Monday, November 24, 2014

The Importance Of A Strong Foundation

Recently my son Aiden and I attended a musical performance. We both came to the conclusion that the performers seemed to lack any sort of technique, and that they often did things to look good more than sound good, or fit into things musically. This got me thinking about the importance of having a strong musical and technical foundation if you are serious about being a musician.

In my career as a writer, I've interviewed a lot of great musicians, and most of them stressed the importance of knowing your fundamentals, because that gives you a strong foundation on which to create your music. Even the people who play free jazz, or free improv said the same thing. My friend, Swiss drummer Fredy Studer, who is well known as an improvising drummer, said something to the affect of, “There's a right way and a wrong way to improvise. You have to know what you are doing before you can play free.” So many drummers stressed working out of books like Stick Control (George Lawrence Stone) and Syncopation (Ted Reed), which are both real fundamental books. BTW, these were chosen as the number 1 and 2 books respectively in Modern Drummer magazine's The Top 25 Drum Books

And all of this rings so true: how can you play at a high level if you don't have anything to back that up with? You can't! I stress this to my students and try to get them to understand the importance of having strong, fundamental technique. Working on fundamental technique is a lot like athletes weight lifting or running—it's not glamorous, but it needs to be done. It also gives you a reserve of strength to draw on when you need it. Like on those nights you don't feel good, or when things just aren't going right, you can draw upon your fundamental training to hold things together and get you through the gig. And on those magical nights, a strong fundamental background gives you a point to stretch out from, and keeps you anchored, no matter how far out you go.

So when you are practicing your 200BPM Blast Beats, or your 9 over 17 Polyrhythms, just remember it's your strong fundamentals that got you there. Don't forget to keep working on them, keep building on them.

~ MB

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Look At improvisation

Improvisation. The word has a lot of connotations and implications. For most people, it means making things up in the moment. But is that really what happens? I do a lot of work in what is popularly called free music, or free improvisation

The term “free improvisation,” to me, means nothing. When we play, we are not free. It is impossible to be free. Because the moment you start a sound, a musical gesture, a movement, the memory starts and I try to give a sense of organization, texture, form, repetition, variation. Even if it’s just noise, you have to organize. I am an improviser who composes. That’s why, for me, improvisation is a chamber music.”
Bassist/composer Joëlle Léandre (from this wonderful Interview)

I agree with what Joëlle says: “It is impossible to be free.” I find that in my own work, when I'm improvising, I always impose rules and structure on what I'm playing. As a trained musician, I have years of music and ideas in my head. When I improvise, I draw upon those ideas. So as I play, I'm using learned techniques, learned patterns, learned ideas. To play completely free—that is with no rules and complete disregard for any structures or ideas—is anarchy. The best example of this is giving a 5-year old a pair of drumsticks and putting them with a drum set. They just flail away with total abandon. But while at first it may sound cute, or interesting, after a while, it just becomes noise, and we would quickly grab the sticks away from them! Anarchy is not enjoyable.

The art of improvising…

For improvisation to be listenable, it needs to have structure, even if that structure is made up as the music goes along. For me, I'm always thinking about structure. Not necessarily verse-chorus-verse structure, but thinking about how the notes, sounds, and rhythms relate to each other, and deciding which one to play next. And so much of this is all based on what I already know, what I have already experienced. This is not to say that the unexpected doesn't happen, because it does. Out of all of this, magic moments of pure unknown are created, but it's up to me to make sense of them within the context of the musical event that is happening at that moment.

And I find that those magical moments, once the gift of a point in time, make their way into my tool box, and I pull them out again later on. So today's improvisation becomes tomorrow's learned and structured music. It's inevitable, as everything we play builds upon what we played before, and becomes a part of us. 

So context is a big part of improvisation. If I'm playing with a flute player, it does me (or them) no good if I insist on banging a Gong or bass drum at triple forte, effectively drowning out all flute sounds. Maybe I'm just being free, just doing my own thing, but how long will an audience (or the flautist for that matter) put up with it? The same goes for improvising with others. If I completely ignore what they are doing and, insist on just playing my own thing, what would be the point in that? Again, as Joëlle says: “It is impossible to be free.”

~ MB

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Stop The Hating

This post is in response to some recent Facebook postings I read that were unnecessary in the hate they directed towards particular drummers. With the rise of the internet, there has also been an unfortunate rise in people saying hateful things about other musicians. 

There are drummers and other musicians whose music and/or playing style I don't particularly like. But I realize that many other people do like them. For me to say things like, "They suck," or, "They don't deserve their success," really says more about me than anything. That's not constructive in anyway. Better to say something like, "I really don't care for what they do," or, "It's just not my type of music." 

It's a big world out there, and not everyone will like the same thing (thankfully). There's room for everybody and their idea of making music (or dance, film, writing, photography, painting, etc.). There's especially room for people to do their thing without others having to come up with a put down. 

So the next time you are ready to post some sort of negative, hateful comment, count to 10 and try to reframe what you are saying. Being a drummer/musician/artist is hard. We're all in this together and need to support each other. 

~ MB

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Do The Practice

In the best selling book, Outliers: The Story Of Success, Malcolm Gladwell has written about the popular theory of The 10,000 Hour Rule. The idea is that for success, you need to put in around 10,000 hours of practicing a specific task. This idea has both its champions and detractors. In many ways, it's a very general, simplification of how to be successful. But putting in 10,000 hours is only a part of story. It certainly helps to have some sort of natural talent in the area you are pursuing. I could put in 10,000 hours of drumming practice (and probably have over the years), but I will never be on the same level as someone like Vinnie Colaiuta. I know Vinnie worked hard, practicing all the time in his younger days, but he also just has a natural gift for playing drums and playing seemingly impossible rhythms.

 Similarly, as much as I love ice hockey, even with 10,000 hours of working on it I could never be a professional hockey player. I could make a list of all my other interests that with time put in, I'd be sufficient, but not proficient in. But this is not to put down the idea of 10,000 hours completely. What's important to realize is, that if you want to do something, you have to do it. I know that as a professional writer for more than 30 years, it's all been a matter of writing everyday. The same with being a percussionist. I have to play everyday. It's not enough to just think about doing something—"Yeah, I'm going to practice."—you have to actually do it.

Do The Practice

If you want to play drums, you need to practice everyday. You need to work on not just things you know, but things you don't know. Otherwise, you're just treading water. 

You need to turn off the computer, turn off the TV, put away all the distractions and get on with serious work on what you want to be. And today there are so many distractions competing for our time. But you have to decide what it is you really want, and then do that. I remember reading about author Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club, in his spare time while working at a truck factory. He could've watched TV, or gone out and partied, or played video games, but he wanted to be a writer, so he wrote. This really inspired me. There are many other stories of artists in various disciplines pursuing their art in their spare moments while they worked a day job to pay the bills. 

Right now, I could be watching TV or doing some other sort of distraction, but it's been over a week since I posted to this blog, so I need to write a new post. And I'm sitting here writing. I'm doing the practice. I've been both writing and playing drums since I was a kid, and I still do it. I still work on both of them. I'm always looking to push myself forward. I'm doing the practice.

Are you doing the practice?

~ MB

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Benefit of Self Recording

Things have come a long way since I started playing music. One thing that has been consistent, has been my recording of most gigs that I have played. Back in the '70s, I would drag along a well worn cassette recorder to record gigs. I wasn't looking to capture anything that I would ever release to the public, but I wanted to be able to hear what was going on in my bands and the the music we played. 

I later moved up to a very heavy, very unwieldly reel-to-reel recorder, the Roberts 770X. I still have it and boxes of 7" reel tapes from back in the day. Later I moved into a Sony Walkman recorder that traveled with me everywhere (I did a lot of magazine interviews with that). Eventually, I moved up to a small Yamaha digital recorder, and now a ZOOM digital.

The mighty 770X - 48 pounds of recording machinery…

And today it's inexpensive to buy a small, quality digital recorder that you can use to record both rehearsal/practice sessions, and live performances. By recording things, you can gain a lot of insight into both your music and how you play it. You can see how your timing is, hear how your sound is, and hear how the balance between things is. And when magic happens, you can go back and listen (or also see if you record video) to what happened to create that magic.

The ZOOM Q2HD - 5 ounces with audio & video…

I work a lot in improvisational settings, so I really like to be able to go over things and find out what worked, and what didn't. Even at this stage in my career, I still want to be able to improve my performance and my ideas. By recording things, I can pick out ideas to develop further, often as the basis for a new composition. So I rely my recording archives as a library of musical ideas.

Music is a never ending journey, and creating an audio/video archive helps give you a map of where you've been, to assist you in keeping moving forward.

~ MB

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Lasting Affect of King Crimson

It was 30 years ago that I wrote a Style & Analysis column on Bill Bruford for Modern Drummer magazine. In the column, I transcribed various sections of his drumming with YES, UK, and King Crimson. The response to that one column was huge. This lead me to talking to Bill after a Moraz/Bruford concert here in Milwaukee, and proposing to do a whole book of charts from Bill's various bands he had played in. In his quiet English demeanor, he said, “Do you really think there's a need for it?” I assured him there was, even showing him some of the letters I had received about the column. He said he would “think on it.” The next night, before his show in Chicago, he called me on the phone and very enthusiastically said, “Let's do it!” He then started rattling off a list of songs that he thought I should transcribe. 

This became a 4-year project of transcribing, then sending things to him via post (this is before e-mail) for him to check out and make any corrections. As can be imagined, the process took months between letters, as Bill was very busy playing around the globe. Finally things were done and I sent them off to Modern Drummer, who was going to publish it. Bill sent his commentary, and then things were put together and released in 1988. Now during all this, I was still receiving letters and feedback from people who had read the column. And when the book was released, I received even more. 

The book I never learned…

One of the things people asked was for tips on playing things, because they assumed that I had learned all of the charts in order to transcribe them. The funny thing is, other than a few small rhythmic figures, I never really practiced or learned ANY of the material I transcribed! While I was, and still am, a big fan of Bill's playing, it held little relevancy to my own playing. I didn't play in any bands that did any of the songs I had transcribed, so there was no real need to learn how to play them. Besides, transcribing music is one thing, playing it is another. This really shocked some people.

That leads me to the lasting affect of King Crimson. I remember when I first heard the Larks Tongues In Aspic LP. It totally blew me away. I was already a fan of Crimson and had their previous recordings, but I was not prepared for the leap forward that Lark's Tongues was. And as much as I admired Mr. Bruford's drumming, the thing that really hit me was what percussionist Jamie Muir was doing! While Bill held the beat down, Muir colored things with an amazing array of sounds: sheet metal, squeaking balloons, a battery powered laugh box, and other crazy sounds. I was hooked. From there, I searched out other recordings with Mr. Muir. I found a few improvised jazz things with The Music Improvisation Company, but that was it. And then he dropped a Gong on his foot at a Crimson gig in, I think, Germany, and then left the band. So there was precious little of his percussive musings to go on, but the impact he had on me was immense!

When all the other drummers wanted to be Bill Bruford, I wanted to be Jamie Muir.

Jaimie Muir in full flight with King Crimson

And Muir had a deep and lasting affect on Mr. Bruford also. Muir was one of those larger than life sort of figures who just had a way to play the smallest sound, yet make it so right, so perfect for the moment. Thankfully, today there are some archival recordings and video of him with King Crimson, working the inspired magic that only he could do.

So for me, discovering Jamie Muir was one of the pivotal moments of my artistic career. And even some 42 years later it still resonates inside me. So when other drummers talk about King Crimson and how Bill Bruford affected them, I always mention Jaime Muir as the one, the wild card who really did it for me…

~ MB

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Out of the Safety Zone

Drummers generally have it safe. We are usually stuck in the back, with a wall of instruments around us, like a barrier between us and the rest of the musicians and the audience. We are safe in our cocoons. We are also usually supporting the other musicians and the music, so what we play underpins things, rather than being the focus. In some ways it's easier to be in the back. You don't have to worry about leading, or being the center of things. If you play drum set, you also are able to sit back and just groove (which is still a lot of work, but not being the center of things).

In the groove, in the pocket. I have nothing against that. In fact, I'm always in awe of players who have a deep groove. But again, this is a supportive role. It's easy to find a groove and just sit there. A good groove can go on forever. Drums & percussion have a long history of supporting everything with a groove.

But what if you do something different and step out front, out of your safety zone? What if you perform solo, naked and alone up on stage, with no band to just groove behind. I've been doing that for the past 13 or so years. Playing solo on drums, hand drums, Gongs & metals, and various combinations of all those. 

There's a lot of responsibility in playing solo. But it also opens things up. There is more room to move. You don't have to make sure the band knows where you are going. You are in control. Singer/pianist Tori Amos started out playing solo, then formed a band around her, and now she's out playing solo again. In a recent interview, she had this to say about stepping away from the band: 
But when you’re playing alone, you can make changes and take the show wherever you want. It takes a lot of stamina, though.

“It takes a lot of stamina, though.” An understatement. As a solo performer, you carry everything. You have to be on all the time, because you just can't put things on cruise control behind someone else. 

My current solo performance set up, minus a few things…

So I have a solo show coming up next month. I'm the opening set for a new monthly performance series here in Milwaukee, FORMATIONS. I have a 45 minute set to put together. Even though it's only 45 minutes (there's a second set with a group after me), I'm trying to find the right combination of music to play. Over the years, I've developed a fairly large repertoire of compositions to choose from, so I want to look back through my catalog, as well as play some new music.

It's always an amazing experience playing solo, but, “It takes a lot of stamina, though.”

“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 Brooks

~ MB