Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Nature of Improvisation

Creativity - Part 4

Improvisation is always a roll of the dice. On one hand, you can have all the best ideas but be paired up with the wrong partners. On the other hand, you can be with ideal people and have no ideas. But if you're aware, and in the moment, there is a chance for a spark to arise and things to take off.

"I learned at a very young age that music teaches you about life. When you're in the midst of improvisation, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow — there is just the moment that you are in. In that beautiful moment, you experience your true insignificance to the rest of the universe. It is then, and only then, that you can experience your true significance."
Charlie Haden

Another aspect is how you approach improvisation. You can play it safe and fall back on a set of well worn cliches (and we all have our cliches we like to play), or you can take things out and walk the edge, putting yourself in danger. One of my favorite quotes is from the great Germanic poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: “No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger.” This has become my motto and it is this sense of danger that fuels great improvisation. When improvising, there's always the question in your mind, "What if nothing happens?" This is the danger. But even better, what if magic happens? More often than not, magic does happen, because the musicians involved are willing to trust both themselves and their fellow musicians. They are willing to walk out to the edge and trust that something magical can happen in the face of danger. 

My good friend and master Swiss drummer/improvisor, Fredy Studer, is fond of saying that drummers need to have “big ears.” I would say that al musicians in an improvised setting certainly need “big ears.” For improvisation to be cohesive (and interesting), it needs to be about listening to what is happening, as much as it is about the actual playing. I always listen and often try to provide counter point to what the other musicians are doing: staccato bursts of rhythm against long held notes, or metallic soundscapes providing a backdrop for the others to ride on top of. Or I'll find some sort of sound/tonality that matches what is going on and try to blend with the other instruments. And sometimes I'll just sit out, letting the music breathe and the others have the space. 

Suffice to say, in improvisation, not everything is magical. But if you leave your ego home, and work to play as part of a unit, magic can appear, gifting us with music that at times sounds thoroughly rehearsed, even though it is composed in the moment. 

~ MB

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Nature of Creativity

Creativity - Part 3

The essence of music tells us that we are the true instruments. It does not matter what
equipment we have. It can be rooms full of expensive percussion, or a simple hand drum.
The music comes from inside ourselves and will find a way to express itself on whatever
instruments we have at our disposal. Many of us get stuck on the idea that “If only I had
that new drum/ cymbal/ drum kit, then I could really playl” If you follow this line of
thinking, then you could always be saying that, as there are continually new products to
entice us. This becomes an endless loop of wanting/getting/wanting again. 

It’s important to
realise that wherever we are now, we have enough equipment to do something, to create
something from our hearts. Yes, our vision may include something we don’t have, but it is
important to go on anyway. We may find that we don’t need what we thought we needed, or that the
process of creating and working will lead us to what we need. Often what we see as
limitations, bring out the best in us as we strive to overcome them and be as creative as

Drum & Man

A good example is Swiss drummer Fritz Hauser. He recorded a complete 20 minute
work on his CD, Die Trommel (The Drum) [hat Art], with just a snare drum. Through the
use of different rooms, sticks, and techniques he wanted to discover and exploit all the
different sounds he could get from this one drum.

Later, he created a one man show, Trommel mit Mann/ drum with man, played completely on one drum.

Sometimes in our quest to have everything, we really play nothing and say little. Concentrate on what you have, what sits before you, not what you wish you had…

~ MB

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Start Here

Creativity - Part 2

Even with many and various suggestions, the question still is, "Where do I start?"

Start here —> •  Right where you are.

Really. That's it. Just look at where you are and plunge in. Don't worry if it's right or wrong, good or bad, just do it. For me, starting is always the most difficult part. But it's sort of like uncorking a bottle. It might take some effort to get the cork out, but once the bottle is open, things can flow easily. "But I don't know…" Yes, there will always be "buts," and indecision, and panic, and a sense of fear that you might make a big mistake. This is monkey mind sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear. "You're a fake." "You have no talent." "Who are you trying to fool." "People will hate it." These are all just monkey mind getting in our way of starting.

Monkey Mind is a Buddhist term meaning "unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable" - Wikipedia

This first thing to do is to admit that monkey mind is always present. That it's always going to be there to whisper in your ear. But you also need to realize that you can tell it to go away and leave you alone. So quiet your mind and start. 

Start with just one note.

Then add another.

Then maybe another.

Then add some space.

Keep doing this, but don't stop to self edit or criticize. Even if what you start with doesn't seem that great, keep going. Sometimes it takes a while to dig deep enough to get to the good stuff.  Realize that you can always edit things later. So if your beginning isn't that great, you can cut it later and have things start where it gets good.

One way to think of being creative is like taking a walk. Go out your door and just start walking. If something on the left seems interesting, turn to the left and go there. If it's really interesting, hang out there a while. If not, keep on moving. 

How do you work with your creativity?

~ MB

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stealing To Be Creative

No one is an island. No one lives in a complete vacuum. This is especially true today with the internet and instant communication & information from around the world. So what's an artist to do but take full advantage of this!

There's a great little book out there (a New York Times best seller) called, Steal Like An Artist. It details various ways to rev up your creativity by stealing ideas from others. This is not blatant copying to pass it off as your own, but stealing ideas to inspire your own ideas. Artists of all genres have been doing this probably for the history of mankind. I know I've always done it and still do.

I think back to when I was younger, stealing a drum beat or a fill off a record of my favorite band. Yeah, all musicians do that. It's a part of the process of learning. We all learn from what's come before us and, as the saying goes, stand on the shoulders of giants. But the real key here is learning to change something, to tweak it and make it our own. I spoke somewhat about this in an earlier post: The Importance of Lineage. I also talked about Modeling in another previous blog post.

But what about raw ideas, fuel for your creative fires—where do you get that?

I use various methods to inspire ideas and creativity. Let me give you a few examples:

  1. I compose a lot of music, sometimes 2 or 3 pieces a week. I use most of that in my teaching because I like to stay fresh. But where do I get my ideas from? Everywhere! If I don't have an idea in my head, like a rhythm, I tend to go through my songs in iTunes. I currently have over 1,500 albums in my iTunes. I have another 5,000 or so CDs in my office, so I don't lack for music. But what I will do when I need an idea is just start playing songs, not necessarily the whole song, as I may skip through it, because I want to cover a lot of territory. I'll give a listen for something interesting for a few seconds, then move on. What I'm looking for is just something that will catch my ear. Maybe a rhythm. Maybe a melody. Maybe just the feeling or atmosphere of the music. I'll listen to rock, pop, metal, chamber music, ethnic music, classical, percussion—anything. Mind you, I'm not looking to copy anything, just looking for an idea to use as a jumping off point. Once I get that idea, I'll run with it.
  2. The same thing goes for my writing, like this blog. If I don't have an idea, I'll read stuff: books, magazines, newspapers, the web (the above referenced blog on Modeling was inspired by something I read on another blog). Again, anything, just to find something that inspires some sort of idea I can work with.
  3. Creativity Files. I keep files of all kinds of notes. Every night I empty my pockets and pull out a few scraps of paper with notes on them. These can be a word, a phrase, a musical rhythm, a complete paragraph, or any sort of idea I've come across. I also use my iPhone and Evernote a lot. I'm always typing notes or taking photos of things that are interesting. Then I put them in Evernote so I can get home and access them from my computer. I also use Post-It™Notes extensively. There are notes stuck up all around my desk with words/phrases/ideas written on them. And there's also a stack of my old pocket notes in a little bin on my desk. Whenever I'm stuck for an idea, I just go through all my notes and look for something that hits me and sparks something. I really can't recommend enough keeping track of all your thought and ideas for later reference.
  4. Go for a walk or drive—get out of the space you are in! I find getting away to new surroundings helps to clear out my mind. And you never know what you will come across out in the world. You may find an idea for something other than what you were looking for, so stay open.
Creativity is all around us. Ideas are all around us. We only need to pay attention to access this wealth of information.

What do you do to inspire your creativity?

~ MB

Addendum: I should also mention the immediate previous post where I gave 3 lists of other people's ideas…

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Advice on Practice, Performance, and More

Sometimes sage advice, especially from the Masters of their art, deserves to be repeated. Here are 3 different sets of rules/tips from 3 amazing artists: Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy, and John Cage. While they are written more with music/musicians in mind, they can be adapted to any sort of art & creativity.

Thelonious Monk’s advice to saxophonist Steve Lacy (1960) 

Steve Lacy's Tips on Practicing

- Teaching is an act of generosity; it is awareness that one has something to give, and adesire to give it.

- Music knows no limits. Don’t set up exclusionary boundaries.

- Practice slowly. Practicing slowly holds it own technical challenges-and makes even more difficult demands on the spirit. It calls for patience when the world demands results, and quiet single- minded focus in the face of huge repertoire demands. It is the ‘Zen’ way.

- Strive for straightforward purity and logical simplicity.

- Find rhythm in more subtle forms than a metronome. Always strive for forwardmotion and impetus. 

- Rhythm is all and everywhere.

- Strive to develop an individual sound and playing style. Have your own voice. 

- Be disciplined. Study and practice hard.

-Concentrate on pitch, rhythm, dynamics and tonal sonority.

- Expand your music making vocabularies by searching through some unusual lexicons.

- Think of it as "Sound Research": Collecting sounds and growing melodies in a garden.

- View the Saxophone as an "Interval Machine". Practice a variety of intervals in a variety of rhythmical combinations. 

- Never become fixed on patterned sequences that can become stale and block creativity.

- "Shake up the bag" inside of your head. Move out of the familiar and typical in order to be able to create something new.

- The interval machine can become Zen-like and expand perception. Take the interval of a minor second and play it up and down over and over again. After about 40 minutes you will no longer be bored and will start to hallucinate. The half step interval will become enormous. Your ear has changed. Small has now become large. Now, when you leave this space and go back to the rest of the horn, everything has changed and your perceptions have altered. Illumination and Metamorphosis.

- Take a limited subject and spend an unlimited amount of time on it until it opens up.

- Learn to let things cook!

John Cage's Rules For Teachers & Students

How do you approach practice & performance?

~ MB

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Conflagration of Blog/Post/YouTube Haters

We are living in a crazy world where things change rapidly and just about any and everything is available to us via the internet. While our world is filled with wonders, it's also become filled with haters. I read a lot of blogs and watch a lot of videos of musicians and artists. One thing I'm really disturbed by is the amount of comments that, besides not being constructive, just spew hate. It's one thing to leave a constructive criticism, it's another to just leave comments like, "Your drumming sucks!," or, "I hate XXX drums/cymbals and you suck for playing them."

As you may know from reading this blog, I'm not big on all the Karaoke drumming videos out there, but I've never left a negative comment on any that I have watched. Instead, I might say something like, "Nice playing, I'd love to see something original or with a band." Too often the haters will jump in and reply in such a spiteful way. Do we really need that?

The world keeps getting smaller as we become more connected. 
Why not take the opportunity to lift everyone up?

For many years I reviewed CDs/concerts for various magazines and websites. As a reviewer it's always possible to be snarky and condescending about something that you, personally, didn't like. But what purpose does that serve? I always tried to listen to music with a critical eye, but also look at what the artist was trying to do. Did they accomplish what they set out for? I may comment on parts that I didn't like, but I never just dismissed things with a quick, "You suck," as that really says nothing. And if there was any music that I really couldn't get into and find any merit, I would pass on reviewing it. Maybe I don't get/like it, but someone else probably does.

Being a drummer/musician/artist is difficult enough. I give credit to anyone who pursues art, whether as a career or as a hobby. I also give credit to anyone who is successful in any way, even if I don't personally like what they do! We're all in this together in some form.

Those of you who are on the receiving end of hate mail/posts, my advice to you is to just IGNORE IT! Most haters really don't know what they are talking about and what they say is actually more about them than you! Just keep moving forward and remember that all the greats, all the people that you admire, received their own hate mail.

In conclusion, if you are thinking of leaving a comment on a blog, Facebook post, or YouTube video, follow the advice of my grandmother, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

~ MB

Friday, June 6, 2014


This post was inspired by something I read on a cello blog [I happen to read a lot of different music & art blogs, because you can always find inspiration & ideas you can use]. The idea was that we always tend to worry too much about the little technical things, like how we hold our arms/hands, or how we do certain techniques. One way to get away from that is to think about the bigger picture. This is where modeling comes in.

I know this from personal experience. I remember years back when I saw a full page photo of Tony Williams in DownBeat magazine. Tony was sitting there in a very upright posture, with his back straight. Now as a known sloucher, this photo had a big impact on me. With much respect for Tony and his drumming prowess, I was really taken by this photo. The other aspect of it is he looked like he was in charge up there, like he knew exactly what he was doing. Confidence. 

Tony, looking regal on the throne.

Above, is either the same, or a very similar photo. Even though it's a still photograph, there is a great sense of energy and movement in it. Tony is just, so Tony! So I took that photo and used it for inspiration. When I played, I tried to sit on my throne with the same sort of straight back, and the same sort of confidence. And it helped. It helped me to improve my playing, not by worrying about all the little things, but by sitting behind the drums and taking care of business.

And I've done it with other drummers/percussionists. Rather than trying to copy their licks, I've tried to copy their attitude, their spirit, their presence. Look at the people you admire and look beyond the notes they play. How can you copy their attitude and presence on the drums to help you improve?

~ MB