Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's all about the music

As a sophomore in high school, I was one of two drummers in our school jazz band. This may sound strange, but at our school the band had as much prestige as any of the athletic teams, and the jazz band was the top of the heap. It was an honor, but also a lot of pressure, to be in that band.

For the first couple of months, I struggled to open up in rehearsals. My playing was stiff and not very musical. I had a hard time reading the charts and couldn't see the, "big picture," of the pieces we were playing.

Each fall our band director brought in a clinician to work with us, an amazingly gifted and inspiring educator, the illustrious Dr. Newell Dayley. During the session with Dr. Dayley, I was more than usually nervous. I buried my head in the chart and tried for all I was worth to play every figure, hit, fill and groove to exact specifications. Our band had a very good reputation, and I wanted badly to live up to it.

Near the end of the rehearsal, Dr. Dayley walked over to me, smiled, and said, "How well do you know this piece of music?"

"Pretty well, I guess," I replied.

He smiled again, then took the chart off my music stand and started to kick off the band. I didn't know what to think - didn't know what to do.

How could I play the music without my part? What would I do without the chart?

Something seriously strange happened when we started to play. My entire approach changed. It was as if I had been playing under a cover, in a cave - as if in total darkness - and now the sun had come out, the clouds had lifted, and the drumming sunshine was bright and clear.

While playing without the sheet music to glue my eyes to, I was able to make eye contact with my rhythm section mates, as well as to look around at the other sections - to pay attention to what and how they were playing in a new way - and to take cues from the director.

Now, I'm sure it wasn't my best playing that day, but to my fifteen-year-old mind it was a totally new experience. I was no longer playing notes, figures and rhythms.

I was playing music.

When we finished the tune, one of the trumpet players looked at me and said, "I don't know what that was, or where you found it, but you'd better find it again!"

It was awesome. I loved it. It changed my perspective on playing music forever.

Scott Hagen, Director of Bands at the University of Utah, is fond of saying that the music is what happens between the lines, notes, rhythms and rests. So, next time you sit down to play a piece of music, be sure not to stop where the ink ends.

Happy drumming. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Practice LESS. (Wait....what?)

Like all music majors, I performed solo recitals at the end of my junior and senior years in college. The experience of prepping for a recital is excruciating, and it feels like every waking minute is devoted to learning, cleaning and rehearsing every aspect of the performance.

Just a few weeks prior to my senior recital, I was seriously struggling with a difficult snare drum solo, and the stress was really getting to me. I was practicing no less than an hour and a half per day on just this one piece (in addition to hours on marimba, vibraphone, timpani, rudimental snare drum and drum set), and I was making very little progress. I was frustrated, and getting very desperate.

At my weekly lesson, I presented the problem to my instructor, Dr. Dennis D. Griffin. He suggested something that sort of blew my mind. It went something like this:

Dr. G: How long are you practicing this piece every day?

K: About ninety minutes, give or take.

Dr. G: And how long do you spend warming up - doing exercises and rudiments and the like?

K: About fifteen minutes.

Dr. G: Ok. Here's what I want you to do. Practice the solo less. Spend at least half of your time on technique exercises, things like the Stick Control book. Make sure you're using exercises that apply to the challenging aspects of the solo.

At this point I sort of freaked out.

K: Practice....less? But, Dr. G, I only have a few weeks until my recital! I just CANNOT give up the practice time on the solo.

Dr. G: Try it for just one week. Give it as much focus and determination as you can, and if it doesn't help you in one week, you can go back to doing it your way.

Needless to say, I felt pretty hopeless. How could I possibly make progress on the hardest solo I'd ever played in my life by practicing less? And a lot less, at that?

But the good Dr. Griffin had never led me astray before, so I took his advice and went to work. Over the next week I took apart the solo, broke it down to its elements, and found exercises (mostly out of the Stick Control book, using the slow-fast method as my approach) that applied to each element.

To cut to the chase, it worked. In that week, by practicing my solo for half of my normal time, I made more progress than I had accumulated up to that point. I made my recital deadline, and played the toughest piece of concert snare drum literature of my life - and played it pretty well!

Candidly, it would have been good enough just to make it through my recital, but here's the amazing part: the skills I worked on during that period of time have stayed with me to this day. They have become part of my vocabulary and remained at the tip of my fingers for use not only in formal concert settings, but in my improvising and drum set playing, as well.

There are probably more lessons here than I'm thinking about, but here's the one: Being a great musician is much more about having the skills to construct a variety of musical phrases, sounds and components, rather than knowing a piece or a collection of pieces. You've got to have a repertoire, for sure, but to continue to be expressive and adaptable, you must constantly be building a collection of musical tools.

Musicians often call this their, "toolbox," or, "bag of tricks."

Let's think about it another way.

Did you ever play with Lego's? Imagine if you only had one kind, size or color of Lego block. What could you build? Not much. You would have a limit on what shapes and functions you could construct out of one block.

But what if you had two, or five or a hundred? With every added type, shape, size of block, you exponentially increase what you can build, how it can function, etc.

One more comparison: Basketball. If you only have one move, your defender will easily stop you from scoring, and you'll be an ineffective - not to mention boring - player.

The same is true with your musical skills. If you don't have very many rudiments, sticking patterns, independence skills - even ideas - to draw from, you'll be limited, ineffective, boring, etc. More than that, you'll be frustrated.

Lego's, basketball and music all have this one thing in common - they're more fun when you're better at them. And you're better at them if you have more tools, tricks and skills.

So, long blog post, but short message: Practice less. You'll get more done, and you'll keep it longer.

Happy drumming!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Friday Feature: Diana Krall

Recently I was going through a box in my garage and ran across a pair of concert tickets from the summer of 2004. One of my close friends, also a serious music lover, took me to see Diana Krall for my birthday that year. Diana gave four (FOUR!!!) encores that night.* Just looking at the tickets put a smile on my face and sent me to my stereo to enjoy some tunes.

Diana Krall is at once a throwback to an earlier era and a pioneer into new places and dimensions. Her vocal quality and style of delivery are both timeless and innovative, and her piano stylings are the perfect compliment to her wide-ranging musical forays. As a bonus, she is a beautiful and photogenic person.

Personally, Diana has been my favorite jazz vocalist since the first time I listened to her. And given the musicians she generally plays with (some of whom I'll list below), listening to Diana Krall is both entertaining and educational. It's classic, timeless music.

Not only have I been in love with the voice and music of Diana Krall for years, I've enjoyed listening to the musicians she works with. A partial list includes:
  • Peter Erskine
  • Jeff Hamilton
  • John Clayton
  • Anthony Wilson
  • Russell Malone
  • Christian McBride
  • More HERE
As with other Friday Features, I hope you'll do some exploring and get to know the music of Diana Krall for yourself. You will be very richly rewarded.

Happy listening!

*I've been to many, many live shows in my life, from major symphonies to rock, jazz, pop and country acts in the largest and smallest of venues. Even though I love the music and the atmosphere, I'm ready to go home at the end of the night. Not so with Diana Krall. Even after four encores, my hear broke when she said goodnight. I could have listened and enjoyed forever. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

It's a matter of (public) perspective

Disclaimer: Before I dive into the topic du jour, I have to say that I get it. I really do. It's just a little joking around, and there are jokes about every profession and every class of people. (Recently I played a gig for a bunch of sewage system engineers, and, let me tell you, those were some pretty crappy jokes.) But there is an underlying problem, and it's time that we, musicians and non, face it head-on.

A friend of mine, an insanely successful and renowned guitarist and music educator, tells one of my favorite stories. Shortly after he and his family moved into their brand new, beautiful home in a somewhat exclusive part of their city, he was chatting with a neighbor at church when the guy asked him, "So what do you do?"

"Oh, I'm a musician," he replied.

"No, no. I mean, what do you do for a living?"

I love this story, because it exemplifies the standard attitude toward musicians from many people who aren't. Music is fine as a hobby, I guess, but you can't seriously call it a career, right? It's just not important enough. 

Alright, so that characterization might be a touch incendiary. In a nutshell, here's my problem: musicians, and music education, have always been marginalized by mainstream society. Whether it be in the professional world, in education or at the gym, music is often viewed as a sidebar.

Too often, musicians and music are turned into a punchline.

Example number one. Here's the commercial that just about made me fall off my treadmill.

I get that it can be tough to support a young personn through the cumulative hours it takes to develop a musical skill, but the mom is essentially saying, "I deserve a reward just for being in the same space with a kid practicing her instrument - that's how bad it is to have a musician in the house!" (It's also a subtle dig at bassoonists, and I get that, but...)

Example number two. Although KFC has taken their ad down (you can't even find it on YouTube), you can get a sense for it and read their response to criticism here. The commercial contrasts the "good idea" of buying fried chicken for dinner, to a bunch of "bad ideas." The one that caught my ire? "Bad idea: buying your own kid a drum set."

Again, I get that marketers are just trying to get viewers to laugh and remember their product. But as I wrote above, it betrays an underlying attitude that musicians, like lawyers, proctologists and used car salesmen, are somehow not people, and that their contribution to society is a necessary evil.

It's a topic for another blog post, but music is possibly the most reliable catalyst for positive change for students and society, and to marginalize it simply reinforces many of the things that are wrong in the world.

What do you think? Just laugh and let it roll? Or is it a more serious problem? I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments below.

Happy drumming, even if it is a, "bad idea."

Why musicians should watch the big game (Seriously!)

Photo by  Ameer Basheer  on  Unsplash Here we are, about to watch another televised wrestling match over who puts a football on one en...