Conquering the Russian Dragon

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After playing drums for over 40 years, I would like to give you what is ultimately my most important piece of advice distilled into one pithy statement. Here it is.

 

You must keep good time, and keeping good time is difficult.

 

Yep, from my point of view, that’s pretty much what it boils down to. This is probably true for most if not all musicians, but for a drummer it is non-negotiable. If you can’t play in time, nothing will really sound good, even if there are many other positive attributes to your playing. And unless you run your own band, you’re unlikely to be doing many gigs as other musicians are relying on you to be the expert when it comes to accurate timekeeping.

We must face the Russian Dragon (referring to our propensity to be either rushing or dragging!) squarely in the eye and emerge victorious. This is not easy, and the degree of difficulty can depend on a variety of factors. These include, but are not limited to:

 

  1. Tempo
  2. Style
  3. Dynamics
  4. Other musicians
  5. Transitions
  6. Fills
  7. Fatigue
  8. Technique
  9. Equipment
  10. Concentration

For example, you timekeeping may be solid and consistent at medium tempos like 100-120 bpm, but playing something really slow (40-60 bpm) may become much more difficult. This is due to the vast space between the notes creating much room for error. Conversely, you may be playing a fast tempo, but your technique may be inadequate and eventually you start slowing down (dragging). Or maybe you’re just tired, and having trouble focusing – your capacity to remain consistent and accurately monitor, assess and correct errors in your playing can be affected. The opposite of that is being ‘pumped up’, and your adrenaline is racing – when this happens, you have a tendency to play things much faster.

When you really start to think about all the factors that can undermine your capacity to keep good time, the task can seem pretty daunting. If this is a problem for you, I would like to suggest a few ways you can increase your consistency (and although I’m predominantly speaking to drummers here, this applies to other musicians too).

Get the most out of your metronome.

This might include changing how you ‘hear’ the click. For example, you might just have the click on beats one and three, or two and four. Or maybe just the first beat of the bar. You may even want to move away from the downbeat completely, and perceive the click on the ‘and’ of each beat, or even the 2nd or 4th partial of the beat (assuming 16th note subdivision). There’s lot’s of different things you can try that will challenge your timekeeping and enable you to strengthen the inner clock.

 

Record yourself, and map this against the metronome.

If you have a metronome with a tap feature, you can tap with the recording and find out the tempo. Let the metronome run at this tempo across the recording and note where things may be speeding up or slowing down.

Take time in rehearsal to play with the metronome.

This could be through the PA if you want everyone to hear, or just in the drummer’s headphones if appropriate. By playing with the metronome, you’ll hear immediately where the tempo varies and you’ll begin to form a clear image of all the sections of the song being played in time. When you take the metronome away, you’ll be used to how it feels and be in a much better position to keep things consistent.

Learn to hear (and sing) subdivisions

This is particularly valuable at slower tempos. If you are only thinking about each downbeat, there is a relatively large gap between each of these that creates plenty of room for error. However, if you start to internalize eighth notes or even sixteenth notes, you’ve chopped up each beat into smaller components that are easier to deal with. Conversely, faster tempos can be made to feel much more relaxed if you don’t focus on subdivision – it may be more manageable to think of the tempo in half time. If you are ‘hearing’ these subdivisions in your head that’s great, but being able to ‘sing’ them (even if very quietly) can be a fantastic way of reinforcing the time. Also, many metronomes have the capacity to play the subdivisions of each beat, like 16th notes or 1/8th note triplets. Introducing a fuller representation of the subdivisions can really help refine your timing.

For a more detailed look at these concepts, I really recommend Billy Ward’s Big Time DVD. He talks about these concepts in detail, and also provides lots of other useful tips. I wish you well with you battle against the Russian Dragon – keep fighting the good fight!

Weather Report

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Call me reductionist or judgmental, but I tend to inwardly wince when someone tells me about a ‘fusion’ (jazz) recording they are checking out and how killing the playing is. My first thought is that it is probably a sad, self-indulgent effort in musical masturbation performed by a group of talented but condescending musos who wouldn’t really know a good groove if it hit them between the eyes. Does that sound a little cynical?

 

Well, I have a little confession to make. Against the odds, I’m turning my ear again to music that would probably have the ‘fusion’ label. Specifically, I’m rediscovering a band that was a big musical influence on me in my formative years – Weather Report. Their music defies description – is it jazz, fusion, ‘world music’ (a description that in itself is inherently flawed) or something else?

 

If you were trying to create instrumental music that had no limits (stylistically, harmonically, rhythmically, etc) you could do worse than starting with the formidable partnership of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Both are unbelievable musicians – technically brilliant, amazing improvisers and legendary composers. Add to that the influence of Miles Davis, and you have a perfect blend of components to create an approach to music that hadn’t been done before and in many respects hasn’t been equaled since.

 

The personnel that have been in the band over the years are literally ridiculous. And like Miles Davis (or a good football manager) the band members changed periodically to accommodate and/or reinvigorate the direction of the music.

For this and other reasons, the music of Weather Report has a timeless quality; it almost impossible to overstate its depth, in both the compositional and the performance aspects.

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If you’re new to the band, you might want to start with Heavy Weather, which features the band’s ‘hit’ Birdland. However, the album has much more to offer than that – for example, I’m moved every time I hear A Remark You Made, which for me is one of the most beautiful tunes every written.

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And, if you’re looking for a current band that is following in the footsteps of these legends, try listening to Snarky Puppy, specifically their Tell Your Friends CD. Absolutely stunning musicianship combined with compositions that are fresh, intrepid and endlessly creative. Or check out the music of Janek Gwidala (www.janekgwizdala.com) who is fast becoming one of the leading lights on the jazz scene today.

 

Changes, challenges and new opportunities

Hey, where did 2012 go? It seemed to fly by, partly because there seemed to be so much going on (the phrase ‘never a dull moment’ springs to mind). Some of the personal highlights for me (in no particular order) were as follows:

  • Lots of gigs with Redtenbacher’s Funkestra (the most we’ve done in one year)
  • Gigs with The Staxs that have featured Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce, the latter being the loudest bass player I’ve worked with by a country mile!
  • Forming www.bandworkshops.com with long time friend and colleague Ian Edwards
  • Giving several masterclasses and lots of private lessons
  • Filming several tuition videos
  • A fantastic trip back to Wisconsin to reconnect with family and old friends
  • Joining the staff of The Institute (www.icmp.co.uk) as a programme leader
  • A trip to Seoul, South Korea with The Institute (doing several gigs and masterclasses)
  • A positive resolution to a stressful legal battle
  • A definite increase in my knowledge and involvement with social media (although that really isn’t saying much!)

With a couple of exceptions, most of the things on this list are things that I never would have expected to happen when the year started. It just goes to show you that life can change quickly and unexpectedly, but if you stay focused and open to new possibilities then amazing things can happen. I feel one of the big challenges for me now is not to say ‘yes’ to more things than I can do effectively. Being fully present and at ease with each thing that you do is vital in order to do it with quality and integrity. It’s a difficult balance to reach, and often I don’t know where the line is until I’ve crossed it – which seems to be fairly regularly.  However, I feel lucky to have a few choices – roll on 2013.

A Tale of Two Bassists

I don’t get out to see nearly as many gigs as I would like, but there was two I made it to this year that I’ve particularly enjoyed. And the interesting thing is that the artist on both occasions was a bassist leading their own band.

The first was Larry Graham – yes, the legendary Larry Graham from Sly Stone’s band. The man is more than a consummate pro; he is a force of nature. He still plays amazing, he sings, he dances, he runs around the venue playing a bass solo, all in a way that would convince anyone that he is 40 years younger than he actually is. I saw him two years ago, and it was exactly the same experience. In fact, most of the set was exactly the same, right down to the bass solo. Did I care? Absolutely not – the man (and his band) were incredible, and left me feeling completely inspired and elated.

Larry-Graham

The other gig was Esperanza Spalding. When talent was being handed out, somehow this lady got in the queue twice. She is a fantastic bassist (acoustic and electric) but I think her singing ability is even more astonishing. The music was endlessly creative and hugely eclectic. The musicianship of the band was world class, and the overall production was completely unique – I’ve never heard anything exactly like it. She and the band were incredible on many levels, and very, very slick in their presentation.

Esperanza Spalding

But I wasn’t moved emotionally; the bottom line is that you either are or you aren’t.

Larry Graham and Graham Central Station did move me. It was like watching and listening to history; funky grooves that reached down deep into your soul and psyche. And all performed by a man who has been there and done it – many times, but the fire is still burning – very strong.

For me, Esperanza is a phenomenon, part of the future of music. But Larry is…THE MAN!! Go check them both out, you can’t lose.

Creativity in Kilburn

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Since July 2012, I’ve had the privilege of being on staff at The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance – actually, it’s just The Institute for short. It’s a vibrant educational community, filled with loads of inspiring people. The one problem for me when I considered working there was its location – Kilburn.

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have anything against Kilburn. It’s just that firstly, it’s a lot farther away from my front door than I would like. Second, its ‘urban’ feel was slightly daunting to me now that I have lived for about 13 years outside of central London.

Yes, it’s a little dirty and a little cramped at times. Just walking the street from the Tube station to college can be a challenge given the number of people. However, a strange and unexpected thing has happened. I began to pick up on a distinct energy in the neighborhood that was not only interesting – it was surprisingly rejuvenating.

How you may ask? Well, the answer for me was eloquently laid out in a book that I’ve read recently called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. He has a number of interesting things to say on the subject of creativity, and I really recommend the book. In one of the chapters he posits that the friction of interaction in a city is one of the main catalysts for creative ideas. It may not always be pleasant, but crowded spaces force us to interact and not become isolationist. And it’s this type of interaction that can inspire ideas and innovation that would not have happened otherwise.

One of Lehrer’s main proponents for the urban life and its creative benefits is David Byrne of the Talking Heads. There are plenty of quotes from Byrne in the book on how his New York city lifestyle has profoundly shaped his music from its mixture of ethnic sounds – everything from funky Latin beats to jangly Nigerian bass lines to CBGBs style punk. He says about his music, “The city definitely made it possible. A lot of what’s in the music is stuff that I first heard because it was playing down the street. Those are the accidents that have always been so important for creativity. And they just happen naturally in the right place…In a vibrant city, you can get just as much from going to the barbershop, or walking down a crowded street, as you can from going to a museum. It’s about letting all that stuff in, so that the city can change you.”

So – do you want to expand your creativity? You could do a lot worse than Kilburn. Embrace it, open yourself up to the possibilities and let those ideas flow.