Saturday, September 24, 2016

What In The Hell Am I Still Doing This For?

Getting ready for last night's gig, I found myself struggling to haul all my equipment up and out of my studio and into my van. I found myself thinking, “what the hell am I still doing this for?” After all, I'm not a kid anymore and, I usually have to do this alone. While my gear is compact and only 8 cases, those cases get heavier every year I do this. 

The original heavy metal: bronze, nickel-silver, 
iron, steel, & aluminum, waiting for the gig.

To top this off, I have developed arthritis, especially in my elbows and hands, and my right hand has been pretty useless these past 2 weeks. I've even experimented with different grips to try to be able to play. At least with the Gongs and such, it's not a hard hitting gig like playing a couple of hours in a rock band.

So I went to the gig and set up everything. And I still get that pre-gig rush of energy and wonder. I still have that same spark like I did as a 12 year old kid playing drums for the first time. Yeah, things like that aren't only in your blood, they're in your DNA. This stuff runs deep.

And when I started playing, I forgot all about how much my hand hurt, and how my fingers don't always want to cooperate. I just played. And for that time I was transported somewhere else. This morning I posted this on Facebook: 

Sometimes, especially when I have so much gear to carry, I wonder why I'm still doing what I'm doing. Then, I play a gig, either solo or with other musicians, and I know why, because it's always a transcendent experience for me and everyone else…

Yeah, transcendent. I think this is why most of us musicians continue to get out there and play. I hope I never lose that transcendent feeling…

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, September 16, 2016

Drummers VS Soundmen

This post is inspired by more internet discussions, this time on the seemingly endless battle between drummers and soundmen. It seems every drummer has their story about evil soundmen wanting to modify their drum heads with tape and/or a razor blade, in order to get a better sound while miked. I'm sure that there are as many stories that soundmen tell about drummers and how stubborn they are when it comes to getting a good sound out of their drums through the sound system. So what's it all about?

Like most drummers, I've had my run ins with a few soundmen, but I've always tried to look at how to work with them in any given situation. So let's look at a few Don'ts & Do's:

DON'T immediately think of any soundman (or woman) as being stupid. A lot of them have studied as hard and as much as you, and they also take pride in doing their job just like you.

DO treat them with the same respect that you want to be treated with.

OK, I'll admit that I've come up against some soundmen who really didn't know much about what they were doing, and who's idea of mixing things was to just turn everything up and throw some reverb on it. But for everyone who didn't really have a clue, there are a majority of people who do know what they are doing and do it well.

DON'T cop an attitude and start arguing with the soundman. Also, never start calling them names, or calling them stupid, dumb, etc. Remember that your music is in their hands and ears, and you want them to produce the best sound possible for your audience.

DO introduce yourself and be professional. If you have a specific sound you want, discuss it with them (especially if you use a bass drum with no hole in the front head). Rather than getting all, I'm the drummer and I know what's best for me, be willing to listen to their ideas and suggestions.

I don't use a typical rock drum sound/tuning, so I've often been a bit of a puzzle for some sound guys. I usually don't have a hole in either bass drum head and also minimal muffling, so my bass drum rings a bit, giving a sound that's more boom than thud. I also tend to tune my toms higher than a lot of rock drummers, so again, the sound isn't a typical boing or boom.

If I'm playing percussion or solo, I use my horizontal bass drum, which has no muffling and lots of boom. This can really throw a sound guy into a panic. But I always talk to them about the what & how of what I do. I've been in so many different rooms and situations, that I have some idea of what works both mic and sound wise.

DON'T ignore/refuse advise from the sound guy.

DO realize that if they are professional, they want you to sound great too! After all, they don't want the audience to think that they suck at their job.

It's one thing if you are in a big enough band to travel around with your own sound guy, but that's rare. Most often, you will end up using the house sound guy. This is a case of where you need to put some trust in them and their ears. Again, if they are professional, they know their room. After mixing every night in the same space, they often know what works and what doesn't. They can also hear things out front that you can't hear on stage (surprise, the house sound usually sounds nothing like what you hear sitting on your drums). So if they want to add a little bit of muffling to a drum, they are wanting to do it to get a better sound out front, not to just boss you around. Maybe that rack tom has a frequency that rings through the sound system and needs to be tamed. A little trust in their expertise can go along way.

Another important aspect of making friends with the soundman is return engagements at the same venue. Things will run much smoother, and your sound will be easier to get, if you haven't been a complete jerk on your previous visit. Kindness costs noting and gets you much further than anything else.

OK, sometimes you come up to a situation where no matter how much you discuss/bargain/negotiate, you just can't seem to reach any sort of mutual understanding. What then? First, keep your cool. Second, be firm in your needs, but don't be a jerk about it. Stay professional, do the gig, and move on.

What can you do to help your situation as a drummer? The best thing would be to learn all you can about mics, mixing, and sound systems. Take a course on sound. If you have a friend who is a soundman, see if you can hang out with them, ask questions, and observe what they do. The more you know, the more you can speak their language and talk to them on their level.

And most of all, don't forget to thank the soundman at the end of the night. Maybe buy them a drink. Just saying thanks goes a long way in the music biz.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, September 9, 2016

Be A Pro Or Go Home

I recently joined an online drum group that looked interesting. For the most part the discussions have been interesting. But there's also a sizable amount of people posting who seem to be whiners. 

For example: the current whine is from a guy who is playing a free, 1-hour benefit that will be supplying the drums. He's complaining, and wants to bring his own drums.
But I just found out that they are supplying the drums (a crappy set), and goodness knows what cymbals and peddles (sic) they will have. Some people don't understand that drummers take pride in their sets, and our muscles are accustomed to our layouts, and the tensions of our peddles (sic)? You just can't play your best in a strange set.”

Rule #1 - If you are a drummer, you need to learn that you can't always use your own drums and cymbals for the gig. 

Your challenge, should you accept, is to make music with these. 

Many times drum sets are supplied as part of the backline (amps, drums, keys, etc), or maybe the club has a house kit. No, it might not be vintage Gretsch with K Zildjians, or a brand new DW. It could be an old TAMA Swingstar with Sabian B8 cymbals on it. I regularly play at a series here in town that uses an old, inexpensive, well tuned drum kit (I don't even know what kind of drums they are). All the drummers bring their own cymbals and use the kit. No one complains. No one in the audience complains. The music is great!

I've played my share of gigs on backline, rental, and house kits, and I've never let that get in the way of making the best music I can. Yeah, some kits aren't the best (like a big muffled, power tom rock kit supplied for a jazz gig), but suck it up buttercup, and play the gig! If I was playing a free, 1-hour benefit gig, I'd be glad to just show up without having to haul my drums, play the gig, and then leave.

Being a drummer is hard. To be a drummer is a life force. You have to be motivated to even deal with this instrument. - Roy Books

Playing you own kit, set up the same way every time, is a luxury. Even big name drummers play supplied kits to save on travel expenses (have you ever paid to fly a drum kit?) Playing a kit du jour is a challenge and keeps you on your game. You have to be focused and make music. Rise to the challenge.

I realize that a lot of drummers out there are hobbyists or weekend warriors, but you still need to be professional and understand that drums are often supplied for you. Don't let not being able to use your own drums get in the way of being a musician.

I leave you with the words of the great poet, Ranier Maria Rilke:

“No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger”
 Embrace the danger.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Monday, August 29, 2016

Nature as Nurture

I've been hanging out in California for almost 2 weeks. In that time I've been to the ocean, I've been to the mountains, and I've been to the city. In each case, I've spent a lot of time listening to the sounds around me and absorbing the rhythms. There is so much we can learn from our surroundings just by paying attention. How often do we just go through our day giving little regard to the natural things happening around us?

Oceans of rhythm

I spent this afternoon at the beach, walking in the surf, listening to the waves crashing, paying attention to everything going on around me. I heard new and different rhythms. I felt new and different impulses in my nervous system. I learned from the wind and waves things that I can bring back to my music. I learned things you can never find in books.

Wherever you live: ocean, desert, forest, or city, take the time to listen to the world around you and absorb the sounds and rhythms.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

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 - Part 2

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™