On Being a Solo Percussionist

An expanded version of a blog originally posted on Tuesday, August 4, 2009.

In the past 2 years I’ve written 3 books of drum & percussion solos. I’ve been working with my students on these various solos, and they have responded admirably. I’ve worked hard at getting them to see beyond the drum set, and think in a more broad percussion perspective. This is good. Lines have been crossed and they (my students) will hopefully never be the same again. 
As drummers (read as drum set players), we are creatures of habit existing in a realm of repetition, playing the same beats over and over again. We are also very dependent on the other musicians in our bands. They give us musical cues, melodies, chord progressions, points of reference…so playing solo is akin to being in a small rowboat in the middle of a very big sea.
I remember the first time I played a complete solo performance of more than just a few pieces—it was terrifying—I couldn’t fall back on any clichés, or just groove along. It was very lonely, like being naked on stage, with just my percussion. I’d played in bands for so many years, and other than the odd recital at University, playing solo was a new experience. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with it: I’m responsible for all the music, all the notes, connecting with the audience, and hopefully, satisfying them.
But it was also very liberating! There is a freedom in not being constrained by other musicians. And there is also a one-on-one relationship with the audience, with a real need to connect with them, draw them into my world. I think of myself as a story teller, or even a tour guide, taking them on a journey to other worlds.
Another amazing thing is the sound! Percussion is capable of such beautiful and subtle sounds that are usually lost in the din of a complete band. Solo, you can hear the faint vibrations of a cymbal dying out, or a small shaker, or fingers on drums and Gongs. Solo percussion opens up a completely new realm of sound possibilities.
My first solo explorations found me still anchored to the drum set, albeit a very expanded one. So even though I had liberated myself from the well trodden drum set beats & rhythms, I was still tied down to the drum stool. Over time, I made the shift from sitting to standing and adjusted my set up accordingly.
This freedom of movement—not being tied to a drum stool for the whole night—is a fantastic feeling. There’s the ability to have a wider scope of instruments because I’m not limited by what is just within my reach—I can now move to the instruments. This has allowed me to expand my set up vertically: I can utilize the area from the floor up to 7 feet in the air. I’ve also now evolved my set up into a circular realm of percussion that surrounds me.
But as much percussion as I have on stage, I can’t hide anywhere. Even when I’m in the middle of things, I’m always visible, both in sight & sound. While I do have my back to the audience for much of the performance, which makes the aforementioned personal contact particularly difficult, I try to order things so I’m playing the back row for a bit, then the front stations, then the back, etc. This allows me to keep some focus and eye contact on the audience.
So it’s been 10 years now, and I haven’t looked back. While I still play in band situations here and there, my primary focus is on being a solo (or duo) performer on a stand up set up. The other aspect of this is that I compose all my own music, so I’ve had to seriously take on the role of composer. It’s a journey, it’s a process, it’s all about discovery.
Discover yourself…
~ MB

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