Sunday, January 25, 2015

There Is No ‘Better,’ Just ‘Different’

This weekend has seen the NAMM show happening in California. And all the drum/cymbal/percussion companies are showing off their new wares. So this is a good time to talk about all the instruments we use. There is a prevailing sort of relationship with our gear where we often say one thing is better than another. “Pearl drums are better than Ludwig,” or, “Sabian is better than Zildjian,” etc. Now all of this sort of thinking is fueled by the glossy drum magazines and the ads in them proclaiming gear that is bigger, better, best. But that's a fallacy we buy into.

What is the best gear for you?

Ponder this for the moment: what is the best gear for you? There is no one answer to this. The answer for you might be: the least expensive, the loudest, the shiniest, the sturdiest, the prettiest, the most sensitive, etc. We each have different needs. What I need in a drum or cymbal is probably different than what you need. 

My criteria for a drum is that it is round, and when I put my choice of head on it that I can get the sound I need/want. My criteria for a cymbal is that it produces the sound I need for the music I am doing. Nowhere do I look at who makes it or where it comes from. That is immaterial as far as the end result—the music. Does the music care if I am playing Pearl, or TAMA, or Ludwig, or Craviatto drums? Not in the least. The music, and listeners, only care that I am producing the right sound, at the right time, for the music that is being played.

This is not to say that I don't prefer some brands over others. I have found some brands that tend to produce, or allow me to easily produce, the sounds I want more than others. There are some drums that I prefer the features, like throw offs, hardware, etc. to other brands, but I never prefer something at the sacrifice of the sound. And just because one thing works well for me doesn't mean that it will be right for you. 

We all have different needs and different expectations.
That is why artist endorsements, and the ads/publicity around them are a double edged sword: they can possibly point the way to a sound you can use, but they can't be taken at face value—“I need this because (famous drummer) plays them!” In buying into that myth you do both yourself, and the music, a disservice. This gets particularly sticky when an artist you admire, and perhaps play the same gear as, switches endorsements. Does that invalidate your choice to play the gear you have? Do you now dump things and procure the new stuff? Or do you just play what you want/need to create the sounds you need no matter what the gear is?

Ponder this the next time you feel influenced to buy something because someone you admire is playing it…

~ MB

Monday, January 19, 2015

Great Advice From Great Minds - Part 3

This time we will look at 3 exceptional artists, who while different, are also very similar in their drive to create. While none of them are musicians, they all worked closely with music and musicians, as well as related art forms. Their ideas and advice are applicable to anyone working in the arts.

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was a French writer, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker. He was friends with, and worked with, such artists as Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. His works were widely praised for their originality and depth.
An original artist is unable to copy. So he has only to copy in order to be original.
Art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.
Art is not a pastime but a priesthood.
When a work appears to be ahead of its time, it is only the time that is behind the work.
Be yourself. The world worships the original.
Cocteau's thoughts are to the point. Art is not a pastime but a priesthood. We must think of what we do as more then just a pastime, we must be devoted to it. It is a sacred endeavor that requires our full attention. Be yourself. The world worships the original. Think of your idols/heroes, whether they are Buddy, Elvin, Peart, Bonham, or someone else, the thing that attracts you to them is their originality. They are not like anyone else! Be your own self, your own artist, and not just a copy of those you admire.

Alan Watts (1915 - 1973) was a British born philosopher, writer and speaker who is best known for popularizing the ideas of Zen and Buddhism in the West, especially America. He is especially known for his many books, and his lectures, many of which were filmed or recorded, and are still available today. Watts had a way of distilling ancient Eastern thought in a practical way for application today. 

Advice? I don't have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you're writing, you're a writer. Write like you're a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there's no chance for a pardon. Write like you're clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you've got just one last thing to say, like you're a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God's sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we're not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don't. Who knows, maybe you're one of the lucky ones who doesn't have to.
Watts could just as easily said musician instead of writer here. If you want to be a drummer/percussionist, then just do it. And do it like it's the most important thing in your life.
This is the real secret of life - to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.
Echoes of Cocteau and many others. BE COMPLETELY ENGAGED. Do it. Devote yourself to it. There are no secrets, no short cuts. Just do it.
No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.
Be in the moment. Don't be thinking about what you just played, or what you will play, think about the notes you are playing, and give them your all. Music is a living entity and it only lives in the moment. When you inhabit that moment, your audience does also.

Twyla Tharp (1941-) is one of America's greatest dance choreographers. Her work has been performed around the world by the greatest dance companies. She is also the author of the remarkable book, The Creative Habit (which I highly recommend!). She also collaborated with former Talking Head, David Byrne, on the Broadway show, The Catherine Wheel.
Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.
You don't get into the mood to create – it's discipline.
You can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas... when you actually do something physical.
After so many years, I've learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That's why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves.

If you devote yourself and are engaged, you will have discipline to work on your art. You will also find that you need to have a routine, a practice, everyday in order to keep things moving ahead.
What is music about? You can't listen to one era, one composer, and know what music is about.
Don't live in a world with blinders on! Yes, you may really be into one type of music, one band, but you need to expand your horizons and listen to everything. This will broaden your experience and give you more ideas and inspiration. And don't stop there, pay attention to all the arts. Read books and poetry, view paintings and sculptures, watch films, attend dance recitals, and even try other art forms out for yourself. This doesn't dilute your musical experience, rather, it enriches it and gives you more to draw from as a source of inspiration and ideas. 

The best musicians and artists are not one-dimensional. They have many facets that are connected and feed each other. They live with a wider world view. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Great Advice From Great Minds - Part 2

Continuing with a series of blogs looking at Percussion from the perspective of non-percussionists, this time I take a look at composer/philosopher, John Cage. Cage had a singular impact on the arts of the 20th century like no one else. Beside being a composer and musician, Cage was an artist (drawing, paining, design, and other types), writer, philosopher, and mycologist (expert on mushrooms). He did a lot of work with dancers and artists of various genres, influencing countless people along the way. 

It can be argued that Cage was a percussionist, but that was only by default. In his early career, he had access to percussion instruments, so he wrote music for percussion, and in order to perform this music, he recruited his close friends and played along with them. Thus, some of the most iconic percussion music out there, was originally performed by a totally amateur percussion ensemble.

A young Cage with percussion

But as much as he is known for the many things he did in his life, his philosophy and ideas are perhaps the most far reaching and insightful, influencing a wide variety of artistic disciplines and beyond.
I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones. (1988) from Conversing with Cage by Richard Kostelanetz
Cage was all about moving forward, finding new ways to express himself. It's now 2015 and we still see many drummers out there chasing what Tony Williams, or John Bonham, did 30 or 40 years ago. In fact, so much of music today is a regurgitation of what happened in the past. Just listening to the latest music shows that it has become extremely homogenized—everything sounds the same. I'm all for nostalgia, but what about creating something new, something different? If Tony Williams and John Bonham were alive today, they'd most likely be onto something different than what they were doing when they died. Respect the past, but move forward in your thinking and playing.

John Cage at Ryoanji

In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all but very interesting. (1961) From Silence by John Cage

We often have a resistance to practice. A resistance to playing scales, rudiments, and exercises over and over. We find them boring. But maybe we just need to keep pushing, pushing through the boredom until we find things very interesting.

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. (1937) The Future of Music: Credo

The true beauty of percussion is that it is any and everything. Strike it, scrape it, rub it, throw it—anyway you make a sound on any object, that is percussion. Don't forget to look for those hidden sounds. Get away from the normal drum/cymbal/keyboard and find something different, something new. That is why percussion is fascinating.

Percussion is completely open. It is not even open-ended. It has no end. It is not like the strings, the winds, the brass (I am thinking of the other sections of the orchestra), though when they fly the coop of harmony it can teach them a thing or two. If you are not hearing music, percussion is exemplified by the very next sound you actually hear wherever you are, in or out of doors or the city. Planet?
The strings, the winds, the brass know more about music than they do about sound. To study noise they must go to the school of percussion. There they will discover silence, a way to change one's mind; and aspects of time that have not yet been put into practice… The spirit of percussion opens everything, even what was, so to speak, completely closed. (1989) From the preface Cage wrote for the book, Le Percussioni by Guido Facchin

Again, remember to move out of your comfort zones. Explore. Discover. Create. Seek out new sounds and new rhythms. Deconstruct what you know and what you are doing.

~ MB

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Great Advice From Great Minds - Part 1

Sometimes as drummers, we tend to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. We are lost in our own little drum world. It's also not easy to be self critical. We can't objectively look at ourselves from an outsider's perspective. That is why it is often invaluable to listen to what others, especially non-drummers, have to say about what we, or other drummers do. So I would like to present some outside observations:

Karlheinz Stockhausen

The following observation is from the late, great, German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen. This longish quote is from The Royal College of Music, Stockholm, May 12th, 2001. Stockhausen was responding to questions from the audience after a performance of “Kontakte,” which he wrote for piano and percussion playing along to an electronic score that he was mixing live. Stockhausen wrote a lot for percussion, and he was very particular about how his pieces were played. He and the other performers—Antonio Peréz-Abellán [piano & percussion], Andreas Boettger [percussion]—had been rehearsing the piece in Sweden for a few days prior to the performance. The question was asked, “Tell us some general things about the interpretation of the work.”

Part of his answer addresses the playing of the percussionist:
…Then begins the work, which I have done many, many times with the performers, to balance! Even this morning, yesterday, last night; this morning three hours – the main corrections, on my behalf, are dynamics; too soft, to hard, depending on the sticks. Most of the percussion players whom I have listened to have their own choice of sticks; it says “hard”, “soft” or “hard metal”, “hard wood” etcetera, what concerns the sticks, and many. Many times I have demanded players to change the sticks, and they cannot really know, and they say; “Well, what do you want?” etcetera. There is no fixed idea of just balance; no sound should completely stick out of the context; no sound should sound ugly, but it should all sound musical, even if it’s a log drum, but with a …[words lost in room noise]…, but it should [produce] a musical sound, which means have enough resonance, a good attack etcetera. There is an enormous amount of taste for the quality of the individual attack, the individual sound required, though I make them, maybe …[words lost in room noise]… of the intensity of the attack. Even in the piano, many times this morning, still, I corrected Antonio [Antonio Peréz-Abellán] for playing, at certain places, too hard, because the hall [the big hall – Stora salen – at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm] is very resonant; it has very good acoustics, so they [the musicians] are used to the rehearsal room – we rehearsed the last four, five days I think, in Hanover, in the rehearsal room, and now they came into this hall two times. Yesterday all day they have rehearsed without me; I had another work. Last night I came two hours, and this morning. The hall decides a lot about the dynamics as an overall intensity as well as the dynamics of the tape.

No matter what type of drummer/percussionist you are, and what type of music you play, these words should be taken seriously:

"…no sound should completely stick out of the context; no sound should sound ugly, but it should all sound musical…"

Think about it:

"…no sound should completely stick out of the context; no sound should sound ugly, but it should all sound musical…"

Here is an excerpt of Kontakte from the recent Mode Records release, Stockhausen - Complete Early Percussion Works, featuring Steven Schick on percussion, and James Avery on piano & percussion. I highly recommend getting the DVD version of this release, as you can watch the very excellent interpretations of Stockhausen's works. 

I dare say, that even in something like death metal/thrash metal, your drumming and sound should sound musical within the context of that type of music. It's not enough to just play the notes. To make music you need to give the notes life, and a big part of that life is creating a musical sound. Now in the context of the music you may be playing, that sound could be harsh, dissonant, or noise. In all things we do, context is important. For example, I would not bring a tightly tuned be bop jazz kit to play a heavy metal gig. Similarly, I wouldn't use deep, boomy power toms on a jazz gig. I also wouldn't bring a marimba to play a vibraphone part. Keep in mind the context of the music you are playing and make the appropriate sounds.

~ MB

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How Can I Find A Teacher I Trust?

Here we are at the end of 2014, looking ahead to a fresh new year. I'd like to thank everyone who has visited my blogs and supported my writing this past year. At this time many people make resolutions, or plans for the coming new year. From questions I receive, many people are looking to study their instruments more and advance their skills. So at this time spanning the changing year, I will post a few blogs about finding a teacher, and also about self study.

The big question: How can I Find a teacher, especially one I trust?

The following ideas can apply to finding a teacher for anything—music instruction, Yoga, meditation, arts, crafts, writing, cooking, etc.

Yes, there are plenty of stories of pushy, driven teachers pushing and driving their students to excel, but those tend to be more stories than anything. If you like to get yelled at and abused, well, maybe that will work for you. Each of us is different, so no teacher can work for every type of learner. I'm not saying you should find a teacher that won't push you, but the best thing is to find someone who matches your own learning style.

  • Ask a friend or someone you know for a recommendation. If someone you trust has something positive to say about a teacher, then that teacher would be a place to start.
  • Look up their website/blogs/reviews—anything that will help you get an idea of how they think, what their philosophy is, and how they teach. You are looking for someone that you can personally work with. If you can't get along with your teacher, then you may find yourself resisting what and how they teach. If you don't like what they do or who they are, why would you want to study with them?
  • When you find someone you are interested in, see if you can arrange for a trial lesson (paid for of course). That way you can audition the teacher and see how things match. Depending on the situation, you may need to sign up for one month of lessons at a minimum. This can be good, because you get a more indepth look at the teacher and their methods. Even if you decide not to study with them, you will most likely come away with having learned something of value, so it's not a total loss.
  • Avoid initially getting locked into some sort of long term lesson plan unless you are sure things will work out.
As a side note, I look at things from the same perspective as a teacher. I audition students and look for people I think I can help and work with. I've even sent prospective students to other teachers who I thought were more in line with what they needed. I don't want to just take someone's money every week. I do teach some at home, but I have cats. So I always have to qualify people with, “Are you allergic/afraid/against cats?” It's only fair to both of us.

  • Other things to look at: do you like the atmosphere where the lessons are taught? I've taken lessons in tiny, cramped music store studios, huge college halls, basements, living rooms, and everything in between. You are paying your hard earned money, so you should feel comfortable wherever you are taking lessons. If you are a non-smoker, yet the studio reeks of cigarettes, you may not enjoy taking lessons there.
  • Are they teaching you what you want? There are times we need to learn and work on things we might not want to, just to learn specific techniques or ideas, but overall, are you learning what you want to in your lessons? If you are interested in rock drumming, yet the teacher keeps presenting jazz drumming lessons to you, then maybe they are not the right teacher. 
  • How is the gear you are learning on? If the drum equipment is a mess/wreck, then you can expect your lessons may be the same. Look for decent gear that is maintained. You can't learn as much when things are falling apart. Sometimes compromises have to be made due to location, studio size, etc.  But things should still be viable to learning.
  • Finally, go with your gut: if anything feels icky, then it's not right for you. You need to feel comfortable AND safe. They could be the best teacher in the world, but if you don't feel comfortable at your lessons, you won't learn as much because you will always be on guard. Don't compromise yourself.

See you in 2015!

~ MB

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Finding Your Own Sound (Look Inside, Not Outside)

In further response to my last blog post, let's look at some specific drummer examples:

A lot of drummers rave about Elvin Jones', or Tony Williams', cymbals sound. The amazing thing is, neither of them played just one set of cymbals their whole career long. In fact, there is plenty of documentation of the myriad of cymbals each drummer used. The same with drums. Each drummer had more than one drum set, and even changed drum brands multiple times during their careers. They also went through various types and brands of drum heads, yet they always sounded like Elvin and Tony. Even when they played rental kits of drums and cymbals they had never played before, they still sounded like Elvin and Tony. Buddy Rich played Rogers, Slingerland, Ludwig—even Trixon—yet he always sounded like Buddy. Think about this!

My friend, Devin Drobka. He makes beautiful music no matter what he plays on…

I could make a list pages long of drummers in all styles of music, who sound like themselves, no matter what gear they are playing on. Yes, I realize that the manufacturers need to sell new stuff to stay in business (I like shiny new gear too). And endorsers usually have brand new drum sets when they go out on tour, so we can all marvel at those brand new sets. But endorsers often still have their old kits that they use to record with, or to play smaller gigs. They save the big shiny ones for the big tours.

The sound you make, it's all in your head, and your hands—literally.

Don't be afraid to make noise with what you have right in front of you. Make it now, in the present. Don't think, "If only I had that new…" That's a dead end. That's living in the future, which hasn't arrived yet. Be here now. Make music now. You have all that you need…

~ MB


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Letting Go And Forgetting

Practice, practice, practice. Practice has a purpose, but sometimes we forget it. Why should/do we spend hours and hours going through books, playing rudiments and exercises, and woodshedding things? The reason is 2-fold:

  1. We want to internalize everything so that it becomes a reflex, it becomes natural to do without having to think about doing it.
  2. We want our motions to become muscle memories so that we don't have to think about doing something, we just do it, because our muscles know what to do.

So we practice, practice, practice, spending hours and hours working on the same things until we get them down. But when we perform, it has to be different than a practice. When we perform we have to forget everything we practiced. Forget and just play. The last thing we want is to sound like we are going through exercises. So we have to get out of our way, let go, and just play, letting all the hard work we have internalized flow through us. That's why it's called playing music, not working music

Don't forget to play…

~ MB