Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The How and Why of it all...

One evening not to long ago I was driving home from a gig and I decided to take stock of how the night had gone. It was a nice restaurant in town, outside but the weather was just right, and we had a decent sized crowd. So I began to critique my playing…how I played this groove really well, incorporated that new sticking I’d been working on into several places, needed to work on my up tempo samba…then it hit me. There had been three other musicians onstage with me and all I remembered about the gig was what I had done, how I had sounded. As I dug a little deeper I discovered that I couldn’t remember one musical moment between me and another one of the players, or for that matter anything they had played at all. I could only remember what I had done. Then I felt it…remorse. I mean, I wasn’t going into depression over it, but it kinda’ve felt like I had missed seeing my best friend when he had come through town. It annoyed me, like fiberglass under the skin. I had had a well educated conversation going on around me and I had chosen to yell and scream (figuratively) to get my own voice heard.
I began to ask myself ,”Self, how could this happen? Why did you let this happen?”. I turned those questions around in my head for a while and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. The answer to my question was actually found within those two questions (yea yea, so I got philosophical on myself). I saw that two words in those questions could be used to explain it…the “how” and the “why” of it all. What I mean is, we as musicians (yes, drummers are musicians too…reminds me of a time I was on a flight with a band and the onboard magazine had a bunch of drummer jokes on the last page and the band proceeded to tell them to me, one at a time, for the next few hours…it was a really long flight…), need to not only analyze and understand how a person plays something but also why they play it. Was it a reaction to a soloist, a prompt for the chorus, or simply an effort to create a musical rhythmic background for the rest of the group?
The “how” really has to do with the mechanics of playing (the stuff us nerdy guys who love to practice spend off nights doing…). We as drummers spend countless hours listening to and picking apart what our favorite players are doing. We watch instructional videos to learn the correct stickings and proper technique. Then, for sheer love and enjoyment, we practice them and try to incorporate them into our vocabulary. A lot of private lessons are geared towards the “how” of drumming and this isn’t a bad thing. It is absolutely necessary to be comfortable and well versed on your instrument and in the knowledge of styles needed to perform our job correctly. But then there’s the “why”…
The “how” is a much easier question to answer because it’s set in stone. If one was to ask Steve Gadd to explain the groove on “Fifty-Ways to Leave Your Lover” or “Late in the Evening”, he could not only explain it and show you how, he could write it out, as he’s had to do countless times already. There is a specific sticking he used as well as an exact volume and area on the drums that he played to get those very distinct grooves and sounds. But why did it work so well? Sure, he could tell you his opinion of why it worked, but the fact is that if another drummer had recorded those same songs, they would have played them very differently (I’m praying I won’t be struck with lightning for even suggesting someone else could have recorded those songs near as well as he did). The reason is because every drummer has a different “why” to each situation, and the only wrong one is the one that’s not about the music but about the player and their agenda.
I was sick a while back and visited a new, very young doc who looked to be fresh out of med school. During my exam he used all of his new, fancy and impressive words to tell me what was wrong and I left his office extremely confused. Was it terminal? Would I ever be the same? What were these prescriptions for and why did they smell funny? He had been taught how to use his big words, but he had neither the experience nor the practical knowledge of why he would use them. On the other hand, my older family doc had learned how and why to use his twenty dollar words (as I call them). I always left his office with a complete understanding of the situation. He knew that doctor talk was supposed to be used with doctors and not with drummers. He never sought to impress me with his knowledge of medical terminology because he knew that wouldn’t be appropriate for solving the problem at hand.
To fully comprehend why a musician plays certain things we must immerse ourselves in the music, and that means listening. I’m ashamed to say that it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve come to the complete understanding of the importance of listening. The only catch is we can’t listen like drummers. The next opportunity you get, put on your favorite album, whether it’s jazz, rock, blues, or anywhere in between, and instead of listening for the drums, listen to everything BUT the drums. It’s hard at first. You’ll have to resist the temptation to air drum that massive fill into the chorus but trust me, the cold sweats will eventually subside and you’ll begin to hear a world of other things. Pick apart every instrument and be aware of what they’re doing. Then, slowly bring the drums back into the picture and begin to see why the placement of the bass drum works so well or why that massive fill was appropriate. Was it a response to the soloist or a cue for the bridge?

The great thing about answering the “why” of the music is that virtually any opinion about why a player played a particular part is right. There are no wrong answers as long as your answer is derived from the music itself!


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