Thursday, May 17, 2012

Playing to recordings

Between writing grants, designing a course for next fall, and cleaning up my practice space, I'm afraid I haven't had much time to devote to the blog.

Fortunately, while I was paper diving, I found this brief piece I wrote on practicing to recordings.

As they say...I hope you dig it!

Playing to recordings
I’d like to briefly discuss playing along with recordings as a way to grow and improve as a drummer. Even though this can be a very pleasant part of practicing, when done properly it is not “fooling around’ and is indeed a essential part of practice. I will outline the benefits and principles of this sort of practice and some different variations in its application.

1. What does it feel like?
This is probably the most important benefit to playing with recordings. You can learn a drummer’s feel on a particular piece. Want to learn to play ahead of the beat? Play along with Tony Williams. Want to be able to play laid-back rock feels? Bonham’s your man! A metronome will tell you when you’re speeding up and slowing down (which is important in itself) but will not teach you how to convey certain emotions in the music. That’s why it’s very important to approximate as best you can the feel on the recording you’re playing to. If you’re playing along to Eddie Palmieri and you’re not playing ahead of the beat, you’re probably not playing the music correctly. I often would play along with recordings and not get so far behind or ahead as to turn the time around, but I also wasn’t playing the same feel as the recording. Some feels will be quite uncomfortable to you. Good! That’s means you’ll learn something!  This brings me to my next point….

2. The “how” is WAY more important than the “what”.
With simpler beats and drumming that tends to be more static, by all means learn exactly what the drummer on the recording did. For Jazz and other improvised musics, however, don’t feel you have to play exactly what the recorded drummer did. The drummer would play something different on the next take anyway. What you do ABSOLUTELY need to play is a) the same placement of the beat as the person on the recording i.e. ahead or behind the beat, b) the same mix of the drums and cymbals. What’s the loudest part of the kit? What’s the softest? and c) the way the drummer articulates the swing ride rhythm. Is it triplets (Elvin, Art Blakey at certain tempos), almost straight 8ths (Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Ben Riley) or dotted 8th 16th (Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams). Again some of these feels will be difficult to do but those will be the ones you learn the most from. This is also probably a good time to mention that we as drummers can get sucked in by the drummer on the recording. Don’t be tempted. Try to listen to all the musicians, especially the bass player, to stay with the feel of the recording.

3. Keep your rhythmic balance
With the notable exception of dance music and tunes from the 80s, a lot of the music you’ll play along to will have not been done to a click track. Even the best players in the world will have little (sometimes almost microscopic) dents and dips in the time. It’s part of being human. The challenge for us is to be able to account for the those little dips and dent in the time without getting out of sync with the recording. Believe me, keeping in sync with the recording is the most important part of this exercise. I often compare this to bike riding. To keep our balance, we will always be making some minute adjustments. We need to do the same thing when playing to recordings. If we play some slick thing and we’re not focused on the recording, we will get out of time with it and we will have failed.  If it’s complex or very implied time you’re playing along with, simplify! I often like to think of myself when playing to music (especially music I’m not yet very familiar with) as an active listener who happens to have sticks in his hands. Remember, the recording isn’t going to listen to you, so you really have to listen more than play sometimes. Ultimately, remember in this environment that the recording is more important than you.

I hope these concepts help you to learn and get as much knowledge from great drummers (some of whom aren’t even with us anymore) on recordings. Remember, a recording is like a great lesson you can get someone to demonstrate to you an infinite number of times, and they won’t get annoyed with you! Have fun.

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