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™

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth

I could easily just post this video and leave it at that. (You may have to scroll down a bit. Look for the video with Linda Perry):

Here's the transcript of what singer/guitarist/producer Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes) says about what happened while producing a recording session:

“One day I had (Cheap Trick guitarist) Rick Neilson in here, and he picked up this guitar that had just, that same day, that same set up, I couldn’t get a guitar tone from, because of the player. Right? I was just like, “what is wrong?” And I’d go play it and I’m like, “it sounds awesome…(she hesitates, like ‘it’s awesome but lacks something') I don’t get it. I don’t understand. And then the guy I’m recording in the band, just like, “I don’t understand,” and then we’re done, and then Rick Neilson came over and I had the same set up. He picked it up, and I’m just like putting record on, and he’s playing this guitar, and it was like, “What did you do? What did you do?” And I came running out like, “What did you do?” “I didn’t do anything.” “You didn’t touch anything?” “No,” And it’s the player. It’s the player that makes the tone. Same with drums. You can have the same drum tone, same everything, and a bad player will make it sound bad, and a good player will make it sound good. A bad player always—you know when you’re working with a bad player because you have to work harder at getting a sound. But you know, definitely, when you’re working with a great player, because a great player makes everything sound good. 

This is what I tell my students, my friends, my fellow musicians all the time. You are the music. It doesn't matter what the gear is. Whether you have a $6,000 Craviatto/DW/SONOR drum kit, or you pick up an old used Pearl kit for $200 on Craigslist, you've got to play it and bring the music from inside you that make any sort of magic happen. That new drum kit or ride cymbal won't make you a better drummer. Only you can do that.

I'm not saying to settle for cheap instruments, but don't get hung up on the need to always have something else, something better. The best instrument is always the one right in front of you. I've heard great musicians make killer music on lesser gear, while not so greats failed to be exciting with top of the line ultra expensive gear.

He's another story, this time about American jazz/improv drummer Gerry Hemingway. This is from the notes from the album You Be, by the trio he often plays in, BassDrumBone. They were on a European tour and were scheduled to record a new album for a small European label:

“You Be” was recorded in the fall of 1985 at the famous Ludwigsberg studio in Germany and is the third recording of BassDrumBone. Our producer, Stephen Meyner, had overlooked that I don't travel with a drum set,    so when we arrived, I was faced with rummaging through the closets and basement of the studio trying scare up something resembling a trapset. In the end you would never know it, but if you had a look at what I taped together out of microphone stands and toilet paper rolls, you would be amused. Another one of those “challenges”of being an improvisor. 
Listening to the recording, you really would never know what he had to play on was less than great gear. If you are any sort of traveling drummer, especially going over seas, you have encountered all sorts of rental drums/cymbals/percussion. Some of it is great. Some of it is not so great. But you make music out of it. 

When I was performing in Australia earlier this year, I just brought a suitcase of small percussion and mallets with me. I had given the festival a list of gear I'd like, and also had Paiste provide the Gongs I needed. I had picked out my Gong choices from a list of what they had available there, but none of them were the type/sizes I use in my own set up. Also, while I had wanted a small, symphonic type bass drum, I was always provided with a muffled rock kit bass drum. I took all this as a challenge and made the best music I could.

Work with the gear you have to make the music you hear inside. A real artist can get magic from anything. Be that artist…

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™ and just Make the Damn Music

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Moving Beyond Technique

As drummers, if we've studied at all, we've most likely worked with such classic books as, Stick Control, Accents & Rebounds, Syncopation, and other timeless books. Even after years of both practicing and performing, we may still be working out of those same books. Great books never really end, we just keep working at playing them better.

But playing better should only be one part of our approach. I'm the first to admit that I'm a perfectionist. I will work on things over and over (and over) until they are, at least in my mind, as close to perfect as possible. But along the way, I learned that it's important not to get hung up on perfection. I'm not saying don't strive for it, but just don't get so hung up on it that it becomes a block to moving forward with your music.

For some of us, it's easy to keep going, keep perfecting, chasing that imaginary goal of absolute perfection. But the price to that can often be losing the humanity of your playing. Technical perfection is just that: technical. At that point, you might as well just program it into a computer and have the machine play it. But perfection is often cold and sterile. This is why a lot of computerized electronic music seems to have no soul. It's missing the deviation, the unexpected, the imperfections that give it some humanity.

The thing to strive for is a happy medium, where perfection can exist to a great degree, but it is always tempered by your humanity. Back in the 1980s, I did a lot of drum machine programming for people (I bought an EMU Drumulator when they first came out, because I wanted to learn all about programming). But quite often, I wanted to say to people who hired me, “Just let me play this on real drums, because it'll sound and feel so much better!” But drum machines were the in thing, and I did what they payed me to do.

In the same vein, practice hard and strive for perfection, but don't forget to give what you play some life. Don't forget to leave some room to make it human. When drummers talk about their favorite grooves, they never talk about something a drum machine did. They talk about something a drummer did and marvel at the feel. Just remember, the groove is everything!

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, November 18, 2016

Further Thoughts on Recording

The question was asked, “What's the best way to get prepared for recording in the studio?” The easiest answer is, “Learn how to record things yourself!”

Seriously. We live in a wonderful age. If you own an Apple product, you probably have Garage Band included with it for free. Not bad. For under $500, you can add a recording interface, like the ZOOM U44, pick up 2 decent mics, and whatever cords you need. Then you can go on the internet and find all sorts of articles and videos on how to record.

Garage Band - free with Apple products

ZOOM U44 - under $200

RODE M5 mics - under $200

No matter what OS you use, there are many free or inexpensive recording programs to get you started. Often you can get a free lite version of some recording software included with a recording interface.

The next step is to record yourself, record your band, record your friends. Try different mic set ups, different rooms, different mic distances, etc. Just like learning to play your instrument, you need to practice recording! It's a learning process. 

As your knowledge and abilities grow, so can your gear. You can add more and better mics, a bigger interface, monitors, outboard gear, etc. 

While a lot can be done with a home studio, there are times when a bigger, professional studio will be the place to get the results you need. Now if you've been doing your homework, you will know the language and better be able to communicate with the producer and engineer. And while you're at it, when there is time, ask questions about what the producer and engineer are doing. Who better to learn from than the pros themselves? 

Also, while you are in the studio, instead of just hanging out in the lounge, or playing video games, pay attention to the whole process. Watch how the producer and engineer work. Watch how they shape the final outcome. Take notes. Take photos. Learn what mics and outboard gear are being used. If you get a drum sound you really like, learn how that happened so you can get that same sound again at another session.

The more you know, the more the chance is that you can have a say in the recording process. If you know what you are talking about, producers and engineers will be more likely to try your suggestions and experiment. I feel that it's ultimately important to form a partnership with the producer and engineer, instead of just having them tell you what to do.

Keep learning. Keep growing.

~ MB

Percussion Deconstruction™