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

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Question on Solo Percussion

‪Recently, I opened up the idea of questions to answer on my Facebook page. Today's blog takes a look at one of those questions.

Brian Tairaku Ritchie:‬ Do you think the field of solo percussion is expanding, and if so, why?

MB: This is just from my perspective, but I've both played and followed solo percussion for a while. I'm also an avid collector of recordings and have amassed a lot of different solo percussion recordings from around the world. First, I think we need to define things. 

Solo percussion in the States/Europe/Japan is a very different thing than most of the rest of the world (there are traditions of solo percussion in India, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, etc that are mainly based around frame/hand drumming). Other than the few brave jazz drummers who sometimes present solo concerts/recordings on the drum set, solo percussion basically resides in the halls of academia, played on all manner of percussion instruments. Often the only place you can hear someone playing solo percussion is at their University recital. And beyond aspiring students, some of the main proponents of solo percussion are the professors teaching it. So even when someone like Steven Schick, who is brilliant BTW, puts on a solo concert, it’s usually connected to some sort of University.

Steven Schick explains solo percussion—well worth 90 minutes of your time.

But I am encouraged that in the 14 years I’ve been doing this, I have discovered many others not tied into academia also performing solo percussion concerts. People like Le Quan Ninh, Glenn Kotche, Steve Hubback, Tatsuya Nakatani, Terge Isungset, Paal Nelson-Love, Aiyun Huang, Koniko Kato, Z’EV, Jon Mueller, and others.  These are in addition to people that I discovered 25-40 years ago, like Pierre Favre, Andrea Centazzo, Frank Perry, Fritz Hauser, Alex Cline, Fredy Studer, Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer, Eddie Prévost, Paul Lytton, Robyn Schulkowsky, Terry Bozzio, Detlef Schoenberg, Andrew Cyrille, Roland Auzet, Max Neuhaus, Michael Jüllich, Stomu Yamash'ta, Sumire Yoshihara, and others.

So to answer your question, yes, I do think it’s expanding, even if it’s at a very slow rate. I’m also very encouraged by the rise of a lot of great percussion groups, like Third Coast Percussion, SO Percussion, Red Fish/Blue Fish, Meehan/Perkins Duo, Tigue, LA Percussion Quartet, and others who are commissioning a lot of new percussion repertoire and playing it for the public. Many of the group members also play solo concerts, so there is a general raising of awareness that percussion can be its own music, and not just accompaniment for other instruments.

~ MB

Addendum: Here is a great interview from 1960, with the late Max Neuhaus, where he talks about solo percussion and the (then) new composition he was learning, Zyklus by Stockhausen: Max Neuhaus Interview

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