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.

  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. 


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

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sometimes Small is BIG

As drummers/percussionists, we are often used to the grand gesture, that is, making a big noise and being noticed. But the problem with always making big gestures is that, after a while, they're not really noticed anymore. When you keep hitting people over the head with something, they tend to tune out after a certain length of time.

Sometimes small is big

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I visited the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. There's nothing like seeing original artworks up close, especially a major collection spanning the artist's career. You can really get a sense of how they worked, how they thought, and often what they were striving for with their works. Photos in a book or on a computer just don't do it. 

How big is this in real life?

One of the things you don't get from photos is the actual size of the works. Some works you think are really big end up being very small, and vice versa. While Dali did paint some extremely larger works (99.5 x 77.5 inches), many of his most famous paintings are actually quite small. Take Geopliticus Child Watching The Birth Of The New Man. Because of the extreme sense of detail Dali puts into this painting, photos give you a sense that it is a rather large work, but it's not. The painting itself is only 18 x 20.5 inches. That's not really big. But even in person it seems larger than it is. It's impressive and draws you in. And when you look closely, you notice the details, the little things. 

Geopoliticus on the wall at the museum, giving a sense of perspective

Dali's works are full of symbolism, but they are also often full of little things that you have to get up close to see. While with many paintings you need to back off to get the desired effect, with Dali, he often works on multiple levels. At a distance, you see one thing. Up close, you see another. Up close there are often little figures, little details that have meaning. And when the paintings are small, these details are equally small. But they still have big meaning.

So too with music and what you play. It's not always the biggest, or loudest, or grandest notes that have the biggest effect. Sometimes the tiniest sound, played at the right place, can really have the biggest impact on the music. And sometimes it's also a matter of not overdoing those small sounds: played once, it stands out; played more times, it's not so special anymore.

Don't forget small.

Don't forget the little details.

Sometimes small is big.

~ MB

Friday, March 27, 2015

What Can You Add To The Conversation?

It's so easy to get caught up in practicing, in improving your chops, in getting all those licks and riffs down. This is especially true when you are young and working your way up the musical ladder. I remember putting in hours and hours of practice when I was in high school and university. Sometimes it seemed like all I did was practice. 

But as I got older, and left the academic realm, I found I practiced less and less. Sometimes I felt guilty, like I was slacking off, or being lazy. But I never did get back up to the same level of practicing as I had at one time.

The usual motivation.

Once I left school, there was no carrot on the stick to reach for. So much of musical academia seems to be practice for practice sake, just working on your technique, your timing, all things physical. It often becomes a competition. A competition against other students, teachers, and even yourself, like you're trying to prove something to someone—anyone.

After you get out into the real world and start working, and start making music, then the game changes. You find out that nobody cares how fast you can play, or how many hours you practice. All that matters to them is can you play the music, and not only that, can you bring something to the conversation?

This is not music. It is a printed representation of music.

Music doesn't live in a vacuum. It doesn't even live on the printed page. It lives inside each one of us. If all you are bringing to the gig is what's on the page, or the same licks you copied from someone else and worked to death, are you really bringing anything.

Music is a conversation.

I repeat: music is a conversation. Tell stories, tell little jokes, tell people how you are feeling—don't just read them what's on the page. 

That is boring. 
That is not conversation. 
That is not being involved with the music or with the other musicians.

The listeners deserve better than that.
So do your fellow musicians.
And believe it or not, so do you!

So, what are you bringing to the conversation at your next gig?

~ MB

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A 4 Year Anniversary

This is a monumental post, as I celebrate 4 years of writing Percussion Deconstruction, and almost 200 blog posts! I never started writing this with anything in mind other than to write about percussion. I had no expectations or goals—just to write and share what I know, what I think. 

My previous blog, Vibrations, was attached to my old website and ran for almost 3 years and had 52 posts. Concurrent with this blog, I also write The Way Of The Gong, which has been going for almost 1 year, and has had 43 posts. Add to that all the articles I've written for Modern Drummer, AVANT, DownBeat, and other magazines, and I've written a lot about percussion/sound/music.

I've covered a lot of ground in those 4 years here. If you are new here, I recommend going back and reading the older posts. I'm still planning on collecting the best posts (some of them expanded/updated), plus some new material, into a book. Watch for that sometime this year.

To all my readers out there, thank you for giving me a read, and for all the interesting and wonderful comments. I must admit, after almost 200 posts here, it sometimes gets difficult to come up with things to write about, but I plan to keep going, as long as you keep reading.

Thanks again ~ MB