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™

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Art of Trusting Your Work

For me, I can’t separate art from life, because my art is my life. And I always find it interesting when my inner monologue has a discussion about something I’m doing. One side is conservative and says, “You might not want to go that far, because people won’t get it, or understand it.” The other side says, “Go for it! This is who you really are.” And so it goes.

I sometimes get the feeling that outsiders think I’m not doing anything, because they don’t see any outward action going on. But what they fail to realize is that so much is happening inside, in my head. A lot of times when I’m working on something, I plant the seed and then step back a bit to let it germinate and start to grow. Then I care and nurture it. And this may take hours/days/weeks/months, even years—sometimes things need space more than anything else. But I’m always working, because my brain rarely stops. 

The result of this is that when something happens and comes together, it really comes together, often in larger and unexpected ways. This is no accident, but is the result of trust and caring, and letting things find each other until they explode forth like ripe fruit on a tree, ready for me to pick.  And the things I hesitate over, the things I question, are always the deepest and most authentic things I do. And when I release them into the world, they make the biggest connection with others. They get the most visible response, and they often take on a life of their own.

So what does this all mean? It means that more than anything an artist needs to develop a sense of personal trust. Over the years, it’s important to nurture this, to think about it, to work on it. If you don’t trust yourself and your own art, then you start to self-censor, to second guess, and to ultimately settle for something less than your best.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look at what you do with a critical eye and ear. On the contrary, it’s important to know when something isn’t working and needs to be changed or abandoned all together. Or even when it’s time to set something aside because the time is not right for it, for you, or both. And this is real trust, trust in letting something go, or in letting something sit in the corner until its time comes. 

Trust yourself everyday.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Making Career Decisions

Life as an artist in any capacity is really a life of decisions. There are the every moment decisions: what step/color/sound do I take next? My recent blog series on concept/gesture/texture took a close look at those types of decisions that I take every day as a percussionist. But there are also a series of bigger decisions that affect the direction, or arc, of our life long career: what direction do I go in? Which group do I join? How much time do I devote to this? What is my ultimate goal/s?

Career type decisions are often deciding to be a jazz musician, or a classical musician, or a pop/rock musician. What direction do I go in? Or you can decide to be all of them. For many of us, life is a filter and things change throughout our careers. When were are young, energetic, and hungry for experience, we often take every gig imaginable, in all styles, and in every type of venue. In fact, this is advisable, as experience is the best teacher, and by trying new and different things, we may set off in a new and different direction. And even if we don't change directions, we add a wealth of information to our music that we can now draw upon, and perhaps in a more subtle way, slightly alter the direction we are going in. Or we may not draw upon that information until much further along our career path, when it pops up like some sort of signpost telling us to look here (or perhaps to look, hear).

Whatever you do, make your choices conscious choices. Don't do something just because. At one time I played every gig I could get, but over time, I narrowed my focus down to the specific types of music and gigs I really wanted to do. I know I could work more if I took other gigs that I see around me, but I made a conscious choice to focus on what I'm most interested in, instead of giving only half my attention to other gigs just because I could play them. If I play gigs I'm not really interested in (perhaps for the money), then I not only do a disservice to the audience and the other musicians, I do a disservice to myself.

We are all free to choose 1 or more, or all things to do. But whatever your choice, make sure it is a conscious choice. 

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Art of Recording Without Stress & Fear

This question was recently asked on a Facebook Percussion group: What stresses you out most about recording in the studio? Click tracks, perfect editing, etc.

My answer, without meaning to be snarky, was, Paying for it…

And I meant it. Recording time in a quality studio with a good engineer is expensive. What stresses me out the most is having things go wrong, or not being prepared, and having to pay for any time wasted. When the session starts, the dollar clock is running.

Making The Most Of Being In The Studio

I always approach recording just like playing a live show and more. The 3 most important rules are:

1 - Be prepared.
2 - Be Prepared.
3 - Be prepared.

I can't emphasize this enough. Before you get into the studio, rehearse your material and rehearse it some more. There's nothing worse than wasting time trying to figure out something you should have known before you set foot in the studio. Rehearse your material and make sure you know it.

Next, know what you want to get out of your recording. What type of sound are you looking for? You should communicate with the studio/engineer in advance and even give them some recordings of the type of sound/vibe you are after. This helps the engineer prepare for the session too, instead of just showing up not having any idea of what you want to achieve.

Next, make sure all your gear is in working order! There's nothing worse than having a great session grind to a halt because of equipment failure. You then have to wait to either fix something, or replace it, and the vibe might be lost.

As drummers, make sure your pedals and stands don't squeak or make noise. Can you imagine getting a great take that is marred by a squeak you can't hide or edit out. 

The dreaded click track. If you are using a click, make sure you are comfortable playing with it! Work with it before hand. Don't just expect to show up and play to a click if you haven't done it before. You'll most likely be embarrassed and waste a lot of costly time. 

Repeat: practice to a click before you get into the studio.

Also be prepared to make changes, especially if you are working with a producer. They may hear things you don't because they haven't lived with the music like you have. Sometimes a good pair of ears from outside can help you get a better arrangement or to tighten up a song. 

These are just the basic steps. We could go into a lot more detail, as recording is a very expansive thing. But this is a good place to start.

I once recorded 3 different albums in a marathon 12 hour recording session. I was prepared, the engineer was ready, and we just got to work.

Are you prepared enough not to be stressed?

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

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™