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“The quickest way to get dumber is to find a Youtube video with more than a million views and read the comments” – me, after reading some comments on Youtube videos

The drumcam footage that I’ve posted recently has somewhat renewed my affection for Youtube. I’ve been checking out documentaries and bios and live footage and all kinds of worthwhile stuff. And then, beneath every video, is a mountain of not-so-worthwhile stuff. Online commenting is a massive part of the social networking culture, and commenters create a fascinating subculture of their own. I want to be forthright and say that typical Youtube commenting is utterly nauseating to the part of me that wants everyone to behave like decent human beings, but the armchair psychologist side of my personality is having a field day with it. It’s equal parts hilarious and intriguing to watch users passionately debate something they seem to know so little about. And the more commenting trends I observe the more I’m discovering metaphors for the music world.

Observations of Youtube commenting and how it correlates to music-making:

1. Commenters seem to often be most interested in having their perspective “win” the discussion. This is typical for human beings generally – we like to have our voice heard and deemed most important or most correct. But this is a TERRIBLE thing to do when involved in collaboration, like, for example, music. A rehearsal where your band is hashing through new songs, a studio session creating arrangements or parts, or even a sit-down meeting to form a live show set list… these are all situations that could be viewed as a competition for your ideas. DON’T DO IT. Don’t think of musical environments as having winners or losers. It’s problem solving! It’s a search for the most helpful answer! It’s not a battle where you need to prove yourself. You will help your reputation immensely by being a musician who contributes to finding solutions/decisions/conclusions while collaborating, rather than a belligerent ____ who has to have it their way.

2. This observation is very different from my first point: I notice that many of the comments I read seem to neither contribute nor detract from the video itself, almost as if the commenters merely want to post something in order to see their own name in print somewhere in the vicinity of the video. For example, that legendary “first” post, where a user simply types the word “first” on the latest cool video in order to show other users that they won the contest of who can type a comment fastest. This is so funny to me! The user has completely missed the point of video comments… TO COMMENT ON THE VIDEO. It reminds me of my instinct to play a variation in my groove just because I’m bored during the song, as opposed to intentionally structuring my parts to always enhance the moment. My fill or variation might not be “incorrect” or poorly-played, but if I play it for any reason other than the specific intention of helping the music than it ultimately only adds “noise” behind the real purpose of playing music in the first place – the song. My friend Matt Tobias says: a part is never neutral. It either adds or it detracts.

3. Reading some of the comments on my own videos freshly reminds me that real knowledge is always contingent on understanding the circumstances surrounding the facts. For example, using a click is, for most live performances, a way to enable to the band to stay locked with the backing tracks. If there are no backing tracks then a click is optional and is often only employed if the band is having a hard time hearing one another because of audio difficulties in the room. Either way, if a user doesn’t know the realities associated with what I just described then their perspective on why a band might use a click (or whether a click is a good thing) will be hugely flawed, ignorant, or naive at the very least. This whole thing makes me once again realize that there are a lot of things that I don’t know about the music world, and it motivates me to put my mind into a posture of learning instead of a posture of knowledge. I’m not in the game of music to simply observe what others have done and then decide if I like it. I want to grow in my understanding of the myriad of variables that makes music such a deep art form! I want to become a more knowledgable drummer, a more experienced performer, and a smarter musician generally. This causes me to approach musical situations with an intent to discover things that I haven’t yet discovered, instead of showing up and merely demonstrating the things that I think I already know.

A deeply insightful and helpful article by Danny Barnes. Read it and learn. This is how to be in the sideman business.

HT: Mark Stepro

This is an odd time for me to finally post on this topic, which I’ve had in draft form for 8 months. Starting the “From The Archives” series has me motivated to keep the blog up, so I’m going through old drafts too.

Back in February of this year I was sitting on an airplane with my friend Aaron Fabrinni as we travelled from Minneapolis to San Diego for a Go Fish gig. It wasn’t a typical Go Fish gig – the band was leading worship for 4 days at a Children’s Pastors Conference where we would play 7 different 20+ min sets. In the weeks leading up to our trip I had done gigs with over a dozen other artists (including a 90-min show subbing with Owl City, my first time playing with them) in addition to multiple Sunday morning church gigs. That might sound like a lot, but it’s really just a typical month for a freelance musician, and Aaron and I were discussing how we each approach the mask-switching acrobatics required to pull off performing so many different songs and styles in a short period of time.

I’ve always considered this kind of thing to be 90% mental. For me, the physical difference between playing with one artist vs another has always felt similar to the physical difference between driving to one place in my town vs another place. Sure, I might have to use highway speeds for one trip and neighborhood speeds for another, or lots of turns as compared to a straight shot, but my arms don’t care about that. As long as I know where I’m going then I’ll  be fine. My point here is to emphasize that juggling a ton different gigs is mainly, if not entirely, a task revolving around your MIND.

So how does one prepare the mind for switching gears so rapidly and frequently? A few years ago I heard the term “uploading” in reference to learning/retaining music and I’ve stuck with it ever since. Basically, I think of my mind as a hard drive, with both RAM memory and hard disk memory. Stuff like Go Fish shows (and Owl City shows at this point) are hard disk. I’ve played that music so many times that I have it completely memorized, and I’m able to nail one of those performances regardless of how many other gigs are happening that same week. RAM memory is different. It has to be uploaded. It can be uploaded quickly, but likewise disappears quickly once I shut it off (i.e., go to sleep or stop focusing on it or whatever).

My method for RAM gigs for as long as I can remember has been charting. I make detailed word document charts (not Nash number system, and not staff paper) while listening to the tracks I have to play. I can do this weeks or just days ahead of the actual gig, and then I of course bring the charts with me to the gig itself. However, the key for me has been to use the charts as cheat sheets – something that I only glance at during the gig if I need to. What I do is take some prep time on the day of the gig (as close to gig time as possible) to listen through to the tracks I’m playing while reading my charts. Then I’ll sometimes double down and go through the charts one more time without listening and imagine myself playing the tunes in real time (i.e., humming to myself and maybe even using a practice pad to tap out the patterns physically). This process “uploads” the music to RAM memory, and then when I walk out to play the gig the music feels almost as familiar as hard disk memory.

The uploading is what takes my relationship with the music to the place where the chart becomes just a cheat sheet. I could probably play the gig without any uploading, but then I’d be scrambling to read my charts so closely that my listening would be hindered. I’ve made slight adjustments to this uploading process over time, but for the most part it’s been exactly as I just explained it for 10 years.

So there it is. The interesting part about the timing of this post is that I haven’t used this process AT ALL for two months, so I’m wondering whether the RAM side of my mind has undergone any atrophy in not being used. I have a bunch of different gigs in December back home, so we’ll see what happens.

A quote from my friend Jesse Norell on Facebook just now…

“Good music is the kind you can choose when you are in a particular mood and it can provide a soundtrack of sorts. It can give life, words, feeling and validation to an emotion like an understanding companion. Great music can do all of those things but has the power to bend the listener to its will; transcending your current mood for its own, putting you in the frame of mind it designed for you.”

The connection you make with people VIA music is what matters.

I know the title of this post may appear to conflict with my recent post about taking music seriously, but in my head the two concepts go hand in hand.

The deal is this: I really don’t think music matters in a grand or cosmic sense, at least not music in itself.  The RESULTS of music, however, are incredibly important.  In my mind, the primary function (result) of music is connection with people.  The emotional influence that music has on listeners, and the resulting connection that develops between a performer and an audience – this is what I am concerned with.  Therefore I take playing music VERY seriously.

But… what I don’t take seriously is the music itself, or the idea that music is somehow sacred and important aside from its usefulness to connect with people.  In my mind this concept is very similar to the whole “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it still make a sound” idea.  My answer to that is “no,” at least with regard to the RESULTS and PURPOSES for sounds.  I realize I am taking a very human-centric viewpoint here, but I will go out on a limb and say that sounds exist to be HEARD.  If they are not heard then they do not matter.

I thought about this all night at the U2 show last weekend. That band has an incredible ability to connect with people. Whether it’s through a stereo via their albums, or in-person at their epic live shows… they always connect. They always make an impact. They always leave their audience so affected by their performance that they want to go out and DO something. “Emotional high” was a common description my friends’ Facebook status updates on the day following the show. Many people were so struck by the show that they couldn’t even describe what they were feeling.

This is fantastically interesting to me… the idea that what I do with an instrument can affect listeners so strongly that they can’t even fully process it. Knowing that music wields such a powerful sword makes me want to be very intentional with what I do. It makes me want to choose wisely what kinds of message the music I play sends, and it gives me a lot of drive to see that the performances that I give are effective.

U2 certainly did this last Saturday. I plan on digging into their music even further over these next few months in an effort to learn how they do it.

I’m watching Peter Gabriel’s Growing Up Live Tour DVD with my daughter Suzy right now. We both appreciate Ged Lynch’s bright red Premier kit, but I think for different reasons.

Anyway, I am noticing how much more rocking the older tunes are on this DVD,  at least compared to Gabriel’s Secret World Live tour.  I’ve narrowed it down to Lynch’s tendency to wash on the ride more often than Manu Katche, and the fact that David Rhodes is playing a much cleaner sound overall in the 1993 tour. (Not an LP vs Strat issue like I formerly thought… thanks for the correction Joe!)

This reminds me of a perspective I’ve arrived at recently regarding where energy really comes from in music.  At this point I’m pretty sure that it’s tone and tone only… and I’m not talking about composition.  I’m talking about taking a given drum part and, without changing the pattern, playing it with more energy than someone else might play it.  When I was younger I thought bringing energy came from my muscles and my strength, which then morphed into the belief that volume was the real issue.  I acknowledge that of course your strength does contribute to how hard you hit the drum, which of course contributes to a higher volume (and technique fits somewhere in there too), but I think the reality is that the TONE produced by hitting hard/loud/well is the real difference maker in the energy department.

This is easily observed in the fact that a recorded drum track can be placed at any volume within the mix, but the energy of the drum track will remain the same regardless.  If a lightly-played brushes groove is cranked in the final master, it still won’t have energy.  But you simply cannot dial down the sheer power of a wide open Dave Grohl slam fest, even if you make it the softest track in the tune.  This is even more apparent when I consider Rhodes’ guitar choices mentioned above. His playing is the same volume in both DVD’s, but the additional saturation and grit in his 2003 tone brings so much more juice to the overall sound.

Ok. Hitting hard produces volume, but more than that it produces a particular tone that has energy. So what?

Well, I take this observation and apply it to my quest to play at the appropriate volume in every acoustic situation I’m in, without sacrificing energy. That’s what.

Is there a way to create an energetic snare and cymbal tone without a high volume?  I think so.  It may not be the exact same tone that the high volume produces, but it can still be energetic.  But, achieving this requires that you actually pursue tone and not volume.  Some players are convinced that volume is the only thing creating energy, and as a result they work on techniques and approaches that only pursue volume. Therefore getting energy seems hopeless when they’re in a situation where they can’t be loud.  I used to be that guy, but the observations listed above have made me think differently, and it seems to be producing a lot of fruit… which makes me think I’m right.

PS.  Growing Up Live is a killer show.  You really need to check it out.  The production is ground-breaking and completely rad and the performances are super inspiring.  The crowd is actually one of the coolest parts… they participate in very moving and unsolicited ways throughout the entire show.

I discovered an amazing new term today via a friend’s Facebook page: “rehassle.” Here’s the Urban Dictionary definition…

Noun (RI-Has- El) A very unwanted rehearsal. Used commonly amongst professional musicians especially when the only point to rehearse is to make sure that the singers know what they are doing. Also commonly used as subject lines in emails responding to rehearsal scheduling. “RE:Hassle”

“A very unwanted rehearsal”… aaaaaand, welcome to my life. Hilarious.

HT: Alex Young’s friend “Adam”

Hey guys, thanks for all the feedback on my transcription post. Here’s my response to the points brought up in the comments.

I think you all understood my main point: transcribing is only a bad deal because it tends to make us think that the notes on the page are the main thing we need to understand in order to play like the pros.  It seems like all of you are on board with me there, so if we can keep in mind that there is more to learning this instrument than simply writing down what others have played, then everything will be fine.

In other words, I agree with all of the comments regarding the helpful aspects of transcription – as long as one constantly keeps in mind that music is about FEELING and EMOTIONAL IMPACT.  This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  The essence, the bedrock foundation of music is that it moves people.  Music has a tangible and physical impact on listeners, and the experience is profoundly emotional at the same time.  The intellectual aspect of music (the part where you analyze and map out what someone is playing) really has nothing to do with music itself.  It is merely a way to understand the physical and emotional experience that music brings.  Now, of course understanding what you’re experiencing can be helpful in many ways, but I don’t think it changes the experience itself.  That’s why critics, professionals, and “music civilians” alike will all respond similarly to a powerful piece of music.

This is obviously all just a theory of mine, based on observations… and I haven’t completely thought it through yet.  But it’s really helping me to remember the reason why I do what I do.  At the end of the day, when all the exercises/listening/evaluation/analysis/criticism is said and done, I really just want music to MOVE me, and moving others is what I want the music I make to accomplish.

So again, this is where I part ways with the transcription junkies.  I almost never find the experience of music to be enhanced by writing out what I’ve heard.  Sometimes transcription will help me replicate what I’ve heard, but most of the time it just takes my mind off the real issue by forcing me to focus on the “what just happened” question instead of the “how did that make me feel” question.  That might sound overly artsy, but it’s the best explanation I can come up with for what I’ve been learning lately.

I’ve never been the kind of guy who spends a lot of time transcribing the playing of drummers I admire.  Transcription is a big part of instrumental study for many people, but that’s not the case for me, and there’s a very direct and specific reason: Dave King, my former teacher, didn’t like transcription.  That’s all it is.

But it wasn’t Dave’s dislike for transcription that really affected me, it was the reason for his dislike.  Dave accurately identified music as having a primarily emotional existence, and he always emphasized this over anything else in our lessons.  That emphasis often took the lesson content down long, spiraling, and very  “artsy-fartsy” paths, but I always learned a TON.  As I have continued past my lessons with him to teach lessons of my own, I always try to continue the emphasis on the artistic side of things, although I think I probably use less abstract terminology.

Now back to transcription.  Because of Dave’s heavy attention toward emotional/artistic merit, he felt that the mechanical/technical nature of transcribing was misleading.  In other words, simply writing down someone’s playing note for note won’t necessarily give any insight on why their playing feels the way it feels and has the impact that it has.  In fact, transcribing will probably create more problems than solutions if one supposes that transcribing alone is the only necessary component to learning to play like the greats.  Tone, context, time-feel, precision… all of these factors affect the emotional and artistic impact of what you play as heavily as the note-for-note analysis, if not heavier.

My point is this: music has a few different levels of existence.  You can’t fully grasp/understand/appreciate what someone plays merely by copying what they do note-for-note.  The true essence of music is waaaaaay deeper than that.

Let be known that I am a HUGE FAN of posts like this – posts that evoke such intelligent and insightful comments from everybody who reads what I write. Seriously… thanks for all the interaction. Super cool.

I think the best plan in continuing the discussion is to select my favorite quotes from the comments and respond to them. I’ll put the comments in italics and respond to each one individually. Feel free to chime in on the discussion further if you think there’s more to add.

It should also be noted that Pavement, while influential to many bands, was never and still isn’t a “popular” band. The most timeless bands I think have Pavement’s humanness but also Yes’s or Rush’s “otherworldliness” and technical prowess. Bands like Nirvana and the Beatles have this immense accessibility because they straddle that line. That’s a crude oversimplification of why those two bands are what they are, but it still proves my point I think.   – Chris Morrissey

I love the logic of Pavement’s influence contrasted with their popularity.  A lot of you mentioned Pavement’s sound and approach as a rejection of 80’s over-production, which is probably accurate. That rejection, along with other bands of the time, fueled and inspired a massive shift in rock music, but Pavement themselves are left being largely irrelevant to MOST listeners.  My theory is that this irrelevance results from their lack of facility on the technical side of the medium they use to make their art.  (Also, Chris made a great point when he questioned my use of the term “musicianship”… he’s right on… “facility” is a better term.)

What I do know is that they (Wheat) were capable, at least in the studio and from what I could tell at the 7th Street Entry, of making a Pop record. For them the other records feel like more of a “decision” as far as the imperfections go – the “why take it again when it feels so sincere?” mentality.    – Aaron Ankrum

Aaron’s got a great point here. There are bands that intentionally ignore mistakes and/or “bad playing” because of the sincerity and feel behind the performance.  I hear this from many of the folk and alt-country artists I like: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Wilco, etc.  However, it seems like many Indie bands use this not-uncommon “loose” feel as an excuse to be loose themselves, when in reality they lack the ability to do anything that resembles “tight.”  This is speculative on my part, but I feel like I can really HEAR the difference between an honest and intentionally-flawed performance, and a just plain crappy one – and I bet a lot of other people can hear it too.

There is something about Indie music that captures me, and the best way I can describe it is that it’s a genre that lives and dies by vibe. If it evokes an emotional response, whether it’s joy or anger, it’s effective. That’s the artistic piece of it. So much of adult pop, modern rock, and CCM is pretty artless. It doesn’t make me feel anything, no matter how good the musicians are.  Of course, the best of the Indie bands are the ones that do both.    – Lars Stromberg

Yes Yes Yes.  Art should affect us on an emotional level, and I think Indie bands know this and try hard to do this.  Lars is so right that a lot of the commercial music world has no real artistic value, despite what the sales might indicate.  But, does a band have to suck at playing their instruments in order to be emotionally powerful?  My gut says no.  The transcendent music that results from BOTH potent art and competent instrumentalists seems to be the best goal.

I agree that poor musicianship does not mean bad music, but it takes a rare chemistry/combination of a group of people to make good music with poor musicianship…and THIS is what I think a lot of “Indie Rock” people forget. Just because it’s sloppy and/or executed poorly with bad sounding recordings doesn’t make it automatically cool.    – Nate Babbs

Nate again brings up the notion that some bands are INTENTIONALLY sloppy in order to utilize the loose feel in accomplishing the sound they want.  But it’s so true that this is far more difficult to actually pull off than one might imagine.  I feel like the Free Jazz world also suffers from this issue.

Maybe I can add one thought to the studio player mentality. I don’t think it’s totally a mindless, come in and play well and put no creativity into it thing. I believe the creativity is coming out in different ways. The effort is put into finding “appropriate fills” that fit the song. Not fills that drummers will appreciate. Also, the feel is creativity on every note to create the right vibe.    – Kevin Holvig

I agree with this, but I think this is only what GOOD session players do.  Not all session players do this.  In fact, this is a big issue because it’s basically the heart of the whole thing.  Every genre and sub-genre has a different game… a different target to aim for.  The GOOD studio player should make sure he gives the music what it needs, while also being true to the nature of art, which is creative.  My main point in this whole topic is to ask Indie bands to do the same thing, but in the opposite direction.  Good art should (in my opinion) be both creative/emotional and controlled/intentional.  The end result suffers when either side of the spectrum is overly stressed.  Which leads me to the last comment quote…

Like people have been saying, there are many great indie bands who find ways to explore new things in music and still be excellent musically. – Danny Warnock

Bingo.

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