Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Flexibility 101: Focus on the goal

Over the course of my career I don't think I've ever had a performance where everything went as expected. Each time, I have to make adjustments and remain flexible. No, I'm not talking about gymnastics or yoga. I'm talking about the ability to adjust to surprises, unexpected problems or opportunities while performing. I wrote a little bit about this concept here.

Let me illustrate with a (true) story.

A while back I mixed sound on one of the stages at a local arts festival. Summertime is a great time for bands to play more gigs and access new audiences by playing at fairs, festivals and celebrations, so most bands take their performance very seriously. This was the case with a teenage rock trio.

The lead singer for this band, a talented young woman, was also the drummer. She had great gear, tons of energy and an obvious passion for the music and for performing. The band came with the usual entourage of parents, relatives and friends to support their set. They also attracted quite a few passersby from among the festival attendees.

The stage and appointed audience area were small, so most of the sound reinforcement was for vocals and guitars, etc, and not for drums. While they were setting up, I mentioned to the drummer that I was going to have to mix the sound level based on drum volume, so, "Please just be aware of how loud you're playing."

Honestly, I hated saying it. It's been said so many times to me, and each time it sort of feels like an insult. I let her know that I'm a drummer, and I understood what I was asking, and that I'd do my best with the volume levels. When soundcheck started, I was a little concerned.

She was loud. Not Ted Nugent loud, but loud. So, up came the volume levels on everything else. After soundcheck, I (as gently as I could) reminded the drummer/singer that her volume needed to come down a little, and she gave me the you're-an-adult-so-I'll-nod-my-head-and-smile reaction. The set began, and I really, truly tried my best to make them sound great.

By the second song I had the festival director in my face.

"You've got to cut the volume by half, at least! NOW!" Apparently we were upsetting the poetry stage,  ruining the petting zoo and wreaking havoc on the GDP of several small African countries.

I reduced the volume levels to the point where the director seemed less likely to pop a vein in his head, and basically all that could be heard on stage was drums. After that song, every member of the band converged on me, asking what was wrong. I told them what had happened and, like true rockers, they said, "We don't care! We're a loud band. They can just deal with it. We need more sound!"

My first responsibility was to the festival, so I told them I would do the best I could, but they needed to make the best of it. To the drummer I said, "If you can play a little softer, I'll be able to get the sound evened out. But if I turn everything back up, the festival director will stop your set. If you want to finish, you need to play softer."

You would have thought I had just murdered her family by the look on her face. When she went back to the kit, everything in her body language said that she was bummed, to say the least. The fun, positive energy was gone, replaced by anger and disappointment. If anything, she played even louder than before.

Then came the inevitable stream of parents and well-meaning audience members to my mixing desk. Can't you just turn them up a little? I can't hear my guitar-playing son. You're ruining their performance! 

In my defense, I did turn the band back up, little by little. I never stopped tweaking, trying to get everything to sound as clean and clear, and as balanced as possible. But the band had checked out mentally. The rest of their set was not great, and the audience seemed to deflate before my very eyes. I am certain that the band felt like the performance was not good, and the audience was ultimately not very impressed. And I feel badly about it, because the band was very good.

But, I've been there. As I mentioned above, every single performance I've ever played has had weirdness, at least, and outright disaster at worst. And if you let those things affect your commitment to the music and to your audience, you're bound to have a bad gig.

It's tough, but you have to put the purpose of the performance first. You have to serve the music, your band mates, and the audience. You almost have to view yourself as a cog in the machine. I am absolutely not saying you can't have artistry and integrity, and that you are a doormat. But you do have a choice to continue to work toward your musical goals or to put your own pride and emotions first.

Sometimes there really is no flexibility - things have to be a certain way - but most situations can be worked out if everyone is on the same page about what the end goal is.

I've also blogged about this before, but the musicians who get the most work - and who have the best reputations - are not only great artists, but are also known as, "easy to work with." In short, they are flexible, and always keep a positive, accommodating attitude.

Lastly, try to remember that no gig is THE gig. Each one is a step toward a better, more flexible you, and each one is a learning experience. Try to view each challenge as an opportunity to practice handling that type of situation. You'll land on your feet.

As always, happy drumming!

Monday, June 17, 2013

V-Drums from a sound engineer's perspective

A few days ago I got a last-minute call to engineer front-of-house sound for a local band at a fairly high-level corporate event. Their drummer used the Roland TD-9 kit on this particular gig.

It's worth noting that the room was about about the size of half of a basketball court, with high ceilings and real wood paneling on all of the walls, and that the sound system consisted of Mackie's DL 1608 iPad-based mixer, and their DLM series powered speakers (more on the Mackie gear in another post). I was able to mix from all over the room with my iPad, so I got the full-range perspective on the band's - and each individual player's - sound.

Here are the bullet points:

  • Individual drum and cymbal sounds were fine. In the context of the mix, they actually sounded a lot cleaner than many acoustic kits I've mixed. 
  • I absolutely hated not being able to adjust the volume of the individual parts of the kit. During sound check I asked the drummer to manually turn up the kick drum on the TD-9's brain. That helped, but once the show started I basically had no way to deal with imbalances. 
  • Likewise, any EQ, effects or other manipulations happen across the entire kit. You can't do anything to the snare drum (or kick, toms, etc.) without it affecting the entire kit. 
  • We were able to quickly adjust the pitch of one of the toms - again, on the brain - to eliminate a sympathetic vibration without drastically affecting the overall sound of the drum and kit. This happened in seconds, rather than the several minutes (or longer) it would have taken to similarly adjust an acoustic drum. 
In the long run, I'm sure that a good engineer and drummer would be able to dial in the sound they need from a particular room very effectively, but the aforementioned frustrations kept me from feeling like I had achieved the best sound possible in the situation. 

As expected, the major benefit of the V-drums in this situation was the low stage/house volume. Especially for corporate and casual events, volume levels can be a very big problem. The drummer also effectively used many electronic sounds that would have been impossible on an acoustic kit. 

As technology improves, it will become more and more common for electronic percussion instruments to be integrated into all kinds of performances. I will continue to explore their application, benefits and drawbacks as the opportunities present themselves. 

Happy drumming!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Five minutes a day?

A few years ago I was privileged to be teaching at a studio with a guitarist friend of mine. He is truly one of the most creative, unique and thoughtful practitioners of the six-string art I've ever encountered.

One day we were trading stories and shop talk, and we struck up a deal to take lessons from each other. I'd teach him percussion, and he'd teach me guitar. Knowing my own schedule and priorities, I decided to test the "how much time to commit" waters. The following conversation took place.

"How much would I have to practice every day to make progress?"

"Five minutes."

"Really?"

"Yep. If you focus on just one thing, and really work for those five minutes, you can make a little bit of progress if you do it every day."

Over the years of teaching, practicing, rehearsing and just generally trying to improve myself as a musician and a person, I've found the wisdom of this philosophy. Often we try to do it all at once. We want to work on stick control, four-mallet chops, independence, speed, creativity and twelve new styles all at once. That can result in lack of focus and ineffective practice sessions - and little to no results.

Now, I'm not saying you should always limit yourself to only one thing. You should definitely have a well developed and comprehensive plan to become the musician/person you want to become. What I'm saying is that what it takes to make forward progress usually comes down to focus and consistency.

So, here are today's two cliche rules for becoming a better musician.

First, whatever your top priority is, you must work on it every day. Every day. Especially if you can really only give it five minutes.

Second, whether you practice five minutes or five hours at a time, you must focus. Particularly if your time frame is short, you have to make every rep count.

Happy forward progressing!


Saturday, June 1, 2013

It's just a mistake, right?

Let's make a quick comparison between our natural reactions to "mistakes" in a couple different settings.

First, in music. Often, when I am teaching or coaching students, I ask them to, "pretend like you're performing." They should conduct themselves as if it were an audition or an actual, audience-in-the-house performance.

Especially early on in the process of learning how to perform, many students will be just fine until they hit that first inevitable snag. Whether it's a wrong note or rhythm, a missed sticking or whatever, they will simply stop, look up at me, and say something like, "Hey, sorry. I messed up. Can I start again?"

Sometimes the reaction is even more forceful - along with the stop in the music, they pull a face or slump their shoulders or let out a sigh or shout. Many times they will go back and play the same bar/figure over and over again. Almost invariably, the forward motion of the music is completely stopped.

Keep in mind - this is supposed to be a performance.

So, let's examine another setting. Say you're walking down the hall in school (or at work) with somebody that you need to impress, and your shoe catches the edge of a tile and you trip, just a little bit. It's not enough to put you on the floor, but it's obvious your shoe caught.

How should you react? Do you stop walking? Do you back up and walk over that particular tile a few times just to make sure you can do it? Do you point out the place where you tripped and say to your companion, "See? See that right there? THAT'S where I tripped. I really stink at walking right there. Come closer - it's right there. See that? Mind if I try that again?"

Most of us would never react to a simple thing like that. We would just simply keep walking and act like it never happened. Why? Two reasons. First, you don't ever want to magnify a problem when you need to look like there are no problems (as in performance). Second, it's not a big deal, so why make it one?

Yes, I'm taking it overboard, but it always amazes me how much attention we can draw to ourselves when we overreact to a mistake in performing. All musicians make mistakes. All people make mistakes. As young musicians, one of the most important skills we can develop is the ability to keep playing and ignore the mistake as much as possible.

When I was in high school, I was in the drama/theatre program. I wasn't terribly good at it, but I really enjoyed acting. One of the ways that our teacher helped us to develop good performance skills was to deliberately surprise the cast during each performance. Every night, on stage, in front of an audience, something was bound to be wrong, ridiculous or just plain surprising.

I was in the cast of, "Oklahoma," and one of my scenes involved shooting a pistol straight up into the air. In rehearsals, we focused on getting my actions to match with the sound of firing the pistol, which was supplied offstage. Imagine my surprise when, on opening night, I fired the pistol and was promptly hit on the head by a rubber chicken dropping out of the sky!

I remember thinking, "What in the world am I supposed to do with that?!" The firing of the pistol was usually the closing of a scene, so we waited for the lights to go down. When they didn't, one of the other actors picked up the chicken, said, "Good! Now there's something for my extra dinner guests," and walked off stage.

It may or may not have made for good theatre, but it taught all of us would-be actors how to keep our composure and apply the, "the show must go on," mantra of the performing world.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that there is never a time and place to examine and eliminate our mistakes through scrutiny and practice. There are lots and lots of times and places for that. What I'm trying to get across is that we also need to develop our, "performance mindset," so that we can be effective performers regardless of imperfections.

One of the key ways we humans show our maturity and life experience is by the way we react to unexpected or unfavorable surprises, whether in music or in life. The more a person can take the surprise in stride - even incorporate it into their plans - without missing a beat, the more they can downplay or even obscure the "mistake" from outside observers.

More importantly, we learn to put the focus on what's going right instead of what's going wrong. We let the story be told even if we misspell a word or two. Because at the end of the day, none of us is perfect, and all of us have a story to tell.

Happy drumming!

Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

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