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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.

In order to get to my studio space at Northwestern College, you have to walk through the Visual Arts department. This morning, as I walked through the art space with my first student of the day, there was some blaring music coming from an art student’s boom box. It would be fair to describe the music as “artsy” (which is the kind of music that art students ALWAYS listen to it seems). Once we were past the art department and in my studio, my student commented to me that he thought the music from the other room was really weird. I thought the music was pretty cool, so I asked him what he meant by “weird.” He said that he didn’t really know… he just thought the music was “really different” and he didn’t like it. So, I proceeded to share something with him that I learned from my former teacher

Everybody brings a subconscious “list” to their listening. This list contains the things that you’re looking for in music – the things that you expect the music to have if you’re going to like it. Normally, the items on someone’s list will be broad and far-reaching, like “good groove”… or maybe a little more specific like “lots of guitars.” The specificity of the list items might get out of hand though, and I’ve often heard people say things like “I only listen to stuff that has odd time signatures and lots of double bass.” Well, that’s fine I guess… except those people will normally go on to decide that if a given song doesn’t contain the things on their list, then that song “sucks” or “isn’t cool.”

It’s important to stop at this point and recognize that, in the example I just mentioned, the music in question has been written off simply because it doesn’t match up with the listener’s expectations. This is problematic, because it’s fair to ask if the artist who made the music was ever really aiming to hit the things on odd-time-double-bass-dude’s list. It’s not at all fair for odd-time-double-bass-dude to give a failing grade to a musician who was never intending to do anything that odd-time-double-bass-dude wanted to hear.

What I’m trying to say is this: the fundamental element in appreciating art is understanding what THE  ARTIST was trying to say with a particular work. This means that it’s the artist’s “list” that matters, not yours. It’s very helpful, when encountering new music, to try and wipe your head clear of all your expectations for what you’re about to hear. Try and take the music on IT’S terms. Sometimes it’s helpful to do some homework in that regard – like looking up who the artist is, what genre the artist is known for, and what kind of influences they cite. But even if you can’t do any background work, you can at least give the artist the benefit of the doubt that they are probably not simply trying to cater to your needs as a listener. True musicians make music they want to make, not music that they think others want them to make.

What’s amazing about all this is that if you take the time to understand what the artist was aiming for when they created a particular work of art, you’ll probably like it more. Or at the very least you will appreciate it more, and you’ll be less likely to give it an automatic thumb’s down.

SUMMARY: It’s safe to assume that most musicians aren’t aiming for (or even aware of) the items on your subconscious “list” of expectations. So try to figure out what a musician is trying to do with their music BEFORE you decide if they’re succeeding, and you will probably learn a thing or two in the process. (PS… It’s also helpful to try and trim down your list as much as possible).

UPDATE: “Part 2” of The Subconscious List can be found here.

Man… Brian Blade is definitely one of my favorite drummers right now. He has so much control, his ideas are so musical, and his groove is so comfortable. Love it.

Brian Blade is on my mind today because I’ve been listening to Danial Lanois’ “Shine” quite a bit. Blade just destroys that record. His feel, his comfort and vocabulary… unbelievable. The album is a singer-songwriter style, and so Blade is of course playing appropriately within that realm. BUT, he is also a widely respected jazz player. THAT is the main point of this post.

I’ve had more than a few musicians whom I respect tell me that my best bet is to pigeon-hole my efforts on the drums into one genre/sound, and just try to make that as killing as I can. I understand the logic: don’t waste time trying to improve your weaknesses, just focus on making your strengths even stronger and soon you will be the only fish in the pond that anyone wants to work with, when it comes to those strengths. This idea is big in the business world, and it makes sense to a degree… but I’m not sure it applies to Art.

I studied jazz music extensively in college, and I’ve also spent a lot of time in pop/rock settings. In fact, I’ve done quite a bit of gospel lately, and some alt-country, and even some electronica/drum-n-bass. Therefore, I’m obviously in danger of spreading myself too thin according to the “ignore-your-weakness-promote-your-strength” mantra, but I don’t see it that way. I feel like I have learned concepts in studying jazz that I can apply to rock… things that make my rock playing different from another rock drummer who has never studied jazz. Conversely, I can bring rock elements into my jazz that sound hopefully make my jazz playing unique. Of course, I have to have a solid understanding of the difference between rock and jazz, but having a presence in both worlds is a challenge that I enjoy taking on.

Actually, I believe learning about and participating in many different styles/genres is an essential element to feeding creativity in your playing. I guess I just disagree with the advice I’ve been given. Maybe I’ll recant in a few years when I am wiser, but for now, I encourage every musician who reads this blog to surround yourself with as many different-sounding records as you can find, and soak them all in.

I’ve posted quite a few listening recommendations so far, and I’ll continue to do that. The reason is simple: listening to music is a very important part of growth as a musician.

It has been my observation (and experience) that the majority of a musician’s education comes not from lessons/books/videos, but from LISTENING. This makes sense, given that music is an art form. Art has always evolved through artists – not teachers and books, but the artists themselves – as they experience each other’s work and therefore inspire one another to push the envelope with new ideas and new directions.

How often do you listen to music? How many different kinds of music do you listen to? How CLOSELY do you pay attention to the music you listen to? Listening is like your gas tank as a musician. Of course practicing is VERY important, but I like to think of practicing as an oil change, or brake maintenance, or transmission work, or even a wash. But the day to day FUEL comes from listening. Ok, sorry I stuck with that analogy for so long.

That’s it. There’s not much else that needs to be said about this. Some of the aspects of your playing that will grow immensely as you increase your listening are: musical instincts, feel, creativity, musical personality, versatility, tone awareness, and contemporary relevance.

In addition to the great records I’ve listed so far in previous “Recent Listening” posts, I also have a more broad encyclopedia of general recommendations from my own library, past and present… the Albums Every Drummer Should Know list.


I am just finishing up some programming for church tomorrow morning. I play every week at New Hope Church in New Hope, MN… and last year we started incorporating loops and sequences into the services. They put me in charge of that stuff, although I knew nothing about it when I started. We use Reason and Ableton Live software, and I’ve just been learning as I go… so please let me know if you have any helpful tips or anything.

I’m glad to have gotten the chance to familiarize myself with software like Reason and Ableton. Programming is becoming more and more of a staple in modern music (especially pop/rock). At this point, it’s almost a necessity that any professional player be competent at not only playing with, but also programming your own loops/sequences.

UPDATE: As of 2012 it absolutely IS a necessity that pop/rock players be familiar with at least one programming or DAW software platform.

Anyway… the aim of this post is to point out the MUSICALITY of programming. Even though programmers don’t PERFORM their music in the physical sense, there is still a deep well of art to be appreciated in the world of drum synthesis and software. In fact, I’ve noticed an interesting influence that electronic and programmed percussion has had on the drumset world. Programmers, unlike actual players, don’t have any physical limitation to their musical ideas. When they think of something cool to “play”… they just draw it out with their computer’s mouse and set the tempo wherever they want it. Things that would be impossible for any drummer to actually perform are not off limits to programmers. As a result, the ideas they come up with tend to push the envelope in comparison to the ideas that drumset players think of. It’s as if the programmers are able to cross a creative bridge that is un-crossable to physical players. The really cool thing is that, once across the bridge, programmers discover cool ideas that can be “brought back across” to the physical world and adapted to an organic drumset. So now, after a few years of prominent electronic grooves, we find drumset performers using their physical kits to replicate ideas that they have heard in the programming world. Cool stuff.

So, just because programmers don’t PLAY drums doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to contribute to the world of rhythm. This goes along with my previous post about art being more of a mental game than a physical one. The IDEAS that programmers come up with can be very brilliant, and they are worth listening to.

Here’s a short list of some artists whose programming has influenced my playing in this way: Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre, Bjork, Boards of Canada, Jon Hopkins, and Cepia

I’m in the studio right now… doing some of the final touch-ups on the forthcoming Look Alive album.

Look Alive is a band I’ve been in for 7 years. We started in college, at Bethel University. We released our debut album not long after the band formed in 2003, and we started work on our sophomore release shortly after that. We’re still working on that project. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the process of making a record… 4 years is a REALLY long time. Life happened to all of us, and the band had to take a back seat. (Update: You can find a free download of Look Alive’s completed 2nd and final album The Already Not Yet here).

So anyway, I’m sitting here listening to my buddy Tim do some guitar overdubs. It’s really interesting to hear the drum tracks on these tunes, which I recorded in January of ’05. I am a very different player now. I have different instincts, different opinions, different preferences. Most of my drum tracks actually annoy me. I feel like I’ve learned so much about WHY to play the notes that you play, not to mention all the nuances of playing to microphones under the microscope of a studio setting. I hope that my playing is smarter now than it was 4 years ago… BUT… I think I have less chops. Some of the things I played back then are things that I can’t do anymore, or at least I’d have to practice a little in order to not be sloppy.

So now I might be weaker physically than I was back then, but I’m confident that I’m stronger mentally. I think I’ve come out ahead overall, then – because I believe that music is primarily a mental game and not a physical one. Those who put too much emphasis on the physical side end up treating music like athletics, and not art. But there’s a balance on the mental side as well… between data (left brain) and emotion (right brain). Too much emphasis on the data and music becomes mathematics, not art.

Listen, I know this is my 3rd post in one hour, but I just started this blog today so I feel like I need to fill it up a little. Actually, I think I’ve figured out how to add pictures to the posts so I’m going to try it.

This is a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an 80’s Neo-Expressionist from Manhattan. It’s titled “Max Roach,” after the Jazz founding-father and drumming legend of the same name. Roach had a massive influence on the evolution of jazz drumming, and Basquait just nails the essence of Roach’s sound in depicting him as cloud hovering behind the drumset.

Basquiat was heavily influenced by Jazz and Jazz musicians throughout his career. If a painter (visual) can draw inspiration from a musician (audio), then that transaction can definitely take place the other direction as well. In college I studied with the internationally-acclaimed, avante-garde drummer David King. Dave was CONSTANTLY referencing paintings and films in the lessons (which is where I first learned about Basquiat), which didn’t make much sense to me at first, but over time I began to see the connection that he was drawing on – the connection that exists between all forms of art. Creativity is art’s essence, and the creative process is so much bigger than any one genre of art (or music, for that matter).

More on this to come…

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