Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Experience of the Live Experience

(Listening to the Sounds In Your Head)

Playing improvised music is an interesting experience. While you can practice rudiments, beats, scales, and other ideas, you can't really practice improvising. Sure, I can play away in my studio all day long—and I do, working on ideas, looking for sounds, finding different techniques—but it's not the same as playing in front of people, or with other musicians. This is because, at least for me, improvising is a reactive experience. When I'm playing in an improvised setting, I'm reacting to everything around me: the room, the audience, the other musicians, my mood, and even how my instruments sound and react at that specific moment. This is very different from playing notated music.

Because of this, I find that playing live is always a new experience for me. Rather than playing in a band and following a set list, where the same songs are played in the same order every performance, I never know what to expect. To me, the most exciting part of this is discovering new things, new sounds, new rhythms. Even after all of these years playing, I still discover new stuff each time I perform. 

But this all doesn't just happen. When I play, it's based upon years of study and practice (yes, practicing rudiments, beats, scales, and other ideas). It's also based on a lot of trial and error, where I've experimented and figured out what works and what doesn't. Nonetheless, It's important to me to not just recreate exercises or patterns that I've worked on in practice. 


What sounds should I choose tonight?

The things I've worked on and learned are just starting points. They are tools in my tool box and I might never use them, or use them for a very short time. The idea of reacting to the moment is most important. When playing live improvised music, there isn't the luxury of taking the time to think about what you want to play. For me it's an ongoing process of hearing sounds/rhythms/ideas in my head in real time, and then reacting to that by grabbing an instrument/mallet that matches the sounds/ideas in my head. I may even choose to not play anything because what I'm hearing from the other musicians is enough and doesn't require me to interfere with it.


Study hard. Learn a lot. Then forget it all.

A good example of all of this is a recent gig where to my surprise, most of what I played was either new, or it was a new version of something I've done before. I was just following the music being created, and it lead me to new territory. Part of this newness was my instrument selection. I looked around my studio and made a conscious decision as to what instruments and mallets I would bring to the gig. I looked at things, hearing their sounds in my mind, and seeing if I was feeling those sounds. While I have a standard set up, that doesn't mean I will always bring it, or bring all of it. Sometimes I don't bring instruments so I can't rely on ideas/licks that are too close to the surface and end up falling back on what to me are, clichés. 

The other side of this is, that for me to try and recreate what I did (no matter how great or exciting is was), just wouldn't work, because it was product of the moment. At some future time, I may revisit some of those ideas, but they will be different versions, because the musical situation will be changed.

I also compose and play a lot of notated music, where the goal is to recreate the same music every time. This takes a very different approach and mind set. I find that I need to be able to think in 2 completely distinct ways. I don't find either way harder than the other, just different.

What goes on in your head when you play?

~ MB



Deconstruct Yourself™








Friday, July 29, 2016

Serving The Situation

Different situations require different approaches. If you do the same thing in each situation, you might not be doing the best thing for each situation. I find this is often a difficult concept for younger drummers to understand. I think this is mainly because younger drummers routinely only have one concept of how to play drums. Now this is not their fault, this is just a product of inexperience. As we learn and grow, we also hopefully expand our horizons. 

At 28, you should know more than you knew at 18. At 38, you should know more than at 28, and so on. It's only when we get older, that we can look back upon the arc of our career, and see things with clarity. Experience is indeed the greatest teacher.

This leads up to today's topic: serving the situation. I think even for many experienced drummers this can be a great reminder/refresher. If you play mainly in one band, or one musical situation, when you need to play outside of that, your instinct might be to bring the same experience to the newer situation. So let's look at some different approaches.

Live vs Studio

This is always a big conversation with as many opinions as there are drummers. First, let's look at the difference between the two situations. Live is a very in the moment experience. You play the music and it's gone forever. For the audience, each song is much like a train going by. You don't have the time to concentrate an any one car, because things keep moving. Eventually the train goes down the track and disappears. Then another comes along and the whole thing is repeated, although with many differences.

How we play serves the bigness of the moment. Live, we may want a specific type of sound, so we use specific drums and cymbals that project more. Our playing may be made of more big gestures and fewer notes that are played harder, because we need to project.

The studio is very much like a musical microscope that looks at everything you do in great detail. Because of this, small gestures that may get lost on the live stage, are magnified and visible to the listener. Sitting within a forest of microphones, the need to project is not as important, thus you may choose to use different equipment. Smaller drums and cymbals are much easier to control and often can lead to a cleaner, better recording. So many drummers use different gear live vs in the studio.

Another aspect is that a recording is forever. People can, and will, replay the music over and over. Musical elements that you add to the music can be looked at by the listener under their own microscope. Things that in a live situation will come and go, remain with a recording. In the studio, great care must be taken to make sure everything is in place and correct.

Serving the Song

As a young drummer, the tendency can be to play your favorite licks or flashiest beats in any situation. “I worked on this for weeks and it's a great way to show off my technical prowess.” Ah, the exuberance of youth. But just because you can play something doesn't mean you should. As you get older and more experienced, you (hopefully) learn to self edit your playing. 

Why do drummers like Jim Keltner, Steve Jordan, and Steve Gadd get so much work? They always serve the song. All 3 of them are great drummers, possessing great technique, but they've learned to play what the song needs, not what their ego needs. They often play extremely simple parts. It takes maturity to decide and play just a shaker and a bass drum on a track because that is what fits the music best. Learning to self edit is one of the most important things. 

I find that as I get older, I tend to play less notes, but each note has more meaning.

The Gear Equation

Many big name drummers have a lot of gear, some even have a small warehouse filled with drums, cymbals, and percussion. This is not necessarily because they are rich. More often than not, it is because they use different gear in different situations. They realize that one set up doesn't necessarily cover all musical situations.

A good example of this is Steve Smith. He is currently out on tour playing drums once again for Journey. For this tour, he put together a big, double bass drum kit. In various jazz situations, he tends to use a smaller kit and different types of cymbals. I've seen Steve use a small 10/13/16" BD Jungle kit live, because it fit the situation. Using the Jungle kit in Journey wouldn't work. Conversely, using the huge double bass kit wouldn't have worked in the same gig where he used the Jungle kit.

Steve Smith with his Jungle Kit

Similarly, I've seen Paul Wertico play a gig using a single headed REMO Legero kit. The thing to remember is that each situation is different from another. Make conscious choices about what you play musically, and what you use gear wise. Don't just look at each situation as the same.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™







Friday, July 15, 2016

Digging Deep and Finding New Vistas

David Bowie constantly changed throughout his career. He could've been Ziggy or the Thin White Duke for the rest of his life, but he kept changing and evolving. The same with Prince. He could've just stayed as that guy in Purple Rain, but he kept changing and evolving. Björk could've stayed the sort of elfin pixie of her early albums, but she kept growing, changing. She took a chance on revealing her personal heartbreak and tragedy on her 2015 album, Vulnicura. The result is a very intimate and stunning recording.

There is only one Björk, and you never know what to expect.

The same can be said for composers like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Iannis Xenakis. Cage could've kept writing music for tin cans and everyday objects, like Third Construction, but he moved on, creating all types of different music for all types of different instruments. Stockhausen moved through electronics, choral music, massive opera stagings, and much more, all with the same ease. Xenakis, an architect by trade, constructed music of both immense gesture and sublime beauty.

Stockhausen, a string quartet, and 4 helicopters—genius or madness?

One thing could be said of genius, it has a restless spirit. But you don't have to be a genius to keep evolving. Perhaps the antithesis to genius is fear. 

Fear that you will fail.
Fear that no one will accept your new work.
Fear that you are out of ideas.
Fear that you are too old to reinvent yourself.
Fear that you won't make any money.
Fear that no one will understand your work.
Fear, fear, fear.

The great ones who we look up to have fear, but they face it. Bowie was 68 and dying from cancer, yet he produced his most stunning and amazing work in Backstar

Too old?
Too dying?
Too afraid of moving forward? 

David Bowie, still reaching for the unknown, even at the end.


He remained focused and creative right up to the end. He could've given us some sort of Ziggy Stardust recreation, and it would've been accepted. But he pushed himself and created something new that tied into all his previous work, a sort of summation of his life and career. And it's been hailed his masterpiece by many. 

Keep searching. Keep stretching. Keep growing.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™


Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Stories We Tell Ourselves


 I'm a storyteller. I tell stories with percussion. I use different sounds that bring up memories, so the stories I tell, are your own stories. The stories you live. ~ MB 
I have a new album/live performance called, Stories We Tell Ourselves, that I debuted at a performance last night. It's a combination of everything I've ever experienced in my life, but mostly it's stories I've collected from performances, from people talking to me after Gong Meditations, and my own personal interactions with visual art.


Stories We Tell Ourselves: a book in 13 musical chapters

with a 30 minute bonus narration track.

The idea was born out of my recent experiences playing in various art museums and galleries. I'm an extremely visual person, so visual media informs much of what I do. Playing in museums and galleries gave me an opportunity to 'see' my music differently. I looked for connections between the music and the art works surrounding me. It seemed important to make those connections and create a bridge between music and visual art. And people responded to my stories and connections. 

The other part of this is stories told to me by people who were at my performances. People often tell me afterwards how certain sounds trigger memories they have. I've found this interesting, as music is a powerful trigger. Many of us can remember exactly when and where, and what we were doing when we first heard a certain song. How many couples have a special song? How many events have a theme song? Music is a strong connecting force and can easily conjure pictures in our minds.

We can look back at theater, films, television, and radio, where before today's electronics, percussion was often used to recreate sound effects, or create various moods. Percussion was integral to the telling of the story. The sound of a Gong brings to mind Asia, or creates a dark mood. A snare drum brings up visions of a marching band or parade. A triangle or bell signals some sort of warning or announcement. I could list hundreds of different sounds and each one would bring up some sort of memory.

Rather than just playing music and making sounds, think about the stories you are telling to your audience.


~ MB



Deconstruct Yourself™

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Courage To Throw It All Away

A tale of taking my own advice and deconstructing my own work.

Over the years, instead of spending money to rent a recording studio, I've little by little put together a modest home recording studio. It's really just designed for me and my own percussion music. It's become so filled with instruments that there's little room for anyone else. So it's become my own personal workshop where I can experiment and tinker with musical ideas, recording as I go along.

In June, 2015, I started formally recording what would become my next all percussion album. It would use Gongs, bells, bass drum, frame drum and lots of small percussion. I recorded about 10 tracks then went on vacation. When I got back, I was thrust into various other musical activities. Meanwhile, I would tinker on things between gigs, recording something new here and there. At times I was so busy that I didn't unpack my gear, so I didn't have a chance to record anything. 

One problem with having your own studio and not having to watch the clock, is that you end up taking too much time to do things.

Fast forward to January, 2016, and I was off to Australia to Play at the MONA FOMA festival. I'm an extremely visual person, so much so that I see music more as visual impressions than actual notes. MONA FOMA was held in a fantastic museum, which was very stimulating for me to play in. I played 8 concerts in 5 different locations.This had a great effect on me, and I tried to connect my music with the art surrounding me.

In February, I played at a museum here in town, the Charles Allis Art Museum. I was leading sound tours through the museum. I had set up percussion in 5 different rooms and designed music that related to the exhibit in each room. I even wrote stories/dialog to tell to the people before each mini performance. A few weeks later, I played in a local art gallery, again feeling a sense of interacting with the art that surrounded me.

Fast forward to April & May, when I had a break and started to record more music for my solo album. And now it's June, and I spent the 1st week going over 22 tracks I had accumulated. I listened, mixed, and mastered them all. Then I started to pick the ones I would use for the album and sequence them. Things were fine until I actually started to listen to the tracks all together as one album. While individually they were all great, as a whole, they just didn't work.

New toys…

So much had changed and evolved over the past year. My head now is in such a different space than it was in June, 2015. So many experiences have happened, both musical and otherwise, to change who I am today. And there are other factors, like how the drum tuning and sound changed, so it wasn't consistent for each track (some tracks used a single headed bass drum, some used a double headed one). And there were also a lot of new instruments I have acquired that weren't on the old tracks. But most of all it comes down to how much I've grown and how much my musical vision has changed over the past year.

We all change over time. I'm used to usually working very quickly to capture the moment.  But in this case, there were many moments, and each one was different. So what was I to do?

I decided to throw away everything I had recorded and re-record the whole thing in one session, just like a live performance.

The aftermath…

This is not as crazy as it sounds, because I have lived with this music for the past year and played it in a variety of settings. I know how it goes and what I want it to sound like. So I set up everything, turned on my recorders, and played it all from start to finish, in the order it goes in. A few hours and, Boom!, it's done. 1 hour of music that is completely coherent from track to track, just as I envisioned.

I gave it some time and then started mixing it. It sounds great. All things are in place, and there's a certain magic and energy that was missing from the other tracks together. And most importantly, it's coherent from start to finish. As a bonus, I'll be playing it live in a concert next week.

The moral of the story: even after you've put in a lot of time and effort on a project, don't settle if you don't really believe in what you have. You'll forever regret it. It's better to take what you've learned and start fresh, ending up with what you want, what you envisioned in the first place.

Watch for Stories We Tell Ourselves to be released this month…

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™






Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Digging Deep and Finding New Vistas

David Bowie constantly changed throughout his career. He could've been Ziggy or the Thin White Duke for the rest of his career, but he kept changing and evolving. The same with Prince. He could've just stayed as that guy in Purple Rain, but he kept changing and evolving. Björk could've stayed the sort of elfin pixie of her early albums, but she took a chances and kept changing what she does. She plays many of the same songs on tour, but rearranges them and gives them new life with different instruments: a brass band, a choral group, a string section, electronics. She took a chance on revealing her personal heartbreak and tragedy on Vulnicura,  her latest album. The result is a very intimate and stunning recording.

Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes…

The same can be said for composers like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Iannis Xenakis. Cage could've kept writing music for tin cans and everyday objects, like 'Third Construction,' but he moved on, creating all types of different music for all types of different instruments.

One thing could be said of genius, it has a restless spirit. 

But you don't have to be a genius to keep evolving. Perhaps the antithesis to genius is fear

Fear that you will fail.
Fear that no one will accept your new work.
Fear that you are out of ideas.
Fear that you are too old to reinvent yourself.
Fear that you won't make any money.
Fear that no one will understand your work.
Fear, fear, fear.

The great ones who we look up to have fear, but they face it. Bowie was 68 and dying from cancer, yet he produced his most stunning and amazing work in Blackstar

Too old? 
Too dying? 
To afraid of moving forward? 

He remained focused and creative right up to the end. He could've given us some sort of Ziggy Stardust recreation, and it would've been accepted. But he pushed himself and created something new that tied into all his previous work together. And it's been hailed as his masterpiece by many. Quite a feat for a dying man.

So what about us mortals? 

I realize that a lot of artists are content to keep doing the same thing over and over, because it pays and they have a comfortable lifestyle. I can't argue that, nor condemn anyone who makes that choice.

But what about the others, the dreamers, the if only types? How many times can you play a cover song, like Proud Mary, choking it down like a dry sandwich caught in your throat, just because it brings in a paycheck? How many times can you do one thing, while something else burns deep inside you? 

Bowie knew his time was limited, yet he burned fiercely, creating something new and different, when he could've just called it a day and lived on his legacy. 

Prince didn't know his time was up, yet he kept stretching things, playing a solo tour, with just himself and a piano, in the weeks before he died.

If you've got something you need to say or do, then say or do it!  If you are too comfortable, then deconstruct what you do.

Don't wait. 
Don't hesitate. 
Don't be too comfy in your life.
Don't worry what others will think.

JUST

GO

DO 

IT


~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Taking Lessons From A Non-Drummer

Lessons. Many of us have studied with private teachers, whether in school, or on our own. As drummers/percussionists, we may have studied drum set, marimba, timpani, etc. with another drummer/percussionist. Our lessons were probably filled with rudiments, scales, and rhythm. I'm all for that. I think studying can only help us to improve our musicianship. In fact, many professional/famous drummers continue to study with a teacher. Oftentimes this sort of older student/teacher relationship is more that of a mentor, or coach. But it is still studying to improve yourself.

Studying with a fellow drummer/percussionist is great and can really help us get our technique and all the little details nailed down, but it can also be a bit myopic. That's where studying with someone who doesn't play drums can really help us. All that drumming stuff we like to obsess over is great, but when you have to play in a band and react to what other instruments are doing, that stuff doesn't matter as much. Do you think the bass player cares about your 5-stroke rolls? Probably not, unless you can't play them in time.

Not everything you need to know is in a book

Think about the other musicians you work with, how much does it really matter to you about all the little bits and pieces of what they do? Probably not much. What matters is that they are in tune, in time, and know the music. 

It's time to think outside of the percussion box. 

Look for another instrumentalist who you can study with: guitar, sax, piano, anything else. The idea here is to not study the obvious rudiments and technical things, but to study the music. A big advantage is that we can get a totally different perspective from a non-drummer. They can often see thing we can't because we always look through percussive eyes. Someone else can give us insights into how to play with other musicians, how to fit into a band situation, and most importantly, how to be more musical. Unless you strictly play alone at home, you have to be able to work with other musicians. All the drum technique in the world doesn't matter if you can't swing/groove or play in time with other people. 

And this process doesn't necessarily have to be weekly/monthly lessons. It can be more informal get togethers now and then, or even just discussing music, without even playing any instruments, with a more experienced musician. Not all the things we need to know are in music books or in the music itself. Having a mentor to help coach you can be invaluable.

Keep on learning!

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™