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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Forget Everything You Know

If you are reading this blog, the chances are that you've had drum/percussion training somewhere along your path. You may even have studied at University and earned an advanced degree. One problem with all that can be that we can't stop being a musician. Now you may ask, “How can that be a problem?” It becomes a problem when we are so caught up in the mechanics of things that we either miss or forget the music.

Letting go of your thinking mind…

One thing I tell my students is to model themselves on how athletes perform during a game or match. Think about a sport, especially something fast paced, like hockey, basketball, or tennis. When you are playing, you don't have time to think about what you are doing. You can't just stand there thinking, “The puck/ball is coming my way, I think I will do X,” because while you are thinking about doing, the game goes right past you. Instead, you play without thinking. You play on instinct, as a reaction to what is going on around you. This is not to say that you don't know what you are doing, because if you have put in your thousands of hours practicing (which is very different than performing) your moves and techniques, then you have built up the reflexes and instincts to be able to react to any given situation.

So too, it's the same performing as a musician. You should have put in your thousands of hours practicing technique, scales, rudiments, licks, etc, but when you get on stage you need to let go of all of that and just play. 

Performing is more of a stream of consciousness endeavor than it is a series of thoughts.

You need to get your thinking mind out of the way to let your reactive mind take over. Otherwise you will be lost in the technique and miss the music. This is not to say that you never think, because you do, especially on difficult or tricky passages, you need to be present and thinking about what you are doing. But again, don't get so lost in the technique end of things that you lose sight of the music. A computer playing music is pure technique. But it's dull and boring, because it's missing the subtle variances that we humans provide. It's too perfect. The soul of things is lost. 

This is not to say that we shouldn't play precisely and strive to play the best. But don't spend your time just thinking about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Again, don't get so lost in the technique end of things that you lose sight of the music. 

Think of your favorite musicians, on any instrument, any style of music and how they just play the music. Look at any drummer, like Vinnie, Gadd, Carey, etc. Do you think they are thinking about technique while they are playing? Not at all. They are just playing and flowing with the music. The technique end of things was taken care of a long time ago by thousands of hours of practice. Practice to the point of making playing instinctive.

So remember:

  1. Practice and thinking about technique is for the practice room.
  2. Performing is all about letting go of practice and technique, and just playing.

~ MB

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Finding Your Own Sound - Redux

I know I sometimes go on and on about finding your own sound, and how the gear you play isn't your sound, but you are. Here's a quote from a great jazz blog, The Woodshed, written by saxophonist Mike Lebrun, that echoes what I've been saying:

Forget About Mouthpieces.
Charlie Parker played on any horn, mouthpiece, and reed combo he could get his hands on, and he always created the same, beautiful, distinctive sound that defines the music we continue to play. How was he able to do this? It’s not his equipment that made the sound. It was his conception.
In order to sound like yourself, you need to have a crystal clear idea in your head of what you want to sound like before you put any air into your horn. So save your money and stop buying new mouthpieces. Instead, find something that gives you a consistent sound and lots of control, and stick with it.
Invest some time in discovering and refining what you want to sound like. Then do whatever it takes to create that sound.
So here we are, someone else saying basically the same thing I preach to my students: “It’s not his equipment that made the sound. It was his conception.” And you will consistently find this in many great players, they can play any gear and still sound like themselves, because they are the sound. 
I also think this rings true: “Invest some time in discovering and refining what you want to sound like.” And this really comes down to taking the gear you have right now and committing to it. Committing to finding the sounds you can make, the sounds you can use, and learning how to get those sounds at will. It’s always easy to just say, “If I only had a better/different ride cymbal,” but that’s just being lazy! 
Do the work.
Do the practice. 
Make things happen.
~ MB