With Freedom Comes Responsibility

The Art of Improvising - Part 2

In the 1st part, I wrote about how improvising is all about listening. That's certainly the main thrust, but to go along with listening would be responsibility. You need to be responsible for each note/sound you make. Even if you are listening, you can't just carelessly toss out notes and think you are improvising. As my friend, Swiss drummer Fredy Studer, once told me, 
There's a right way and a wrong way to improvise. He emphasized that you needed a strong foundation from which to draw on. While improvisation may sometimes look like people are just playing anything, there is a lot of hard work and thought behind what is being played.

In an feature on improvisation that I wrote in 1996 for Modern Drummer magazine, I asked Fredy what sort of things he worked on. He sent me a whole sheet of coordination exercises, designed to help a drummer be flexible and able to execute whatever comes to mind. So as much free playing that Fredy does, it's all grounded in a lot of well thought out practice.

“A long time ago,” says Fredy, “I developed the idea of 12-way coordination.”

Diagram by Fredy Studer.

“It means that any basic (neutral-not stylistic) exercise, like a single stroke roll, can be practiced with these 12 variations”

  1. Left foot/right foot                              
  2. Right foot/left foot
  3. Left hand/right hand                         
  4. Right hand/left hand
  5. Left foot/left hand                              
  6. Left hand/left foot
  7. Right foot/right hand                        
  8. Right hand/right foot
  9. Left foot/right hand                           
  10. Right hand/left foot
  11. Right foot/left hand                         
  12. Left hand/right foot
“Because most drummers have a stronger side and more developed hands, you always start with the foot on your weaker side. It’s also good to concentrate on relaxation, equal breathing, a straight back and loose shoulders. Practice with different dynamics and at different tempos.

“This is one special exercise with the system for good balance.”

Fredy's hand written exercise

“Do the other eight variations of the system and then you’re pretty balanced.”

I also interviewed British drummer Paul Lytton for the same feature. He's well known for his free improvising, mainly in the long standing trio he has with saxophonist Evan Parker, and bassist Barry Guy. I asked him about what he works on, The thing is I like practicing and not everybody does. I use fairly standard stuff like the Morello book, George Lawrence Stone, Jim Chapin and Charles Wilcoxen.” Standard stuff indeed, and this is from one of the most well known improvising percussionists. Paul stated the he often works on ideas from the Stick Control book and he sent me some examples.

I guess the Stone book [Stick Control], with a bit of imagination, has just about all one could need.

Examples based on Paul's ideas with Stick Control.

I try to use my imagination. But I feel it's important to try and keep a balance and not get muscle bound. Practice for me is necessary, not manditory. Sometimes I can't practice, so I leave it. [But] practice doesn't always seem to make perfect. Music is first for me, and I try to make practicing serve the music and hopefully not the other way around.

“I [also] find visualization useful. One book I read was The Inner game Of Tennis. It had some important advice for me about attitude. In fact, it prompted me to research sports literature, where I found a lot about the so called right attitude. I also got a lot out of karate books, and from watching my son train, regarding how to get a sound out of a drum. Just seeing how they use their limbs—throwing a punch and then snapping back—rather like the Moeller technique, where the snap back is necessary to pull the sound out of the drum.

I remember being somewhat surprised by both of their responses back then, but it made a lot of sense. By having a strong, grounded technique, you are able to have a wide sense of freedom, unhindered by a struggle with technique to get your ideas out. A strong foundation allows you a jumping point into improvisation and backs up what you do. And with technique out of the way, you are free to think about what you are doing: your note/sound choices, your rhythm choices, your energy choices, etc. And in making those choices unencumbered, you are are also able to be responsible for them. 

~ MB


  1. I remember that article well. Paul also mentioned Stanley Spector's methods. I never heard that name before and was curious, so I did some research on him and found a former Spector student who sold me his old teaching materials. They were very interesting and I use part of Spector's approach in my own teaching. Actually I gave Paul a big pile of of the papers as a gift at a Globe Unity concert.


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