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My man Dan Hembree recently commented on my Instrumental Pursuit post, and left a link to this fantastic TED presentation on the neurological activity behind highly creative expressions like musical improvisation.  This video is definitely worth the 16 minutes…

I love the way this research reinforces the “music as a language” concept, as well as the need to engage your expressive capacities while improvising.

This is a follow-up to last year’s post on the creative process.  Specifically, I’ve got some thoughts about the 1st stage of the process… the “ideas” stage.  This stage is most deeply studied in the realm of improvised music, and so I’m thinking mainly of that environment as I write this.

In educational settings, the analogy is often used that improvising is like exploring a room.  Attempting to discover new improvisational ideas is like becoming familiar with a room that you haven’t spent time in before.  You look all around at the various parts, you study them, and you try to really look closely.  The goal is to get to know everything about the room – all the details.  The more aware you are of what the room contains, the more you will find the room to be useful.

This analogy makes sense to me in the world of music improvisation and creative ideas, but I think the reality of the situation is much bigger than the analogy suggests.  For me, improvisational exploration has shown ideas to be not just rooms, but also hallways leading to different rooms.

For example, I spent a long time exploring (in jazz) the idea that the kick and the snare can compose two-tone melodies/lines/phrases/whatever underneath a swing ride pattern and a hihat foot accent on the backbeats.  As I explored this “room,” I found that the various subdivisions of notes (triplet 8ths, triplet 16ths, straight 8ths, etc…) provided a vast vocabulary for composing kick/snare lines.  I also discovered polyrhythms, unsymmetrical groupings in general, and accents.  These discoveries really opened up my mind to the mountain of possibilities in the kick/snare comping, and had a huge effect on my playing.  I felt like I was really starting to understand the “room” I was in and how it could serve my music making.

And then, my teacher told me about using my hihat foot in the comping (and not just accenting the backbeats), which turned the two-tone composing into three-tone composing.  This totally blew my mind.  I suppose you could say, in line with the room analogy, that I found a corner of the room that I hadn’t yet explored.  “Oh hey… look over there… I’ve been in this room all along and I never knew THAT was in here.”  But honestly, it felt more like I had found a completely different room.  EVERYTHING changed.  It was like I had discovered a trap door, and opened it, and found a new room altogether, whose existence I had never even considered.  And this new room was bigger than the first one… way bigger.  Tons to explore in the new room, and best of all, there were 3 or 4 additional doors in the new room that were visible.  Not hidden trap doors either… obvious ones.  But these were doors that I knew I shouldn’t open yet, because I needed to spend a little time just acclimating to the new room itself before I went any further.

Anyway, it was a cool experience, and it’s happened a handful of other times with improvising and creative exploration.  So at this point, I no longer view improvising as exploring a room, but rather a whole house.  I have no idea how big the house is, or what the layout is like.  Some rooms are like hallways, with lots of doors to other rooms.  Some rooms are like closets, where there is only one way into them and they are seemingly quite small.  But in all this each room has something to offer.  I know there are rooms that I’ve discovered that I really didn’t take the time to fully explore, and I know there are rooms that get a LOT more use than they really deserve.

I think this is ultimately why artists can be so different from each other creatively.  To take the analogy further, I see traditionally-minded musicians as artists who tend to put emphasis on FULLY exploring every nook and cranny of the main/common/obvious room.  The idea is that this room is so big and functional that you just don’t need any other rooms.  But the more progressive guys see a lot of reasons to explore the immediate surrounding rooms, and yet still base operations out of the main room.  And then there’s the crazy avant-garde guy who just heads straight for the farthest corner of the attic and sets up shop in a spot where almost no one can even find him.  Along these lines…. early on in the life of this blog I wrote a post about programmers, and how electronic musicians have some almost super-natural exploring capabilities, because they don’t have to actually perform (physically execute) their ideas.

All of this to say… the “ideas” stage of the creative process is a big deal.  The degree to which you explore not only the room you’re in, but the house itself – to this degree you will find fuel for ideas in your improvising.  Don’t assume that the initial appearance of the room reveals everything that’s there to be found.  There might be one of those revolving bookcases if you look close enough.  And then… look out.

I just got back from Longview, Texas. The Jason Harms Quintet performed at LeTourneau University last night, and the performance was unusual to say the least. Our bassist (Jesse) somehow picked up a severe stomach bug, and so our Quintet suddenly became a quartet. Those of you who know jazz know that the bass is probably the most signature component of a traditional jazz sound.

The evening became an exercise in improvising, but not in the standard jazz improvising sense. I was struck by how the vernacular and vocabulary of my playing changed so dramatically. Of course things sounded different without the bass… but I’m talking about the way my mind approached the improvising.  Think what would happen if the NBA suddenly raised the height of the hoops from ten feet to twenty feet. The game would still be the same in essence, but things like defense down low would change entirely. There would suddenly be no threat of anybody dunking or hitting a lay-up, and rebounding would be completely different. It would probably take a while for players to override the long-standing instincts of how to play in the paint.  That was the case for me last night. Not only am I used to playing jazz with a bassist, but I’m also especially used to Jason’s songs. I’ve played them many times, all with the same sonic environment, and then with no warning I found myself in a completely different set of circumstances. The improvising felt very fresh and vibrant, while also urgent and risky.

I’m just trying to say that it was a cool experience. I don’t know if we succeeded or failed, but I think it wasn’t really that kind of thing anyway. There were some cool moments, and there were some less cool moments. Either way, the experience of being air-dropped into a situation so different from the normal environment reminded me of a great Miles Davis quote. According to Herbie Hancock, Miles used to always tell the band to leave their practicing in the practice room. “Don’t bring what you’ve been playing in there onto the stage,” he would say. What he’s getting at is the nature of good improvising.  True improvisiation responds to the situation you’re in RIGHT THEN, and doesn’t force things from a different situation into your current situation. If you figure something out in practice, then that’s great, but don’t just hit the stage and wait for an opportunity to use your new-found skill or trick.  The environment of the stage (in jazz, at least) is always changing and never truly predictable.  Every moment in the preformance can be responded to in a good or bad way, and searching for the right response without the asterisk of hoping to include your new trick is the most beneficial way to serve the music.

My experience last night helped to remind me that my preconceptions of what I’m going to play at a Jason Harms gig need to be kept in check so that I have more freedom to respond well in the moment. I’m pumped to hit the gig again with Jesse back in the saddle, but especially now that I’ve got a fresh perspective on the songs.

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.

Sorry I didn’t write much last week. Busy week.

My question for today has to do with whether you guys think fills should be consistent. By using the word “consistent” in reference to “fill,” I by no means intend to imply that your fills would ever be inconsistent in the sense of being sloppy in their execution or badly timed. I am instead wondering about whether or not the fills in a given tune (pop/rock tune, that is) should be the same in every performance of that song. For instance, it is generally expected that a rock drummer will be consistent with the GROOVES in a song (a certain groove for the verse, a certain groove for the chorus, etc). Every time you perform that song, the grooves should be the correctly played and correctly placed. But should the FILLS be that way too?

Many drummers in rock history have established themselves with “signature” fills… fills that function almost like a melodic hook in the song (e.g. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” intro fill, or the standard Motown fill on “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”). But at the same time, most of my favorite drummers seem to regard fills as an improvising moment, playing different fills at every performance (John Bonham, Steve Jordan, Stewart Copeland, Manu Katche… to name a few).

I realized a few years ago that the “improvised” approach was my default approach when I played a short tour with a band that some of my friends are in called Pivitplex. I played on all the tracks from their 2006 release “The King In A Rookery,” and about a year later they were between drummers and called me for some subbing. I re-learned all my parts for the songs and showed up to the first gig and everything went great, except afterward the guitarist was commenting that I hadn’t played all the fills verbatim from the record. I was really surprised that he had expected me to – I certainly never planned on it. He wasn’t mad or anything, because I played fills that were in the same vein as the ones from the record, so everything sounded fine. But the fact that he was so familiar with the album, combined with the band requiring their previous drummer to learn the fills exactly, meant that he had all the album fills memorized and noticed when I didn’t do them exactly the same. It turns out that he defaults to a “do-the-same-fill-every-time” strategy, while I default to a “copy-key-fills-but-improvise-all-the-rest” approach.

I have since had a few gigs where I’ve needed to do the fills EXACTLY, and it’s hard. I guess it just challenges the memory a lot more. But then again, drummers who don’t usually improvise seem to find improvised fills to be difficult as well.

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