You’re going to find A LOT of essays on “the creative process.” It’s a big deal for artists to sound off about this topic and try to act deep/philosophical in doing so. This is not one of those essays, and I am not trying to be deep here. Instead, I’m just putting into words my thoughts about how an improvising musician (drummer) comes up with what to play, and I’m trying to be specific and systematic about it. I see improvising as a literal process, and it’s been helpful for me to, from time to time, isolate the various stages of this process and identify where I need work.

So, here’s my synopsis of how the process functions:

1) THE EAR. The ear is the first step in the sequence… and I’m talking specifically about the MIND’S ear. This is the improvising stage where you imagine something to play, something that you think will sound good – and you think it will sound good because you’ve already “heard” it in your mind’s ear. The inspiration for these ideas comes from what you’ve literally heard with your real ears (what you just played, or what the rest of the band is playing). Your mind processes the sounds you are LITERALLY hearing, and then your mind’s ear suggests a musical response – much like a verbal conversation.

2) THE BRAIN. After your mind’s ear suggests something to play, your brain processes the logistics and mechanics of how that idea translates into the muscles and onto the drumset. You have to be able to identify where the kick sound is, and where the snare and toms are, and which limbs need to hit where in order to execute the progression (and even how hard to hit and with what technique). This step can actually be broken down into two sub-steps: a) determining what the composition of the idea is, and b) determining which muscles movements are needed to perform that composition.

3) THE MUSCLES. Lastly, the muscles have to execute the brain’s instructions. This is the physical side of things… where the body must respond to the task that the brain gives it by actually playing notes.

Ok, so that’s the process, in my observation at least. I’ve noticed that most drummers only really acknowledge the 3rd step, and it’s important to understand that a breakdown can occur at any step. For instance, maybe you’ve got deafening chops but you can’t ever think of anything to play. Or perhaps the ideas from your mind’s ear are brilliant, but you can’t seem to figure out how to transfer those ideas into actual patterns.

Here are some of the ways I work on each individual step of the process, in order to address weaknesses and strengthen the whole thing:

1) THE EAR. To me, the best way to fuel the creativity of the mind’s ear is to listen listen listen. Just listen to music… constantly. The music you listen to will, by osmosis if nothing else, give you ideas the next time you sit down to play. Then, while you are playing, listen to the other musicians. Don’t just zone out. Perhaps you can also study other players by transcribing their solos or reading their autobiographies, but simply LISTENING is the richest source for the CREATIVE step in the process.

2) THE BRAIN. Here is where transcribing can be really helpful (i.e. copying down all the notes someone has played onto paper). Transcribing is a way to study musical ideas in a more scientific (read: “non-musical”) sense, and it’s a great method to broaden the mind’s capability in discerning how an idea translates into physical movement. In taking the notes out of their musical context and putting them into a written/readable context, you allow your mind to take a VISUAL approach in wrapping itself around the idea. A strong visual understanding of others’ musical ideas will vastly improve your ability to decipher your own ideas, and you will be able to more easily take them from your mind’s ear to your muscles. I’ve also found limb independence exercises to be helpful in increasing the brain’s processing, because the sequential ordering required to play complicated multi-limb patterns helps to create a concrete understanding of measures and time. (Ultimately, both transcribing and limb independence revolve around musical counting, which, in my opinion, is really what good brain processing boils down to anyway).

3) THE MUSCLES. It won’t matter how cool your ideas are, or how easily the brain processes the ideas into commands for the limbs, if your muscles can’t keep up with the instructions they’re given. Make sure you carve out practice time for rudiments, strength/speed exercises, and complicated mobility patterns. Nobody wants to listen to you if you can’t articulate your ideas clearly and cleanly.

SUMMARY: Improvising revolves around more than just chops, so try to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses in all the steps of the process.