Monday, August 3, 2009

The Idea of a Concept

Do you ever get the feeling like your whole musical vocabulary consists of exercises you learned from some instructional book? Maybe you didn't learn from books. Maybe you learned by emulating different grooves from your favorite bands or learning a bunch of killer licks from some old Frank Zappa records. But after the newness of it all wears off, do you ever find yourself saying,"When will I sound like me instead of like a hodge-podge of regurgitated knowledge?"

Don't get me wrong, book knowledge and the study of your musical heroes is essential. Most all of the musical greats have admitted to an incubation period of emulating their predecessors, everyone from Jeff "Tain" Watts to John Coltrane has done this. But they all have one thing in common...they came to a place where they decided it was time to sound like themselves. So breathe a deep sigh of relief if you've felt this way're in the company of the greats!

I think all musicians (and yes, drummers are musicians contrary to the jokes) come to a crossroads where they can either continue on down the well beaten path, or they can make a left turn and start on a search for their own voice. The only question is where to start.

I came to this place myself and I didn't know where to begin, but I knew I wouldn't be satisfied until I sounded like ME. There were several ways I began to blindly go about it, but there was one I discovered that really helped me succeed at beginning to hear myself in my playing. It was the art of turning an idea into a concept.

First we'll need a working definition of both an idea and a concept. Wikipedia defines an idea as: "A specific thought that arises in the mind of a person as a result of thinking." A drum groove or a particular fill would be examples of ideas in drummer speak.

On the other hand, their definition of a concept is: "A general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurences." A concept is simply an expanded idea, it's that simple!

You might ask how this grammar lesson involves drumming, and rightly so since this is a drummer's blog, but we had to get some basic understanding of those two words before we could apply them to our situation. Now we're through with grammar...Let's get down to business and try to apply it to the drums...

We'll start off with a simple rudiment, the paradiddle-diddle (RLRRLL or LRLLRR). The rudiment itself wil be our idea. The first thing to do is master the idea of the paradiddle-diddle and that means practicing it on the snare or practice pad from slow to fast and back to slow (which assures that you'll be comfortable with it in a wide variety of tempos). Do this until the sticking becomes second nature to you. After you've done this it's time to turn the idea of the paradiddle-diddle into the concept of the paradiddle-diddle.

Moving to the drumkit...Split the rudiment up between two different voices on your kit (i.e. right hand on the floor tom, left hand on the snare; right hand on the ride cymbal, left hand on the top tom, etc.). Continue this until you've used every combination of two voices on the kit, and I mean ALL of them...the rims, bells of cymbals, sides of the drums...Go crazy with it! It could take a while to do this.

Now let's try three voices. Play the two singles on the snare and play the right hand doubles on the top tom and the left hand doubles on the floor tom. Again, do this until you've used every combination of three voices on the kit that you can think of. Don't forget to practice leading with both hands, and you can alternate subdivisions too...triplets, sixteenths, etc.

Now that we're getting into the swing with this concept, let's make a groove out of it. Try putting the right hand on the hi-hat and the left hand on the snare. Using sixteenth notes, play the rudiment through twice and add a paradiddle on the end of it to make a bar of four-four (RLRRLL-LRLLRR-RLRR or vice versa). Now decide where you can accent the snare to make some sort of backbeat. Havin' fun yet? Here comes the real challenge...add the bass drum.

There are several ways to do this. You can use the bass drum exercises in Gary Chester's "New Breed" book, you could read through "Syncopation" exercises, or you can simply start placing the bass drum in random spots. The whole purpose of this is to be able to play anything you want with your bass drum underneath this groove. Now switch the right hand to the ride cymbal and read the rhythms with your left foot on the hi-hat. If this gets easy, try some fills but base them on the paradiddle-diddle (we're being very specific and staying within this concept for now). Just use the two and three voice exercises you were doing earlier, then go right back into the groove.

Now try a samba pattern underneath the sticking and put accents in different places within the sticking, and if that gets easy, try a baion pattern.

Try playing the rudiment between your feet, or between your right foot and left play it in 3/4 time...invert the sticking (LLRLRR or RRLRLL) and start all over again...try it in 11/8 the idea yet?!?!?!

We just took a very two dimensional idea, expanded it, and developed a concept by using our imagination and coming up with endless possibilities for this one rudiment. That's the way you develop any concept, by coming up with as many variations on a particular idea as you can and then methodically working through them until you no longer have just one idea to work with but a concept that you're completely fluid with in any situation and on any part of the drumkit.

The key to doing this is the imagination part. With technology and TV the way it is nowadays, we can go for long periods of time and never use one iota of imagination. Heck, we can even watch people live their lives on any number of reality TV shows! It takes alot of extra thought and practice to do what we just did, but the payoff is astronomical. You won't like every combination and idea that you try within a concept (that's not the point), but you'll come up with some very unique ones and you'll improve your facility on the kit at the same time.

When I started implementing this into my practice, things got crazy. I would hurry and try to learn the lessons my private instructors had given me, then I would break down individual components of the lesson and develop concepts around them. Maybe I was working with the "Syncopation" exercises but I also wanted to work on my brush patterns in 3/4 time. I would write the "Syncopation" exercises out in 3/4, pick a brush pattern, and then play the exercises with my right foot, left foot, both feet, etc. It got to where I was a little overwhelmed at times because when I got a new exercise out of a book or learned a new fill from a recording a whole new world of possibilities would be opened up. I had trained my mind to develop concepts instead of just settling for individual ideas and exercises from books.

I really believe that the authors of instructional books never meant for the students to only play the exercises written, they were simply trying to spark the imagination and help the stuent see a few of the many different possibilities.

I saw a change in my teachers too. They loved the fact that I was not only learning the assigned lesson but I was also putting in the extra time ad practice by trying to do it my own way, and I really appreciated the fact that they were giving me the freedom to try new things.

The main point I want to get across is, please don't limit yourself. Your ideas are valuable. Just because you haven't written a book or performed with some name artist doesn't mean your ideas are of any less value. You will find that if you're truly trying to find your own voice and you're playing for the music, musicians want and NEED what you have to offer.

I am nowhere near finished finding my voice (some days I feel like I haven't even started to find it!), but I'm constantly searching and trying new things. So the next time you pick up a book or hear a new lick, unlock your imagination and see what happens!


Post a Comment