Showing posts with label performance practices. Show all posts
Showing posts with label performance practices. Show all posts

Friday, May 15, 2020

What's with resting the sticks on the drum?

Item just in from the pet peeve department: there's an extremely slovenly practice, apparently done by half the drummers in the world: resting the sticks on the drum head before playing. I have students who do it, and I see it done in many drumming videos by players of all levels: they're getting set to play, and before they start, they let the sticks go drzz on the drumhead.

It's very strange— like resting your hand on a basketball on the floor before dribbling it. It doesn't compute. It's not an organic component of playing the instrument, or of being at rest at the instrument— it puts an unnatural pressure on your hand, and you have to grip the stick harder to hold it there. Can you imagine a violinist dragging the bow across the strings when getting set to perform— screet. What? Does a pianist push the keys down before playing? 

Where I come from, the sticks never touch the instrument unless you're playing it. Standards are looser on drumset, but generally, anything you do with the sticks that is not actually playing the instrument should be done silently, or at least discreetly. In all of concert percussion, and in drum corps, silence and no contact is an absolute rule. Yet I still see those guys doing it in their videos. 

Look here: a student of Buster Bailey, king of the world in concert percussion, doing it (in an otherwise very good video):

Here's an old school rudimental guy doing it. And technique god Bruce Becker— granted, he appears to be doing it silently. In a video I can't re-locate, Gordy Knutsen does it— also with delicacy, like Becker.

Often you see people doing it on a practice pad— it's silent, so maybe they're just not aware of what they're doing. But here's a pipe band drummer doing it on a drum.

Here is how it is done: not only does Shaun Tilburg never touch the sticks to the head when he's not actually playing, when he sets the sticks on the drum, he takes care to do it very discreetly. With his demonstrations here he makes some preparatory motions very close to the head, but never touches the head:

If you're Bruce Becker you can do whatever you want— well, everyone can do what they want— but if you're any normal person, try to break this habit. It suggests a lack of performance discipline, and may well bite you on the butt if you do it unthinkingly in a sensitive situation. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dealing with it: bad time

We'll see if this becomes a regular feature: dealing with it. If anyone has thoughts, ideas, frustrations in real life playing situations, mention them in the comments, and maybe I can write something about it.

Today let's talk about people with bad time, or who play in a way that interferes with good ensemble time, which... what's the difference? Players who make everything you play sound bad, or at least it feels that way. Someone on a drumming forum suggested an astoundingly bad way of dealing with it:

I have found that playing with musicians who have bad time is far more difficult than playing with ones that have really good time. I wonder if there’s an app that has a setting for bad time programmed in so you can practice playing with players whose time is very poor. If there’s not one, I wonder how hard it would be to create one, or modify an existing one.

So, that's not how performance works. The world is not a playalong track. You are an actor in this thing we call reality— you are a co-creator of the musical time, together with the other musicians on stage. Just as what they play influences you— to want to die, or live— what you play should influence them. Understanding that is the first step towards dealing with it constructively.

First you have to know what is actually happening. Time issues I have encountered include:

Habitual rushing
Some players just rush, especially when soloing, and if you listen to them too closely, you'll rush along with them. This has caused me a lot of problems, because I place a high value on listening.

Dragging at phrase endingsOne set of players I know got way too sensitive about phrasing with each other, and turned music that was supposed to swing almost into rubato chamber music.

Rushing on easy stuff and dragging on hard stuff
Vocalists do this a lot.

Dragging generally on ensemble passages
Horns so focused on playing together with the other horns they lose the thread.

Inaccurate rests and figures
Self-explanatory. Everybody does it.

Badly timed countoffs, pickups, intros, and solo breaks
They're not really thinking about the tempo they're counting off. Or they're vocalizing it badly. Intros and breaks played by people with weak rhythm, setting up what comes after them poorly.

Deliberately “floaty” time
Horns or vocalists. Not necessarily wrong, but it doesn't help you with the time.

People trying to be hip with their “feel”
People who listen to too much hip electronic music and not enough actual groove music.

Unsupportive bullshit 
As people get more into chops they tend to forgot their actual job, and play too much of the wrong stuff. Their time may not even be bad, but what they play is such noncontributive musical clutter that it compounds other players' time issues, and gets in your way in dealing with it.

It's partly a problem of getting people to listen. For advice on that we have to go back to the very beginning of this blog, where I reposted an answer Joey Baron gave in a master class— from a transcript I found on usenet a long time ago. The question was how do you make the band listen? 

Um, drown them out? No, well, you can't make somebody listen. You can try to hint, you can do things like with the dynamics— seriously, you could drown them out— you could lay out, you could do something with the time, like take it into a different feel, you could jump up and down and make funny noises— I've kind of tried all of those and they all work. It just depends on the context, who you're playing with. But you can't make someone else do something, but you can try, and those are ways. If you're playing in a funk groove and it's a constant backbeat going on, and the soloist is going on and on and on and on and on and just you feel like, wait a minute it's like this is turning into like, they should get a rhythm machine or a sequencer, instead of... 
You can do things like: don't affect the intensity of the groove but just don't do a backbeat, like in hiphop stuff— or in the stuff that's all about mixing— a lot of times, they'll just mix out the backbeat with the rest of the track is going on. That's a big change, if you're not listening. I mean you'd have to be deaf not to notice that kind of stuff. In a more subtle situation, like if you're playing jazz or more softer type of music, you know just change the texture. If you've been playing on the ride cymbal for a while, play on a closed tight sound, change up the sound, do something to kind of wake people up or something?

You can also:

Learn to ignore them
If they're playing bad time, what kind of information are you hoping to get by listening to them? You have to have a concept of time independent from what you hear.

Independence is necessary even with good players. Not everyone improvises perfectly rhythmically accurate stuff 100% of the time. They (we) need to feel that the time is not going to go to hell just because they rushed one line. That push and pull creates energy. None of the ahead/behind the beat stuff people love talking about is possible without it.

Focus on the one other solid player
Often that's enough to make the gig tolerable, and maybe even worth listening to.

Make sure you're playing in a way the others can follow
Don't play unsupportive bullshit all the time. If you're way too into your patterns and ghost notes and linear funk grooves, you may be making the problem worse. In dealing with a bad time situation, I moved towards a more 70s way of playing funk, which is more chunky, with the full 8th or 16th note grid stated strongly. That's actually a better way of playing all the time. It's nice to play hip, fascinating shit, it's nicer to create an unmissable groove.

Develop a high level of awareness and confidence in your own time
How are you going to know what to do if you don't even know what's going on? Read my post on things that helped me improve my time awareness, and have more confidence in my time.

Be realistic
On the internet especially I have noticed drummers adopting some highly unrealistic ideas about what good time is, and adopting some extreme practice habits in service of that. Time squishiness is inherent to human beings playing music. Through a lot of playing experience and a lot of listening (to non-quantized, non-click track music) you learn what actual professional tolerances are.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

On having done a LOT of transcriptions

I guess I've probably transcribed as much drumming as anyone. There have got to be some other lunatics out there, but not that many, and they're not publishing their work regularly. In this past 9 years of cranking this stuff out, I've noticed some patterns in people's playing.

Caveat: There is a bit of selection bias: I only transcribe things that are transcribable— a lot things can't actually be written out, or written out in a reasonable amount of time. I don't transcribe a lot of hardcore-crazy performances, but I do things that have a greater than normal amount of drumming interest— something with the groove, comping, fills, or soloing. There has to be some element of improvisation. Most of what I transcribe is from the 1950s-70s, and most of the rest of it is from the 80s-90s.

What I've noticed:

People don't use their left foot that much
I'm always surprised at how much left foot activity there isn't on most records. Jazz drumming usually calls for a more active left foot, but many do not play it on arranged sections of a tune, or when soloing.

They don't necessarily play a lot of tom toms either
Plenty of things only have the toms in one or two spots, or not at all. Often the guy never makes it down to the floor tom. Relatively few things that are not Latin tunes have lots of toms throughout.

Hell, they don't even play the bass drum that much
I view the drumset as a complete four-limb instrument, so I'm often surprised that there are still drummers who do most of their playing just with the sticks. Some of these cases may be jazz players feathering the bass drum constantly, and it isn't audible on the recording. To me that's functionally the same as not playing it— I'm more interested in what people play for effect. And the bass drum is often used for effect very sparingly.

Nor do they necessarily hit a lot of different cymbals
A lot of the things I transcribe may only have two cymbals on them, and they often don't make it over to the left side much. On the few recordings where a China cymbal is present, they're usually not wailing on it throughout the tune.

Lots of people have little hiccups in their soloing
Not just extra beat of rest, but actual moments where the drummer loses the thread, and the beat evaporates for a second. It happens when you're improvising, following your ears, and letting your hands do their thing— sometimes your ears and hands just fail for a second. These older players were not fully working every single thing out in the practice room— they were mostly playing constantly.

Increasingly in recordings since the 70s and 80s, the best known drummers are more practiced, editing performances has become possible, and standards have evolved, and I hear that less often.

They have idiosyncratic ways of playing rudiments
They often get severely slurred, squashed, messed around a bit, especially on recordings from the 50s-60s.

Funk fills often have bass drum in them
And I don't mean as a modern linear thing. A lot of people will step on the bass drum under a heavy tom tom fill— just a steady rhythm, Gene Krupa-style. Especially in 70s funk.

Time flexes
Transcribing with a program like Transcribe!, it's easy to highlight a bar of music, and drag the selection forward when you're ready to transcribe the next bar. When you do that, it's easy to see that not every bar of music is exactly the same length. Also plenty of things recorded before there were click tracks rush or drag over the course of the tune, and tempos may change on different sections.

People play both more and less repetitively than you might think 
Most people, when playing, are not focusing on how to work in more of their stuff. They may not have a huge variety of stuff worked up in the first place. Some performances that sound pretty varied have surprisingly little actual variety. Other players are constantly making variations, but it still reads basically as a repeating groove. It's weird.

Dynamics track the song
On a level too subtle to notate. Jazz drummers are expected to be very sensitive about dynamics, but I hear the same level of sensitivity on older pop and funk records— it will be very obvious that the drummer is really listening, and his dynamics are shifting subtly to support a phrase or vocal line. It's important, because a lot of people think pop/funk drumming = whacking a backbeat at a perfectly even volume.

There is not that much fancy stuff happening
Much of it is just not that technical. 

There may be a lot of semi-intentional notes happening
In writing out every single note audible on a track, I've written a lot of unplayable transcriptions. Some of these things are like archeological sites, tracking the body motions of the performer, and obscuring the intended musical performance. It may say something about a player's physical attitude towards the instrument, where they're throwing a lot of motion at the instrument, and so a lot of extra stuff is sounding that wasn't necessarily intended.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Soloing on a form

don't let this happen to you
“My idea of a drum solo is that you play like you sing. It comes from different things you listen to. And the beauty is always in the simple things.” —Kenny Clarke

This is part of a question came up on the Cymbalholic forum:

I'm supposed to solo over the form and I should know where I am in the tune so that I can get in and out of the solo in the right sort of way. But I'm not nailing it. I'm losing track of myself and the tune.

He went on to ask for some “resources” for learning to do this. I'm not aware of any. It's really a thing that happens in your head, at your drums. Contemporary drumming is very enamored with the idea of muscle memory— that your body can just figure out how to do everything great if you do a lot of calisthenics. Maybe that kind of conditioning works for paradiddles, it doesn't work with higher order functions like keeping track of a larger context while playing creatively on the drums.

It's about awareness
Everybody knows the Charlie Parker quote:

You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

The problem is, everyone's in a rush to forget what they never knew in the first place. Playing without thinking at all is a false goal; or rather, it's a rare thing— it's a very special occasion when you can play that way. Most of the time you have to know what you're doing. As I've said elsewhere, it's not about playing “intellectually”, it's about awareness.

Know the tune
You do have to know the tune, and you can't forget it while you play. Be able to sing it, however badly, and count through the form. Over time it takes less effort to be aware of the tune while you play. At first you have to prioritize thinking about the tune over what you're playing.

Start from nothing
Can you sing the tune by itself, while not playing anything? Can you count through the form without getting lost? Then you can solo without getting lost. Sing or count, and add things on the drums as you are able, without forgetting where you are in the form. You'll have to start with single notes, on downbeats, leaving a lot of space, and build from there.

Start from time
Can you play time and comp while singing the tune, or counting through it, without getting lost? Do the same thing as above— play along, and do more soloistic things as you are able, without losing track of the tune. The time itself is your solo, so you don't even have to do that much. Going from time to playing soloistically is much easier if you do the next thing:

Practice Reed-type methods
The Reed methods teach you how to play a lot of different ideas accompanying a jazz-type melodic line, and to integrate those ideas with each other, moving seamlessly from time to soloing. You can then solo by directly interpreting the rhythm of the tune, or by improvising your own lines. Practicing that way gives you the world's easiest transition from practicing to real world playing. This is what I've been trying to tell you all this time.

Think in phrases
If you can improvise in 4/4 without losing track of the 1, you can then begin thinking in 2, 4, and 8 bar phrases. Once you can play 8 measures without getting lost, awareness of the larger form becomes a simpler matter, learning to play blues, then 8 bar phrases in an AB form, and then an AABA form, and beyond.

Musical significance of the sections
The different parts of a form have to have some musical significance to you. Blues is eight bars of “free time” plus a four bar turnaround. A 16-bar AB form is simply a matter of 8 bars solo / 8 bars contrasting solo. AABA is 8+8 bars of blowing time, a contrasting bridge, and an end. For 32 bar tunes with a tag (e.g. All The Things You Are), you can do that same basic thing, and remember the extra four bar ending.

Awareness on longer forms
If you listen to a lot of blues tunes, you should know what the turnaround, the last four bars of the form, feels like. If you listen to a lot of tunes based on I Got Rhythm, which is an AABA form, you know what it feels like when you hit the bridge. Both of those things are very common, particular musical feelings, which you can express as a change of feeling in your playing. It takes a little more imagination to distinguish the last A of Rhythm changes tunes from the other As; you have to keep a general feeling of this is the last A while you play; that section is dedicated to setting up a return to the top of the form. On an AABA with a tag, you do the same thing, but then use the 4 bar tag to set up the top of the form really clearly.

So you have to be able to create contrasting phrases when you play; you have to be able to sound like you're at the top of the form; you have to be able to play something that sounds like an ending, that sets up the band to come back in. As you listen more and play more, you'll get more ideas of how to express those things in your playing, and more ideas about the broad meaning of different parts of the form, and different directions you can go with them.

Tunes to start with 
It's a good idea to start with tunes that are commonly played, that are rhythmically active, and very singable. For example:
Blues: Bags' Groove, Sonnymoon For Two, Mr. PC, Things Ain't What The Used To Be, Sandu. Listen to John Coltrane's album Coltrane Plays The Blues, which has several tunes that are simply an 8 bar vamp plus a turnaround. 
AABA: I Got Rhythm, or anything based on it: Ornithology, Scrapple From The Apple, Oleo, Rhythm-a-ning. I like playing over Bye Bye Blackbird; it's easy to hear the last A as the end of the form. Don't Get Around Much Any More is an easy medium tempo AABA tune. Doxy is a 16 bar AABA tune with four bar sections.
AABA with a tag: All The Things You Are is really ABCD, or A-A1-B-A2-tag. It may the most common tune of this type that you will play.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Playing weird tunes

You go through stages of learning jazz repertoire. In high school I would play Charlie Parker tunes on the snare drum— just the melody rhythm. Then I learned about some standard forms, like 12-bar blues and I Got Rhythm, and common tunes with a built in arrangement, like A Night In Tunisia, Airegin, or Stolen Moments. When I was playing the river boat gig for which this blog is named, we went through a lot of of old material, which I would learn by performing it, often without hearing the titles. Along the way you encounter some tunes with unusual forms, like Moment's Notice, Stablemates, Sea Journey, Gloria's Step— everybody listens to the records they're on, and knows about them, and just learns them.

Through that process, you develop expectations of what normal tunes are, and you learn how to play effectively on them, whether you have played them before or not.

As players with advanced degrees become more commonplace, you get asked to play more unfamiliar weird tunes. Those players seek out more challenging material, and they write their own hard stuff. You get more hard tunes, with less time to learn them, and you spend more time being lost, and generally feeling unable to play anything that makes sense.

Look at Radio by Steve Swallow. A good tune, mildly weird— this and a lot of other great charts are available free at Swallow's web site. Give this a quick scan, and follow along with the recording below:

It's a through-composed (meaning nothing repeats) 27 bar tune, in 3-4-6-8-6 bar phrases. The coda happens at the end of the tune only. Listen to the head in, and the head out starting at 3:38. Roy Haynes is the drummer.

It's not illogical as a melody, but it has a funny arc; it doesn't develop the way you might expect, phrase lengths are odd, and it's not obvious how to play it effectively on the drums. You can hear that much of what Roy does is outline the melody. He accents the 1 quite often. He plays a big accent on the B7 in bar 7, and on the B9 in bar 19; in bar 20 there's an ensemble accent on 2 that is not in the chart. He improvises more on the head out. We don't get the big rewards from his playing that we get from Matrix or Played Twice. Maybe he could have played it better, or maybe that's just not what this tune is for.

Anyway, here are some suggestions for dealing with these increasingly common reading situations:

Most of reading is actually listening. Some good hard-to-read tunes become much easier if you just listen and follow your ears. More on that in a moment...

Play time
You are not obligated to play a lot of stuff on the drums. And doing something on the drums is not necessarily the solution to every problem with a composition or arrangement. Of course, part of the problem with some weird tunes is that it's hard to settle on a good time feel for them. You can always play quarter notes.

Play the written notes
Some of these things are seemingly written just as series of events, not necessarily meant to form a coherent whole designed for maximum emotional impact. To an extent they are made coherent by the fact that somebody put them together in the same tune. Give up on trying to see the bigger picture (for now), and just hit the written notes by playing them more or less exactly. If you play the thing more than once, you'll begin to get some ideas about how to contribute— making a dynamic shape, seeing which things you should be hitting, where you can fill, and where you can just play time or texture.

Follow the harmonic rhythm
The harmonic rhythm— the number of chords per measure— is important. Typically, more chords per measure = more compositional motion, and multiple measures of the same chord = space to open up. Listening to the harmonic rhythm helps with not getting lost during the solos.

Learn how odd-length phrases feel
Four and eight measure phrases should feel normal to you. Three and seven measure phrases feel truncated, chopped-off. Five and nine measure phrases feel like they have a long ending. Six and ten measure phrases feel tagged. That's speaking generically— the actual tune may suggest something different. For example, the six measure phrases in Radio are phrased in 2+4 measures, vs. the 4+2 most of us would feel instinctively.

“Play the riff” writ large
Old school advice for playing odd meters goes: play the riff. Meaning you just listen to the rhythm part and play along with it, without necessarily understanding it. Some of these tunes can be approached the same way; through listening and some repetition the melody begins to stick with you, and you can just follow your ears through all the weird changes, even if you don't actually know what you're doing. Best with tunes without a lot of ambiguity, repetition, or sequences (repeating transposed melodic motifs). For example, Jogral is a busy but singable Brazilian tune with 15 bar A sections, that is easy to approach this way.

Count measures
Look at the chart, figure out how many measures per phrase, and count your way through. This is the worst thing in the world, which I do only as a last resort, when I can make no musical sense out of what I am reading. Frankly I'd rather just be lost. The necessity of doing this suggests a directionless, pointless tune.

Throughout this process you do have to sacrifice a feeling of completion, and of playing effectively— there will be incomplete phrases, abrupt changes you don't have time to set up, and soft changes where you can't tell where the new phrase begins, or where the top of the form is unclear. To an extent you have to make the notes and give up playing for effect— at least until you actually learn the tune, and figure out what it is trying to be.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The leap to playing

I feel like this
A big problem for many students is how to get from practicing exercises in a book to real playing.
It's actually an issue for everyone, but in this post we're just concerned with intermediate players who can do a few things, but can't quite make the connection between practicing things from a book, and actual playing— maybe they're not sure what actual playing is yet.

Here are some things to think about as you figure it out, and help others figure it out:

Play with people
This is the most important thing— read this paragraph and then throw away your computer. Break your monitor. Everything happens through playing with people; being in an uncontrolled environment where you don't know what you're doing, but you have to do something. You figure it out what to do because you have to, and you can't stop.

Listen to music
To play a thing musically, you first have to hear it. To do that, you need to put musical ideas in your ears, which comes from listening to a lot of music. Everything good you will play comes from your educated ear.

OK, now you can break your computer, or keep reading...

Have a context
Participating in some kind of scene will help you know what you want to do, and get you thinking about how you will fit in with the people you will play with. If you're in school, you should take band classes, have musician friends, and start a band. If you're studying on your own, you should go hear other people play, and see how music is done in your town, so you can be getting ideas about gigs you would like to have, bands you would like to join.

Practice like you play
How to do this productively is much of what we deal with on this site. It means framing all of your practicing in realistic musical terms. You try to play everything like it's a part of a song, tune, piece, performance.

when I want to be doing this
Practice realistic vocabulary
A lot of current practice materials and philosophies, especially on the internet, are based on learning technique in the abstract— imagine playing the first thirteen exercises from Stick Control at an even volume on a rubber pad, infinitely. Or “8 to a hand.”

Whatever the benefits of that way of practicing, you can get the same thing by practicing actual musical content... with the added benefit that you're learning actual musical content.

Realistic volume and touch
Practice as loud as you're going to play, on a real acoustic instrument. See how other drummers around you are playing— that will give you a direct impression of how dynamics work, and you will begin adding them to your playing instinctively. And you will learn how loud other musicians will expect you to play. 

No stopping
In music, the time never stops for somebody to go back and fix something they think they did wrong. That doesn't happen. There's never a gig where a group plays one pattern for a few measures, takes a breather for a minute, then does another thing for a few measures, takes another breather, and so on. As much as possible, don't stop for mistakes, and don't stop between exercises. If you do need to stop, try to make it an actual rest by counting through it; or you can keep the time going with one limb while you figure out the next thing.

No speeding up
However slow the nursery school tempo at which you are practicing an idea, treat it like it's a real performance tempo, and maintain it. Pretend you're in the Melvins and hold it steady like a professional.

Make a phrase
Play in four or eight measure phrases. Or two measure phrases. If you're playing one- or two-beat patterns, play them in 4/4.

All you have to do to make a phrase is count a phrase— be aware of the passage of 2/4/8 measures. There are also familiar formats, like playing 3/7 measures of a groove, then playing some kind of fill (or putting in a stop) in the 4th/8th measure. You can also trade 2s/4s/8s— play 2/4/8 measures of a time feel, alternating with 2/4/8 measures of soloing. Another easy format is to play alternating measures of a groove, and an improvised variation on it. If you practice out of Syncopation, you will automatically play 4-measure or longer phrases, because that is the way the book is written.

Playalong tracks are useful, within certain limitations— they are not a substitute for playing with people. I like my own sampled practice loops for working on technical exercises on the drumset; it creates a context so you can hear the exercises as music, rather than as a lot of Rs and Ls. A really good loop can help you play a thing much longer than you otherwise would have.

So: this is a larger process than just “how can I do my hot lick when I'm playing”, but most of these things can be done simultaneously with each other, and you'll want/need to do them for other reasons anyway. It's a ongoing process you will deal with, in different ways, for your entire career.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Jazz stick roundup

these 5Bs are kind of like
One thing my German friends made me realize is that I use really big friggin' sticks. For many years I've used one stick: the Vic Firth SD-11 Slammer. It's a maple stick the size of a 5B with a rounded arrow tip. It's big, but since it's made of maple, it's not overpowering. I get a nice, full, round sound with them, and I've still been able to play as quietly* as I've ever needed. Basically, playing a hotel gig once, I realized I could switch from brushes to Slammers with no volume change, and I decided I could just use the one stick.

But a 5B is really big. I felt there are some limitations to using the one fat, light stick— under some conditions, that full round sound can be a detriment. The body of the tone can compete with the attack. They're also rather clumsy for faster playing, especially at lower volume— moving that much mass, I felt they were forcing a certain tension in my technique.

So here are some notes on sticks I've been trying out, taken roughly in order from smallest to largest— but starting with the smallest stick I previously had experience with:

Regal Tip 7A — diameter: 0.52" / length: 15"
I've had a pair of these with nylon tips kicking around for a number of years. They're short and extremely thin. Much smaller than any other stick I have normally used.

I took them out and used them on a gig, and they do make for a very intimate sound on the drums, while still having a cutting attack. Good for guitar/piano/vibes— I'm not sure I'd choose them if there was a strong horn player present. They're an excellent bossa nova stick— it's easy to play the very fast cymbal rhythm, with a very aggressive, edgy high pitched sound out of the snare drum, similar to this.

Bopworks Birdland Model — diameter: 0.5" / length: 15 5/16"
Very interesting experience playing these sticks. They're a quarter of an inch longer, but thinner than the Regal 7A, with an even longer taper, and thin oval bead. They feel extremely delicate— the thinnest, lightest stick I've ever played, in fact— if you are at all prone to digging in (like I am), these may be difficult sticks for you. They don't respond to that kind of touch, and you may break some sticks. You really have to just dance around on the drums for these to work. In the practice room, the sound of the instrument initially seemed thin and insubstantial.

...and then I used them on a gig, and they were fine. I had no problem adjusting my touch for them. There is a definite ceiling as to how loud you can play, but there was a very interesting sensation of responsiveness to dynamics— since the stick isn't instigating a whole lot of vibration in the instrument, dynamic changes can be instantaneous. That was my experience both with the Birdlands and the Regal 7As. By comparison, my Slammers are like a PT boat roaring around, leaving a big wake. The Birdlands/Regal 7As are more like stones skipping across the water.

Bopworks 7D Mel Lewis Model — diameter: 0.54" / length: 15 1/8"
Similar in size to the Regal 7A, but a quarter of an inch longer, with a shorter taper. Weight is somewhat balanced toward the bead end, so they produce a fuller sound. To me they feel rather stubby— I find myself holding them close to the butt. I can see these as being engineered for Mel's low, deep tom sound. I'm still undecided on how useful these will be for me.

The Bopworks brand, by the way, is very interesting— they are duplicating signature models of sticks from the 40s-60s, with a definite doctrinal perspective that they are the correct sticks to use for jazz. Which... I'm not any kind of originalist; I don't believe in historical correctness for its own sake. A lot has happened in music in the last 50 years, and I'm only interested in what an instrument/implement does for my playing, and how it helps me do my job accompanying other musicians. But everyone listens to the drummers of that period a lot, so it's educational any time we can get close to using the instruments they used. If you take those Birdland sticks on a gig, you realize that oh, those drummers really must have been doing a different thing from what I've been doing. It's a rare thing for any drum stick to give me any kind of musical revelation, and I will be using these a lot.

Vic Firth American Classic 7A — diameter: 0.54" / length: 15 1/2"
Very solid-feeling 7As. Half an inch longer than the Regal, fatter bead, shorter taper, slightly fatter shaft. Chunky compared to the other sticks in this size. VF American Classic hickory sticks generally seem to be stuck in the 80s, when power drumming was the norm. We were all playing medium-heavy cymbals, Pinstripes on the toms, and everything was all about slamming, full, deep sounds. In a way, I never fully got over that, which is part of the reason for me using those larger sticks.

Despite the similarity in size, these sticks are a very different playing experience from the others so far— by an order of magnitude. They're very solid lighter sticks, not so different from what I'm used to, and probably the only stick from the American Classic line I would consider using today.

Vic Firth SD-4 Combo — diameter: 0.545" / length: 15 7/8"
This is what everybody in the Pacific Northwest uses; I used them for a long time, until I switched over to the Slammers. When I gave up the Combos, I felt they were the worst of all worlds— too thin, too short, and too light. I was playing generally pretty loud at the time, and felt I had to work too hard and move my arms too much for the volume. But compared to the other sticks here, they're not at all small; about the size of a 5A, and maybe a quarter of an inch shorter than my Slammers. The tip is basically a cube with a rounded end, and they're made of maple. Definition is fairly weak compared to the other sticks here, which was part of my original complaint about them. That was borne out on the same gig where I played the Birdlands and Regals— I played the Combos for half a tune then put them away. Overall not bad, though, and I will continue to try to find a way to use them. A lot of good players use them and sound great.

Vater Sweet Ride  — diameter: 0.53" / length: 16"
Long hickory 7A with a short taper, and very small round bead. These are really strange. This stick produces a lot of body, and little attack. I don't know the reason for wanting that sound from a cymbal— maybe if it was a heavy, ugly sounding cymbal. It works OK with my 22" Sound Creation Dark Ride. But I think this may be a bad design for jazz drummers playing normal jazz cymbals.

Vic Firth American Jazz AJ6 — diameter: 0.55" / length: 15 1/2"
Weird, short hickory 5A with shaved-down end, small acorn bead. I can see breaking these easily if you're prone to digging into the drums/cymbals. The last two inches of the stick is thinner than all of the other sticks listed here, which give a strange muting effect when played on a cymbal. Maybe a good stick if you have to play with a vocalist, or play very quietly on cymbals are too heavy. A really skilled player could certainly get a very refined, museum-like sound with these... not really my thing.

Vic Firth American Jazz AJ2 — diameter: 0.565" / length: 16"
Hickory 5A with a very long taper, fat smallish acorn bead. Basically a more refined 5A. A companion to the VFAC 7A. Both of them are good alternatives to my Slammers, but being made of hickory, they do get a harder sound. Sometimes in club settings you need the cymbals and drums to cut more, and these would be good for that.

Vic Firth Peter Erskine Ride Stick — diameter: 0.575" / length: 16"
The biggest, heaviest stick here. A big 5A, hickory, with a small tip. This stick is made to give a nice sound when digging in. Weight is emphatically balanced at the bead end, which feels good when you're playing medium tempo full strokes on the cymbal. That's a very 80s feel to me— we used to like sticks weighted at the end, with some “throw.” Today people seem to like sticks more balanced for speed. Seems designed for Erskine's round, musical sound on the cymbals and toms.

These would be a good alternative if you're used to playing relatively big fusion sticks like a 5A, and want a nicer cymbal sound. Or if you're using lighter sticks and want something heavier, but still “musical.”

Vic Firth SD-11 Slammer — diameter: 0.61" / length: 16 1/4"
After playing all of these sticks, my usual sticks feel very big, but they still work for me. I have no problem playing them quietly, but I have noticed that they overwhelm certain thin, very live cymbals. I don't think people should be buying cymbals that demand a certain kind of stick, but that's a subject for a different post.

The Slammer is most similar in playing experience to the Firth AJ2 and 7A; they are all normally balanced, and produce a full range of overtones from a cymbal or drum. The Slammer gets a nicer tone, and the others have more attack— I don't think it's a very pretty attack sound. Kind of a thud with the larger sticks and a thwack with the lighter ones. As I said about the Slammer, in some conditions the body of the sound competes with the attack, and definition can suffer.

We'll be seeing more of these jazz stick roundups soon— I'll be trying out some more Bopworks sticks, as well as those by a Louisiana company called La BackBeat. I'd be happy to hear anyone's recommendations or favorite sticks in the comments.

* - Quieter, in fact. There is such a thing as playing too soft. Any time you perform, there's a band vs. room noise signal-to-noise ratio in effect— if the music is intended to be heard, you can't be so quiet that every little sound in the room is competing with you.

Friday, December 14, 2018

How to play Autumn Leaves

Playing Autumn Leaves should be a no brainer for a drummer: it's an easy standard, and one of the first tunes everyone learns. No problem, except some players always do a certain zombie jam session arrangement of it, which frankly is not happening. You're probably familiar with it: a dotted-quarter/8th note stop time rhythm on the A sections, and then swing on the B and C sections. People learn to do that the first time they play the tune, and never really think about it again. The tune is so commonplace it's like oxygen, which is a good reason to go back and think about what we're really doing with it.

Let's back up: Autumn Leaves is a 32 bar minor key tune with an AABC structure. In jazz settings it is usually played at a medium to medium bright tempo with a swing feel, or sometimes as a ballad.

When played at a medium tempo, on the A sections people will often play the stop-time rhythm written below the staff:

By the end of the second A section, everyone is thoroughly sick of hearing it, and there are always one or more players who aren't sure what to do in the last two measures before the B section. I actually don't know where the idea came from— the well-known recordings all have steady time going behind the melody. The piano and/or bass may play that rhythmic figure (often with variations) interactively with the melody, and sometimes the drummer will accent it too, while continuing the time feel. On 60s recordings Miles Davis plays the opening pickups, and the band comes in on the first figure, and continues playing time— a good option.

Play the tune with sticks or brushes. You may play a 2 feel on the A section and a stronger 4 feel on the B and C— or a 2 or 4 feel all the way through. Or sometimes a spacier feel on the B and C. It's such a familiar tune, people will often change up the feel.

Better players will be aware of many recorded versions of the tune, and you should too, so you know some directions people may go with it, or that you can allude to with your own playing.

The Miles/Cannonball version and the Ahmad Jamal version have similar dark-sounding intros, and there are later versions, for example by Wynton Kelly, with a similar vibe. Ahmad goes on to have a very involved arrangement which never goes into normal jazz time.

Bill Evans's Portrait in Jazz version has a different intro, with Scot La Faro playing a repeating rhythm on the A sections, and an ensemble rhythmic figure in bars 5 and 6 of the C section, which is repeated at the very end of the tune.

The 80s Wynton Marsalis Standard Time version has a rather contrived rhythmic arrangement by Jeff Watts, which many people are aware of. Some hot-shit players may be able to jump right into it if you quote it in your playing, and you feel like courting disaster.

This version by Keith Jarrett is one of my favorites— nothing more to say about it than that. Like in the Bill Evans version, the bass takes the first solo.

That's a good basic working level of knowledge of a tune for a drummer. You should of course be able to sing it— badly— and it's not a terrible idea to learn the lyrics, too. It's a super-familiar tune that many of us doze through playing, but it's good to give this level of attention (at least) to every tune we claim to know— especially ones that get played a lot, and that have been recorded a lot.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Hell of notes

I want to talk about my own playing a little bit. Here's an item from a little free-jazz show with Portland musicians Ryan Meagher and Noah Simpson a couple of nights ago:

What is going on here? How do you get from practicing notes on a page to that?

The short answer is: you just have to get the sound in your ear and go for it. It's in the same family of playing as Endangered Species on Ornette Coleman/Pat Metheny's Song X, something I've listened to a lot in my life.

It's not a display of chops— I'm going for an energy level and a texture and a certain feeling of time, and a certain interaction with the other players. When I'm playing the broken rock beat along with the guitar vamp, I'm not trying to be interesting or clever with the time. In my mind I'm not even looking to particularly feature the drums— I'm more setting up an energetic foundation the others can play over, and with.

People call this rubato, but it's really not rubato. That suggests a kind of variable, expressive tempo, which is not what's happening here— there is a pretty consistent feeling of velocity all the way through. A tempo area, I call it, and syncopations and variations in rhythm have the same effect they do in music where there's an actual stated tempo. When I play slowing-down accents on the cymbal, the feeling is not of the tempo slowing, but of tension vs. the continuing tempo area, which everyone is still feeling even though I'm not stating it at that moment.

I'm playing loud, but not harshly so. I'm not as loud as any given power-drumming funk guy. My cymbals are about at their limit. This was the loudest we played in our ~45 minute improvised set.

Everything I'm playing is easy. Maybe I'll do a post attempting to isolate some of the actual patterns I'm using. I'm really not aware when I'm doing it. Some of them are found in my e-book 13 Essential Stickings.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Moron bad drumming

We are all Hector Berlioz.
Following up on my bad drummers post from some weeks ago. I hate to even say bad drummers, because playing badly is not an immutable thing. I like to think that even if we're playing badly, we're still learning. There's nothing wrong with not playing well yet, as long as you're working on it and will eventually begin playing well.

I'll give you my own bad drummer experience: 

I was going to USC, in Los Angeles; at that time I was extremely green as a jazz drummer, but I played well enough that they gave me a full scholarship to go there. At least I was able to fool the department heads. I was kind of a brat, very ambitious, and very into Elvin Jones, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. Pretty aggressive drumming— at least their playing I was listening to. I used to listen to Afro Blue before every rehearsal, and I would show up ready to really play. I wanted to kick ass and I wanted the groups I played with to be mixing it up. Hard blowing.

One day I had two rehearsals back to back, and on the break, a bass clarinet player who was on both sessions started talking to someone about “the worst drummer” he just played with. I don't remember the exact complaints, but it was clear it was a very bad drummer who played way too loud and “didn't listen” and was terrible. He probably said some other things. It took a minute for me to realize he was talking about me— he just spent an hour playing with me, neither of us ever left the room, but he started saying this with me five feet away. It's hard to believe anyone would be that unobservant, but when I said “yeah, that was me”, he seemed genuinely surprised and embarrassed. 

The “not listening” part is what got me— because I have always been a very focused listener. It's one of the things I picked up in drum corps, and developed further by doing a lot of hard transcribing. I could hear all of the other instruments in that rehearsal... as has been the case every other time someone has complained about my volume. The conventional wisdom is, if you can't hear the piano/bass/whoever, you're playing too loud— well, you may be able to hear them fine, and still be told you're playing too loud. 

I'm not saying they're necessarily right. There is a common breed of lame-ass musicians who never want to work too hard, and never want anyone else to create too much energy when they play. They survive by attaching themselves to a clique or scene, and leading the policing and criticism of other players. They're always on the offensive, deflecting attention away from their own mediocre playing. The player in my story could have been someone like that, or he could have been a serious player— to me at the time he seemed better than mediocre. He was a bass clarinet player, and those guys think the whole world is too loud. He's probably running a jazz department somewhere in Iowa now. Fine.

It would be great to dismiss people like that as just wrong, unenlightened losers, but we still have to learn something from situations like that.

My problem was, apart from the bit about not listening, I couldn't actually say for sure how wrong he was.

You have to be sure you aren't playing bad. Be aware of what's going on, how loud you're playing, and whether you're maintaining the tempo that was counted off. Are you stepping all over the other instruments? Do you never make it down to a truly soft volume? Are you getting lost and/or turning the beat around, and/or do others seem to be getting lost because of what you're playing?

You have to know those things for sure— you have to have the mental clarity to assess them while you're playing. Usually that means dialing it back; playing less stuff, listening, and picking your spots to be a genius. You also have to know the acceptable tolerances for professional playing— how loud/soft do your local professionals play, how many moments of uncertainty do you hear when they play, how much variance in tempos over the course of a tune. You also have to know the gamut of what's appropriate to play on a given tune and style, which you learn by seeing people play, and listening to a lot of records.

When you know all that about your playing, you'll legitimately be playing better, so you'll get fewer complaints, and complainers will have fewer allies. And getting criticism/complaints is very different when you know they're bullshit, compared to when you're not sure, and are just being defensive because you think the guy is a jerk and doesn't like you.

Finally: you may ask, gee, shouldn't the goal be to never have anyone complain at all?

Probably. At least we want the good players to like us. I think while a drummer is developing, it's very difficult to never offend anyone, ever. This may be the wrong instrument for that. There are a few people who are such expert, finished craftsmen that no one ever says a bad word about them. Many more people make so little an impression that no one ever feels the need to complain about them. But part of our job is creating energy, and if you're the kind of player who wants to create big energy— there's always going to be someone who doesn't want you doing that the way you're doing it. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

On hearing other drummers sound bad

A few thoughts that occurred to me while playing a jam session last night. I was the house drummer, and a couple of different people sat in who were playing some problematic stuff. The first thing that came to mind by way of advice was go hear bad drummers play and then don't do what they do, but then people panic and think but what if I'm the bad drummer and I just don't know it, what do I do then? 

So here are some specific things anyone can do to play better right away, that don't even necessarily require a whole lot of practice time:

• Stop playing your stuff and listen.

• The cymbal rhythm is not a leaping off point for you to do all your other awesome stuff you practiced. It is the thing. The entire point. Your entire justification for being there. Be serious about it and play time on it.

• We all practice a lot of stuff, but the only thing in music you truly own is what comes through your ear. You can't just practice some junk and then go into a playing situation and shove it in, you have to hear it. Usually you do that by listening to a lot of records, and by doing a lot of playing— and trying to make music while doing it.

• Any time you learn a groove pattern, you have to have five levels of things you can do with it. Five is a number I made up just now, but it sounds good. You can't just learn the one pattern one way at a kinda-medium volume level. You have to be able to have different volume levels and different timbres and orchestrations so you can accompany solos by different instruments, and play different parts of the tune differently so it actually goes somewhere.

• Everything you do is in service of the groove, and of the arrangement, which you're creating on the spot by the way you play the tune and interact with the other players.

 Mainly it's all about a change in attitude. Your personal statement on the drums is not everything you can play, it's everything you can play that makes it through the above filters.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

All about rolls

Some examples.
This is more or less the complete practical theory of drum rolls as I know it, as gleaned from about 38 years as a student, player, and teacher in a community of professionals associated with the University of Oregon and San Jose State University percussion departments, and with the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corps. I'm going to refrain from using any notated examples; maybe I'll expand this post into an e-book I'll flesh it out with examples and exercises.

Basic definition
In drumming terminology a roll is a long tone, played by hitting the instrument multiple times for the duration of the written note— or for the intended duration of the note, if we're talking about an improvised or non-notated part. It's supposed to sound like a long tone, not a rhythm; the texture may vary, but to be called a roll it has to be perceived as a long tone.

In some older, rudimental usage I get the impression that it's intended to mean any steady rhythm at all using a hand-to-hand motion. That's an archaic usage, and I consider it wrong today.


Played with alternating strokes, one note per hand. The standard way to roll on cymbals, timpani, concert bass drum, mallet instruments, woodblock, and other percussion instruments. On percussion instruments it must be played fast enough for the resonance of the instrument to blend the individual strokes together to make a long tone; so more resonant instruments like concert bass drum, larger timpani, suspended cymbal or vibraphone may call for a slower roll speed, and drier sounding instruments like wood block, xylophone, or smaller timpani will call for a faster roll speed. On drumset the term is generally used to mean fast alternating strokes on the drums, without the strokes necessarily blending together

Also called a double-stroke roll, it's played with alternating strokes, two notes per hand. Machine gun-like, standard for rudimental drumming, and modern drumset for soloing, filling, hihat embellishments, and brushes.

Also called a multiple-bounce roll, orchestral roll, or buzz roll.  Played with alternating strokes, with multiple notes per hand, overlapping to make a continuous tone. Smooth-textured, standard for concert snare drum in all settings, and on drumset.

This meanings of open and closed are different from what they were in the past; traditionally they seem to have meant slow and fast— I believe that's a reflection of how military drumming was taught in the 19th century; it's archaic and has little to do with current musical reality.

Other types
The so-called “one handed” roll is really a drumming trick, and doesn't have any standard musical application on the snare drum or drum set; it's strictly for show. Some percussion instruments may use a one handed roll played by alternating between two surfaces of the instrument, like in the corner of a triangle or the mouth of a cowbell; there is a similar one-handed brush technique for snare drum using a rapid back-and-forth motion— functionally that is a roll, though I never hear it called that. Cymbal rolls can be attempted one-handed with a mallet if the other hand is occupied.

Three-stroke rolls are a type of open roll with alternating strokes, three notes per hand, usually in a sixtuplet rhythm. Strictly a modern rudimental thing, and not normally used in any other playing; drumset players with drum corps background sometimes use it in soloing as a sort of technical display. I find it to be musically uninteresting and useless.

Construction and notation

Ties, releases, taps, and accents
Usually a roll consists of the roll note itself, tied to a single note release. Rolls written without a tie end without a release, with a little space between the body of the roll and the following note. In Stick Control, George Stone presents untied rolls as ending with an unaccented tap before the next written note (exercises 13-24 on pages 11 and 12 illustrate this). Often rudimental rolls will start with an accented tap at the beginning. Orchestral rolls written with an accent, a fp, or an sfz will have the first, or first two, multiple-bounce strokes accented. In soloing on the drumset, some players will accent multiple-bounce strokes during the body of the roll.

There are two rhythm components of any roll: the written (or intended) duration of the roll itself, and the pulsation speed— the rate of hand motion— to make the roll. The rate of pulsation is determined by the tempo of the piece, and the instrument on which the roll is being performed; it has to be fast enough to make a smooth long tone on that instrument. Often it's assumed to be 16th notes, but depending on the tempo it may be sixtuplets, 8th note triplets, 8th notes, 32nd notes, quintuplets, or septuplets. Pages 38-46 in Stick Control are designed for developing rolls at different tempos, with different pulsation rates.

The current American standard notation assumes all rolls are 32nd notes. It's beyond the scope of this post to explain it in detail, but that's what those familiar roll-indicating slashes connote. Three slashes are used with whole, half and quarter note duration rolls; two slashes are used on 8th note duration rolls, and a single slash is used for single 16th note drags. The three slashes— or one beam + two slashes, or two beams + one slash— indicate the three beams used in notating 32nd notes. They're an abbreviation saying “play this note value for the duration of the note the slashes are adorning.”

It's bastard notation, because if the roll were literally played as 32nd notes, it would not be necessary to have a tie. The only time rolls are actually meant to be played as 32nd notes is when they're in open, rudimental form— but the tie is still used in that setting. Otherwise, what is meant by the notation is to play as many roll strokes as are needed to make the roll sound like a long tone.

A European convention is to notate rolls as a tremolo, with or without ties as in standard American notation.

Note: the PAS graphic at the top of the page distinguishes open rolls from buzz rolls by using the slash notation for open, and an italic Z for buzz; this is not standard throughout the drumming literature. The only place I've seen that to be the case is in marching percussion. In most standard literature, the slash or tremolo notation is used, and as a performer you are expected to know the right kind of roll to use for that setting— almost always either multiple-bounce, or single stroke, again, depending on the instrument.


A drag is a single double stroke or multiple-bounce stroke. It can be a component of a ruff, or it can be played by itself in the middle of a run of notes— typically 16th notes or triplets, typically in a rudimental or drumset setting. There is also a specific rudiment called a drag, the definition of which actually varies, depending on who you talk to— I'm using it generically, not attached to a specific pattern.

There are probably a number of rudimental people who would use this term only in association with the actual formal rudimental pattern, who would consider my definition above to be wrong. But that was a common usage of the word by the corps people I learned from, who were all in the 70s-80s Santa Clara Vanguard orbit— SCV instructors, or former members who became instructors.

Technically not a roll, but it's in the roll family. In modern usage it's a short, unmetered, multiple-bounce stroke adorning a tap; or three unmetered single-stroke grace notes adorning a tap. There is some contention online about ruff terminology, and how they're executed, but I have no interest in that. Again, I learned this from Charles Dowd, who learned it from Tony Cirone and Saul Goodman, and that to me is authoritative.

Numbered-stroke rolls
Rolls with the familiar names 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17-stroke. The names refer to a hand motion, counted as two notes per roll stroke plus one note for the release. With multiple bounce rolls, the name will not reflect the actual number of notes played: an orchestral 5 stroke roll is played with two multiple bounce strokes and a release, so you're not literally playing five notes.

There are also 6, 8, and 10 stroke rolls that typically have two taps: at the beginning and end, or both at the beginning or end. The terminology is not perfectly scientific, because there are versions of the odd number-named rolls that start with a tap and end with a tap, yet both taps are not counted in the name of those rolls. It may have to do with how they were used in traditional rudimental drumming— rudiments were not just patterns in the abstract, they were formalized pieces of verbatim musical content.

For what it's worth, the only numbered terms I personally ever use are 5, 6, 7, and 9. For longer rolls than that, I think of them only in terms of their duration and pulsation rate.

Long roll
A long roll is any roll longer than the ones for which we have numbered names.

So, that's a fairly exhaustive overview of my roll knowledge, at least as far as verbal information is concerned. Some people's textbook definitions will certainly differ from mine. For further study, I'll write a roll studies bibliography and post it another time. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The chart reading pyramid

I've gotten quite good at reading charts. By which I mean I've gotten quite good at ignoring charts. As a rule I avoid reading as much as possible— I've gotten burned too many times trying to follow somebody's lousy arrangement, only to realize I could have played twice as well by just listening and playing. But sometimes it's unavoidable, and either way, you should know how to interpret drum charts, lead sheets, and arrangements.

Here I've put together a list of pieces of information you get from whatever piece of music someone hands you in a playing situation, in the rough order in which you process them:

1. Title
Do I know this tune? Have I played or heard it before? Is this the familiar form of the tune, and I can throw the chart away, or has somebody written an arrangement that I'm going to have to actually read?

You have to just listen to a lot of records, play a lot of gigs, learn a lot of tunes— especially tunes you know people in your town are playing, which are therefore likely to come up on gigs you'll be playing.

2. Meter
Looking at the time signature at the top of a chart, along with the context (what kind of band is it, what other tunes have you been playing this evening?), will tell you a lot about what you're going to play. If every tune on the session has been a swing tune, it's probably going to be another swing tune.

3. Style
Most of your actual job is to play time in the style of the tune. There may be a style indication on the upper left of the chart, or above the staff if there is a style change during the tune. If there is no indication on the chart, and you don't feel confident about guessing based on the meter and the context, you can ask the person who called the tune. If it's an actual arrangement with a drum part there will usually be a style indication, and the arranger will probably have sketched out a crappy drum groove, or indication of a swing beat.

4. Form / roadmap
Is it a standard form, or a modified standard form? Is it a non-standard form, meaning you'll have to follow the chart carefully all the way through? Is there a written intro apart from the normal form of the tune? If there is a D.S./D.C.? Do you take it on the head only, or also during the solos? Or only the last time through? Is there a coda? Is there a fine? Do those apply only to the ending of the tune, or every time through? Those are things that are often ambiguous on charts, and you're not stupid for asking. Is there a solo form that is different than the form on the head of the tune? Usually you can spot this on the page— it may just be simplified chords for blowing, or it may be a different form just for the solos.

5. Harmonic rhythm
Typically this means how many chords there are per measure— often one, two, or four, or one chord for multiple measures. Obviously we're not playing chord changes on the drums, but paying attention to them helps you keep from getting lost, and helps you reorient yourself when you do get lost, and it can also represent energetic changes that you want to reflect in your playing.

Use your eyes and ears, follow the chart, and pay attention to the changing color of the chord progression as you play through the tune. Notice the difference in sound when there is one chord per measure vs two or four. Mentally flag the chords that jump out to your ear— if are any special spots that sound significant, you can use that to reorient yourself if you get lost. Look and listen for that chord to happen elsewhere in the chart.

6. Stops/breaks
This is the first order of actual specific playing instructions you need to observe: places in the arrangement where you're supposed to stop playing time. On lead sheets they're often indicated with “N.C.” in the place of a chord symbol; on actual arrangements they're indicated by normally-written rests.

Be able to stop and start your grooves cleanly, be able to count rests, and be able to do some simple lead ins getting back into the groove.

7. Other arrangement elements
Dynamics, written bass lines, tempo changes, feel changes, fermatas. Know what these and other common notations mean. Be able to play a time feel to fits, supports, or at least doesn't clash with the a bass line in whatever rhythm.

7. Figures
Things the rest of the band plays that you're supposed to play along with them, and possibly set up— either with a simple setup of one or two notes, or with a fill. In big band style charts there will be section figures written above the staff which are optional/informational, and ensemble figures written inside the staff that you are definitely supposed to play.

This is actually a fairly large area of study. Learn to read syncopated rhythms, dotted rhythms and ties using mainly 8th notes and quarter notes (a la Ted Reed's Syncopation), as well as 16th note rhythms, 8th note triplets and quarter note triplets (see Louis Bellson's Reading Text in 4/4 or The New Breed)— to a lesser extent. Learn to set up syncopated kicks with one or two notes on the snare drum or bass drum, or a combination of the two, with or without extra embellishments. Be able to fill in a way people can follow, ending cleanly on any beat. Good books for working on this are Studio and Big Band Drumming by Steve Houghton, and Drum Set Reading by Ron Fink.

9. Melody line
The actual written melody of the tune. This may be very important— with a tune like Evidence, on which the drummer usually plays the entire melody rhythm on the drums— or fairly inconsequential—many standards don't have a strong rhythmic element, and are often played loosely by the lead instrument, in which case you just play time. Usually you do something in between, catching a few salient points in the melody line (often tied notes, other long notes landing on an &, isolated notes, or other obvious accented notes), and possibly filling in the spaces in the melody with comping or actual fills.

10. Drum notation 
The last thing I ever want to read in a piece of music is an exact drum part. If a chart has actual drum notation in it, you can usually consider it to be a loose suggestion, or an example of the type of thing the arranger wants— you don't have to play exact grooves and fills. You may use the written drum part to inform the way you play the style; if it says “LATIN” at the top of the page, and the arranger has written out a kind of mambo beat, you wouldn't play a samba. On a funk chart you may pay attention to the bass drum rhythm, which may be intended to line up with the rest of the rhythm section. Often you can tell from the way they've sketched out the swing beat whether you're supposed to play in 2 or in 4.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Microtiming jive

Microtiming is a term that gives me hives every time I hear musicians use it. To me it suggests misaligned priorities, a disappearance up one's own rear end, and the resulting degraded musical abilities. The way most drummers use it suggests micro-perfection of execution: metronomic perfection and machine-like accuracy. I've seen other people use it in place of subdividing, because microtiming sounds more cutting-edgy.

What the word actually refers to is deviation from machine-like accuracy— meaning expressive, human rhythm. What it actually is is a theoretical term betraying the cluelessness of the people who made it up.

Consider this horrifying headline:

Towards Machine Learning of Expressive Microtiming in Brazilian Drumming  


In this paper, we propose a new method suitable for the automatic analysis of microtiming played by drummers in jazz recordings. Specifically, we aim to estimate the drummers’ swing ratio in excerpts of jazz recordings taken from the Weimar Jazz Database. 


Where expressive human rhythm comes from is vocal rhythm, body rhythm, and a complex interaction of the human body with a musical instrument via technique to express a rhythm; and the performer's perception of his own sound in interaction with the musical environment via sounds coming through his ear hole. Intention goes in there somewhere, too: what the performer wants to do and believes he should do.

Let's take a common real world example: you grab your guitar and screech are you ready to rock, and begin playing Smoke On The Water windmill style, which you suck at. The drummer joins in and he's twirling his sticks so his backbeats are landing late— basically you can fly the 101st Airborne between the bass drum and snare drum hits that are intended to be in unison. The bass player is blasted out of his mind on a galaxy of uppers, downers, goofballs, and ketamine, and he's hearing everything in radically phase-shifted quintophonic and his execution tonight is a little fluid. He's usually quite meticulous. The singer is dry-humping your Marshall stack and it throws his rhythm off, too. And he's a heavy smoker so he's struggling to breathe. The tamborine player is dead on. The conflicting tolerances are massive, but somehow overall it still sounds pretty cool— I once heard a Melvins bootleg like that.

One could write an equally complex, multi-layered, less fun scenario involving more skilled musicians, or of the evolution of rhythm in most forms of music. But the attitude of the microtiming people is basically yeah yeah yeah just gimme a number. Tell me how to program the machine to simulate that. And that's when drummers will complain about not being able to do it. You see the level of missing-the-boat going on with this whole way of thinking. The music would never have happened in the first place.

So what do we do with this? Stop using buzzwords and stay focused on the real goal: we want to know how to play rhythm to a professional standard, with an expressive and stylistically-correct feel, while playing creatively. The way you do this— in addition to continuing to refine your time, rhythmic understanding, and execution, in all the normal ways— is to develop big ears. Be an active, focused listener when you're playing music and listening to music. Develop some precision in hearing the attacks of your notes, and the attacks of the notes of the other musicians. Do these things and the expressive timing and feel, and the “micro-perfection”will take care of themselves.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A rant: limits of playalong tracks

You playing along with a backing track.
So, I watch the YouTube videos of drummers playing along with their playalong tracks, and sounding pretty OK, and I think you know, I probably wouldn't sound any better than that doing that, but there's this nagging feeling that there has to be more to this job of drumming than following along and making all the right notes, maybe playing a cool fill for the fill part, doing cool comping junk, and generally signifying an OK jazz performance.

The notes are there, but something's wrong— the energy is all wrong. The drummers are all as relaxed as a Hindu cows, knowing that whatever they play will be accepted by the band with perfect equanimity— they will give the exact same blandoid competent performance no matter what the drummer does.

That's because the fundamental dynamic of where a performance comes from has been violated.

 that. You will never be fired. There is no possibility of you influencing the band in any way, so you forget that's even a thing.

Those are the actual dynamics in which you have to sound good and try to make other people like playing with you.

You in an actual performance.
You think these are all small complaints, and all a matter of “seasoning”, and the main thing is still getting all the right notes in there, having ideas and being able to play them during an actual pass at playing an arrangement. Surely that's the first thing a student has to be able to do, and for that, these playalong tracks are very valuable!

I don't know. Maybe. I imagine one could become a fairly complete mediocre musician by getting good at playing with them. Probably the baseline of student competency has gotten higher as they've become more popular, and means of playing with them have improved. And who cares. Seriously. Managing performance dynamics— meaning energy— is really the whole thing. What you actually have to do, after you've spent a couple of years getting the very basics together, is to play with people and figure out how to make a performance work. I think spending a lot of time polishing these drum covers is missing the boat.