Playing drums: notes and movement

Last weekend we worked with our drum teacher on movement while playing the snare drum. Today I thought about the connection between notes and movement, and which one influences the other, in which music styles and in my practice.

Drumline
Drumline – source: marchingbands.wikia.com

I remember having paid attention to movement in itself only in my first year of drum lessons, because I started focusing on technical challenges in reading notes, learning new rhythms and learning to play various percussions. I stopped noticing when I was getting tired and cramped, when the movement was not calibrated well and therefore the notes came out of rhythm. My response was to try harder – cramping even more – and finally give up.

During Saturday’s lesson I understood that if a set of notes is not sounding right, or even is not properly timed, it is very likely that the movements are not correct. I thought about pieces that are written with the movement in mind, from which the notes come out – for example marching band music, especially the more spectacular pieces. I have in mind my beloved Downfall of Paris. Look at Tormod’s hands and arms first, then listen to the music:

This video shows the symetry of movements and is for me a feast for the eyes:

And look at the bass drum players’ movements, especially at the beginning:

The movement has a big influence on the sound itself, because the speed of the stick hitting the drum decides how it will rebound – a light stroke will muffle the note, a faster/stronger stroke will make the stick rebound and produce a cleaner note. The skill of a drummer is being able to guess the movements just by reading the notes, and practice so much that the movement does not need to be adjusted with conscious decisions (a bit like when driving cars). This is made easier in marching music, because the building blocks are not single notes, but basic patterns (the rudiments) that are learned until they become “movement units”.

I feel that I understood something big, that allows me to make progress by spotting myself what I can improve. As with horse riding, I will in any case benefit from “an eye on the ground” and will keep asking for expert advice, but I know I can do a fair amount of work on my own.

 

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Music weekend with my orchestra

Last weekend my orchestra had organised a three-day musical retreat, in order to practice before our main concert. We had a great time, that I enjoyed even more as I have recently started playing again, after a long musical break. I realised how much I missed my fellow musicians, the positive energy I get from our being together.

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Still nature with trombone (accidental composition)

The orchestra was divided in three groups: wind instruments (flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboe, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas) and percussions, each under the lead of a teacher. The percussion section was definitely the smaller and consisted of me, the first drummer and the teacher. We first looked through all the notes (we had notes for 5+ percussionists in some pieces, and had to select which ones to play), then we practiced the most difficult spots. I practiced on the castanets, that are very conveniently mounted on a wooden base, and are therefore way easier to play – there is even a knob to calibrate the opening of the shells:

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We solved our doubts on the notes in the first half of the day and dedicated the second half to posture and movement while playing the drums. It was a precious moment. We rarely have the time to take care of our posture, because we are busy following the notes; but this work is even more important, because it allows us to play for longer bouts without strain or even injuries. The exercises are on a musical sense extremely simple (for example slow quarter notes) just because the attention is elsewhere, needs to be elsewhere: on the wrists, arms, back, seat; on the speed and the similarity between the hands. It is a sort of yoga for drummers. You can read more on this topic on John Lamb’s blog.

After the practice in separate sections we had two sessions of rehearsals all together. The sound was way better than in our previous runs, thanks to the accurate work on each difficult spot! I am confident that we will have a great concert, because we have passed the point where we only read notes, and are now able to add expression to our parts.

On Saturday evening the conductor was ready to thank everyone and close the session, when the trombones asked to practice one spot once more, and the conductor was so surprised. I later thought about it, and why is it such a rare event. Maybe it is because conductors are used to whip the orchestra forward, as if the orchestra itself would otherwise not play. Therefore, at the end of the repetition the orchestra usually ends up more tired than expected. In this case, working separately allowed a better feedback between the musicians and the teacher, and probably a more appropriate workload; thanks to that, we were not as tired as usual, and wanted to continue playing. If I were the conductor, I would take it as a sign that I have allowed the orchestra to work in an efficient way, and moreover, that it is manifesting its own will to improve. I would find it wonderful, and I would do my best to replicate the conditions that lead to it.

I’m so looking forward for our Sundays concert! I feel so different from when I wrote about concerts, and am so glad I am feeling overall much better.

Playing music in the present

Like every Friday in these last two months, I have been wondering whether to come back to my orchestra. I have been taking a break since last Christmas.

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Rehearsals in the school’s theatre

They are a lovely bunch of people who have fun when playing music together. When I joined, they accepted me with open arms, and they were my first group of friends I made in Berlin. The conductor instead seemed (at least in particular moments, near important concerts) more focused on results and concerts. Most musicians managed to ignore or absorb his prompts and the atmosphere remained usually calm and pleasant.

However, as I sometimes play the drums (mostly replacing the first drummer, rarely on my own initiative), I felt more exposed, because the conductor only recently (realised?) told me how he needs the drummer’s role to be: he/she should be his closest musician, because most of the orchestra tends to listen to the drummer instead of paying attention to him directly. I find this a clever idea; but I don’t feel able to fill that position. My dearest memories with the orchestra are the ones when I am in a pleasant harmony with my fellow players, like a jazz ensemble, mumbling music together, listening to each other – and these moments were invariably interrupted by the conductor, who desperately wanted my focus back on him, in order to regain control over the speed and dynamics of the whole orchestra. I felt woken up from a dream, sometimes too rudely (well, anyone woken up from a dream would see it as rude, I suppose).

I thought about that a lot and finally realised that the role he needs is not the role I have in mind for myself, and my attempts to walk in his direction both exhausted me and were objectively unsuccesful. Therefore I said I needed a break and left for now six months.

What I love is to play music in the present. That means to play music with attention and concentration, becoming aware of notes, of details, of my fellow musicians. The time for the future is before and after the playing session – not during it! – it is the selection of pieces for an upcoming concert, and the careful comments after the repetitions. But without playing in the present, there is no music, there is only a lot of stress when you realise how uncertain is the piece – and after playing, you can’t see the things who went well, because they are initially hard to spot, so few in the middle of a lot of mistakes and uncertainty. Everyone could say that the piece is not ready; but it takes a careful ear to spot the little improvements, that are the minimal, crucial building foundations for further work.

If I were a more skilled drummer, or a cooler-headed horse, I wouldn’t have suffered that much under the strain. But repetitions were my time for drums practice, not for judgment. I felt sometimes that a repetition was in fact as stressful as a concert. I still fear that, therefore I think I’ll skip rehearsals one more time tonight.

 

Billy Cobham’s lesson at Drumeo

Yesterday I watched Billy Cobham’s lesson about the art of the rhythm section. I knew him only by name and I remember having bought drumsticks designed by him. I have to confess I was unsure if I would like the lesson, as he is so famous, and I am often disappointed by how famous musicians lose connection with their own creative source, with fellow musicians and with the audience.

This is not the case of Billy Cobham: I found him so open, so genuinely interested in preparing a good atmosphere for the musicians he plays with, conscious of the force and responsibility of the drums section; he compared playing in a group to a friendly conversation; he underlined the ability to keep an internal metronome and play only the notes that are really needed. He then played two pieces and an amazing solo. It was almost possible to follow his thoughts, and feel his joy in making music. See and listen yourself!

I am relieved that such a gentle personality is one of the leading voices in drumming. I am so afraid that the music scene will end being dominated by other forces than the human aspiration to get together and have real fun – people like Billy and many others like him, are my hope. Last but not least, thanks to Drumeo for sharing these amazing lessons for free!

 

On playing at concerts, part 2

 @ Bergamo, 83. Adunata Alpina

Last riding lesson was interesting, once more, as a mirror and sandbox for how I feel when playing music. In a former post I wrote about how I came to enjoy concerts less and less, and now I feel I made one small step in a direction I like.

Martina was letting me focus on my posture while Lozano walked slowly in the arena. I am getting better at following Lozano’s movements and interfere as less as possible with his rhythm. Martina and me discussed about how to sit comfortably at the trot. She explained to me that the horse has a marked bouncing movement of the back, that the rider should not block with his/her own body tension. In other words, if the rider sits with contracted legs and torso, the horse’s movement will make him/her bounce and fall over, and if not, will prevent the horse from moving correctly (the horse would then slow down or stop, as it interprets that stiffness as a request to slow down). This is fairly obvious for anyone who rode a horse at trot, or was astride any animal or vehicle which moved with a lot of energy.

The interesting part of the explanation came when considering other approaches to the trot. One could try to anticipate the horse’s movement, with the goal to make the same displacements. This is very tricky, because the horse rarely makes perfectly timed strides, and without stirrups it is especially difficult to create your own movement. Another idea is to follow the horse’s movement, with a relaxed body, with the legs alongside the horses’s flanks (not so relaxed that they bounce, but as much relaxed as possible). I tried it and I really felt my body’s movements lagging behind the horse’s, the horse almost shifting away from underneath me at each step; only gravity and friction were keeping me astride. (I had my hands on the handles of the vaulting surcingle for safety, not for actively holding myself on the horse.) Martina noticed my change in posture and we talked about it in detail. I managed to better understand how the rider follows the movement of the horse, while still being able to guide the horse – but with cues and intention, not with his/her own movements.

I brought to her a comparison with music, and drumming in particular. A very similar explanation has been given by Mark Kelso for Drumeo, in a longer lesson about playing with the metronome. He shows how to play exactly with the metronome, slightly ahead or slightly behind it (laying back):

The point Mark makes is that you should be aware of these three ways of playing, and you should be able to consciously switch between them. After this lesson, I could not tie myself to an exercise that does not help me strengthening my awareness, in any field. I had recognised the moments when I could play music “laying back”, but could not always recreate the conditions, or decide how to play with other musicians. That disappointed me very much, it made me feel powerless and clueless. Now that I got a rational explanation, that I can test at will, I am not fighting so eagerly anymore for perfect harmony at rehearsals or concerts – I know it is a fragile mixture and that it’s not necessarily my own fault if it does not happen.

I further talked with Martina about Feldenkrais riding practice in relation to competitive riding, and Feldenkrais-like music practice and meta-exercises in relation to concerts. We agreed that when the show is on, deep feelings are not so important anymore; they have been the focus of practice, and on stage rules another set of values. Of course people notice when there are flow and deep connections on stage; but it is usually not as important as other rules.

Finally I am OK with doing a half-hearted concert – or better, I know why I am not there with my full swing; instead of raging and biting, or worse, abandon the stage, I have seen a path that will take me to a higher awareness and the accompanying technical ability.

I am thankful to my guides, who picked up the way I learn, give me food for thought and appropriate learning supports; they are confident I can go forward on my own legs, they smile when I conquer a new height.

On movement and mind

Last Friday I attended two lessons, one at a local riding school, the other as usual at my orchestra’s rehearsal theatre.

The first lesson was my first Feldenkrais and riding lesson, with Martina Schumacher and one of her horses, Lozano. The lesson focused on the mind’s image of the body. According to usage and perceived importance, each limb and part of the body have a more or less detailed image in our mind. That is not inherently bad, but if the consequence is the uneven usage of force, or unbalance, then it makes sense to examine how the body is mapped in our mind, notice which parts could deserve more attention, and what can be done to to reach a better balance and self-awareness.

Martina guided Lozano around the arena with me in the saddle, while she guided my focus on the perception of various parts of my body, my balance, my overall feeling. Martina could not see me, as she was leading the horse; but could know if I experienced tension by noticing how Lozano increased his pace. There was a quiet and fluid understanding between the three of us, on different channels: me and Martina only speaking, Martina and Lozano by their long-time osmosis, me and Lozano by our movements. I was amazed at how Lozano decoded the smallest changements in my posture and tension, and manifested them clearly by walking faster or by relaxing his gait and body. That mirroring is hard to find among humans and other animals, as far as I know, so I am grateful that this horse gave me such clear feedback.

At the end of the lesson, Martina brought Lozano in the centre of the arena and we shortly talked about how I felt during the ride. In the meanwhile, Lozano bent his neck and touched my left foot with his nose. Maybe he wanted to draw my attention to my left side?

I dismounted and talked a bit more with Martina. I am amazed at the fact that I didn’t feel the need to address my unbalance and unevenness until, well, today. How did I survive for thirty years, doing apparently quite well? Our body is amazingly resilient.

With all this in mind, I came back home for a while and prepared my gear for my drum lesson. Not surprisingly, I am taking drum lessons (again, after ten years) with a special focus on movements and body awareness, not on technical achievements anymore (even if the distinction is fuzzy, for instruments such as drums where movement is key). I take fun and pride in mastering simple exercises that require special attention to a movement, a set of movements, coordination, control; playing loud or softly, playing exactly what I have in mind, in terms of timing and sound. I have the privilege to have a terrific teacher, who spots all little bends, tensions, hesitations; honest, gentle and helpful as a doctor.

I felt that that day I had one single long lesson, and I am eager to make progress further along these two converging paths.

Thought #3 on music practice

Let me share another small thought on my journey at the drumset.

Preparing drum rudiments infographic

I am following Drumeo’s blog with avid interest and am very glad to Jared and its team for the free lessons from so many different drummers. Today I picked a one-hour long lesson on a topic I was not especially interested in, but as my habit, I watched it anyway (with the same spirit that I taste new food and read books – how I can decide beforehand that they are not interesting?). I noticed myself moving the focus on the content of the lesson to the way the drummer-lecturer talked, played, answered questions. I had a great hour watching that man totally at ease, shining with calm happiness.

After that lesson I played a bit on my exercise pad, not very much, but I have been more focused on my movements than other days, especially while playing a special metronome exercise that lets the metronome play for two bars, then keeps it silent for two bars, then play again. The difficulty is to keep the time when the metronome is silent, and land on the first beat of the metronome when it starts again. I noticed that if I took care of keeping the amplitude of movements regular, I was also able to meet accurately the metronome when it came back. That was the key. There is little contribution from any mental skill, just a round movement, that I calibrate when the metronome ticks. Of course the difficulty of the exercise can pose a challenge, therefore practice on the movement is required. But yes! What a change of perspective. I wasn’t often told that the movement generates the time/speed of a piece – or maybe I wasn’t able to understand, at that time.

So my focus now is to get that fluency in my movements. It derives that other things are less important. Playing at concerts, for example. There will be more about that on a future post.