singer or sax player, and try to bring that same sense of phrasing and melody to your rhythms. Think of how you can blend what you are ding with the other musicians, with the music overall. 

Be a musician, not just a drummer.

~ MB



Monday, June 8, 2015

The Importance of Creating Your Own Musical Voice

Think about your favorite musicians or bands. What is it you like about them? It's probably something they do differently than others, something that you like that's easily identifiable.

One thing that is easily identifiable is their sound. The recently departed BB King had a guitar sound you could easily identify. You'd never mistake him for Eddie VanHalen, even if they were playing together. Think about the sound of drummers you know. Ginger Baker is always Ginger, with his tubby, thuddy sort of drum sound. Joe Morello's sound was always tight & crisp, yet full. John Bonham always had that full, larger than life drum sound. Bill Bruford always has that cracking snare drum sound.

The same goes for licks/beats/rhythms/grooves. Tony Williams—you can always tell it's Tony by his flam triplets. Or Neil Peart by his cascading tom fills. Or Bernard Purdie by his impeccable shuffle. Or Levon Helm by his deep, soulful groove.

Be a drummer, not this…

The 1st thing to realize is that you will never be Tony/Neal/Max/Ginger/Papa Jo/Buddy/etc. They each found their sound & style, so that's already taken. So unless you are playing in a cover/tribute band, that needs to reproduce what someone else did, you need to find your own thing. The 1st place to start is to look at your heroes and don't consciously copy them! It's that simple. Love what they do, but don't copy it. Take parts of it and reimagine it as your own. Put a different twist on whatever you take from someone else.

When you buy new gear, don't buy something just because your hero plays it! Buy something that you like the sound of and can use in the music you play. As much as I love the music Terry Bozzio is creating, I would never use his Radia Cymbals, because they don't fit the type of music I create. 

Nice cymbals, just not for me.

We all start off by emulating our heroes, by learning their licks, but there comes a point when you need to jump off and find your own thing. It doesn't have to be drastic, just tune your drums differently, set them up differently—Billy Cobham has his toms going from large to small, instead of small to large. Add percussion sounds or electronics—Pat Mastelotto, of King Crimson/Crimson Project/Stickmen, is a great example of this.

Pat Mastelotto - how could you copy this?


Here's a set up I put together for some solo percussion tours I did back in 2004-6. I was playing pieces composed specifically for this set up:

Solo percussion @ Woodland Pattern in October 2004.

The world already has enough of everyone else, what it doesn't have is enough of you. So go out and create your own voice.

~ MB



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Art Of Discipline Playing Live

As drummers/musicians, we spend years and years practicing in our basements/bedrooms/practice rooms. In fact, we spend the majority of our careers practicing somewhere. Our actual time performing live, on stage, is but a small percentage of what we do. So often when we finally do get to perform on a stage, many of us just want to cut loose, and play with total abandon and/or volume, because, we are like like a pent up race horse finally let out on the track.


But when playing live, this is the time we 
should, no, must have the most discipline!

It's all fine and dandy to play whatever you want, however you want, in the privacy of your own rehearsal syudio. And that's good. That is a time to experiment, try out new ideas, and just let it rip sometimes. But being on stage is another beast entirely.


Performing live requires a modicum 
of self discipline and editing.

If every musician comes up on stage, especially in an improvising setting, with the idea that “I'm just going to let it rip,” then things are headed for trouble (that is, unless you want the resulting cacophony). Self-discipline really needs to be brought to the stage.


A Recent Live Performance Example

This past Sunday, May 17, I was an invited guest at the monthly Seed Sounds performance series. I brought a rather extensive set up, mainly because that was what I had packed and ready to go. To try and pare it down would've been a logistic nightmare. So I grabbed what was ready and headed of to the concert.



The full set up

I brought Gongs, Bells, Cymbals, and a bass drum to use as a sound table. If ever there was possibility for overkill, this was it. I was playing along with trumpet/flute/bass clarinet (Rick Ollman), drums (Paul Westfahl), guitar (Cody Steinmann), and on the finale, piano (Steve Nelson-Raney). Other than the guitar, this was all acoustic, with no miking or sound system. With the Gongs, I certainly had the potential to drown out most of the other sounds being made, except for the guitar and some drum sounds. 

The 4 of us played one long 24 minute improv that ran the gamut from gentle ECM sounds, to spacey Pink Floyd, to intense King Crimson/Last Exit walls of sound. For the most part, I played very restrained and rather quietly. I listened to the music around me and tried to find places and sounds to fit more in the background than to say, “Hey, look at me!” Working with another drummer as excellent as Paul Westfahl, I tried to create sounds that didn't jump all over what he was playing. I often went for things that were in direct contrast to what Paul was playing: short/long, bright/dark, rhythm/random, etc. 

A good example is a sort of duet we played, where Paul was playing his whole kit, creating long washes of sound. In contrast, I played a small Bao Gong with a chime mallet, using the 3 different mallet playing surfaces to bring out different, shorter sounds/tones from the Gong. I also muted it against my fingers or leg, as well as playing it wide open. It would've been easy to just flail away at the big Gongs creating a big noise, but why? I found it more interesting to go for a smaller, more intimate sound and see what I could do with that.

3 excerpts from our improv. At 3:40 you can hear the Spoxe hit the floor.


Gong & drum duet. Photo by Wilhelm Matthies.

And upon listening back to a recording of the performance, I found that my playing blended in with what was going on around me more than standing out. And that's fine. I like the idea of adding color and texture to the music. I don't have to create big sounds so that I dominate things. This is such an important thing for aspiring musicians to understand:


It's better to support the music and blend with the sound 
than to let your ego take over and monopolize the music.

No matter what type of musical situation you are in, it should always be about the music first, and you second.

Carry on…

~ MB

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Sextuplet Exercise

It's been a while since I posted a blog that featured an actual notated drum exercise, so I thought I would post something I've been using with my students.

Here is a rather simple sextuplet exercise that is great for right & left hand balance, and is also a great warm up (play on pad, drum, hand drum, etc.). It's a repeating 5-bar exercise where each bar changes the sticking for the note pattern:



Here's the quick breakdown for each measure:

  1. Single strokes starting with the Right Hand.
  2. Paradiddle-diddles.
  3. Double Paradiddles - notice that the ending 8th notes are L R, so that the next measure starts with the Left Hand.
  4. Double strokes.
  5. Single Paradiddles - notice that the last paradiddle is 2-16ths & 2-8ths. This leads to the repeat starting with the Left Hand.
As drummers, we often tend to accent the 1st note of a given note group, like a sextuplet. 

There are no accents here. 

Play each note the same and make each measure sound the same, no matter what the sticking.

Variations:
  1. Add Bass Drum on the quarter notes and Hi-hat on 2 & 4.
  2. Add Bass Drum on 1 & 3, and Hi-hat on 2 & 4.
  3. Reverse the above 2 foot patterns.
  4. On drum set, play each measure on a different drum.
  5. Play the whole exercise as a crescendo, then as a decrescendo on the repeat.
  6. Change the dynamic each time you repeat: play it all f, repeat it p, repeat it mf, etc…
Have fun!

~ MB




Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Burning Down The House

We've all been there: dead ends, wrong turns, failed ideas. Sometimes you just have to be willing to start over, go back to square one. There's nothing wrong with that. The best and most successful people in history have all failed at one time or another. 

The trick is knowing when to stop, when to say no more.

Sometimes you have the greatest idea, you work and work on it, yet it still doesn't become something usable. 

Stop.

Take a serious look at it.

If the idea just doesn't work, toss it.

If the idea is still good, file it away for the future.





Nature does this. When a forest or prairie becomes too congested, a fire comes along to clear out the debris and overgrowth so new life and healthy plants can thrive. 

Sometimes we accumulate too much baggage along our journey.

Baggage of ideas.

Baggage of thoughts.

Baggage of rhythms.

These can clog our thinking and lead us into repetition of old ideas and stagnation of creativity. Don't be afraid to clear it all out and start fresh, start new.

What baggage is holding you back?

~ MB





Monday, April 20, 2015

How much of what you play is really wasted sound?


Think about your overall sound and presentation. 

How much of what you play is really wasted sound?

Think about what you are playing. Are you doing some things just to do them, or are they important to the music? Sometimes less really is more. We need to be good at self editing. Just as a writer might start out with a 2,000 word article, they will chop and whittle away, taking out all words that are not needed to convey the message. They may end up with 1,500, or even 1,000 words that are sharply focused and pack more punch than the bloated 2,000 words did.


Look at your own work and see how you can edit 
and focus what you play to be more effective.

Sometimes less really is more. 

  • More effective. 
  • More interesting. 
  • More connecting to your audience. 
  • And less can also make space for those small gestures to stand out, to be noticed.

~ MB