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.





~ 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™ 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

In Praise of Discipline 2

Like many musicians, I practice yoga. I realize that I'll never be like those people in the glossy magazines and websites, all sleek and twisted like pretzels. But that's not the point for me. I do yoga for me. Besides the obvious physical effects, I find it's great for my focus and concentration. But most of all, it's time for me, time well spent to be me and take care of me.

Very pretty, but this is not Yoga to me…

As a percussionist, it's important to me to be both strong and flexible. I'm really not a runner, or a weight lifter, so yoga fits the bill. As a percussionist, I'm much like a dancer: I'm on the floor, I'm on my knees, I'm standing, I'm moving between my instruments. I spend a lot of time holding my hands and arms up in the air, often over my head. So I need to be in good shape.

practice |ˈpraktəs|
verb [ with obj. ] (Brit. practise)perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one's proficiency: I need to practice my French | [ no obj. ] :  they were practicing for the Olympics.carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly: we still practice some of these rituals today.
I try to practice yoga at least three times a week or more. Most times it's really good, and I'm focused and into it. Other times, like today, monkey mind is there and it's a struggle. Today the sun is out, it's warm, and I'd rather be anywhere else doing something. But I did yoga anyway, and monkey mind was on my shoulder, a constant companion. As I went through the various poses, my mind wandered. Monkey mind kept talking to me and distracting me. But I kept going. I kept doing. I kept at it. It wasn't perfect, but I showed up and did it. And when I was done with my practice, I said out loud, "that felt good." And I meant it. 

This is more realistic Yoga.

So even as much as I didn't want to practice yoga, I did, and in the end I enjoyed it. This is a big part of what discipline is all about, doing things anyway when you don't want to, because you know they are beneficial to you. The same thing can be said for practicing your instrument. We don't always want to sit there and do it, but we need to, if we want to improve. This is discipline in action. It's not an evil thing, but a way along the path.

Momentum is a big part of this. As you make your practice a regular event, you build up momentum. You also start looking forward to it, so much so the idea of discipline disappears. Your practice becomes something you just do. Your practice becomes a part of you. 

Carry on with your practice.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Artistry in Rhythm

Rhythm. It's in our bones. It's in our soul. It is such a deep part of each of us. It is a primal force that takes us back to our very beginnings.

rhythm |ˈriT͟Həmnouna strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound: Ruth listened to the rhythm of his breathing.• the systematic arrangement of musical sounds, principally according to duration and periodic stress.

Rhythm. I've always felt it, but I've always felt it a little differently than others (which has caused some confusion in the past). While most people seem to feel it as “the systematic arrangement of musical sound,” I tend to feel it as waves of energy. To me, rhythm is more circular (actually spherical would be more like it, as in 360°) than linear. Most people feel it as linear, with one beat after the next, moving in a straight line. For me, the lines are circular and radiate out from a center point, moving in many directions at once. There may be beat, or pulse; or there may not. I see it more as an ebb & flow, like the tide moving in and out, over and over: tension & release.

Linear time
Waves of energy

Rhythm. Even when playing standard drum set music, in linear time, I still feel this wave movement and try to incorporate it. I have nothing against linear time. I just prefer moving in waves. It's a personal thing.

How do you move?

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Friday, April 1, 2016

In Praise Of Discipline

discipline |ˈdisəplinnounthe practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience: a lack of proper parental and school discipline.• the controlled behavior resulting from discipline: he was able to maintain discipline among his men.• activity or experience that provides mental or physical training: the tariqa offered spiritual discipline | Kung fu is a discipline open to old and young.• a system of rules of conduct: he doesn't have to submit to normal disciplines.
Discipline. The word often brings up thoughts of sacrifice and loss. Think of practicing your instrument. You can spend a lot of time practicing, but you sacrifice and lose the opportunity to do other things. Who really wants to be in their studio working on new music when it's a beautiful, sunny, 72º day outside? You tell yourself, “I need to be disciplined and practice anyway,” almost as if it's a punishment.

But discipline, despite the official definition, is not a punishment. Rather, as King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp has said, 

Discipline is a means to an end.

The enigmatic Robert Fripp

  • Do you want to get better? 
  • Do you want to know the new music you will perform? 
  • Do you want to be the best you can? 

These are all the
ends you are working towards. They won't get there by themselves. “But,” you say, “discipline is boring. All those hours of practice. All that repetition!” Yes, practicing can be boring, but it doesn't have to be.

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. - John Cage
The pragmatic John Cage

Cage was on to something. Things that we do, like practicing, have a built in barrier. On one side, things are boring, things are not fun. On the other side, things just are. We need to break through that barrier, and the only way is to stick with what we are doing. Yes, you may be bored, you may be antsy, you may rather be anywhere else, but if you stick with it, you will break through. “And what's on the other side,” you ask? Rather than being some sort of celebration, or a sense of excitement, the other side is more often neutral, calm, much like a meditative state that just is. But it is here you accomplish the most, because all of your resistance is gone. Here you are open to receive what you are working on at a deeper level. Here your practice becomes more efficient and meaningful.

The next time you are practicing and it's not doing it for you, don't give up. Keep at it and break on through to the other side.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Crossing Boundaries: Music as an Interdisciplinary Art Form

Music is ubiquitous and universal to our lives. But most often live music is still confined to the clubs and concert halls. In the past 15 or so years, I have been making a conscious effort to move out into different spaces and make what I do available to more and different people. Besides the usual performance spaces, I've played at stores, churches, conventions, libraries, schools, community centers, sculpture gardens, a wine cellar, and just about any place where I can interact with people.

Chilling in the wine cellar…

Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin. Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Recently, I've been making an effort to perform more at museums, art galleries, and similar spaces. Along with this, I've been actively working with artists in other disciplines, like dancers, poets, painters, writers, etc. I really feel that percussion, perhaps more than any other instruments, lends itself well to merging with other art forms. 

The minstrel in the art gallery, with typewriter…
Photo by Design 709

Gone are the days when you could make a living playing in clubs 6 nights a week. To survive as a musician today, you need to think outside of the concert hall/club box. You also need to look for new and exciting ways to find and interact with an audience. I find it much more interesting and challenging to perform in a non-traditional space. 

Musician as story teller…

Take a chance. Step out into a new performance territory. Shake up your comfort zone. You'll be glad you did.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™