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  • Do People Really Notice?

    Sometimes when I get asked for my advice about music in performance and practice from students and some professional musicians, I point to musical details that at first might seem small and/or insignificant.  An interesting question I hear from time to time is this:

    "If I pay attention to more details in my playing, even very subtle ones, will anyone notice?"

    We all know that a seasoned musician with a trained ear would notice the level of detail in our performance, but what we're talking about here is essentially the non-musician general public.  I understand the subject of a generalized audience to begin with is a bit open-ended--it's likely to be quite different depending on the individual--but I believe some assumptions can be made about the "average" music listener.  More on this later.

    This question--"will anyone notice"--is usually arrived at from one of two perspectives. One is of slight laziness and a willingness to cut corners where needed or desired.  A sense that good enough is good enough.  "Do I really need to do all that? Is it that important?"  The other is sort of an extreme musical nihilism in which someone figures, "nobody notices or understands what I'm doing anyway, so what's the point?"  In my humble opinion, both perspectives are self-defeating and prevent many musicians from reaching the next level in their playing.

    I was recently preparing someone to sub for me in a band that plays several different styles of music.  This particular drummer can play rock and pop very well, but is far less experienced in jazz and swing playing than I am.  He can play with a nice basic swing feel, but he just doesn't know the language quite as well as an experienced jazz drummer typically does.  He came over for a few lessons, and we worked through details such as chart reading, brush playing, playing kicks/hits, two feel vs. four feel, and other things.  Of course, I gave him some recorded examples to check out.  We covered the bases, but as with any other style of music, there is a lot to cover.  However, the vast majority of time in swing music (especially for dancing) is spent playing plain ol' "spang-a-lang" ride cymbal time.  So then let's return to the question some might ask in his position (for the record, he did not--he was eager to soak up as much information as possible):

    Whether he just plays basic swing time, or plays with more understanding and depth, will anyone notice? 

    The answer, of course, is just as complicated.  The average listener would tend not to overtly notice small details.  However, that doesn't mean those details (or, likewise, the absence thereof) won't shape their overall experience of the music.  Perhaps more importantly, a more highly-nuanced and deep interpretation might cause someone in the audience to listen a bit more closely.

    For a slightly different example, let's take a look at Picasso's "Guernica" for a minute.

    Personally, I find it to be a breathtaking piece of art.  I'd be lying, however, if I told you I knew what exactly makes it great.  Beyond having a musician's affinity for art and having taken a couple of general art history classes in college, I would definitely not claim to have much more than an "average" knowledge of the medium.  Experts might tout Picasso's use of color and shading, and the unique balance of shapes and figures, though maybe not--I'm not entirely sure; I'm just throwing out possibilities.  However, I am sure that whenever I look at one of Picasso's pieces, it draws me in, motivates me to see more of his work, and even study his life and history a bit more.

    Are people who listen to music deserving of any less than our best effort, just because they might not know the language as well as musicians do?  When we play music, we're communicating; trying to pull our audience in.  A performance always begins with barriers between performer and audience, and it's our job to knock them down and invite people on this journey with us.  On the other hand, apathy (from either performer or audience) breeds apathy and creates a vicious cycle until neither audience nor performer could care any less--and, of course, the venue owner predictably decides to stop investing in live music altogether.

    Recently, I was on a gig with my rock/pop band at a club, and a waitress came over to a few of us on a break and said this: "You guys are awesome.  We had a band in here last week, and they were terrible.  We [the waitstaff] were all getting angry and snapping at each other and we couldn't figure out why.  After they finished playing, we realized the music was so awful that it had been putting us all into a bad mood.  Today we all feel like dancing!"

    So, when you bring a high level of musicianship to a performance, do people notice?  The fundamental point isn't for them to notice, but to feel something.  If someone walks away feeling different somehow, you've done your job.  The problem with this is that it's entirely possible in many cases that you will never know the effect you had.  It's possible they won't even know.  In a world where live music is too often relegated to a sideshow or shoved in a cramped corner of a restaurant, it can be difficult to feel appreciated sometimes.  That's no reason the music itself should suffer a similar fate.

    An excellent example of this idea is the 2007 experiment in which the world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell was brought to a busy Washington D.C. subway station to perform undercover, as a "street musician" to see if anyone would notice.  Did they?  Not at all.  And, absolutely yes.  To quote one passerby, "whatever it was, it made me feel at peace."

    Washington Post Story

    Also, for a clearer picture of what is meant by bringing "more details, depth and nuance" to ones playing, check out this post: Less Is More....or is it? The sophistication of simplicity

  • How To Practice with a Metronome More Musically


    Few musicians doubt that practicing with a metronome can help them build a stronger, more solid sense of time. Yet, I seem to encounter even fewer who really put a good deal of thought into exactly
    how they utilize it. All too often I hear someone say, "Use a metronome", and the discussion ends there. Examining your approach can go a long way towards making your practice more musical and inspiring. Below are four key ideas I feel are very helpful.


    Use musical sounds, not mechanical

    For me, there's nothing more mind-numbingly stiff than the robotic BLEEP-bloop-bloop-bloop sound of many metronomes. In fact, that's where I feel most metronomes or metronome apps do a poor job. They put little to no effort into their sounds. I recently did a lesson with a student who pondered aloud why he enjoyed playing along to my metronome more than in his own personal practice.

    In that spirit, it's helpful to note that your regular practice metronome needn't even be a metronome. A device-powered app or computer DAW that has built-in percussion sounds can really open things up. One of the things I did after purchasing my first computer is create a simple quarter-note cowbell and 8th- or 16th-note shaker sound. It works well for me because there is an inherent sense of dynamics and feel that make it easier to hear and feel the time. Beyond that, even more elaborate percussion patterns with congas and bongos can be fun to play with for a bit of variety, and it will make you listen in a different way.

    Use subdivisions or not?

    Many people have differing (and opposing) opinions on whether or not to employ subdivisions on their metronome. Personally, I am in favor of using them because it helps me to hear and feel them to a greater degree, which in turn helps me to play the time more solidly.  However, as mentioned above, it's vitally important to utilize musical-sounding subdivisions that have sonic and dynamic variance to them.  At the very least, I recommend finding a metronome or app that allows you to bring the dynamics of the subdivisions down well below the main beats (i.e. quarter notes).

    With the subdivisions, however, it's a good idea to vary what you do, be creative and mix it up from time to time.  If you normally use subdivisions, try going without.  Or if you don't, experiment with putting them in.  If you normally go with 16th notes, try 8ths, etc.  Try a different percussion pattern or use different sounds.

    Turn it down

    One thing I experience with some students is that they often tend to blast their metronome in their ears at an extremely loud volume relative to the instrument. I believe that this creates a mental attachment that can be a hindrance to ones development.

    Turning the volume of the metronome down has a couple benefits. First, it brings everything into better balance, where you can hear the instrument balanced with the metronome. The higher the metronome is cranked, the less attention paid to the instrument. Second, turning the metronome down forces you to listen to it more closely. This way, you begin to free yourself of any mental dependency to the click and work in a way that is more complementary. The intention is to develop our own internal sense of solid time, rather than getting into the habit of deferring it to an outside source. As an exercise, try setting the metronome low enough so that it's difficult to hear, and even gets drowned out at times, and see how you fare. If you find that doing this makes you a little uncomfortable, good. That's the point.

    Turn it off 

    Even in the most metronome-intensive practice, I find not using it at times to be just as valuable as using it. After a good while of solid metronome practice, try turning it off for a while (on the same or similar materials). Then turn it back on and see if your tempo drifted.

    Developing a solid internal clock is neither quick nor easy. If you use creativity and variation, a metronome or equivalent can be an extremely effective tool.


    Here are some products I've used and recommend:

    Boss Dr. Beat DB-90 A really versatile and flexible stand-alone metronome, with separate volume controls for 8th, 16th and triplet subdivisions. Also has a few "rhythm coach" features that are really cool. At around $180, however, it's very pricey.

    Frozen Ape Tempo This is pretty much the leading metronome app for iOS and Android devices. High quality and extremely flexible. Even better on an iPad. Has many sound sets, one of which is the "Pro" sound set that I prefer. Also Frozen Ape's Tempo Advance has even better sounds (IMHO), with volume controls for each subdivision.

    Akai iMPC is also an excellent sequencing app for iOS. It comes with many stock sequences, and programming a cool percussion pattern is fairly easy. Sounds really good.

    A DAW, such as Apple's Garage Band, Logic, Propellerheads' Reason, or many others, can offer near-endless choices in terms of sounds, samples and programmability, for those who are able to employ a laptop in their practice room. Garage Band is even available as an iOS app.

  • Qualitative vs. Quantitative Thinking

    There are two ways we approach listening to music, and it affects how we think about practicing.  Consider the illustration below.

    (Picture borrowed from this website--I don't claim ownership of it)

    On one side, you have a qualitative view of something.  It deals with abstract qualities of something: impressions, feelings, and descriptions.  The other side is concerned with a quantitative view, which measures specific and concrete data.

    In regard to music, one can attribute a qualitative approach to the more artistic concerns: sound, dynamics, feel, ‘vibe’...all of those things that give us an emotional response.  Of course, quantitative thinking has to do with the technical aspects of music: tempo, rhythm, intonation, rhythmic accuracy...those which can be measured in an absolute sense.

    As a drummer, one obvious case of this dichotomy is in regard to playing time.  There’s time, and then there’s feel.  I’ve always felt that the two are different, yet very closely linked, and the big difference is that they fall neatly into the quantitative/qualitative scale.  Time (quantitative) can be measured in terms of accuracy.  We can easily find out if it rushes or drags, or if the subdivisions are played solidly.  Feel (qualitative) has everything to do with one’s emotional response to the time being played: Does it propel the music and give it energy?  Does it make you want to dance, or does it sound stiff?  Does it fit with the song?  Accurate time alone, as we know, does not make for a great feel, yet to provide a great feel, the time does need to be steady and solid.

    Oftentimes in a lesson I will have a student play through an exercise, solo or musical piece, and after they finish ask them how they felt about it.  What’s interesting to me is the answer I always get is something like, “Well, I messed up the fifth bar of the second line, rushed the ending, shortened the rest in bar 27”, etc.  In other words, their evaluation to their performance is always entirely quantitative.  All fine and dandy, I reply, but what about musical aspects?  Any thoughts on phrasing?  Dynamics?  Melody?  They get bogged down by technical concerns to the degree that the musical have been completely ignored.  Of course, one must first master the technical details (quantitative) in order to focus on the musical elements (qualitative).  What I see too often, however, is a failure on the students’ part to shift their focus to the musical aspects once they’ve achieved technical control on the exercise.

    Exercise: 

    Understanding how the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of our playing work together can greatly enhance ones musical development.  A good place to start is with listening to music. 

    1.  When you listen to a new piece of music for the first time, listen once (or maybe a few times) through and notice the emotional response you get from it.  Usually the first couple listens of anything new to the listener are done at the “macro” level, so really be aware of the general qualities of the song and how they affect you on a base level.  You can even write your impressions down as an exercise. 

    2. Then, go back and listen for quantitative aspects: tempo, key, repeating rhythms, instrumentation, lyrics (if applicable), form, etc. so that you have a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of the song. 

    3.  Then, go back and listen again, once again shifting your listening focus back to the qualitative.  Perhaps this time you may be able to link the two a bit more. “Hmmm....The bass player comes in on the instrument’s upper register (quantitative), creating a ‘suspended’ feel (qualitative) at the top.  The drummer loosens the hi hats slightly on the 2nd verse (quantitative), which opens the song up a bit more and adds some lift (qualitative).”

    The same can be done with ones own practicing.  Here’s yet another example of the value of recording your personal practice.  Listening to yourself play a musical piece, or even a technical exercise, and evaluating it (as above) on quantitative and qualitative levels can really open your ears.  You’ll discover a whole new way of listening to yourself when you play.

  • Zen and the Art of Drum Throne Maintenance

    The drum throne just may have the highest ratio of most-critical/most-overlooked in terms of components of the kit. That's mainly because of the simplicity of its function. Hey, it's a seat. You sit on it, and that's it. What's the big deal?

    Here's the big deal. If you're going to play with solid, steady time and provide a strong foundation for the band, you need to have a strong foundation for yourself as well. This is to say that your physical foundation needs to be rooted and connected to the ground, like the roots of a great tree. Yet all too often I see drummers playing on seats that are unstable or wobbly. I have students come in to lesson after lesson and just sit down on the throne without tightening all components, and I see them jostling around on a moving seat. Their playing suffers as a result, and in most cases they aren't even aware of it.

    I don't want to go into all the different types of thrones, but I do know that most quality, heavy-duty drum thrones you'll see will have double-braced legs, a threaded height-adjustment rod, and a large mechanism that fastens and holds the rod firmly in place. It's always worked for me, and I highly recommend this type of throne base if you don't currently use it. (There are many other types on the market, and most that I've tried really don't hold up well.)

    The top portion is also vitally important. There are many seats available, and the bicycle/saddle-type seat is fairly popular. Roc-N-Soc makes a popular one that I used to use, until I found it was helping to pitch my back forward in an unnatural position, throwing my balance too far forward. I replaced it with a round seat that is thickly padded and fairly firm, not soft. A too-soft seat will trick you into a false sense of comfort, and you'll sink down and squish around. I don't like to think "luxury" here, but rather stability and support

    The illustration is an example of a throne that is high in quality, yet simple. There's no back rest--I've only found them to get in the way. Also, hydraulic thrones that bounce up and down actually diminish stability, rather than enhance it. Any seat that wobbles around deliberately, much less as the result of a design flaw, prevents me from playing comfortably. It may sound a tad ridiculous, but there's a Zen nature to a strong, firm (yet comfortable) drum throne. It's extremely simple, yet perfectly effective. Adding fancy bells and whistles detracts from the quality of its function.

    These are just ideas and opinions. If, for example, bicycle- or saddle-style seats work well for you, feel free to disagree. What's most important is that you have a strong foundation and good balance when you play.

  • The Importance of Awareness

    A couple of recent lessons have highlighted a critical component of practicing for me. I had a student work through an exercise, playing it mostly correct, except for one added note in the ride cymbal part. It was a very typical coordination error, as the snare was playing on that beat as well. I told the student there was one thing that wasn't accurate to what the written exercise clearly showed, but made it a point not to tell him what it was. I wanted him to be able to tell me, and he couldn't. He didn't know.

    Another recent lesson had a student playing through a different coordination exercise. Same effect: he was playing something inaccurately according to what was written but didn't know what. In fact, just like the other student, he wasn't even aware anything was out of place. So I recorded him playing it and played it back for him so he could listen and count along. During the first time hearing what he'd played, he discovered something was off. After going through this process of playing/recording and listening a couple more times, he was able to quickly hone in on the problem spot (without my pointing it out) and correct it.

    This is a problem I see with many--I'd say most--students I encounter, which is a lack of awareness in their personal practice. What concerns me isn't that they come in to their lesson playing something "wrong", per se; it's that they simply don't know that anything actually is wrong. This tells me they're not really listening to what they're doing with the level of attention that's needed. It's hard to correct errors if you're not aware of them. I often say, "You're accountable for every note you play. Know what you're playing at all times." Only through total awareness of the exercise at hand are you able to develop it. Otherwise, you're wasting a lot of time with mindless, inefficient practice.

    Here are two ways to help build a higher level of awareness in your practicing:

    1. Practice SLOWLY and deliberately. Slow practice is one of the main ingredients to solid development for many reasons, and one reason that applies here is the fact that practicing at a slow--often VERY slow--tempo allows you to be aware of more musical details than practicing at fast or even moderate tempos does. You're giving yourself more time to listen and think.

    2. Record yourself. In the second example, the student had the opportunity to hear exactly what he had played just seconds before, while reading the written exercise and counting along. Being able to "step outside himself" and listen objectively allowed him to find out precisely what he had played inaccurately and quickly adjust.

    If you practice with your full concentration, focus and awareness on the task at hand, your development will accelerate noticeably. You'll find you're accomplishing more--much more--in a shorter amount of time than before.


    "The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say that four hours would be a good maximum practice time—I never ask more of my pupils—and that during each minute of the time the brain be as active as the fingers.”

    -Leopold Auer, noted violinist, composer and instructor

    Here is a link to a great article on practicing slowly. Notice the word "mindful" and when it comes up. Mindfulness is the same thing as awareness (likewise, mindlessness is lack of it).

  • Less Is More...or is it? The sophistication of simplicity

    I have recently been reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. As a musician and meditator, I've always identified with Jobs's Zen side and his fondness for an artistic aesthetic that stems from that philosophy. When Jobs hooked up with designer Jonathan Ive in the late '90s, a great collaborative partnership was born, due to the fact that they both shared a similar design style--a style manifested in most of Apple's products of the past 10-15 years, such as the iMac, various MacBooks, the iPod, iPhone and iPad. I'll be honest too: I designed this website with a similar Zen-like feel in mind (I agonized for weeks over the background color!). Ive describes his aesthetic this way:

    Simplicity isn't...just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everthing about it and how it's manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

    That's exactly the same way I feel about playing music. Truly simple playing comes from two things: a well-developed technical command, and a thorough understanding of music and how it's constructed. It has a lot of thought and preparation underneath its surface. There's great subtlety and character; it's not just simple for the sake of simple. The old maxim "Less Is More" has always bothered me; not because it's not true, but because people often use the term without understanding the nuances of elegant simplicity. Simple playing is vastly different from simplistic playing.

    We must dig through complexity and sophistication in order to strip our playing of the parts that aren't essential.

    Here's a classic story that illustrates this point:

    The engine of a giant ship failed. The ship's owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure how to fix the engine. Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a youngster. When he arrived, he immediately went to work.

    After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. The engine was fixed! A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars. Livid at being charged so much money for such a seemingly simple task as tapping with a hammer, the owners asked the man to send an itemized bill. The bill read:

    Tapping with a hammer ......................... $ 2.00
    Knowing where to tap .....................$ 9,998.00

    The "knowing where to tap" part is what I strive for as a musician. It's a never-ending process of constant refinement. The task of tapping was simple and seemed mundane to the ship's owners, yet below its surface there's a tremendous depth gained from years of experience and practice. Likewise, the audible difference between a mediocre musician and a great one playing the most simple beat, line or melody can sometimes be subtle, but within that subtlety there's a wide gulf. We must dig deeply, develop our technique, listen, play, practice, and go beyond complexity in order to arrive back at true simplicity.

  • Don't practice in front of the TV!

    Over the years I've had many students mention how they had been practicing, or had planned on practicing (often on a pad), while at the same time watching TV or doing some other passive activity like listening to the radio or even talking on the phone. I've always felt that this is not a good idea, as it builds and reinforces a habit of distracted playing. Usually, their justification is the idea that "well, I'm just working on my hands; I don't need to be thinking about it." No, that's never the case. Practicing is something that should always be done mindfully, listening actively, with complete attention and awareness on the task at hand. The practicer always needs to focus on many things at once, such as accuracy of exercise, sound, smoothness, time (see prev. post), clarity, smoothness, flow and musicality. These elements can't be developed in a half-hearted or casual way. Mindless practicing will NEVER cultivate mindful playing. It also helps to remember that even the most dry, calisthenic exercises are probably 90% mental training.  After all, your hands & feet can't do anything your brain doesn't direct them to do.

    Put another way: You wouldn't want your brain surgeon to be watching "Dancing With The Stars" while removing a tumor, would you? Any skill worth pursuing, whether a life-or-death matter or not, should be approached with the same seriousness of purpose.

    -Tom

  • Developing solid time by practicing with solid time

    Oftentimes in a lesson a student will ask me, when playing an exercise that's rather difficult to them, "Can I slow it down?", to which I always happily reply, sure!  After all, working through an exercise slowly is probably the most fundamentally important practice habit to have.  What has been happening too often lately, however, is instead of playing slower (still with solid time), they go off the rails and sort of schluff through it out of time, poorly and inconsistently.

    This brings me to a key aspect of practicing slowly, for any musician, but especially for drummers: No matter what the tempo is, it's vitally important to always practice with solid time. If you're going to work on something "out of time", you're likely reinforcing a habit that will make your practicing more difficult, not less.

    An obvious part of this discussion is the importance of using a metronome in ones practice.  The idea of practicing with solid time, however, is more nuanced than just the simple idea of using a metronome.  If you always think, feel and play with awareness of the pulse, the metronome will help you develop a deeper sense of it.  If you rely on the metronome to 'provide the time for you', you're then using it more as a 'crutch'.  Ultimately, the time is OUR responsibility (as musicians), and not that of any outside sources.

    -Tom