January, 2012

Developing Musical Instincts: Communication

This installment continues my ongoing series of blogs entitled: “Developing Musical Instincts.”  If you want to see what I’ve posted on this subject before, you can check out the first one here:  http://krusharmusik.com/developing-musical-instincts-phrasing/  and the second one here:  http://krusharmusik.com/developing-musical-instincts-internalizing-the-music/

Now the idea behind this type of series for me is a concept that I teach in all of my clinics and pass along to any student that comes my way.  It’s the concept that becoming a great musician should supercede anything else that “gets in the way” while on the journey of mastering your instrument.  What I mean by this can be summed up with this very simple 7 part formula (haha):  1) chops are great  2) chops are necessary (meaning you need to ascertain a certain level of proficiency)   3) chops can sometimes get you work  4) chops can get you a whole lot of Youtube views  5) chops rarely pay the bills  6) being a great musician will get you more gigs than being a “chop-heavy” technician  7) being a great musician and having amazing chops gets you A list session work and on the cover of Modern Drummer  :-)

OK, maybe not the best example, but you get my point…put the music first.  Always strive to bring about the best experience for not only the listener but everyone else on the bandstand or in the studio.  And hey, if along the way you can add a little “spice” then more power to you.  Just don’t be that guy/girl that sits in the practice room all the time, then does a gig and sounds like you’ve never played with anyone else in your life (because essentially you haven’t).

So where am I going with all of this?  Communication.  Music is a language.  You must learn the language and be able to “hold a conversation” with it.  This directly parallels some real-life cases of people’s personalities.  If someone is shy, they don’t talk much.  Sometimes not talking much is a good thing, sometimes not.  Sometimes something needs to be said.  Some people talk waayyyy too much.  They need to shut-up sometimes.  Some people are selfish when they talk; others are giving.  Some people talk too loudly while others are drowned out by outside noises.

Music is the same way.  There are times to play and times not to play.  There are times when someone isn’t even involved in the same conversation; they’re just doing their own thing and not adding anything to what’s really going on.  Some people don’t play the right thing or more importantly, the thing that is most needed.  Some musicians don’t know when to just support the music instead of trying to carry it on its shoulders.  Some musicians (and this one is especially for us drummers) just need to learn to breathe!  Breathe…that means give pause; take a break; let the moment rest.  I love how Steve Jordan explains it in his “The Groove is Here” DVD.  He said that he had an epiphany when he learned to play the timpani.  He had to learn to dampen the note when it had reached its duration.  In other words, there is a start and stopping point to a note.  A quarter note isn’t a whack of the stick to the head – it has value and duration.  If this concept is foreign to you, it should be currently blowing your mind and unveiling your own epiphany!!!  Also, if you haven’t seen the afore mentioned DVD go buy it now – it’s amazing!!!

You see, when you’re on the bandstand or in the studio, there’s always an unwritten, unspoken language that occurs.  No one acknowledges it, but everyone knows that it’s there.  Sometimes it’s expressed through body language and other times it’s the notes that come out.  No matter where it goes or where it comes from, every musician needs to keep their ears open and minds engaged in the language that is happening at that moment.  Remember when you’d doze off in class?  (or doze off reading someone’s blog?  haha!)  You can’t let your mind do that when you’re making music.  You have to be on task, ready for whatever is coming and eager to add something to the pot.

Usually as we mature as people, our vocabulary is expanded.  The same is true for our musical vocabulary.  It’s not a manual that you can read so that you’re ready to go for your next gig; it’s something that will happen over time as you play out and do more and more gigs.  It’s usually a very organic thing that’s often hard to describe.  It’s what makes people refer to novices as being “green” or, conversely, someone with a lot of experience as having “soul” for lack of better terms.  Of course there are exceptions to this in both senses  but generally speaking that’s often times how it comes across.  In fact it’s easy for a novice to get up to speed and learn the language.  For some “seasoned” musicians the old adage of ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is unfortunately sometimes true.  There’s nothing worse than somebody that should “know better!”

So how do you figure it out?  Be aware.  Listen.  Learn.  Observe.  Be open when you’re listening to other players.  Be a part of the conversation and don’t try to take over.  You can be loud when you’re asked to be as long as you’re quiet when you’re expected to be.  Be aware of eye contact and body language, but don’t solely rely on that as a determining factor of what’s going on.  Some guys have some ugly body language when they’re really, really, intensely into the music!  haha  It doesn’t mean that they’re not into it.  Above all, have fun and as always put the music first.  After all, if you’re putting the music first, all of these other esoteric factors should fall into place.

How do you communicate on the bandstand or in the studio?  Does all of this come naturally or do you have to think about it?

Percussion; doing it all!

Awhile back I wrote about the “dilemma” that we as percussionists sometimes face.  This dilemma involves trying to learn a multitude of instruments while at the same time trying to maintain a professional level of proficiency.  At times this is quite a tough task, indeed.  (Check out the link if you want to be more familiar with where I’m coming from:  http://krusharmusik.com/the-percussionists-dilemma-do-it-all-or-focus-on-one-strength/)

Well, I’m happy to report that recently, the positives of being a multi-faceted percussionist paid off for me.  I received a call in late October of 2011 with an offer to play percussion in a Christmas production in Pigeon Forge, TN (near Gatlinburg/Smoky Mountains).  This was an exciting variety show that included a 10 piece band, a cast of 14 singers/dancers, live nativity(including camels, sheep and a donkey!), and a laser show.  We played everything from Andy Williams tunes to a gospel version of “Joy to the World.”

The great thing for me was that although we did a whopping 80+ shows in two months, I didn’t get bored.  Part of it was the new friends and acquaintances that I met, and being surrounded by some great musicians.  However part of it was also that I kept myself busy and found new ways to challenge myself in each show.  Because we covered such a wide variety of music, I was able to incorporate a multitude of percussion instruments.  Also, one of my favorite parts was backing up the juggler/comedian by adding sound effects to his act.  Finally that slide whistle, vibra slap, and flex-a-tone that has been collecting dust had a purpose!!! haha

If you note the accompanying picture to this blog, you’ll see the set-up that I had on stage.  Here’s a list of most of what I was playing on stage:

Congas, Chimes, Bells, Xylophone, Shakers, Tambourines, Suspended Cymbals, Splash cymbal(s), China Cymbal, Assorted Sound Effects (everything from vibra-slap to a train whistle), Cow Bells, Wood Blocks, Triangle, Caixixi, Finger Cymbals, and of course; lots and lots of Sleigh Bells!!!

As you can see, in this condensed area was a multitude of instruments, each requiring its own individual and unique playing techniques and syles.  Now, when I received word about the show, keep in mind that there were no percussion charts.  The arranger had recorded some percussion on the work tracks, but nothing was set in stone.  This was great in one sense, meaning that I wasn’t necessarily confined to certain parameters.  I, in a sense, had a clean palette on which to place whatever I wanted, musically speaking.

The drawback?  Did I mention there were no charts?  There WERE a few tunes that had some specific mallet parts.  This is where that good ‘ole ear training class came into play…I basically had to sit down at a piano and pick out high bell parts and transcribe.  This was, to say the least, very challenging!!!  Thank goodness that I had a lovely assistant (miss Deanne Dickerman) helping me out since I had only a few days to learn 20+ tunes before the first rehearsal!

So as I stated, this is a “success” story for the argument that sometimes it is OK to try and “do it all!”  My previous blog suggested that sometimes being able to wear many hats is a good thing and it can help you get more work.  It also suggests that perhaps not focusing intensely on one thing can do more harm causing you to be ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’  In this case, it was worth it.  I was constantly switching back and forth from chimes to cymbals, to bells to mark tree; congas to xylo…you get the point.

It was also beneficial to keeping my sanity during such an intense run.  Literally every show was a challenge for me to try and add something new to the music.  Now keep in mind that you always, always want to keep the music first.  Nothing is worse than the “bored” musician who gets selfish and decides to goof around and sacrifice the integrity of the music just so he/she can keep themselves entertained.  Rather, I still tried to keep things in perspective and tried to add some subtle things here and there to try and add some musicality.  Sometimes it’s not even about adding more instruments – it can be subtle changes in how you are phrasing.  For example, there was a pretty cool bell part in “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”  At first the challenge was just memorizing the tough part and not mess it up!!!  After that though, I didn’t want to just be playing notes so I started experimenting with phrasing it differently; adding a crescendo or decrescendo here or there or maybe adding some harmony.  All of this caused me to hark back to the days of college when I learned all of the rudimentary techniques of mallets and how glad I was to have spent the time learning how to play correctly.

In today’s economy and at a time when the music industry is in so much flux, I really feel that it’s to everyone’s advantage to try and do as much as you can.  However, I implore everyone to keep in mind that becoming a great MUSICIAN always trumps being a great player.  More about that in a future blog… In the meantime; what are you doing to make yourself a viable, marketable commodity?  What is it that you feel you can bring to the table and get your name out there?