Sometimes the best lessons that we learn are the simplest! “Just Play” was the first and probably most important real-world application that I ever received regarding the instrument. This is the first of an ongoing series of lessons on playing the steelpan, utilizing not exclusively exercises, but many other concepts on ultimately making you a better MUSICIAN!
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?
The ultimate step in becoming a professional musician (or just taking your musicianship to the next level) is getting out of the practice room and immersing yourself into the music. Although physical practice is essential, practicing your listening skills (exercising your ears) is sometimes the most vital element of your growth as a musician and is ultimately a goal in which we should strive for…