Rethinking the Debate over Technique

I recently saw a social media conversation that started with a picture on a drummer friend’s post. The picture contained the opening sentence from the preface of George Lawrence Stone’s classic method book Stick Control for the Snare Drummer:

“It seems that there are too many drummers whose work is of a rough-and-ready variety and whose technical proficiency suffers in comparison with that of the players of other instruments.”

I was not surprised to see some of the comments on the thread pushing back at the assertion that drumming technique is something that should be taken seriously. One comment read: “Technical skill is important, but on the other hand, I would much rather listen to Art Blakey, Keith Moon, Ringo, or Levon Helm than Virgil Donati, Thomas Lang or Marco Minnemann.” Another commenter went on to say Stone was being “condescending” and “insulting” to a large group of people. For many years I’ve seen people bristle at the assertion that having strong technique is important. Such reactions are somewhat understandable, to the degree that technique and its application in our playing is often misunderstood.

The need for, and use of, strong technical skill is universal. I believe that what people crave is for technique to be understood and put in its proper perspective.

I’ve heard the question asked a large variety of different ways on message boards, social media and at lessons and clinics over the years: “What’s more important: technique or musicality?” One usually sees the answer gravitate towards musicality, because “music” itself seems the ultimate goal. However, I believe the question itself is faulty. It suggests a binary thought process: “technique OR musicality”. The problem with this line of thinking is that they don’t exist separately. They work together: technique serves musicality, and musicality informs technique. Each depends on the other in order for our playing to thrive.

Ready for the next level

When I was around 19 years old, I was an eager, energetic and serious student who was looking for a private instructor who could help me reach a higher level in my playing. I’d previously studied with some fine teachers, but at this point I felt I was ready for a considerable challenge. Many musicians I greatly respected recommended Joel Spencer, so I went to him. One of the first things he showed me was how to use the bounce of the stick, and how to utilize my grip and stroke in a way that would facilitate the bounce in order to play with less physical effort. He showed me how to work with the sticks, not against them, and utilize the body’s mechanics to achieve a greater sense of flow. To this day I still have vivid memories of him demonstrating this idea with flams. He eventually got to a blisteringly-fast tempo, yet his hands were completely relaxed and the sticks seemed to glide smoothly like waves of water. Even after my very first lesson I felt as if something huge had been unlocked for me. He showed me a way of playing that is far easier, more efficient and more effective than the way I was playing at the time. It seemed like a subtle, advanced concept, yet deeply fundamental at the same time.

Over time with regular practice, I felt this approach opened up new worlds for my playing as I absorbed more and more layers of it. I would continue to work at developing it as deeply as I possibly could, as I noticed playing the instrument became easier, more relaxed and effortless while achieving greater control over my sound and dynamics. My time also seemed to improve, as it started to feel more centered and consistent. I was using technical exercises such as rudiments and exercises from the Stone book not as endless patterns to memorize, but more as a developmental aid; the conduit through which I would develop a deeper connection with the instrument. In essence, the exercises were treated as not an end to themselves, but a means to an end.

“Even if the pupil does not, at this stage, grasp the true significance of his shots, he at least understands why archery cannot be a sport, a gymnastic exercise. He understands why the technically learnable part of it must be practiced to repletion.”

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

“There is nothing that becomes repetitive and boring more quickly than free expression that is not rooted in reality and discipline.”

-Robert Greene, Mastery

A vocalist needs to learn how to use their voice effectively, and will go to a voice teacher or vocal coach to learn how to form a quality sound in order to project their voice. Many inexperienced vocalists have trouble projecting, even with the aid of a microphone and high-quality sound system, if they haven’t learned how to use their voice effectively, and they risk long-term damage to their vocal cords. Likewise with any other musical instrument, in particular drum set, relaxed technique is absolutely critical for career longevity. The importance of this point cannot be stressed enough. Efficient use of the body’s natural motion is paramount if one desires to avoid serious injury.

Just what was Stone referring to when he wrote about “technical proficiency”? I would argue he was talking about the idea of building a strong technical foundation from which a sense of musicality can grow. A relatively short list of attributes below can illustrate how technique and music work together in a cohesive way. This is, at best, a partial list, but perhaps a good starting point.

  • Time. Having command of ones time and the ability to play solidly is, to a strong degree, a technical matter. Many don’t necessarily think of it that way, but steady time requires control. Solid time doesn’t have to mean “perfect” time, nor does it need to sound rigid or mechanical; just the ability to play whatever one is playing with a steady pulse and consistent subdivisions. This requires a strong technical foundation. To bring feel to ones time also requires command of other elements listed below.
  • Touch/Sound. Getting a consistent, quality sound out of the instrument requires deeply developed technique and is vitally important—and often overlooked by drummers. Developing touch is a technical concern. Learning to draw a tone out of the instrument unlocks the door to greater levels of control over ones sound.
  • Dynamics, articulation. Similar to, and perhaps an extension of, touch/sound. Playing good dynamics takes control as well as keen ears. Articulation, as well, calls for technique as well as imagination and creativity. Can you “pop” the snare with a lot of snap? Can you play a consistent rimshot backbeat? Or can you play a fill with a smooth, legato feel? Can you play transparently behind a bass solo or whispery vocalist? All of these elements require good ears, a musical mind and technical control.
  • Musical versatility. Being able to play multiple musical styles requires a multifaceted command of the instrument. For drummers who play primarily rock music, that means developing the technique for and understanding of the swing pulse, and at least some basic jazz coordination. For a jazz drummer, it could mean expanding their dynamic range, learning to get a bit more power from their stroke, developing a rim shot backbeat, and perhaps learning to play heel-up bass drum technique. Oftentimes it gets suggested to students to at least try to develop some things that are slightly beyond their realm of musical thinking. It might serve to expand their musical and technical proficiency, and won’t do any harm to their main stylistic focus. It could help inspire their imagination and creativity. To expand our technique, we must push past the perceived boundaries of our capabilities.

A wonderful example I often cite is the great Steve Jordan. It’s safe to say he’s generally regarded as a “groove” drummer, but in my estimation, thinking of him in only that way does him a great disservice and is woefully inaccurate. If we were to look at his playing style, based on the above criteria, we would find he exceeds it all on every level. His time is impeccable. His sound, touch, dynamics and feel are amazing by anyone’s standard. He paints a picture with his drumming, saying so much with what seems like so little (but beneath the surface is actually quite a lot). He’s incredibly versatile as well, possessing a thorough understanding of the languages and techniques of pop, rock & roll, soul, R&B, funk and jazz. He’s also fond of mentioning Ringo Starr and Levon Helm as two of his greatest influences. So, as well as being incredibly deep musically, it’s accurate to say Steve Jordan has a profoundly strong technical foundation.

Steve Jordan is also the perfect embodiment of the critical importance of listening (i.e. developing a musical palate), which must go along with technical development. In fact, learning the language will inform the specific technical needs in order for us to “speak” the language most effectively. Technique, in turn, serves the needs of the music. In this respect, I’ve always found a bit of a yin-yang relationship between technique and musicality. I’m quite fond of this phrase: master of the instrument; servant of the music. One must master the technical demands of the instrument in order to serve the music most effectively.

“Some guys say, ‘I have chops and I can groove.’ Like it’s just about chops and groove. So guys try to escape the chops stigma by saying, ‘I can groove too.’ That is really black-and-white. There is so much more than that. There’s a whole color spectrum and awareness that isn’t represented in that line of thinking.”

-Vinnie Colaiuta, from a 2007 interview in Modern Drummer magazine

Chops vs. technique

At the time I began studying with Joel Spencer and developed my technique to a deeper level, I was listening to a lot of jazz and fusion music, and drummers such as Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colauita, Peter Erskine and Dennis Chambers fared heavily in the rotation. While my playing overall seemed to lack depth, it’s fair to say I did have a decent amount of “chops”. One might ask: “Isn’t ‘chops’ the same thing as technique?” In terms of how musicians describe the word “chops”, which is admittedly a bit of a thrown-around slang term, I personally feel the answer is no, not exactly. From my experience, I’ve found that the way musicians typically talk about “chops” gets into vocabulary, which causes a slight divergence from pure technique. I would make the following argument:

Chops = more vocabulary/content, Technique = more mechanics/control.

There IS overlap here for sure; having chops (as everything on the instrument) requires ability and execution. However, I also believe one can have chops without having a strong technical foundation (as I did in my early college days), and it’s also easily possible to have deeply-developed technique without having a ton of chops.

I would argue that many of the drummers that often get mentioned as those who might not have had a tremendous amount of technique (Starr, Helm, Blakey, Moon), based on my above list of elements of proficiency (time, touch, dynamics, versatility), actually possessed considerable technical skill. They should not be considered by anyone to be of the “rough-and-ready” variety, particularly at the peak of their abilities. They each, in their own way, developed their musical voice very deeply, and that voice comes through in the various classic recordings on which they all played vital roles. The approaches of drummers such as Donati, Minnemann, Lang and others are borne out of concept, vocabulary and a love of experimentation, among other things. They have amazing technique, of course, but there’s so much more to the story than that.

Technique to leave technique

After one develops a certain amount of technical skill on an instrument, they develop to a point where they can actually forget about it when they play. This is not to say they’ve “abandoned” technique—only that it has become internalized into their body-mind mechanics. Author, chess and martial-arts master Josh Waitzkin, in his book The Art of Learning, calls this concept numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. As he put it, “A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.” I like to paraphrase it into technique to leave technique. When a skill is developed to a profound degree, any conscious thought of mechanical execution just goes away, and it is so deeply ingrained that we simply forget about it. It’s just there. When that happens, the mind is free to focus on the music.

“If everything depends on the archer’s becoming purposeless and effacing himself in the event, then its outward realization must occur automatically, in no further need of the controlling or reflecting intelligence.”

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

4 thoughts on “Rethinking the Debate over Technique

Add yours

  1. I’ve always loved that quote from Stone that apparently still ruffles so many drummer’s feathers. He didn’t pull his punches, did he?

    Thanks, Tom…you brought up quite a few interesting ideas for me to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha! So true. I think a little context around the quote (esp considering the book was published about 2 decades before the advent of rock & roll) is always helpful. But either way, I think it helped to provide a springboard for discussion. Thanks Brad!


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