Saturday, January 14, 2012

Make Friends With Mr. Metronome

Playing with a metronome or “click” is one of those things that most drummers either love or hate.  It is especially hard for musicians who have played for many years without using a click to jump into performing or recording with one.  Here are some things that one can do to get comfortable and play confidently while using a click track.

  1. Start SLOW.  Slow tempos are actually harder to maintain accurately than quick or moderate tempos. If you can play a simple rock beat brutally slow and accurately, than it will sound super solid as you bump up the tempo.
  2. Start SIMPLE. Try doing this exercise first with quarter notes on the hi hats.  Play a cross-stick on 2 and 4 on the snare and  “1 &” and “3 &” on kick.  Eventually, try 8th’s and then 16th’s on the hi hats. 
  3. Start at a slow tempo that is somewhat uncomfortable.  Play along to the click at that tempo for 5 minutes, concentrating on accurate note placement.  Then bump the click up 2 to 5 bpm’s and do the same.  Keep repeating this process until you reach a brisk tempo that is slightly difficult to keep up with.  If you experience any pain or discomfort, discontinue.
  4. As you become more comfortable and solid, begin to change up the kick drum pattern to incorporate more interesting beats using 16th's, 8th's, dotted notes, triplets, and so on.
  5. Isolate fills by themselves with the click at first. Loop a fill over and over using the same method of bumping the tempo up 3 to 5 bpm’s at a time.  Once it feels solid, then incorporate the groove you want to play it with.  Loop 3 bars of the groove and a 1 bar fill to create a 4 bar phrase that you can loop over and over.
  6. The click can play tricks on your ears!  Get used to the fact that when you can’t hear the click because you are dead on the beat, it means you are playing accurately!  Don’t speed ahead or drag behind the beat to keep tabs on the click.  Make sure that you are using in-ear monitors or headphones that allow you to hear the click clearly for when you are inaccurate… this is VERY important for becoming confident when performing with a click track.
  7. Think of the click as another instrument in the band.  I tend to think of it as a percussionist playing clave or cowbell and want to make my drumming as locked in and meshed with that percussionist as possible.
  8. Most modern recordings are recorded to a click.  If you get bored playing along to a metronome, crank up your ipod to something that is inspiring to you and play single strokes, double strokes, paradiddles, and flams on a practice pad along with the recording.  For example, sometimes I will play 8th note singles during the verses and switch to 16th note doubles at the chorus.  You can mix and match different rudiments in different sections to keep things fresh.
  9. Make sure you continue to practice without the click as well, in order to not become dependant on it.  Also, have a friend stand by and turn the volume all the way down on your click for increasingly longer periods of time and see if you are still on the beat when the volume comes back up.
  10. Do yourself a huge favor and pick up a copy of Ted Reed’s book Syncopation, if you don’t already have it.  Read the top line of each page as the kick drum pattern while keeping 2 and 4 on the snare with a cross-stick.  Once again, try quarters, 8th's and then 16'ths on the hi hats. Have fun and don’t get frustrated!  The more you incorporate a click into your practice regiment, the stronger your grooves will become!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Watcha’ Listening To?

Lately, when I am in the car, I find myself not wanting to listen to anything other than classical music or jazz.  It’s in the car that I can do the majority of my listening, and lately Meshuggah, Black Sabbath, Lamb of God, and Opeth have NOT been dominating my CD player.  I am on a huge Miles Davis bender as well as the likes of Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Stravinsky and Ravel.  I must be getting old.

Honestly, I really relish the fact that I go through musical phases of soaking in different styles of music.  There have been times when all I want to hear is R&B and soul.  During those times, I find myself getting sucked into following rich and tasteful bass lines that together with a pocket drummer create the most killer rhythm sections.  Immediately, Eryka Badu’s live album comes to mind with Poogie Bell on drums and Hubert Eaves IV on bass… smokin’!!!

Yes, I have an affinity for brutal metal, as well.  I find myself getting excited by the technicality, and the speed and athletics that are required by those musicians to execute their craft.  The ability that those guys have to go way over the top is inspiring and gets the adrenaline pumping. 

But, lately it has been the compositional aspects of jazz and classical music that has really got me.  I can’t stop listening to Bitches Brew.  It seems to me that every note on those two albums is executed with precision, purpose, beauty, and taste.  Each note is important and creates a feeling, almost a soundtrack or soundscape that invokes imagery and passion.  Likewise, Stravinsky and Ravel have been making the rounds in my playlist and invoking these same inspirations.

Sometimes, it’s prog fever for me, and all that you will find in my CD player is Yes, King Crimson, Rush, Genesis and so on.  In a few months, the classics such as Led Zep, The Who, and the likes will be dominating. 

So what does diversifying my influences do for me as a musician?  I have never been a purist when it comes to music and have always tended to seek out gigs that are a little “different” than the norm.  I don’t think it is as blatant, as say, wanting to work a swing section into the middle of a song with my post-hardcore band.  Nor do I think that I would want to bust out a blazing double bass part in the middle of a song with my indie band. 

I do, however, think that it helps us to think outside of the box.  In a sense, there still seems to be unwritten stylistic rules that are written for certain genres of music.  Many times this is referred to as the “formula”.  Diversifying what you listen to can help you think outside of those boxes and pioneer different styles by exploring options and pushing past the norm.

I encourage musicians to listen to a wide pallet of music.  I don’t believe that there should be a “guilty pleasure” in liking something that most of one’s peers label as unhip.  I will never apologize for my musical taste in fear of it not being cool.  Those who hold that view are missing out and perhaps passing up the opportunity to enrich their musical vocabulary by doing so. 

I also strongly advise musicians to become “active” listeners as opposed to being “passive” listeners.  The difference is simple.  When one listens actively, they are analyzing parts as well as recognizing techniques and characteristics in the music instead of just letting the music become background noise.  This, in turn, begins the adventure of learning what elements are required to create different styles and feels. Eventually, one can choose to incorporate some of these elements into one’s own musical expression.  So, try and check out something a little outside of your norm and see what happens!  

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Recently I was with a student, and during our lesson I was reminded of the importance of being aware of one's movements when drumming.  For those of you who are not familiar with the term "economy of motion" it simply refers to the practice of not using unnecessary movements or expending unnecessary energy but instead eliminating wasted motion in order to work more effectively.  This is one of those concepts that you can work on for a lifetime.  I was reminded of how little thought I have given my flailing and spazzing on the drums these past few months.

There are many circumstances that play into how economical we are with our movements, in addition to the attention (or lack of attention) that we give to our physicality behind the kit.  First and foremost, take a good look at your set up and really evaluate the position of things.  Are there cymbals or drums that you are really stretching for or hunching over to reach effectively?  Are your pedals arranged in a way that stresses your legs, pelvis, or core?  Is your seat height causing you to hunch over or hyper-extend? (By the way, seat height is a huge can of worms that I want to write about on it's own eventually.)  It seems that if we address the kit first, then we can really hone in on the motion we use to get around on it.  If you decide to make adjustments, the thing to keep in mind is that you should be able to achieve the desired sounds just as well or better while wasting less energy.

Again, tweaking one's set-up is a lifelong endeavor that will evolve as you evolve as a musician.  Once you feel your set up is close to where you want it, bust out a full length mirror.  Spend a few woodshed sessions with the mirror to your left, paying close attention to your posture and what kind of movements you are making to reach the items on your left.  Are you twisting funny to reach a crash?  Are you hunching to get to your hi hats or is your leg stretched too far out to comfortably control your pedal?  If your not sure, experiment a little with moving things around to see how it feels.  When you are satisfied, Move the mirror in front of your kit, and eventually to the right and tweak as you go.

To me, this next part is huge.  Are you playing things in a way that most economizes your motion, or is there a different sticking or approach that you can use to save energy.  Even if a downbeat is most comfortable being played by your dominant hand, are you able to use your weak hand to execute it if it requires less motion?  More simply, if the desired crash is on your left and you are coming off of a big fill to the right, can you crash on the downbeat with your left in order to not cross over?  I know that sounds very elementary, but it can make a big difference in maintaining the desired groove or feel, if you can do this easily and not have to think about it.  Economy of motion is best achieved when one works towards strengthening the weak hand (and leg) to do the same things that one's dominant hand can do, and in turn each "zone" of the kit can be reached effectively at any time.  Easier said than done... I know.  Again this is a lifelong endeavor that I am essentially typing to myself right now.

Anyhow, I think this is good food for thought.  I know that it is something that was stressed to me early on by teachers, and I have had stints of paying close attention, and long stretches of not giving any of this a thought at all.  At any level, it is a good idea to check in and make sure that we haven't strayed too far from being thoughtful, purposeful and sure with our movements when playing.  Now, I have to go and find a full length mirror...    


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Give a Little, Get a Ton Back!

I had a huge revelation the other day.  I LOVE teaching.  As much as people say that teaching is a great way to enrich others' lives in our community, I have to say that it feels a bit selfish, because I love it so much and it gives ME such great joy.  Not only that, but the more I teach, the more I learn about drumming and the more I learn to be a better teacher.

It's not that I simply love the subject matter... that goes without saying.  We all know that I can talk drums and music 'til the cows come home.  It's not that I simply love my students and their families, and I do.  It's more than that...

I'll give you a great example.  One of my beloved students had a birthday this past week.  I went to his 9th birthday party and was delighted when he wanted to entertain his friends by playing a few songs for them on drums.  He preceded to blast through the Beatles catalog, eyes closed, head bopping, and drumsticks blazing.  I couldn't have been happier.  HE couldn't have been happier.  And he, his parents, and I all shared an enormous sense of pride in his accomplishment.  I remember two years ago when we were just starting and it was a challenge just to stay focused on drums for a whole lesson and now look at him!!!

Here's another recent example.  I have yet another student who has decided to try for jazz band at school next year.  I was surprised because he is usually interested in learning pretty heavy rock tunes and concepts, so I wasn't sure how much he would embrace the jazz approach.  Well, we got started on some jazz grooves and concepts and I have never seen him so dedicated and determined to nail his assignments!  He has been blasting through the material with more speed and success than I was able to as a college student.  He has discovered a style of music that is a whole new world to him and grabbed the bull by the horns!  He may not even yet realize the musical doors and opportunities that will open for him or the skills that he is gaining now that he has begun to explore another genre, but I do.

It's amazing to me how satisfying it is to see a student succeed.  When I say succeed, I mean that on many levels.  To see a student realize that reading notation is not quite as cryptic as it once seemed, to hear a student play that first drum beat that puts all of their coordination and concentration to the test, to go to a student's first gig, or to just see them smile proudly when they have grasped a concept that was completely foreign to them just minutes before, it is enormously gratifying.

Is there something that you love to do?  Do you play an instrument, work on cars, paint with watercolors, play golf or love to garden?  If there is something you love to do and it gives you great satisfaction to explore it, than consider teaching someone else that skill.  You don't even have to be a master or virtuoso at it.  I have been corrected by students before who have caught my notation mistakes, and it really boosts their confidence!  And, by sharing your passion you can open a door of exploration for someone. You may ignite someone's creativity in a way they have never experienced.  It will only give you a greater passion for your art.  You will give the gift of knowledge, forge a new or deeper relationship with someone, and feel a sense of pride that you have never felt before.  Rock on!    

Monday, April 18, 2011

Spring Has Sprung

What's up, everybody?  Every year it seems like winter is rolling along and then one morning I wake up and "boom" it's Spring.  It's like all of the flowers and trees and grass have a secret meeting and decide to bloom and grow the next day.  What was kind of dried up and brown on Friday night is magically full, green, lush and blossoming on Saturday morning and we are firmly and officially enjoying Spring.  The bees wake up and buzz around happily and the birds chirp their songs well into the night.

Anyhow, it seems like musically, I go through the same kind of thing.  Or, at least feels like my perspective towards drumming kind of has a similar cycle.  It seems like sometimes I go through a dry season of going through the motions.   I will try to really write drum parts that serve the music, but maybe the parts lack that little "something" that makes me feel excited about the part.  Or maybe in rehearsals I just lack that energy that sparks killer ideas... for seemingly no reason.  It's just, I don't know.... uninspired.  The thing is, it's not like during those times I am isolating myself from the things that normally inspire me.  I am still checking out new bands and reading piles of my favorite drum publications and watching drum videos.  But, those things don't seem to translate into inspiration in the practice room.

Then, suddenly, I will wake up one morning bursting with new ideas.  I literally can't wait to get behind the drum set to work out a new groove or concept or whatever that's been marinating in my brain.  Or maybe I am antsy all day in anticipation for rehearsal that night to play a batch of new songs with my new fresh perspective that has seemed to blossom overnight for no apparent reason.

I think, on some level, all artists go through this cycle.  We have spells of kinda "doing what we do"  and then we come out on the other end raring to go and ready to "kill it".  I think that the more we grow as musicians and the more experience we gain, the better we become at gracefully fulfilling our respective rolls and responsibilities within the music, regardless of the struggles we may be having with our own creativity.

It's funny.  I think we have all had those shows where we play all of our parts right and there are no major train wrecks, but something about it just felt dry.  Then someone after the show comes up to you and tells you how much they enjoyed your playing and you think to yourself "Man, I wish they had seen the show LAST week... now THAT was a great show".  It's a matter of perspective.  We never know what may inspire someone else even if we are not feeling it that particular night.  The important thing is to play that show with just as much integrity and to know that "this too shall pass".  Spring will come.          

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Very First Bloggy Blog.

Hey, Everybody.  Wow, look at me blogging and stuff.  Well, I guess this will get easier the more I do it, but right now it's not so much...

I guess the biggest news right now is that Many Birthdays will be heading to Phoenix and then Vegas for the Neon Reverb festival in a few weeks.  We are gonna play with my little bro's band Covela in Phoenix at Club Red (Sept 17th) and then at Beauty Bar in Vegas for the festival (Sept 18th).  John just bought a sweet touring machine in the shape of a 15 passenger van... yeah, word... touring in style.  

Last month, Many Birthdays wrote and performed a live score to the silent film "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.  It was rad.  We had the pleasure of collaborating with violinist, Julie Wang and multi-instrumentalist, Erik Bulke.  We played to a sold out theater and it seems we will be invited back for an encore performance after the new year.  I will post the date, time, and location as soon as we know. 

Let's see.  Saturday's Radar is making progress with the full length and I think a handful of tunes have gone to Jim at Mob House for mixing.  I am looking forward to hearing the tracks,  because those guys have been tracking individually since the drums were done back in March.  We will be playing at the Highball next month; date and time TBA.

Spellcaster is my newest project with Greg Rhoades on bass and Jade Day on vocals and guitar.  We are going to add some Moog soon, which should be cool.  We did a VERY loose, rough recording to use as a demo; and when I say loose, I am not kidding.  We literally banged out seven tunes in an afternoon in G.R.'s music room with mics hanging from the ceiling fan.  But, let me tell you... those guys are killer and I can't wait to play more shows.  It's looking like we will be playing a show late September, but I can't remember if it is at Hole in the Wall or Scoot Inn.  More on that later.

Electronic Planet Ensemble has begun writing their next offering  for winter 2011.  They are a secretive bunch, so I will not divulge much information... I have a feeling this show will be a bit of a departure, though. As always, I am excited to see what those guys are cooking up and stoked to have the opportunity to stretch out a little creatively with the electronics.

Finally, Mercury Room has been plugging right along.  I am looking forward to the school year beginning and really digging in to some challenging material with my students.  Many of my students are concentrating on particular songs or drummers right now in order to really dial in their own stylistic leanings. I love it!  I am hoping to really fill my roster for fall, so if you or someone you know is interested in drum lessons, shoot me a line!

I think I would like to start blogging more about drumming concepts, approach, and ideas eventually but it may take me a while to gather my thoughts!  Thanks for reading.

-rachel the drummer