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!