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My students say this a lot. I used to say it a lot too, back in high school when I didn’t know better.  I say “didn’t know better” because I have a different take on things these days.

Another phrase showed up at a lesson yesterday.  A student was having trouble with an exercise, and I told him to focus hard and go slower.  He said: “I am focusing, but I think my arms just don’t want to do it right.”  I’ve heard that phrase many times from other students, but this time we stopped and talked about it.  The phrase is related to “this is too difficult,” in that it places the blame on the pattern or your arms, and not on YOU.

The way I see it is this: your arms have no mind of their own.  They do what they’re told to do.  Now, sometimes the arms are told to do something by habit or by discomfort.  This is problematic for drummers, because it can give the impression that you don’t have control over your own limbs.  But, this is not true.  We ALWAYS have control over our own motor skills (with the exception of illness or injury).

So, a more accurate version of the phrase above would be: “my arms just don’t want to do that, and I’m not currently putting in the mental effort to MAKE my arms do what I want them to.”  That sheds light on the real issue.  It’s not your arms’ fault for being “unwilling” to play the rudiment/fill/exercise/whatever – it’s YOUR fault for not using the very real control that your mind has over your arms.

Many times I think I’m focusing on doing something, but I’m really not.  I intend to tell my arms and legs what to do in trying to master a difficult pattern, but I’m really just hoping that they’ll figure it out on their own.

So, anyway, after discussing this with the student, he tried the exercise he was working on again and immediately had much more success.  I asked him if he thought the exercise felt easier after out discussion, and he said yes, and told me that he felt like he had a clearer picture of what to focus on.

Drummer Disease.  The phrase isn’t common lingo – it’s my own term for a frame of mind that all instrumentalists fall prey to, but it seems like drummers are especially prone to it.  Broadly speaking, it’s a performer’s perspective that’s so preoccupied with one’s own playing that no attention is spent on the whole of the music.  The sound of the band, the feel of the pocket with the rhythm section, the context of the gig… all of these things are left in the dust while your mental energy is wrapped tightly around the immediate context of your instrument and your instrument only.

There are many symptoms of Drummer Disease (DD), and I’ve touched on some of them before, so in this post I’ll just focus on the ways DD can specifically affect fills.

A drum fill, like anything else an instrumentalist would play, revolves around two things: what you are playing and how it sounds.  The majority of the labor in playing fills revolves around the first task of deciding what to play and how the muscles need to function in order to play it.  However, the key ingredient in turning this labor into MUSIC is the follow-up assessment of whether the fill sounds good and is worth playing.  This is where Drummer Disease sneaks in.  The drummer suffering from DD becomes totally consumed with the logistics and mechanics of what he/she is playing, and is unable to accurately determine if the fill sounds cool.

Obviously a drummer’s personal bias is a factor here, but that’s not really what I’m talking about.  I’m mainly referring to a drummer’s mental radar while playing a fill.  The mind’s scope of awareness is large enough to track both logistics and quality.  It’s not as if my attention can focus only on the fill I’m playing, and must scroll over to the other side of the brain in order to focus on how it sounds.  The answer is to pan out… to realize that my brain is zoomed in on only one section of the radar.  So then, a way to paraphrase the effects of Drummer Disease is to say that it causes my attention to zoom in on the mechanics and logistics of playing an instrument, instead of maintaining a full-screen view of all the factors: what I’m playing, how I’m playing it, context, execution, musicality, etc.

The best way to avoid catching Drummer Disease is to constantly look for the broader context you’re playing in.  Every musical situation has a context, even if you’re playing in a room by yourself.  How does this fill fit into the grooves surrounding it?  How does this fill FEEL as it blends with the other instruments?  Am I contributing to the song or am I just keeping myself from getting bored?  Questions like these act as a vaccination against DD, and will help you to get well if you have already come down with the disease.

SUMMARY:  Focus on the song.  A drummer’s part is only a small portion of the whole, and the part can’t be accurately assessed unless the whole is in view.

The following post is an analogy that I often use in teaching my private lessons, and it should be read along side two other posts on this blog: one on Focus and one on Mistakes.

Somebody help me out if my stats are flawed here, but I think a good field goal percentage for an NBA player is something like 50%. A player would be proud of a stat like that, right? That is odd to me. It’s gets even worse in baseball… a season .300 batting average is a celebrated performance. Yes, I know professional sports are difficult and there are many factors working against ball players (like good defense, slumps, etc), but still, those numbers seem awfully low to be boasting about. For example, consider surgery. The generally expected “success stat” for an open heart surgeon would be 100% – meaning, a 99% rating isn’t going to cut it. Nobody wants to hire the 99% guy to do their surgery because nobody wants to be the 1% on the other end of that deal.

Now, why the big discrepancy between sports and medicine? Is anybody really going to suggest that the higher success rate for surgeons is due to open heart surgery being EASIER than putting a basketball in the hoop? I think the issue is the expectation, and the subsequent mentality that accompanies the expectation. When a basketball player misses a shot, they’re bummed, but they just shrug it off. The other players shrug it off too. So do the coaches. “Nobody makes them all,” they say to each other at halftime. But when a surgeon botches something, there is likely going to be a litigation, or at the very least a disciplinary action at the hospital. The surgeon takes mandatory time off and must cope with the ramifications of his/her failure.

My theory here is that because these two realities exist right from the get go, I think it is safe to assume that a surgeon takes his job more seriously. Once again, I’m not just dogging professional athletes and saying that they don’t care about their work. I’m just trying to point out the obvious difference in the frame of mind behind each vocation. A baller is EXPECTING to miss some shots, but a doctor is DETERMINED to make no errors. These differences in mindset go way back, too. Right from day one of medical school the surgeon is trained to settle for nothing less than perfection, whereas the athlete is immediately told to not worry about mistakes – just forget about them and try harder next time.

So… which perspective do you think a musician should have? I’ll tell you this: it has been my experience that the audience’s expectation is more in line with the medical field. Just watch American Idol sometime. Toward the end of the competition, the judges will nit pick at very minor flaws in the vocal performances, while often ignoring the fact that the performer sang 99% of the song correctly. And the live band on that show… they NEVER screw up. When I saw the Police on their reunion tour last year, I thought the show was totally slamming. However, Andy Summers missed a few notes on Message In A Bottle (only mistake I heard all night) and that was the first thing I read in the paper the next day.

I often find, however, both in my students and in the pro musicians that I work with regularly, a desire for the sports approach. There’s an attitude of forgiveness toward mistakes that are considered imminent – an attitude that I believe to be somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not advocating a Nazi-like approach to music, where anything less than perfection can’t be tolerated. At the end of the day, nobody is perfect. I’m just suggesting that an EXPECTATION for mistakes will probably result in more mistakes, but a DETERMINATION to avoid them will do the opposite.

SUMMARY: Think like a surgeon and watch your mistake-free performance stats go through the roof.

Playing music is a mental game, not a physical one. I say this all the time in my private lessons, and I’ve mentioned it on this blog before also. Certain aspects of playing an instrument revolve around physical capabilities, but even then the mental component plays a prominent role. Therefore, focus is your biggest asset.

Earlier today I was teaching a lesson and the student was struggling with playing a particular groove. The struggle, however, was with playing the groove more than a couple times in a row. He could play it fine for the first measure, then straight into the second measure with no problem, but he would inevitably fall apart somewhere in the third measure. We talked about it a little and I asked him why the third measure was different. The groove doesn’t change on the third time around, and in playing the groove correctly for the first two bars he was proving that he could do it. He thought about it and realized that he was losing focus after the first couple times. He was pulling the rug out from under himself by taking away the most important ingredient.

That is pretty much always going to be the answer for why anyone will struggle with anything on the drumset. Unless you’re talking about blazing cross-chops and stick spinning tricks, the primary (and often ONLY) obstacle between you and being able to play the groove/fill you want to play is focus.

SUMMARY: If you have not yet considered focus to be the main issue in playing drums, then you will probably find every element of your playing to be easier once you put your focusing at the top of your priority list.

A revolution in my thought process for playing drums took place when I was in high school at a regional Jazz festival. Pianist Lawrence Hobgood had a trio there to play for one of the clinics, and playing drums for Hobgood that day was a drummer named Paul Wertico. I’ve never spent too much time listening to Wertico, so I can’t say that his playing has influenced me much, but I learned something extremely important from observing him that day.

The trio’s set was great. Wertico played very well, and took a couple smoking solos. After they were done, I made my way up to the stage to take a closer look at the drums he was using. I noticed something that I have never forgotten: his snare and toms had quarter-sized dark circles (from stick markings) in the dead center of the heads, and the rest of the heads were totally clean and white. I couldn’t believe it. The accuracy and consistency required to make all your strokes land within a 1-inch diameter in the exact center of the drum was something that I had never even considered. I thought about my drums at home… they had markings ALL OVER the heads, and the darkened circles from heavy use were at least 6 inches in diameter. From that point on, I worked as hard as I could to hit the drums in the center every time I played anything.

Hitting the drums in the center produces the best tone. That is a fact. It’s true that you can get some cool sounds from hitting the edges of the head, but that should by no means be your standard target. Up until that day at the Jazzfest, I had merely been aiming for the drum when I wanted to hit it, and not the center of the drum. Now, when I think about hitting the rack tom, I remember to try for the dead center of the head. That’s the “revolution in my thought process” that occurred. It’s a simple adjustment to the mental aspect of playing drums, but it will make a huge difference in your sound.

SUMMARY: Treat the drum like a dart board and aim for a bull’s eye every time.

It is important to acknowledge the difference between sitting behind the drumset and sitting in the audience. Often the evaluation of what you’re playing and how it sounds will vary significantly between your perspective as the performer and the perspective of the listener. Consider these scenarios:

1) The groove you’re playing is a new groove to you. It’s one that you just learned and you’re excited to find an opportunity to use it. The song you’re playing feels like the right tempo for the groove, so you play it and it’s tons of fun. BUT… the cool new groove doesn’t really fit the vibe of the song, and a more standard groove would have been a much better choice. You, however, are not able to realize this because you’re the person playing the groove and you’re biased.

2) The song you’re playing is slow, maybe 72bpm quarter note. The intensity builds as you move through the end of the verse and approach the chorus, and you start getting excited for what you know is coming next. As a result, you start speeding up… and you don’t know it. The tempo increase feels natural to you in the moment of excitement, and you’re unaware of this because you’re the person playing the groove and you’re biased.

3) Same scenario as #2, but this time you’re doing a great job of controlling your excitement and keeping a steady tempo. Nice. Now comes the fill that transitions into the awesome chorus that you’re so excited about, and you dive into the fill with a descending 16th pattern that seems appropriate. However, at 72 bpm, the 16ths feel very slow and exposed, so you switch to 32nd notes to fill up the space that you think needs to be filled up. But the 16ths actually felt great in the moment, and the new 32nd pattern – as opposed to filling up space – instead feels busy and convoluted. You are the only person in the room that doesn’t know this, because you’re the person playing the pattern and you’re biased.

This perspective thing is a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way, as I’ve found myself in situations where I am afforded the bias-breaking luxury of listening back to a recording of myself. A musical moment that felt great to me when I played it ends up feeling not so great as I listen. When we are stripped of the warped perspective that we have as performers, the reality of how things actually sound becomes so much clearer. As a result of hearing playbacks of myself, I’ve learned to create somewhat of a dual-existence while I play… or at least I try to do this. The one side of me is playing musically as a performer in the moment, and the other side of me is trying as hard as possible to step out of the performer perspective and listen critically as an audience member. I think it’s helped a ton.

There are two tasks in playing the drums (or any instrument for that matter):

1) overcoming the physical difficulty of performing a given groove/fill etc, and…

2) making that performance sound good.

Of course, there are many additional areas of focus for a musician, but these two specific tasks are the subject of today’s post. It is important to understand the difference between these two tasks, and then to make sure that you are putting effort into both.

The first one is obvious to anyone who has ever sat behind a drumset. Playing even the most basic groove requires a good amount of timing and dexterity, and it’s quite a challenge if you’ve never done it before. Because of this, most beginners tend to throw their entire focus into the 1st task: overcoming the physical difficulties of learning new drum grooves. Once a given groove is “learned,” then the beginner feels ready to tackle a different groove. The problem is that, to most beginners, “learned” simply means “do-able.” The beginner will only practice a groove enough to make it merely “do-able,” and then move on to something else. The extra practice that is required to take that groove from the “do-able” status to the more important “sounds good” status is ignored. As a result, most beginners are able to play many different grooves, but can’t really play any of them in a way that sounds good.

I can understand why the 2nd task often gets the short end of the stick. The practice that goes into the 2nd task is difficult. It’s tedious. It’s time consuming. It’s subtle and nuanced… and most of the time it doesn’t give the immediate satisfaction of “learning” a new groove. However, in my 8 years of playing drums for a living, I have realized that the 2nd task is really the more important issue. Most professional musicians are able to play whatever the gig would require them to play… but not all musicians sound good doing it. The gig never goes to the guy who knows the most – it’s the guy who sounds the best that gets the calls.

Working on this 2nd task has been my main focus for the last 3 years or so, and it has reshaped the way I practice, the way I listen to other drummers, and the way I teach my students. I think it has been a good thing.

SUMMARY: Work on learning new grooves/fills/rudiments/whatever, but don’t just “learn” how to play them – make them sound good too.

I’ve already posted a couple times this week about this record I’m doing right now. It’s a jazz record (if you didn’t figure that out already from the pictures in the previous post). I don’t play nearly as much jazz these days as I used to – and I am feeling that. In college I played jazz almost exclusively, but that was six years ago. I still love listening to it (which I do frequently), but playing it… well, let’s just say my chops aren’t quite what they were.

The biggest problem I’m noticing is the influence of all the rock playing I’ve done since college. Over the past few years I’ve taken all the effort that I was pouring into studying jazz and shifted it to rock/pop, and it’s made a big difference in that part of my playing for sure. BUT, the recent rock emphasis makes it hard for me to shift gears back into jazz mode, especially for an intensive, week-long studio session. The point here is that this “gear shift” I just mentioned, however difficult, is CRITICAL to playing jazz well.

The rock approach to the drumset stands in total opposition to the jazz approach. In fact, they are mortal enemies. This means that you cannot allow ANY rock instincts to influence your playing when you sit down to a jazz gig. I can’t stand listening to a rock drummer trying to play jazz when it’s obvious that he’s trying to do so while still operating in the rock mindset. Jazz drummers trying to play rock is equally annoying. So… I’ve tried to develop a multiple personality “disorder” of sorts, in an effort to successfully exist as both a rock musician AND a jazz musician. This mainly revolves around my mentality while I’m playing rock or jazz, but there are a few concrete/tangible things that I’ve done to aid the dual existence:

1) I use different sticks for jazz than I do when playing rock. They are different in all respects: size, shape, weight… everything. This makes it a little easier to get into the right frame of mind, because even when I simply pick up the sticks the feel of them puts my muscle memory into the correct mode.

2) Kick pedal – same issue as the sticks. I’ve got an old soft-beater pedal with a leather strap drive for jazz, and a newer DW pedal with a firm beater and a chain drive for rock.

3) Tuning is obviously a big part of your sound no matter what style you’re playing, but I always try to take a REALLY different approach for jazz tuning and rock tuning in order to inspire myself in the right direction sonically. This would of course also apply to cymbals.

These are just a few small things that I’ve found helpful for me. Again, the main point here is not for you to go out and buy a totally new rig if you want to learn to play jazz, but rather for you to keep in mind that in order to play jazz correctly, you MUST leave your rock mindset out of the picture entirely, and vice-versa.

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