The Importance of Phrasing

Today's post is directed primarily at the drum set player. Many of today's players develop amazing technical proficiency through hours and hours of practice. But just what do they practice? Most drummers seem to concentrate on 2 main things:

  1. Pure technique, like triplets or paradiddles around the drums, double bass chops, speed and precision.
  2. Beat/rhythms/grooves.
This is all well and good, as we need to master many of these skills, but I've seen too many young drummers concentrate strictly on these. When it comes to playing in a band, they have the technique, but not the means to successfully apply it to the music in a musical way. They often end up sounding like they are playing exercises out of a drum book, which is what they are doing.

You can learn to be a better drummer by listening to great singers…

I'm all for technique, but not at the sacrifice of the music. An important thing for drummers to do is to listen to both singers and horn players. There you can get a real sense of phrasing and how the music is put together to form a song. I listen to a lot of singers, from classic ones like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, to more modern ones like Joni Mitchell, Ann Wilson, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, and a lot of ethnic/world music singers, like Mari Boine, Wimme, Tanya Tagaq. I listen to the words and notes they sing, but also how they breathe, how they emphasize and accent the words, and most importantly, how they bring the words to life. Listen to Sinatra, he wasn't considered a great singer just because of his voice—a lot of singers have great voices—but he knew how to phrase everything, how to present the lyrics in a way that communicated with the listener. This is so important!

You could get 10 different singers to sing the same song and you will have 10 different versions of that song. This is easy to do. Pick out a classic vocal song, like Fly Me To The Moon, or, Georgia, and just go on YouTube. You'll find a lot of different version of the songs. Each singer brings something of themself to the song. The same can be said for instrumentals. Listen to horn players. Both sax and trumpet are very lyrical instruments that share a lot in common with the voice. Listen to a great sax player and how they connect the notes, creating melodic phrases. Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond—each has their own sound, their own emphasis on the notes.

So when you are playing drum set with a band, don't just think rhythm and beats/grooves, think melody and phrasing. Imagine yourself as a singer or sax player, and try to bring that same sense of phrasing and melody to your rhythms. Think of how you can blend what you are ding with the other musicians, with the music overall. 

Be a musician, not just a drummer.

~ MB


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