Friday, February 17, 2017

A Conversation About 'Pitch Pairing' Drum Sticks

Drum sticks. Not a lot has changed over the years. They are still basically a lathed piece of wood with a taper and a tip on one end. Not really controversial in any way. But sticks are very essential to drummers, as they are direct extensions of our hands. The right stick can make all the difference in a performance.

This leads me up to a recent Facebook question and discussion about pairing and pitch matching sticks. I remember as a youth buying a new pair of sticks in a sealed plastic bag. Basically, what you bought was what you got. There was nothing done at the factory other than taking 2 sticks of the same size/designation, and putting them in the bag. I noticed back then that sometimes one stick would be heavier than the other. Or that one would be slightly warped. That was just the way things were, so you learned to live with it and got on to drumming.

Today's drumsticks: nice and neat

Today, sticks are usually in a cardboard sleeve, so you can take them out, inspect them, and even try them on a pad before buying. This is obviously a vast improvement over the old days. And sticks are also factory matched to pitch and weight, so not only do your sticks feel the same, when you tap them, they sound the same. This is great, but not the end all, be all that some people seem to think it is. You can still buy 2 pairs of sticks that will differ in both weight and pitch—that's just the nature of wood. 

You gotta keep 'em separated… 

That leads us to a few important performance aspects.

  • If you play snare drum in the symphony, you really do want a pair of sticks matched in pitch so that your press rolls sound smooth as silk. Or if you are playing Ravel's 'Bolero,' you want the snare drum pattern to sound even, with each note the same.
  • When you are practicing on a pad, you are by yourself and can hear every inflection and nuance. Ideally, a matched pair of sticks will give you the same, consistent sound from each hand.
  • But what, if like the majority of drummers out there, you play drum set? The mechanics here are completely different: one hand mainly plays on the cymbals, while the other hand mainly plays on the snare drum. If you have 2 different pitched sticks, no one will really be able to hear it. Also, within the context of a band, the sound difference between 2 sticks will easily be lost within the din of the other musicians playing. This is especially true in a heavily amplified band.
  • What about the drummer, who like me, buys 12 pairs of sticks and puts them in a stick bag, grabbing whatever 2 sticks to play with? I do know some guys who keep their sticks all separated and only use them as factory matched pairs, but really? Most pros don't have the time to worry about that.
  • There are also stories of certain legendary jazz drummers using 2 different types of sticks, because to them, playing the cymbals was very different than playing the snare drum.

Now this is not to denigrate the idea of pitch matching sticks. I actually think it's a good thing. It's especially nice when a pair of sticks weighs/feels the same in your hands. I like that sort of evenness. But when I play a gig, I bring a bag full of sticks, mallets, etc, and don't have the time to sort through things to find a perfectly matched pair of anything! I just grab something and get on with the music.

The moral of the story is: advertising slogans and selling points are great, just don't let them get in the way of creating the music.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Bit of a History Lesson

OK, I'm going to show my age here, but for those of you who always seem to complain about finding the right gear (I read a lot of drum forums), I just say, “Shut up already!” Really. If you are in your 20s or 30s (even 40s), you probably have no idea about how good you have it today when it comes to the availability and quality of new instruments. 
Looking Back In Time
Back when I 1st started playing drums 50(!) years ago, your drum & percussion selection was limited. Unless you lived in NYC, LA, or Chicago (where the major TV, radio, and recording studios were), there was no such thing as a drum store with a big selection of gear to look at and buy. It was mostly mom & pop music stores, with maybe 5 drum sets, a few snare kits, a few cymbals, and some accessories (like wood blocks, tambourines,  & cow bells) in stock. If they did a lot of school business, they might also have a xylophone, timpani, and other related small percussion. That was it! 

And the selection was usually limited to 2 brands (Ludwig & Slingerland or Rogers, Zildjian cymbals), possibly 3 (add Gretsch or Premier, maybe Paiste cymbals if a Ludwig Dealer, K. Zildjian if a Gretsch Dealer), in each store. And with drums, there wasn't all the selection of fancy woods (like bubinga, ash, etc), or different shell configurations. Most drum companies had 2 drum lines: professional & student. They both used the same shells, but the student drums had smaller sizes and less hardware, like single center lugs, to keep the costs down. Available drum sizes were limited also. Pro: 12/13/14/16/18 Toms, 18/20/22/24 BD. Student: 12/14 toms, 20 BD. And they all came in 1 standard depth, like 8X12. That was it!

1967 Ludwig Super Classic - Pro Kit (13/16/22/snare)

1967 Club Date - Student Kit (12/14/20/snare)

Move ahead to today 
Today you can buy just about anything imaginable! In drums, you can choose not only size, but types of wood, number of plies, type of bearing edge, and select from an amazing array of finishes. And some drum lines allow you to choose the type and finish of your hardware. 

It's the same same with cymbals. It used to be crash/ride/hi-hat/Chinese. Now there are more sizes and types of cymbals than you can count. I actually counted Paiste's offerings a while back, and they offer more than 500 cymbal types & sizes! Thats a lot of choice from just 1 company. Now add 10 or so other cymbal makers, and there are thousands of cymbals to choose from.

And again, it's the same thing with heads. Back then, it was coated REMO or Ludwig heads in a thin (orchestra) or medium (band) weight. And calf skin was still an option. Today there are hundreds of head types and weights available.

We also have drum only stores, mega music stores, big box stores, and the internet. If you can't find what you want at a local store (or don't live close to a store), you can easily mail order from another store, or places like eBay and Reverb. And if you're looking for some obscure part for your old 1967 Ludwig, you can probably find it on the web. Not too bad.

The Quality of Today's Gear
Probably the most important thing today, next to the availability of everything, is the exceptional quality of everything out there. Even today's student drums offer very high quality for the price paid. If you buy a Pearl Export, Yamaha Stage Custom, for something similar; you get a great sounding kit, with great hardware that will not only sound good, but will last. It's the same with cymbals. There are some great sounding student cymbals being made today. I'm not afraid to gig with any student gear.

And there is also electronic percussion and ethnic percussion from all over the world. I remember back at university in the 70's, how difficult it was to buy gongs, bells, and other ethnic percussion. I had no idea what a djembe was then. Now you can find them in gift stores. 20 years ago, who even knew what a cajon was? Now they're everywhere!

So the next time you get bummed out about finding the perfect snare drum or ride cymbal, don't. Take a minute to look around you, and realize that you are very fortunate to live in an age when so much excellent, and affordable gear, is readily available to you.

We live in a percussion paradise.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Thursday, February 2, 2017

It's Still Always About The Groove

In my life/career, I've played so many different types of music: pop. rock, hard rock, prog rock, country, latin, fusion, dixieland, swing, jazz, classical, and on and on. One thing they all have had in common is the groove. 

It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)        
(Composition by Duke Ellington, lyrics by Irving Mills)

Yeah, jazz (and related musics) have swing - ding-ding-a-ding-ding-a-ding on the ride cymbal. But swing is just another name for groove. Other styles might call it something else. The music changes, the label changes, the swing/groove goes on. Even classical music has it. Mozart and Beethoven knew, they made their music groove in its own way.

Nowadays, I work mostly in improvised music. I hesitate to call it jazz, although many people do, because it lacks that distinguishing swing rhythm. Sometimes it's played along to some sort of rhythm, other times it's what people call free improvisation. The thing is, when I'm playing, I'm always thinking about the rhythm. Even at the most free and obscure, I'm still basing what I play on some sort of rhythmic pulse.

It's easy to listen to something I play and say, “There's no rhythm/pulse,” but that would be missing what's there. It's no one's fault, but more a matter of perception brought on by how we have learned to listen to music.

Most popular music, rock/pop, jazz, even classical, is divided up into short rhythmic fragments strung together to create longer phrases. For example:

Because of this, we are conditioned to hear short, repeating rhythmic phrases. This is one reason we are often uncertain about African, Indian, Asian and other ‘world musics,’ because their rhythmic phrasing is often longer, so it doesn't sit neatly within our expectations. Our ears/bodies haven't been trained to listen to, and pick up on much longer phrasing. Let's say a rhythmic pattern is playing that repeats after 21 beats. In normal 4/4, that would be over 5 measures, so our impatient ears may be struggling because we expect repetition after only 4 beats.

This all brings me to playing improvised music. While it may be interesting for a short while to listen to something that is total cacophony, sounding like all the musicians and their instruments are falling down a long flight of stairs, to me, that fails to sustain long term interest. 

When I play, I am always thinking of some sort of forward motion. This may contain playing some sort of regular pulse, or, playing a sustained stream of notes that are felt and divided up into irregular segments which are a part of the whole, the continued forward motion. Or I may be looking at a longer term sense of rhythm, perhaps arcing over 20, 30, 40 beats or more. Or, I may be looking at a rhythm where I don't know an end point, but I feel the sense of motion and follow it until it stops or changes.

This video is a good example of all these elements: 

At times I'm playing shorter rhythmic elements, even a bit of swing with the brushes, then it evolves later on into a sort of stream of consciousness of notes that keeps the forward momentum going, yet does away with standard time signature/bar lines/divisions. The music was improvised, but I was always thinking pulse/rhythm/groove. Nothing I played was just random.

Now when I'm playing solo, especially with the Gongs and other ringing metals, my idea of pulse is extremely broadened. Whereas playing in a rock band the rhythmic measures are only a few seconds long (and the corresponding drum sounds are very short), here I may be thinking of rhythms/pulses lasting minutes! With the ringing metals, I have longer sounds to work with, which helps create a broader sense of space within the music. 

This sort of meta-rhythmic approach looks at broadening our sense and awareness of time. Again, I'm always thinking of rhythm/groove (meta-groove?), but in a much wider sense that is not always readily apparent. Rhythm is there, but so is space between the rhythmic events. While we are taught to sense rhythm/beats, we are not taught to sense the space between those beats, so when the beats spread out, so does the space, and we are often at a loss to sense any sort of rhythm happening.

The thing is, we are naturally adapted to longer rhythmic cycles. Think of the seasons, the cycles of the moon and tides, or the changing day and night. Circadian rhythms are at the very heart of our existence.

(of biological processes) recurring naturally on a twenty-four-hour cycle, even in the absence of light fluctuations.

"a circadian rhythm"
 For most of mankind's existence, we were guided by circadian, or longer, rhythms: you got up when the sun rose and slept when the sun set. You planted in the spring, tended crops through the summer, harvested them in the autumn, and rested through the winter. 

But then the clock was invented and the machine age arrived, throwing all of our natural cycles off. Today, we are often slaves to our own machines: computers, phones, electronics of all types that keep us in line and on schedule. And so too our music, which is often at a frenetic pace, pushing us ever faster. 

Is it any wonder that we don't easily recognize longer and slower rhythms?

One thing I have my students do is to play whatever they are working on at extremely slow tempos. The idea is to feel the spaces between the notes and to recognize how the rhythm unfolds. When we play fast, it's easy to just go with the momentum, which is self generating. At a very slow tempo, that momentum must be generated by your awareness of the time & space you are moving through.

Another exercise is to take an 8 bar phrase from something you are working on and rewrite it without bar lines. Write it as one long stream of notes. Then when you play it, try to feel how all of these notes are connected in one long phrase/stream.

And if you work in a free/improvised setting, instead of just playing randomly, try to think in larger terms, thinking of all your notes connected, creating, if not a steady rhythm, a sense of flow and forward motion.

Deconstruct your sense of time.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Less Really Is More

 As musicians, we are always working on our craft (we should be), always practicing, always improving. That's important. The minute you stop, you start to degrade. You lose your edge, your facility. And as music evolves and changes, so should you. The way you played 10 or 20 years ago is not necessarily the way you should be playing today. Look at artists like Bowie and Prince, they played much of the same music over their long careers, but the music often changed to stay fresh, stay relevant. 

But let's look at technique. It's great to practice playing faster, better, in weird time signatures, etc. But how relevant is that in the real world, to the gig/s you play right now? Hey, I'm all for practicing everything, but the problem a lot of musicians have is building up all this technique, and an arsenal of licks to go along with it, and then thinking they can use it any and everywhere!

One thing I constantly tell my students is:

The song will tell you what to play.

Really, it's that simple. If you are playing a Motown type song, then it will dictate a certain type of playing. You're not going to try and play like RUSH there (at least I hope not!). The idea of all that time spent practicing is to have the facility to play what is needed when it is needed. I repeat: when it is needed.

Real genius lies not in doing all you can, but in doing just what is needed.

A bit of a story here: I was hired to record on a track. I showed up at the studio, unloaded my gear and set up. I went into the control room and listened to the track once, talked about what they wanted, then went in the studio and played. I tracked it one time, went back and listened to it, and they said, “Thank you”. That was it. It took more time for me to set up than to actually play my part. 

In many ways it was easy to do, but that's only because when I listened to the track, I listened for what it needed, not what I needed to play. There's a big difference. I practice all the time, I've come up with a lot of unique sounds and ideas, and it would be easy for me to impose them (and my own ego) upon whatever musical situation I am in. But that's not the way it works. Yeah, I'd love to show off all this cool stuff I can do, but I'm more interested in playing for the song. I'd much rather play what is needed to hopefully elevate the music.

But all this takes time to learn. I remember in my younger days often doing just what I wrote not to. I would impose the wrong musical ideas, usually playing way too much. It took time and maturity to temper my ideas and technique for the better. 

In the end, if you have the choice of playing less or more, always go with less. At least it's a better place to start, because you can always add to it as things move along. It's a lot like cooking: you wouldn't put a cup of salt in your soup just because you have it in your cupboard. You'd make your soup, taste it, then maybe say, “It needs a little salt.”

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, December 30, 2016

Learn to Take the Bad With the Good

I'm sure we've all had those moments, the moments when we've played 8 beats, or even a whole song/composition, that sounds amazing, wonderful, beautiful. And that moment is transformative, because it feels so good. And we sit back later, going, “Oh, that was great!” But then we look at the rest of our playing and start feeling terrible, because we see those moments as some sort of black hole that we seem to exist in: “If only I could play great all of the time…”

Playing great is, well, great.

Playing great is, well, great. But it's not everything. Yes, we should all strive to play the best we can, to make the best sounds, keep the best time, and just be the best we are capable of—but that can cause us to lose sight of the music. After all, we are here for the music. We are here to create something that comes together and becomes music. And sometimes music, and our performance of it, is less than great. But that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. 

Just the fact that we are there, in our practice studio or on stage, means something. Just the fact that we get up everyday and keep working at it means something. We all need to celebrate that! We also need to accept that there will be times when what we do, and the resulting music, will transcend time, space, and the Universe. We must also accept that there will be times when it seems ordinary. 

It's all good. It's all we can ever hope for. While we strive for the extraordinary, we often live in the ordinary, which is usually more extraordinary that we even realize. Our minds are funny things. We self criticize what we feel are our worst moments, when in reality, or through someone else's eyes and ears, they are perfectly fine moments. And they are just that: moments. They are here and then gone, never to come back again. Music is a continuum. It keeps moving ahead, never stopping to revel in a moment, or to chastise a different moment. It just keeps moving. And so too should we.

If you are making music, you are doing something wonderful. Go with it. Be in the moment and celebrate each moment as if it were the only moment you will ever have.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™ Each Moment

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Art of Listening VS Hearing

When you are practicing or performing, are you just hearing the notes? Is your mind just taking stock of the events happening: “I hit the snare. I hit the cymbal.” This is all well and good, but it says nothing about the quality of the notes being played. Is your whole performance a veritable shopping list of all the notes you played? If it is, that's what it probably sounds like: a list.

This especially happens if you are playing off of sheet music. You start the piece and your brain mentally catalogs all the notes played. When you finish, you can say, “There, I played all the notes!” But is that enough?

You hear, but are you listening?

It's one thing to make a sound—anyone can do that on percussion! It's a completely different thing to make a quality sound, and even more so to string multiple sounds together in a way that makes music.

The Infinite Monkey Theorem
The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. (Courtesy of Wikipedia) 

2B or not 2B? 

Now this is all a fanciful metaphor, but the same could be said about percussion: 

A 5-year old kid hitting a drum set for an infinite amount of time will almost surely play the drum part to (name your favorite song).

But the big question is: will it be music? As I stated earlier, anyone can play percussion and make a sound. It's not that difficult. The 5-year old kid could make quite a racket. But what about the quality of that sound?

When you play, don't just hear your notes, listen to them! 

Hearing is passive

We hear things around us all the time, like traffic, airplanes overhead, the train in the valley, children playing, electronics beeping—but we don't actually listen to them. 

Listening is active. 

When you listen, you hear the note, but you also notice the quality of the sound being made. You notice if it is soft or hard, loud or quiet, ringy or muffled, sharp or dull. And in listening you also notice that you are controlling these sounds you make.

Are you playing a sharp sound when a dull sound is called for? Are you out of time with the other musicians? Does your sound blend with the music? These are the type of things we need to actively listen for in order to play music and not just recite a list of notes.

But this all takes time to develop. Most of us are naturally used to hearing. Listening is a skill that needs to be worked on. The next time you practice or perform, listen to the notes you make. They don't live in a vacuum. They exist in this world and exist with the other notes around them. Notice the sound you are making and the quality of that sound. Notice especially if you are making it on purpose, or just hitting things.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I'm Not Your Time Keeper

Today's post reaches a sort of milestone: this is 'Percussion Deconstruction™' #250! When I started writing this blog back in March, 2011, I never imagined I'd still be here nearly 6 years later having written so much. I want to thank readers both old and new, especially anyone who has been here since my first few posts, for reading all my words over these years. Here's to the next 250!

I'm Not Your Time Keeper

Contrary to popular opinion, the drummer is NOT the time keeper of the band. Everyone is. That's right, everyone keeps the time. For all musicians to rely on someone else to provide the time is a very foolish idea. Yet I'm surprised at all the times when someone else in a band I was in, relied on me to be their guide, providing some sort of time measurement (as in the metronome beat), and also some sort of guide as to where they were within the song (as in the song structure of verse/chorus/bridge). 

How can people play music without a sense of time?

As a drummer, if you've ever had to work with someone who has no sense of time, it can be a nightmare. Being in a band is essentially a team sport, where everyone has to work together to successfully create the music. When one person has no time sense, it tends to drag everyone else down. I've worked with a few bass players who were all over the place: rushing, dragging, inconsistent. The music never was able to settle into any sort of groove. I was never able to relax, because I had to always try to keep some sort of middle ground beat, just so the music would hang together. Not fun. 

Playing with people who are normally solo performers can be the worst experience. When performing solo, you don't have to worry about staying in sync with anyone else, thus some solo performers tend to develop a style that just wanders around: the time speeds up and slows down, and song structure often disappears (“I think I'll just go to the chorus now, even though I'm not done with the verse.”) How listeners will put up with this is beyond me. I remember years ago playing a weekend gig with a person who was a rather legendary singer who had absolutely no sense of time or song structure. It was embarrassing to say the least. I never took a gig with them again.

Repeat after me: The metronome is your friend. 

I don't understand why some musicians, especially drummers, are so hesitant to practice with a metronome. Some people say they don't want to sound robotic, but that's a lame excuse, and if you sound robotic, that's more a personal tendency whether with or without a metronome. Working with a metronome is essential for any musician who is serious about their music.

I think part of the whole problem starts with musicians misunderstanding the function of the metronome. Just like the drummer, it is not your time keeper. 

You do not follow a metronome, you play along with it.
The biggest mistake I see people do is trying to follow a metronome. This doesn't work because you will always be behind the beat. Look at it this way: by the time your ear hears the metronome, then sends the signal to your brain to process, then sends the signal to your limbs to play, that beat is long gone. You are caught up in perpetually being behind.

If you can hear the metronome, you are either ahead or behind.
The idea is to play with the metronome. You shouldn't hear it or notice it unless you are out of sync with it. It's the same as playing with other musicians, you don't wait for them, you play along with them. The metronome is no different. When you practice with a metronome, let it play for a bit to establish the tempo. Listen to it and feel it. Then, count off and play along, playing on top of it. If you are in time with it, you shouldn't notice it. If you do notice it, then adjust your playing until you are back in sync. But remember, don't listen for it! When you listen, you get behind, or worse yet, you start to anticipate where it will be and get ahead. Just relax and play like it's not there, only noticing it when you are out of sync.

The same thing goes for click tracks, drum machines, and loops: don't listen for it! Play along with it.

Also, practice at various tempos. The idea is to develop a sense of time within yourself at various tempos. I see too many people who practice everything within a narrow time frame, like 100-120BPM. When they have to play a really slow song, they are in trouble because they have to deal with all the space between the notes and have no real sense of how to experience it. Practice at all different tempos so you can play in time at all different tempos.

When you listen to recordings made in the 1960s and 70s, they didn't use a click track, yet the music is in time and feels good (I'm listening to Led Zeppelin as I write this. Kashmir is now playing. John Bonham is rock solid, yet not robotic. He knew time). All these musicians worked to develop a sense of time. You need to work at it too.

Be mindful of your time.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™