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Remember the first groove you learned as a drummer? Boom-boom-crack, kabookaboom-crack… kinda rushing on the extra snare hits in the middle and everything. And when you’re young you always play it with a real stiff 8th note pattern on the ride, because you’re too physically tense from concentrating to play with any feel.

I’m mentioning this because I spent some time listening to Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain yesterday. Pavement played a substantial role in forming the early 90’s underground Indie Rock scene, which became the basis for the broad Indie Rock landscape.

Wow… they suck. I mean, SUCK. Crooked Rain sounds like the demo tape my junior high band made in my basement with the internal mic on my boom box. Drummer Steve West plays the groove I mentioned above on what seems like every track.  Bassist Mark Ibold has probably the worst pocket I’ve ever heard on a major label recording. Guitars are constantly rushing and out of tune. Stephen Malkmus does the “talk-sing” thing a ton, and every time he does it I’m actually relieved because his pitch while he’s trying to actually sing is so terrible.

Disclaimer: I’m being intentionally provocative.  Regardless of everything I just said (which maybe isn’t quite as bad as I made it out to be), I really do enjoy Pavement’s music.  There are elements of their sound and direction that I both appreciate and dig.  BUT… they still suck, and by that I mean the musicianship is terrible.  And I’m not just poking at Pavement either.  The sloppiness I’m describing is widespread in the Indie Rock scene.  Generally speaking, Indie bands sound like amateurs, and I’m writing this post to ask the question why.

Like I said, for the most part I enjoy the music that Indie bands make.  I think most indie fans would respond to my criticism above by pointing out that indie musicians are putting the majority of their effort toward being artistic, original, and creative.  In other words, Indie musicians focus so much on being artists that there’s no time left to be skilled instrumentalists.  I think that means this discussion now becomes intertwined with the “Genre-ism” idea, because it’s unfair of me to judge a genre of music based on how I want it to sound instead of how those from within the genre intend it to sound.  I get that, and like I said before, I really do like a lot of Indie bands, mainly because of the immense creativity that results from the their quest for originality.  The soundscape on a Pavement record is definitely super cool, and the songwriting is often clever and elusive.  I feel the same way about bands like Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady, Andrew Bird, and many others.

So again, to clarify, when I say that Pavement “sucks,” what I mean is that they do not sound like proficient musicians.  I don’t mean that I dislike their music, because that’s not true.  I dig what Pavement does, and the Indie sound as a whole, but I feel like I can still make the observation that Indie bands exhibit (again, on the whole) poor musicianship.

Before I go any further I should bring up the other side of the coin: the session player mentality.  This is something I know a little bit about because I’ve been doing a fair amount of session of work lately.  The session player takes the opposite approach to music from the Indie band: the music doesn’t need to be creative, in fact it really shouldn’t push the envelope too much, but it MUST be performed PERFECTLY.  For instance, a session drummer does lots of typical, stock-option (i.e. boring) grooves and fills, but with incredibly precise execution.  This mindset is prevalent in both the Country and Pop/Rock worlds. I remember being in high school and mocking this kind of music because it was so cookie-cutter, but nowadays I really admire it. I’ve come to realize how challenging it is to attain the level of precision that session players reach.

Summary so far: We have the two sides of a spectrum: 1) the session player, who delivers an unbelievable performance that often lacks any real substance, and 2) the Indie Rock band, who plays creative music with distractingly sloppy execution.  I’m taking time to clarify as I go here because I’m really hoping for feedback on this stuff, so if you disagree with anything I’ve said up to this point then be sure and comment about it.

I want to be unbiased and fair with my assessment of the situation, so just know that I’m not trying to take one side over the other.  Nevertheless, when I really think hard about the two mentalities represented in the session player vs. Indie band spectrum, it seems like the bulk of the accusation against session players can be explained.  Session players are often not very creative, but… um, they’re getting paid to play that way.  Today’s Pop music world is primarily focused on making money through hit singles and videos, and most of the time the content needs to be fairly watered down in order to become a smash success, financially.  Session musicians rarely feel emotional or creative attachment to the music that they’re recording on any given day, but that doesn’t bother them… because they’re just doing a job.  They show up to the studio, learn the songs, play standard and predictable parts with perfect execution, and then go home.  Do they know the stuff they played is watered-down and not very creative?  Of course they do, but a job’s a job.

I wish I could let the Indie Rock scene off the hook in the same way, but it really feels like I can’t.  Will someone actually suggest that Meg White is a skilled and precise drummer who uses bad time feel on purpose?  Am I supposed to believe that Clinic’s bassist could lock down a little tighter but just chooses not to?  Or… could it be that the guys in Pavement know they suck and just don’t care?

I think this last idea might be more toward the truth than anything else.  Perhaps the Indie Rock culture has crafted an environment where low-level musicianship is expected, and it doesn’t matter.  I have more to say about this but I want to get some feedback first.  I’m honestly just thinking out loud here, and I’m totally open to the fact that I’m unaware of an important perspective.

One last clarification: Of course I know that not all Indie Rock musicians suck.  A decent percentage of the players are quite proficient, and I can always really hear the difference.  This makes it even more annoying to me that the crappy players don’t get called out for being crappy.  I mean, what is the deal with that?  Why does the Indie scene pretend that the sucky bands don’t suck?

Ok, I’ll shut up now.  I want to read some comments on what you have to say about it.

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Well, I’ve been super amped about my “new” snare, and I had an interesting conversation about it (and gear in general) with one of my students last week. He was asking why I wanted the drum, and I honestly wasn’t sure how to answer, other than to say that old Ludwig Black Beauty snare drums have a reputation for sounding great. The interesting thing is that I probably want that reputation more than I want the drum itself. I mean, the drum does sound great, but I already have a bunch of great sounding snares. And it I guess it looks pretty cool and vintage-ish, but again, I already own some pretty cool-looking drums (arguably even cooler-looking).

Then why am I so excited about acquiring this snare? I confess: when it comes down to it, I’m pumped to just name drop and say that I have it.

So, I’m displaying some textbook American materialism then.  Yes, I suppose that’s true.  I’m both aware of and happy that I’m now able to associate myself with the history, status, and reputation of such an instrument… and I don’t even need to use the drum. All I need to do is say that I have it, and my “cool points” go up. This is, in my opinion, a crappy and superficial aspect of the music world. It’s the same old I’m-better-that-you-because-I-have-more-cool-points system that the rest of Western society operates on.  But it’s a reality nonetheless.

My point here is to revisit the notion that there are lots of things that get you hired as a musician, and your ability on the instrument is only one of those things. I posted briefly about this once before, so here’s a more thorough list of factors involved in getting gigs, in my observation:

1. Be a good guy. The majority of the time I spend on a gig is social time – sitting around between load-in, soundcheck, the gig itself, and load-out. I probably average 3 hours of hanging out with the people I play music with for every hour I spend actually playing music with them. Nobody likes hanging with a d-bag, so if you’re a d-bag then you’re probably not going to get the gig.

2. Be on time. Musicians are notorious for being late all the time, but that’s not an excuse. Professional level gigs operate the same as professional level anything. If you’re constantly late then everyone will get annoyed with you and stop hiring you.

3. Be easy to work with. Band leaders want what they want, and they’re not interested in hiring a guy who will always argue with them. That’s not to say a hired-gun musician can’t sometimes suggest an alternative idea for how to arrange or play a part of the gig.  But for the most part, the musician with the most gigs is the guy who has the best attitude and knows how to roll with whatever the boss wants.

4. Have good gear. This is the whole Black Beauty snare drum cool points thing. Your equipment says a lot about who you are as a player and what you know, and having quality gear is therefore part of the whole package. But beyond that, other musicians who have never worked with you before and may not even know you at all will remember you if you have memorable gear. Lots of cool points = standing out compared to other drummers = more gigs. (I will be totally candid here: this issue is definitely part of why the glow drums exist)

5. Be sharp on the mental side of things. Playing drums is equal parts physical and mental, and nobody will care about your physical prowess if your brain is mushy. I’m talking about things like memory, creativity, and just general attentiveness.  Bring your head to the gig.

6. Look the part. This means dress well, dress appropriately, carry yourself appropriately, and behave the way the environment would suggest. The “hang out time” I mentioned before is very different during a club gig than it is during a wedding gig… and you need to know the difference.

Now, it’s worth mentioning as often as possible that the above advice assume that you’ve put in the work to be a great player. That is, after all, the MAIN issue. A professional drummer who shows up on time, is great to hang with, has great gear and great clothes, but SUCKS at the drums will probably not get hired again.

If everything I just said sounds like foolishness to you because you’re the kind of guy who believes “the music is the only thing that matters,” well, then the freelance professional musician career is probably not for you. Like I said before, I think the good gear cool points thing is total BS, but I really don’t help myself by pretending that it doesn’t exist.  Instead I just play the game whenever I have to, but I try to not let it consume me.  What I mean is this: I’m the guy that thinks the music is the only thing that matters.  But that doesn’t mean the music is the only thing I pay attention to or put any effort toward.

Throughout the life of this blog I’ve posted quite a few interviews with various musicians I like. This time I’m in the hot seat.

My dear friends Tim Mader-Brown and Lars Stromberg have a songwriting blog called Food For The Beloved, which I’ve linked to before from here. They sent me some interview questions a while back and just posted the results.

PS. Tim… found your orange Z avenger.

… from Mark Powers:

“I’ve found that, when an idea or opportunity presents itself, it’s often best to simply say YES, close your eyes and jump in with both feet. The “how-to” usually works itself out just fine.”

Read the whole thing (and the broken link is now fixed).

HT: Stanoch

My wife and I went with some friends to the Michael Jackson documentary the other night.  Wow.  It’s great.  Go see it.

I enjoyed the film on a few different levels.  For starters, all the footage was from the prep and production rehearsals for Jackson’s This Is It Tour, which would have been quite a spectacle.  As a professional musician, most of my work takes place in this prep/rehearsal environment.  Any given 90-min gig of mine will often require at least 4-5 hours of personal prep and rehearsal time, and it’s almost impossible to measure how much overhead work goes into a complex show like Jackson’s.  It was really cool to get a first-hand look at everything that goes into staging a show in the big leagues.

Which, leads me to the thing I really took away from the film.  No one made ANY mistakes. In all the footage of instrumental rehearsals and technical run-throughs, I never heard or saw anyone in the band play anything incorrectly.  Everything sounded as great as I imagine the actual performances would have sounded.  Of course, the band often stopped to get instructions from MJ or the producer, but it was always timing and cue issues that needed discussing… never playing issues.  Never.

Everytime MJ would stop the band during a tune to give them directions, he would say “see, this is why we rehearse.”  The thing to notice here is his definition of “rehearsal.”  The musicians in the film are obviously not learning how to play their parts during the rehearsals, as was apparent in their mistake-free playing.  Instead, the band is spending the rehearsal time learning how to perform the show.  There’s a huge difference in those two things.  Learning how to play your part is something you do on your own, with your own time.  That way, when everyone gathers together to work through the songs, you can give your attention and focus to timing issues and the nuances of the performance’s flow.  The details of how the show progresses from song to song are often even more complex than the way you will play your instrument within a song.

A good show hinges on both correct playing and smooth transitions.  The playing part can and should be handled on your own – but the transition part has to be worked out with everyone together.  Therefore, in order to maximize rehearsal time in a group setting, the individual musicians need to be as prepared and precise as possible.  The group rehearsal is simply time when you prove to everyone that you did your homework.

This Is It reminded me again of the importance of adequately prepping for gigs, so that I ALWAYS bring my A-game.

61hv02uyedl_sl500_aa240_1This morning I was listening to Thom Yorke’s solo record, The Eraser, and it reminded me of something I noticed when I first heard it a couple years ago. I don’t know if I’ll be able to communicate this well in print, but I’ll try…

Each and every track on this album has a rhythmic “bait-and-switch” happening in it. What I mean is: the groove, when it starts, gives the impression that the downbeat is in a different location than it really is. Each song begins by hinting at a groove that doesn’t actually exist, and then the reveal happens at various points depending on the song. Some of the tracks develop almost immediately so that the REAL downbeat shows itself, while other tracks are able to maintain the ambiguity for quite a while (until the syncing of a vocal melody and a chord change make the real groove impossible to miss).  In each tune, there’s a moment where my head “shifts” from my misinterpretation of the groove to the true groove.

It’s like when you’re driving in the car listening to the radio, but it’s not too loud, and you hear the sub-harmonics of the bass, and they make you think the song is in a different key than it really is… so you turn the radio up to sing along with it, and you realize that you’re singing along in a totally different key than the actual song.  Maybe nobody can relate to that analogy, but that’s always the feeling I have when listening to each track on The Eraser.

The totally rad part about this, to me, is that I’m a drummer.  I play and teach rhythm for a living, and Yorke gets me every time with this groove trickery!  I love it.  His patterns are cool from both perspectives, but only one of them is the “real” groove for the track.  I have to assume that he’s aware of the deceptive nature of his programming, and I can probably also assume that he’s doing it intentionally, especially in light of this lyric, buried in the middle of Black Swan (track 5): “This is your blind spot… it should be obvious, but it’s not.”

It’s as if Yorke, as the performer/composer, doesn’t want to let the listener in on the perspective that he has on the track until he’s good and ready.  In most/all other circumstances, a recorded piece of music leaves the performer/composer on an even playing field with the listener.  The performer/composer no longer has exclusive rights to the sounds he/she is imagining – now anyone can just listen to the recording and hear the same thing the performer/composer hears.  But Yorke, in pulling this “bait-and-switch” with the grooves on his tunes, still manages to have 10 seconds (or even 2 minutes) in each track where he’s the only one who knows what the true sound of the song is, while presumably everyone else is getting duped by the displaced downbeat.  This concept is FANTASTICALLY interesting to me.

Needless to say… The Eraser is a brilliant album.

I was talking with a student a few weeks ago about the AEDSK list, and why I posted it. Basically, the records on that list have influenced me a TON.  That’s all.  But when I tried to explain how the records influenced me, I realized something…

As a musician, I have a playbook.  It’s a field manual for how to play my instrument in different situations and circumstances.  It’s the sum total of my knowledge about the instrument and how it works (i.e., the mental side of being a musician).  This playbook is quite detailed in some areas, very general in others, and the content is constantly being amended.  I’m always learning new things about my instrument, and what I learn gets jotted down in the playbook, figuratively-speaking.  The new knowledge adds to or clarifies the existing information in the playbook, and in some instances it even changes/replaces content I had previously thought to be trustworthy.  The idea is that my playbook is hopefully always getting more and more accurate and helpful.  I believe that becoming a good musician revolves mainly around building a solid playbook, and not just tackling and overcoming the many physical barriers that exist in playing an instrument.

Also, I’m trying to be as objective as possible in forming my playbook.  I don’t want to just fill it with knowledge about what I like and don’t like.  I’m instead looking for information about what works and what doesn’t.  Things like how an audience responds to certain grooves and fills, or the characteristics that make playing piano trio jazz different from Big Band jazz.  Of course no one can be %100 objective, but I’m just saying that hopefully the info in my playbook isn’t merely a reflection of my personal preferences.

So, back to the AEDSK list.  The list contains the records that it does because those records are the largest contributers to my current playbook.  There are a handful of other albums that would be on the list if I had made it 10 years ago.  They’re not on the list now though, because those albums contributed content to the playbook that I’ve since deleted or rephrased (because I determined the information to be flawed in some way).  I’m sure the next five years will bring more heavily influential records into my iTunes and onto the list, and perhaps I’ll even delete some of the existing records.

In the meantime, I think I’ll start going through the list and providing short explanations of each record.  I’ll include an overview of the record’s sound, what the drumming is like, and what kind of contribution the album made to my playbook.  Some of the records have been featured in the AOTW series, and so I’ll link to that wherever possible.

SUMMARY:  Every musician has a playbook that they use to determine what to play and when, and every musician should be constantly revising that playbook.  I believe the primary means of sharpening one’s playbook is through listening, and the AEDSK list contains the records that have influenced my playbook the most.  In fact, the albums have been SO important to me that I can’t imagine they wouldn’t help others’ playbooks as well.

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.

I titled this post as “Practicing, pt. 2” because it’s a follow-up (and somewhat of a rephrasing) of an earlier post on the topic of practicing. I mentioned difficulty quite a bit in the previous post on practicing, and after some thinking about the specific issue of difficulty on the drumset, I’ve come up with a theory that seems accurate, and has been quite helpful to me. Here it is in tenet-argument form:

1) Anything that you could possibly dream up to play on the drumset is either impossible, or difficult. Only those two options exist. And…

2) Difficulty is subjective. Things that some drummers think are difficult are easy for other drummers, and something that you think is difficult now might not be in a few months. Therefore…

3) Difficulty is really just a mask for unfamiliarity. Difficulty itself doesn’t exist – it’s a mirage. And…

4) Becoming familiar with something just takes time. Hours spent wrestling with an idea or pattern will take it from being unfamiliar and make it familiar. As the transition from unfamiliar to familiar takes place, the difficulty will evaporate. Therefore…

5) It is only a matter of time before you can play whatever you want. As long as the idea/pattern isn’t impossible, you need only to put in the time and effort to become familiar with it and you will soon be playing it.

This may seem like a fancy way to say the old mantra of “practice makes perfect,” but it has helped me a lot in that it casts a positive light on everyone’s potential. For the longest time I would see another drummer play something, and think to myself, “I’ll never be able to do that.” Well, if another drummer is doing it, then that obviously rules out the option that the thing is impossible, and, according to the above argument, I just need to remind myself that I can someday play that idea/pattern if I put in enough time and effort to get familiar with it. This turns the viewing of an incredible drummer playing a very difficult thing into motivation for practicing, instead of a demoralizing reminder of how “not good” I may think I am.

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