Thursday, September 15, 2011

Playing Melodically

Hey there everyone,

Before I get into it, my apologies for falling off of the face of the earth. Suffice to say my career has been in full-swing and keeping me away from the computer keyboard.

I recently began working with one of my longtime students on the art of Jazz drumming. He's had some experience in the style but it barely scratched the surface. We developed a curriculum for him that consists of 5 parts:

1. Listening.
2. Swing groove study.
3. Independence (as applied to Jazz).
4. Song forms (as applied to Jazz).
5. Soloing.

Each of these parts has its own particular areas of focus, and I'll get to them in future posts. Today I wanted to talk about one area that is particularly challenging to many drummers and that relates to the soloing portion of my Jazz education curriculum: playing melodically.

Drummers are taught things that relate to numbers. We study things like counting, patterns, phrasing, etc. After years of conditioning your mind and body to play rhythm, it can be really tough to change ones approach entirely and think about something so foreign as melody.

Pitch? Color? Shape? Rise and fall? Wtf is this??

When I work with students I tend to ease them into all of it. Since it's such a departure from what we usually study, it can take some time to develop the part of the brain that can process concepts that are more abstract.

The first step is to think of a song you know and enjoy. Try to sing the melody in your head. Then, play the rhythm of the melody on a snare drum (or other surface). Practice doing this for a few days...make it a part of your practice regimen. The goal here is to get used to playing a rhythm that comes from a melody in your opposed to a groove or a rudiment or a written part.

Once it becomes less awkward to do this, try orchestrating the rhythm around the kit. While doing this, pay attention to the pitch of your drums. Even though your drums might not produce an exact harmonic pitch, consider whether a drum is a 'high note' or a 'low note' or something in between. The goal here is to consider your drumset as a melodic instrument with a range of pitches. Oh and don't forget about the cymbals, they count too!

Try to think less and less about rhythmic concepts such as grooves, rudiments, fills, etc. and think more about performing pitches. Now, remember the melody we used before? Try to play the melody on your kit. When the pitch of the melody is high, play a surface that has a high pitch such as a hi-hat, splash, high tom, or snare. When the melody goes down in pitch, follow suit on the the lower toms, the larger cymbals, the kick. See what I'm getting at here? Even though your kit isn't a melodic instrument per se, the idea here is to start to CONSIDER it as one.

If you're thinking this is 'out there' or 'abstract', well that's 'cuz it is. This will take some getting used to. As I said before, we all have years of rhythmic programming that we need to learn to set aside. As we continue to practice playing melodically, we start to develop a new part of our mind.

Eventually, we can combine both approaches, rhythmic and melodic, to create interesting, musical, expressive solos. What's more is we can use this approach to create more interesting and appropriate grooves as well.

Friday, November 27, 2009

I am now writing for!

Hey everyone,

Exciting news! I've been asked to contribute for Berklee College of Music's blog! Check out my first post, a short article on practicing:

Hope everyone had a nice turkey-day!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2 tech gadgets that every musician should own.

My mp3 player and my GPS unit have changed my gigging career for the better. Here's how!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Practice Tips

Remaining comfortable and productive while practicing is vital to career success. Here are 5 things you can do to make sure of this.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My two best gig friends

Hey everyone,

Last weekend I was getting ready for a gig and I came to realize my two best friends that help me in this endeavor.

My ipod and my GPS unit.

Almost all the gigs I do include some tunes I don't yet know so I have to spend some time learning them. Typically I'll block an hour or so out of one of my practice sessions to do this, but I also like to review the songs right before the gig. This is where my ipod comes in handy. I just plug it into my car's stereo and play the songs through a few times while I drive to the gig. This helps me ensure that the songs are fresh in my mind and I'll play them accurately on the gig.

Prior to this method I would always be fumbling with CDs in the car, having to swap them out if I had multiple songs to know. This is dangerous to do while driving and having to carry around multiple CD's is a pain. Nowadays I just load the songs into iTunes and then upload them to my iPod. Simple.

I create playlists in iTunes for each group I work with. Whenever the bandleader sends new songs I just put them in the appropriate playlist. This helps me keep track of all the material I have to know. Trust me, once you start working with multple bands, it gets complicated! I then sort the songs by the date uploaded so I know that the songs at the top of the list are the newest ones. Then I sync this all onto my iPod.

This technique makes it easy for me to play them in the car - I just plug in the ipod, select the appropriate playlist, and hit play. I know that the first songs I hear will be the new ones.

GPS System
We all own certain gadgets that we can't go without (and wonder how we existed prior to their invention). Well, my GPS system is such a device. It is so easy even a drummer can do it! ;-)

I'll get the address to the gig venue from the bandleader and enter it into the system before I leave the house to go to the gig. Then I mount it in the car and away I go. It's a lot safer than reading printouts (or worse my own writing) and the system always calculates the quickest possible route to the destination. My system even has traffic alerting capability - this has saved me from being VERY late on several occasions.

When the gig is over and it's time to go home, my system has my home address programmed into it so all I have to do is press the 'Go Home' button and it guides me back to la casa de Jeff. Very slick.

Another great feature is I can save all of the trips I've taken (I'm not sure how much the system can store - I have over 50 so far). This is convenient when I'm doing taxes and I need to calculate my mileage. (You do keep track of your mileage right??) My system has software that allows me to connect it to my computer via bluetooth. I can download all the trips and save them in a spreadsheet. Again, very slick.

So, if you want to streamline your gig preparation, I highly recommend investing in these two nifty gadgets. They save time and help keep the stress away! Until next time, happy gigging!!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Musings on learning 4-way independence

I was working with a student last week on independence exercises. Learning true 4-way independence on the drumset is one of the more difficult challenges drummers will face and my student was feeling a lot of discouragement as he had just begun this endeavor.

What I've come to find over the years is that many students will learn technique rather quickly and then hit a huge wall when they begin independence studies. This sets them up for a lot of discouragement because they get used to making consistent forward progress with rudimental technique studies but all of a sudden WHAMO! Any patterns/grooves requiring independence throws them a serious curveball.

So why is it so difficult for most humans to learn independent coordination between their limbs? I believe it is because of our own false perception of this inherent 'difficulty'.

First of all, we need to stop using the word 'difficult'. Explaining a challenge with a negative word such as "difficult" presupposes that it will be a negative experience. This puts us in a negative mindset before we even begin! Not a good way to start.

Instead, consider the challenge of 4-way independence as merely unique. Think about it - when we perform grooves that require multiple movements, we think differently, move differently, even hear differently. The experience is 'different', not 'difficult'.

Repeat after me: "it's different, not difficult". Repeat this phrase every time you make a mistake.

This might sound insane but what we're doing is reprogramming our minds to consider the challenge of 4-way independence in a positive way.

The next thing we need to do is change our approach. There are two ways of examining a groove that utilizes 4-way independence: the individual rhythms that are performed by each limb and the groove as a single entity. Typically when we learn a new groove we break it down and isolate each individual rhythm. We train each limb to play its intended rhythm and then we put it all together.

The problem is that after we spend all this time training our limbs separately, everything falls apart when we try to perform everything together at the same time. Loud cursing then ensues.

Why put yourself through this madness?

I've come to realize that it is much more efficient to examine a groove requiring 4-way independence as a single entity. As I've done so many times before, I'm going to exemplify this by making a comparison to sports.

I'm an avid tennis player and over the years I've found that one of the hardest strokes to learn and keep proficient is the serve. There is a multitude of combined bodily movements that have to happen in harmony with one another. There is also an element of timing - you've got to hit that ball at precisely the right time or it'll either hit the net or sail out of the court.

The way I learned the serve was by watching pros and emulating their movements. However, the initial problem with this approach was my constant analysis of each specific movement whether it be the ball toss, the swing of the racket, or the usage of my legs. I would always look at one specific piece of the stroke and learn it but once I'd try to put it all together it would be a train-wreck.

At one point I decided to throw everything I had learned out the window and just try to hit the ball over the net and into the service court. I immediately noticed that I was focusing not on each specific part of the stroke but rather all of the movements as whole. It became a singular event composed of fluid motions that worked together in harmony. It also seemed very rhythmic - knees bend toss the ball and swing the racquet. Knees bend toss the ball and swing the racquet.

Each movement related and affected the others and I had to approach it as if I was putting together a puzzle; I had to figure out how each movement fit into the whole event. This helped me achieve two things at once: figuring out how each particular movement worked and also how everything had to fit together to create the stroke as a whole. The two went hand in hand and affected the execution.

So, bringing the discussion back to the drumset, when we play a groove each individual rhythm our limbs perform fits together to create the singular event of the groove. So how can we translate this approach into a more efficient method of learning?

First, determine the best sticking. Identify what surfaces you'll be striking with each hand and how this relates to the rhythms. For example, if the groove calls for a rhythm that is broken up between the snare, ride cymbal, and floor tom, chances are you'll be playing doubles with your right hand between the ride and the tom (or vice-versa if you're left handed). Write out the groove and then underneath the stave write out the R's and the L's in the same manner as you would while learning a snare drum piece. You'll probably find a lot of paradiddles and its various permutations.

This brings up an important side note: identifying rudiments within a groove will help you learn and internalize said groove quickly.

Once you determine the most efficient sticking, the next step is to determine where the foot patterns fit. Usually you'll find that there will be situations where certain notes played with your feet will line-up with notes played with your hands. There will also be times where notes played by the feet will "fill in the gaps" where nothing is played by your hands. All you need to do is identify these situations, take it one beat at a time, and complete the puzzle.

Now you might be thinking "Jeff, you're crazy, it's WAY harder to learn this stuff than you're making it out to be!!" I'm not claiming this stuff is the easiest thing to perform. The point I'm trying to make in this article is that we can help ourselves retain our sanity by using an approach that begins with a positive and open mind and then considering the groove as a singular entity as opposed to multiple rhythms.

Remember: it's not difficult, just different! ;-) Have fun!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Preparing for the studio - writing charts.

Hey everyone,

I was in Indianapolis last week recording with local musician Mina Keohane. The session was a huge success; we met all of our goals and recorded some amazing music. This is impressive considering the multitude of problems we had.

Simply put, it seemed any piece of gear that could break or stop working properly did.

First was my kick pedal.

I always bring several different beaters - soft felt, hard felt, wood, and plastic (I want a rubber beater - anyone out there know where I can get one?). This helps me precisely manipulate the sound of my kick drum beyond simple tuning and muffling. What a lot of drummers don't realize is your kit can (and usually will) sound very different when it's recorded. Because of this, you may want to change some things after you hear the first slew of playbacks.

Anyways, I digress. Since the music we wrote was heavily groove-oriented, I wanted to make sure my kick and snare sounds matched the sound that Mina was going for. When I showed up for the session I had a soft felt beater on my kick pedal because we had been rehearsing in areas where I wanted to keep the volume down. However, after talking to the engineer (who was also a drummer) we agreed that hard felt would probably be the best choice. So, I removed the soft felt beater from the pedal and attached my hard felt beater. While tightening down the nuts that hold the beater in place, the entire casing that holds the beater stem cracked in half.

D'oh!! I didn't bring a spare pedal to the session (bad bad bad) so we had to scramble to Guitar Center and get another one. That's a whole OTHER story that I won't get into here, but suffice it to say that Guitar Center SUCKS when it comes to their 'performance guarantee plan' (read: don't waste your money on it).

Second thing was that our guitarist started having problems with his intonation, due in large part to a bad set-up he got for his guitar before the session. Luckily our producer was able to find us a local guitar tech and he gave the guitar a proper set-up.

Then Mina's Rhodes started acting up. I'm not exactly sure how they fixed it, but our engineer Gary Meilke figure it out and saved the day.

Some of the studio gear acted up as well. The headphone mixes didn't work right. We got a lot of RF signal in various places. A fuse in one of the mic preamps blew. One of the computers crashed. I thought Gary was going to slash his wrists at one point but he stayed calm, somehow fixed everything and got our songs cut.

The point of all this is I believe the most important thing that helped everyone keep their cool and remain productive was that the band was prepared. Our performances were on-point, so everyone knew that once we solved all of our technical issues we'd get this record cut smoothly and efficiently. Technical issues are relatively easy to solve...issues stemming from unprepared musicians are nearly impossible to solve.

Remember the cub scouts' motto: Be Prepared. Good drummers are ALWAYS prepared for every gig.

The #1 thing you can to do to prepare for a session is to have the songs NAILED. I mean inside out, backwards and forwards, upside-down and every other way. Know the songs like you know how to walk and you don't have to consciously think about them while performing (see my earlier articles on mastery). The best way to do this is to listen to the songs as often as possible and internalize them. Spend some time during your practice sessions and play along to the demos you've received. Band rehearsals are also VERY helpful for this endeavor.

Now, in a perfect world, we all have several weeks to learn 10 tunes followed by 2 or 3 rehearsals with the band before the studio sessions. However, in the REAL world we're rarely given these luxuries. Probably 90% of the recording sessions I'm hired for are last-minute, "Hey our drummer broke his arm can you come finish the record" type situations (this is no joke - a recent session I did was for a drummer who broke his arm while hiking and they had two tracks left to cut). In these more common situations, we need a technique that can prepare us as much as possible in a limited amount of time.

This technique is the usage of charts/sheet music.

I'll pause here and briefly get on the soapbox about the ability to read music. If you are a drummer than does not know how to read music, I URGE you to learn. Find yourself a teacher and take a few lessons (if you live in the greater Boston area, I may be able to help you out). This ability will open MANY doors for you and you will enjoy greater career success. It's true that some of the best drummers in history did not know how to read music, but those guys are the exception, not the rule. 99% of the successful drummers out there today can read music, and they can read it well.

Ok speech over.

I almost never receive sheet music from the artists who hire me, but I almost always get some sort of demo, so I've created a simple and fast way to write out my own charts. There are 2 major things I focus on when first listening to a demo: Groove and Song Form.


This often includes creating a groove from scratch. Many times I'll receive demos that only include the songwriter singing the song and playing guitar/piano. Sometimes the demo includes a simple sequenced beat and the artist will tell me to create something different. Regardless of what the demo includes, you can still gather much information that will help you determine the groove. Listen to the subdivisions. Are the rhythms eighth note based? Sixteenth note based? Use this as a guide when determining an appropriate groove. Also pay attention to any prominent hits or phrases that may call for stop time sections or more deliberate outlining from the drums. Remember to start out simple and only add when it's appropriate for the song. I always hear drummers that play way too much. Don't fall into this trap!!

You also need to determine the genre. I often ask the artist directly what they're going for. Is it a bluesy thing? Hip Hop? Rock? This will greatly assist you in creating a groove that fits the vision of the artist. Remember this - you are there to provide a drum part that helps fulfill the artist's vision.

Song Form

As a former teacher once told me, know the form and you know 90% of the tune. Also, learning the form will help you create parts that are musical, expressive, interesting, and supportive of the song. Familiarize yourself with the different sections of a song (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) and while you're listening to the song, make notes on what the form is. Some people like to use the terms A, B, C etc. to describe the different sections of a song. I like to use this method for simpler forms, but sometimes when songs have very involved arrangements I use more involved notation techniques such as 1st and 2nd endings, D.S. signs, and codas.

Once I know the groove and the form, it's time to write out the chart.

Here's a recent chart I wrote:

1: The Introduction Section ("INTRO" for short). What I did here was write out the groove and indicate that it repeats 7 times.

2: The x-stick note tells me to play the groove using a cross-stick technique. These types of notes are VERY important. If I show up and forget that I meant to play cross-stick during the sensitive intro and I come out cranking rim-shots, the artist won't be overly pleased.

3: The first verse. The V with a small 1 shorthand takes up a lot less space than "First Verse".

4 and 5: This is my usage of multi-measure notation. Simile... tells me to play the same groove as was written out in the INTRO section. Then I draw a wavy line and a number on top. This tells me the amount of bars to play said groove. These techniques save me a lot of time when writing the chart as well as saving space on the page.

6: The chorus section. I use both multi-measure notation here as well as repeat signs. The reason for this is if I need to play a rhythmic figure (i.e. "hits") I'll write out the whole phrase and use repeats instead of multi-measure notation.

7: Another note to myself about the groove. Since the chorus strayed from the original groove and involved playing specific rhythmic figures as hits, I wanted to make sure I didn't confuse myself wondering what to play during the next phrase.

8: The second verse. Again, using a V and a small 2 takes up less space than "Second Verse". Also, this song required a slightly different groove during the second verse so I wrote it out and then used multi-measure notation for efficiency.

9: The ending or outro ("OUT" for short). Notice the "ORIG GROOVE" note. Since the groove changed during the 2nd verse, I put this note in to make sure I knew what the heck to play at the end (same situation as the end of the chorus). Whenever the groove changes, you need to either write it out or make a note of it. This is soooo important.

10: The song ended on a held note that faded naturally so I wanted to add a little something special. Since this particular artist has a strong Jazz background I thought a little sizzle would tickle her whiskers (she doesn't really have whiskers, but she DID like the sizzles). So, I put a little note to myself to play the last note on the ride cymbal with the sizzles. This is the kind of thing that is easily forgotten if not noted but will make you stand out as a musical, interesting, sensitive drummer (yes, sensitivity is a GOOD quality to have guys!!).

11. The form of the song. As I said earlier in this article, for easier forms I'll just write out the sections, label them, and then specify the form at the bottom. The majority of sessions I do include pop and folk singer/songwriter genres so this type of notation suffices. However, as I said earlier in this article, the use of more advanced form notation such as 1st and 2nd endings, D.S.'s and codas is sometimes required up and as such I recommend you become familiar with those techniques.

Music notation is in and of itself an art form. I recommend picking up a good reference book. I've used The Norton Manual of Music Notation for years.

Many if not most people these days use software like Finale or Sibelius; in my experience these programs are incredible in how they can help you write music quickly and effectively. If you have the resources, I highly recommend you obtain and learn one of these programs (I'm partial to Sibelius FYI). That said, I urge you to learn music notation even if you do all of your sheet music on a computer. Why? Well, I can't tell you how often I've been somewhere without my laptop (like a plane or the subway or car) and I needed to write out a quick chart. To be honest, I still think it is sometimes easier to hand-write a quick drumset chart for a simple song that has nothing more than an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and ending.

If you're not used to writing charts, practice. Write out charts for some songs you don't know very well. Imagine you've been hired to go into the studio and record them. What information would you need on a chart to perform it correctly and flawlessly?

Bring charts to your next session and I guarantee you'll be seen as a professional, prepared, serious drummer who needs to be hired for more work in the future. There are enough variables that we have to deal with when performing music (especially in the studio). Your preparedness of the material should not be one of them.