Monday, February 16, 2015

Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

Most young players struggle at some point with getting both hands to play evenly, at the same volume and with the same sound. There are many exercises which address these concerns, and this is one of my favorites because it is both simple and versatile. Like most classic drumming exercises, this one has roots that go back a century or more, and can be applied to the limits of your imagination.
The “Tap Timing” exercise is simple. Play the rhythms and sticking as written, with metronome or music, and strive to make each stroke look, sound and feel the same. Start slow enough to play it accurately, and count out loud – at least at first.

As you can see from the ending markings (1 through 5), the first measure is a, “Check Pattern,” to be played before each of the variations.
There are two major performance goals of the exercise:
  1. Make all notes sound the same.  This is tougher than it first appears, and will take some concentration at first. You may want to video/record yourself to make sure you’re getting this goal done.
  2. Maintain the 8th note, “flow,” of each hand. As you can see, each of the variations drops one 16th note. Mentally, this may create a stopping point at first. The goal is to keep the hand that doesn’t drop a note playing strokes normally – exactly as played during the check pattern.
Once these two things are happening consistently, gradually crank up the tempo until it becomes smooth, natural and easy. At a minimum, you should be able to comfortably play the entire exercise with no mistakes or stops at 100 bpm or higher.
At this point, here are a few variations you can try:
  1. Invert the sticking.
  2. Leading with the right hand, strictly alternate every note. This will force you to switch lead hands every beat during the variations.
  3. Invert the alternating sticking (number 2, above), beginning with the left hand.
  4. Play any of the above variations (including the original) at the drum kit over the foot pattern(s) of your choice.
  5. Move the exercise around the kit. Start with one count per drum, moving clockwise (or counter-clockwise) around the kit.
  6. Get more creative, moving around the kit one note at a time or right hand on a certain drum, left hand only on cymbals, etc.
  7. Add in flams, diddles, double-note singles, accents, etc.
  8. Substitute certain notes with kick/hat.
  9. Play the entire exercise (and variations) with your feet.
Again, the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
Last thing – this exercise is more calisthenic than achievement. Spend a few minutes on it daily, and it will pay dividends over time.
Happy drumming!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Everything you've ever heard is a lie

Ok, so not everything you've ever heard is a lie. Just all the drum sounds you've ever heard on speakers or headphones.

In college, I was the percussion manager for a small music store. It was a great place for me to learn how to tune drums and work with different materials and configurations. And, in addition to my own playing and recording, it taught me that most of us don't have a clue what drums actually sound like.

To the drum neophyte, just the idea of tuning a drum is a revelation. You hit it, and you get the sound that you get. And when most people hear the "naked" drum sounds, they'll think there's something wrong, because the sounds are "bad."

Most drummers know that you can change the sound of the drum through tuning and head selection. But still too many drummers don't know that the sounds they're getting are natural - they may even be great - even if they don't sound like the drums they're hearing on recordings. As a result, they go crazy with muffling rings, gel tabs, tape, pillows, etc. - all of which can make the sound even worse.

When potential customers would come into the shop looking for a certain sound, they'd inevitably be disappointed because the store kits didn't sound like the recordings of their favorite drummer or band. Not only were the drums not processed, they were tuned to my preferences and methods. The bulk of my job was teaching customers how drum tuning and sound processing worked, in basic terms, so that we could talk about whether the actual drums were worth buying or not.

Before I worked at the music store, when I was just getting serious about my own drums and trying to get good sounds, I had the good fortune of getting a sound lesson from Kelly Wallis of Backbeats Drum and Backline. I had complained to him about my kick drum (a 22" Tama Rockstar), and he invited me to bring it into the shop and get some new heads put on.

With just a batter head on (a Remo Powerstroke 3), he had me listen to the drum from a variety of positions. He had me play it, then he played it while I moved from (literally) inside the drum to all the way out to the front of the store. He taught me to, "listen from the perspective of the microphone," as well as from the audience.

It was a hugely valuable lesson for me, because I began to correlate the sound I heard while playing the drums to the sound that would be heard by a microphone, my bandmates and the audience. I know this phrase gets used too much, but it changed my life.

Adam Nussbaum
If you're unhappy with your drum sounds, try to get some frame of reference for how they compare to "good" drum sounds. Play as many kits in as many situations as you can. If you ever get the chance, try to hear drums both "naked" and recorded, or through a PA system. The more experience you get, the more you'll come to hear your drums' natural sounds from the perspective of the microphone, etc.

One more story. Several years ago I took a lesson with renowned drummer Adam Nussbaum. The work of the entire lesson is for another time, but I remember how adamant he was about making sure each drum was resonant and "trustworthy." If drums are too dry, he said, you tend to play too many notes. And if you don't love any sound on your kit, you'll tend to avoid it, and that will affect your expressiveness and creativity.

Just like the words in your native tongue, you need to get to know the sounds of your kit, and to love and "trust" each one.

Happy drumming!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What I Wish Every Young Percussionist Knew

This post will probably be read by several actual junior high band directors, all of whom have far more experience and wisdom than I do. At the risk of enduring a few, "duh!" comments, I offer the following.

"It's a riddle, really - does percussion attract squirrelly people, or do they become squirrelly because they play percussion?" - Band Directors Everywhere!

Recently, I was asked to fill in for a junior high percussionist (seriously) at a concert.* It was a great experience on the whole, but I was reminded about all the things I wish I'd known when I was an 11-year-old beginning band student. Here are a few of them.

You already have a reputation.
With the band director - who's known too many percussionists - and with the mass of the human population. Drummers (and I know there's a discussion about drummers vs. percussionists, but it's for another time) are known for being flaky, not taking things seriously, never being on task, not knowing what's going on, etc. Because this stereotype is reinforced by 99.9% of all stick and mallet wielders around the globe, you have to work doubly hard to break it, or even better, never fall into it at all.

They already think you're cool.
No need to flip, twirl or spin your sticks, carry your mallets in your back pocket, or otherwise draw attention to the fact that you're in band and are a percussionist. The people you're trying to impress already are, and the one person you absolutely must impress - the teacher/conductor - is not impressed when you drop a stick on the gym floor in the middle of the soft section.

Believe it or not, percussionists can play dynamics.
Drums are loud, right? Yes. And, no. As the musician, you decide how loud any given instrument is at any given time. Do you want the director to get off your back about always being too loud? Pay attention the next time s/he talks about dynamics, and learn to control the sound of your instrument. Be a musician, and you'll get treated like one. (Can I tell you a secret? You'll also have more fun when you learn to play with great dynamic control.)

One more tip: Next time you play a mallet part, try doubling the dynamic level. I challenge you to get the director to say, "Um, yeah, that marimba/vibraphone part is just too much. Can I get you to back off a little, please?"

Own a pencil.
Actually, own a bunch of them, and put them all the places you might need one. This may be a tough habit to develop in the 8th grade, but it will pay off for the rest of your life. I'm almost neurotic about this - I have two pencils in each stick bag, a handful each in my laptop bag and in my car, in my desks, in my kitchen, etc. But anytime the band director makes a comment, change or suggestion, you'll never have to think, "I'll remember that....I think."

Watch the conductor.
I cannot count the number of times I have been saved from mistakes, getting lost or missing an entrance simply by watching the baton or making eye contact with the conductor. Here's another little trade secret: If something goes awry in the percussion section, guess who will not be in trouble when the band cuts off? The percussionist who is standing (or sitting) right where they're supposed to be, sticks or mallets at the ready, and looking calmly and confidently at the conductor. Also, the conductor will start to be confident in you as a musician, and feel more comfortable with the band. It's for another blog post, but this pays off in countless ways.

Listen to the band.
This sounds obvious, but can sometimes be the hardest thing to do. Especially in the beginning stages of being a musician, it's easy to get buried in your own part and play your own notes and worry about your own thing. But try to remember that your part is only one component of a large, complex machine and won't make sense without being connected to and aligned with what the rest of the band is doing. Every time you play a note, try to listen to everything that's going on in the entire band a make a conscious decision about what you're contributing to the music.

Nothing is more important than keeping time, unless staying together is at risk.
I see this a lot in jazz band settings, but it applies everywhere and especially in performance. One player feels like s/he is, "right," about where the pulse is, and keeps doggedly playing at that tempo even if s/he's straying far behind or getting noticeably ahead of the band. There is definitely merit to keeping great time, driving the band, and locking in a groove, but if it starts to tear the band apart, you've got to give a little ground. Again, listen to the band and watch the conductor, and you'll be able to make a good decision about whether to hold your ground or flex.

When it comes right down to it, it's much more important to keep the band together than to keep them at a specific tempo.

Your band teacher is right, even if your private teacher disagrees.
As someone who has taught private lessons for a long time and taught band, I see both sides of this argument. Your private teacher's number one job is to make your percussion life better, but sometimes they can train-wreck it by saying, "I'm the expert, and your band teacher plays trombone. Don't do it their way." But the last thing your band director needs is for you to proclaim that s/he's wrong in front of the whole class.

Most times (this is what I tell my students), you can apply a certain concept at school and another outside of the classroom. Or, better, have a private conversation with your band director at an appropriate time (wait until they're not swamped) and say something like, "I'm taking private lessons with so-and-so, and there's a little bit of conflict between what s/he's teaching and what you're teaching. Can you help me clarify that?"

Chances are that your teacher is either going to explain why s/he wants a certain thing, or s/he's going to call your private teacher and learn something new. This will help you, your director and the band, not to mention grow some very important relationships.

You're better, brighter and more capable than you know. Don't ever think you're not.
There's nothing that makes me crazier than young people (or any people, really) missing out on great things simply because they're lazy or make a dumb choice, or sometimes don't make a choice and just miss the opportunity. I'm not saying throw caution to the wind, but I am saying that you shouldn't be afraid to play out, be a star and believe that you're a good musician. Are you going to be Dave-Weckl-good at age 13? Probably not. But neither was Dave Weckl!

Those students who are legitimately teachable and are willing to try their hardest at anything - especially new things - are those that will grow the fastest and likely go the further in music and in life.

Happy drumming!

*Why did I get called to sub for a 13-year-old? Her parents told the band teacher, "We are taking our kids to Disneyland, but we don't want them to know until we are getting in the car to leave. Is there any way you can cover our daughter's parts at the concert without her knowing about it?" AWESOME!! I was happy to do it, and it was a great reminder to me of what it's like to be learning this great art we call, "music."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Just do it like we did it in rehearsal."

As a young band director, I was always caught off guard by how differently my band played on stage than they did in the practice room. Sometimes the drop-off was extreme, and in my first year it got to be so bad that the kids started to expect the performance to be dismal even if rehearsals were excellent.

At the district festival, I happened to be talking to one of the most successful directors in the state, and I asked him what he told his kids before they went on stage to get them to play so well. His answer is the title of this post, "I tell them, 'Just do it like we did it in rehearsal.'"

The simplicity of the concept stunned me. For some reason, I thought that I had to offer some sort of special advice to get my kids mentally prepared to play a concert in front of an audience. In reality, that preparation had already been done, and what I needed to do was help them to get in the exact same frame of mind they'd been in during those excellent rehearsals. Instead, I had been doing the exact opposite. I'd been putting them in a totally different headspace - essentially yanking the rug out from under their feet.

Don Kelbick, legendary basketball coach, had this to say about shooting free throws in intense, high pressure, win or lose situations:

"The other mental aspect that I feel is very important is understanding that all shots are the same and carry their own "intrinsic value," or their own reward and sense of satisfaction. A free throw in the first minute of the game with no score is the same as a free throw in the last second of the game with your team down 1 point. The effects of the shot may be different, but the basket is still in the same place, and so is the free throw line. The shot should be exactly the same in either case. The objective of taking a throw shot is NOT to win or lose a game. The objective is to MAKE THE SHOT! That is the only object. To inject outside values to a particular shot is a recipe for failure."
Read the full article here.

It took a few more concerts after that festival, but we started to develop a new way of thinking about performance, and steadily saw an increase in the quality of our stage playing. In fact, that group's youngest players eventually became the first group to qualify for the state festival in the forty year history of the school.

Here are two of the principles I've learned and still try to use whenever I perform, either as an ensemble member or the conductor.

No performance is ever THE performance. You should always try your best, but it's not the end of the world if things don't go perfectly. Keep your composure, forget about any mistakes as soon as they happen, and focus on what's going on right now. Performing is practicing, so think of each performance as an opportunity to get better at performing. That said...

You'll perform like you practice, so practice like you want to perform.
As much as you can, try to stay in the same mental space that you would if you were on stage or in the studio. When I'm preparing for an important gig, I'll record or video myself at least a few times prior to the performance. Something about knowing that I'm being recorded puts a little bit of healthy pressure on me to do my best. I can always delete the recording if it's awful, and it helps me to get used to playing in front of an audience.

I watched the movie Hoosiers for the first time before I ever set foot in a band room as a beginning musician, but I think this clip exemplifies how we should approach performance.

No matter how big the hall or imposing the audience, whether it's the fall opener or the state festival, a quarter note is still a quarter note, and the key of F still has one flat. And if it worked in our band room, it'll work on the stage. 

Just do it like we did it in rehearsal. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

How do you spell fun?

"Because after a while, even lobster starts to taste like soap." - Dave Ramsey

When I taught high school band, I would start off every year by telling my new students that my whole goal for them was to have fun. That's it, just have fun. I loved the stunned reactions on their faces. They'd giggle and do little celebration dances. (Easy A!) 

Then I'd twist the plot.

"Let me spell 'fun' for you, because some of you may have forgotten how to spell it over the summer break," I'd say, matter-of-factly. Accompanied by giggling and whispering, I would walk to the white board, and with a new, fresh dry-erase marker I would spell in tall capital letters:

W - O - R - K

The laughter would stop. Instead, silence. After a minute or so, inevitably, there'd be some kid in the back who would shout out, "Hey! You spelled it wrong! That says WORK!" 

I'd smile, nod my head and say, "Yes. It does say, 'fun.' Excellent reading." 

As you may surmise, what followed was a very pointed discussion. Let me give you a version of it here.

Several years ago I was teaching a gifted drum student who also happened to be a talented basketball player. Only seven years old at the time, he was remarkable in both arenas. Ultimately the basketball schedule got busy enough that he and his parents had to make a choice between the two, and (of course) basketball won out.*

Not long after, I ran into his mom at the local recreation center. We chatted for a minute, then she asked if I'd play basketball with her son and his friends. She explained that they wanted to play, "a real game," but there were only three of them, and did I possibly have time to fill in for a couple minutes? 

Now, I love basketball. I play as much as I can. I post about it on this blog frequently. I was at the rec center that day to play basketball. But I've never had a less satisfying hoops experience than I did that day. Allow me to set the scene for you. 

Even though I'm slow and out of shape, I'm 6'1" (about 185 cm) and have a decent knowledge of the game. These were nine-year-olds. I was a giant compared to them. It took fully the first ten minutes to stop instinctively blocking every shot. None of them could steal the ball from me or really defend me in any way, and none of them could score on me until I chose to let them. I felt like Dwight Howard. 

For about sixty seconds.

It was NOT fun. At all. That was the day I learned that winning isn't everything in basketball, or in life. Especially when there's no multi-million dollar contract or shoe endorsement deal on the line, winning takes a major back seat to fun. And by fun, of course I mean work.

Many times I go to the rec center and get into pick-up games with people who are younger, faster, stronger and more talented than me. And - I've got to tell you - it's usually a lot of work. I have to run hard, jump high, out-think and keep up with a variety of humans in a variety of basketball settings. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. I'm always sore the next day. But it's almost always fun

My absolute favorite is when I hustle really hard against a player or team that's better than me and am able to gain some success. I block a shot or keep them from scoring, or maybe I finally make that nifty move, hit a great shot, or my underdog team wins. Those small moments of hard-fought victory are exponentially sweeter than easy wins.

They're fun, but only if you work for them.

My new band students every fall wanted to have fun, and they wanted to work. They just didn't know that the two of those things go together. 

The first group of students that I took all the way through that school were phenomenal. They somehow intuitively knew that it was going to take their best work to achieve something great, and they wanted it. Badly. 

One thing the band at my school had never done (and, at this writing, haven't done since) was to qualify for the State Concert Band Festival. As that first group of students entered their senior year, several of them came to me and said, "We want this. We're going to qualify for state this year. We don't want to play any of the easy stuff anymore. We want music that will get the judges' attention, and we'll work as hard as we have to, to succeed."

I didn't want to get their hopes up, but I didn't want to let them down. In rehearsal, we talked frequently and candidly about what would be expected in terms of quality and execution, and they consistently worked to improve themselves. 

We qualified for state that year. It was sort of a miracle. (Part of the story is in another blog post here.) The band played with a level of maturity and passion that we'd never had before, and they accomplished something great. They put themselves on the map. 

Afterward, I heard many of the students say, "That was fun!

I'll never forget what that school year felt like in terms of effort. All of the rehearsals, the sectionals, the coaching sessions, the clinics, the tour - all of it. But for all of the pain and effort, what still gives me chills is the memory of walking on stage with those amazing young people and making great musical history at the State Concert Band Festival. What was the last thing I said to them before we took the stage? 

"Let's go have some fun." There was nothing else to say.

As a musician - and especially as a drummer - it can be easy to get into a comfortable place and never want to come out. Once you can play certain styles or pieces, or you've got solo ideas that work, or whatever it is, you might lose your motivation to keep developing your skills. 

Take any example you want - only ever eating ice cream, never having to do homework, playing video games all day or blasting nine-year-olds at basketball - eventually you need a challenge, variety and something to work towards. If not, even lobster starts to taste like soap. More than that, you'll never do anything great, and never have any real-for-true fun.

What every great musician and athlete knows - what every great person knows - is that hard work for the right cause is fun

Push yourself. Work hard. Accomplish something great. Make the most of your own unique talent and creativity. Achieve your potential.

Have fun!

*Sports or music? The answer, of course, is, "AND." But that's a topic for another blog post.