Over the last three entries on this here blog, I’ve been trying to cover my current (loose) approach to learning and developing my skillset on the drums. I’m calling it “The Twofold Path” because there are, well, two primary elements – exactly what I looked in Parts 2 and 3 – “chops” and “groove.”
Surely there are plenty of other things to consider in this vast world of percussive music making, but for me… Right now… This is where my head’s at.
In Part 2, the focus was chops and technical facility on the kit, and that should be a pretty major part of everyone’s practice. Really, this side of the coin can be expanded into anything technically oriented – speed, independence, pattern memorization, technique…
The other side (covered in Part 3) can be expanded into everything musical and practical – including things that require the ability and facility mentioned above.
Where one side is physical, the other is mostly mental.
So, what the hell do we do with those two ideas? What’s the practical application of looking at them separately, and how do they come back together?
My game plan has been as simple as: learn to shred, then don’t do it.
Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but I think it’s a way to approach a comfortable middle ground that satisfies my personal desires AND the needs of the people I play with and/or perform for.
It’s fun. People (drummers?) like it. It turns heads…
In the right circumstances, it will be exactly what’s required of you musically. In the long game, it’s part of the path to understanding and playing more and more complex, challenging music. For personal satisfaction, it’s a way to measure improvement and ability in a pretty straightforward way.
More practically, it’s the Ferrari Metaphor. Taking the time to develop your raw ability gives you more options, more “headroom,” and a more thorough understanding of where you are in time.
The more facility I have under my hands, the more range I have to make responsible choices – to understand the what and why of all the notes I’m capable of playing, and consciously choose the most appropriate things to do, whether that’s a bar of rest or a barrage of 32nd notes.
This video below is looooong – a full concert actually – but when I think of the most useful shredding, the best ways to make an impact with straight up bonkers facility on the kit, I think of the mighty Ronald Bruner, Jr. in this particular Stanley Clarke concert. Pay attention to the dynamic range he displays, as well as his use of simple, musical playing punctuated by licks and solos that will make your head spin:
Let’s be honest: most music isn’t a drum feature. This instrument is capable of some pretty ear-crushing volume. It can be easy to lose your fellow musicians with strange polyrhythms or whole measures full of oddly accented triplet fills (cool though they may be). We have to know, implicitly, that some things are just inappropriate to play in certain musical contexts.
In so many situations, it’s more important to be the heartbeat – the no-frills, unflinching pulse. Or, for styles of music like, say, intense fusion or death metal – where the parts tend to be busier/”shreddier” by nature – it’s all done within the context of the song. It’s still ears first, and making choices that are appropriate for the music at hand.
To play with this in mind is an exercise in self-control, as well as a sign of actual craftsmanship – making choices for the good of the group (and the dance floor) instead of making choices for ego – or worse, playing without making conscious decisions at all.
Fall in love with this kind of playing. Let your ears guide you. It makes your playing more cohesive and musical, and it will make the musicians around you – and thereby, the whole ensemble – sound better.
If we’re being honest:
Nine times out of ten, the best thing for the music is going to be well below the craziest thing you can do.
Remember this? …This is precisely what we want to avoid:
(no hard feelings toward this particular drummer… an example nonetheless)
All of this means that my practice – and really, my thoughts – are divided. I make a point to dedicate some of my time in the practice room to rudiments, to raw speed, to new linear patterns, to independence… And on and on…
But it also means listening closely to the music I’m playing, and just the music I’m hearing over the course of any given day. It means doing some analysis of each and every song, paying attention to where (and why) fills happen, what effect is achieved by so called “shreddy” drum parts – and what effect is achieved by rests, simple grooves, and space.
It’s a matter of filling my bag of tricks to the brim, and only reaching into it when I KNOW it’s going to serve a purpose.
It’s working to get outside of myself and listen to an entire piece of music – while I’m playing – and hearing exactly where I fit into the mix… And to recognize when I’m “overplaying.”
Then, when the time comes, I want to be able to stomp on the gas and have my body execute whatever wild idea my brain has conjured.
This is a slow process, but one I think is worth considering for any and every musician, regardless of instrument or skill level. Ideally, we’ll all get to a place where it’s about sound and situation only – and we won’t think any differently about slow quarter notes or blazing gospel chops. We will just play what makes musical sense without hesitation… Or boredom.
This “Twofold Path” approach seems like a way to get there, to look at the value of each “side” in equal measure, and with equal reverence.
Look, I’m not trying to tell people to squelch their creativity or exercise absolute restraint at every moment. Your artistic stamp is also hugely important… And your musical choices are ultimately your own, for better or worse.
I’m not telling you that speed drills don’t matter or that humongous licks aren’t badass…
All I’m saying is that there’s a time and place for all of it. Knowing where and when is at the core of musicianship.
…What do you make of this dichotomy? Leave comments – let’s dig in.