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Precision AND Lyricism

Lately I find myself working in two musical modes: Lyrical and Precise.

What I mean by that is I’m usually focused on the phrasing and shaping of material, with a sense for pulse and pacing but without aligning to a metronome, OR I’m “cleaning” to subdivisions and/or executing mechanical motions, and total precision is the goal.

The more time I spend back and forth this way, the more I realize how many styles of music have these elements, to the point where I can list basically anything and see how it emphasizes one or the other.

Examples:

Stevens’ Technique vs Repetoire:  What a can of worms this is.  I spent some time studying with Leigh Stevens in 2005, and he consistently expressed concern that people take his book and make it a goal unto itself, rather than learn to play music with his toolkit.  Many people I’ve worked with have identified young players who end up playing very rigidly and without musical direction and sometimes blame Leigh for it. I will make the statement that it is BECAUSE of their overemphasis on the PRECISION element of Stevens technique that this happens.  They’re missing half the point.

My personal example (which is slightly embarrassing) was a real wake-up call for me. After I finished my Masters degree I was building a freelance career, but with no school to attend I had a lot of time on my hands.  I decided to play the complete tempo range of the Stevens’ and Bobo books… at least until my freelance work took off enough to fill that time with something more productive.

About a year later I was roughly 75% of the way done, and my technique was PRECISE.  I mean crazy.

Then I picked up the Zivkovic Funny Marimba book 1 and took a shot at a few pieces. Zivkovic is perhaps the most lyrical of any marimba composer, and transfers that approach brilliantly to the instrument.  I hadn’t played any rep in that year since grad school, since no one was paying me for it.

I couldn’t. play. anything… at all.

As soon as I started singing phrases to myself I found my hands were too locked up and my technique was resisting me instead of serving me. Scary.

That day I resolved to stop doing any technical practice and instead spent all my time learning that Zivkovic book.  It became by warmups, exercises and scratch pad for tone, phrasing and lyricism for the next 2 years.

Today I have a blended approach between the two sides.  I have access to very precise technique and continue to develop my capacity there, but I ALWAYS balance my mechanics with some lyrical development and un-structured phrasing time.

Jazz: Now I’m a rhythm section player, so take that for what it is, but I find this element of Lyricism and Precision to be highly relevant in any “band” situation.

On the one hand, if you’re playing rhythm backups or section wind parts with lots of articulations, precision is utterly necessary.  I think of the “Essentially Ellington” program and how it aims to teach that style to students.

On the other hand, when soloing as a feature or improvising, there is an expectation that a quality performer is able to get “out” of the rigid structure and be more expressive.

Each has its place.  It’s not WHICH one to do, but WHEN.

Afro-centric Folkloric Music:  Whether its Cuban, Brazilian, Argentine, West-African or something else, all the music which has African roots employs a very high level of precision in rhythm, BUT also an awesomely lyrical sense of “swing” and unevenness in the subdivision.

It’s incredible to listen to an ensemble which is so uniformly “out” on a piece, and then hear them be just as uniformly “out” but in a different way on the next piece.  The studio bands in Brazil that record the Carnaval Samba Enredo records each year are one example.  Los Munequitos de Matanzas from Cuba are another.  Any great Malinke ensemble from Guinea/Mali does the same thing.

I hear great Jazz ensembles in the United States do this as well.  Listen to the very even triplet shuffle of any Basie recording and then jump to an Art Blakey album to hear how tight to next beat it can get, and how that changes the energy of the groove.

Precision in the ensemble, lyricism in the rhythm.  Very high level groove, very hard to achieve.

Marching Band: Again, can of worms.  Marching is a HIGHLY stylized activity: Marching is like walking… with a style, uniforms are like clothes… with a style, hand position with a style, posture with a style, etc etc etc.

There is a tendency for such a large, spread out ensemble to drift towards more precision than lyricism, especially when scores and competition dollars are involved. However, the players, writers and staff of many of these ensembles are all really good overall musicians, and expect more than pure precision from their groups.

Elements of lyricism in this environment are really valuable and stick out in strong contrast to the precision around them. Soloists “pop” and add an incredible impact when they are placed appropriately, whether they are visual or musical.  I know when I think of awesome moments in marching it’s almost always around those lyrical elements.

Rudimental Solos: Similar to marching band generally but deserving of special mention.  The solos of J.S. Pratt, for example, can be played flat, but the amount of dynamic motion written in makes them highly lyrical.  The accents in a given passage, as well, have a lyrical drive that is emphasized greatly by phrasing them as a melody, rather than a series of executions.

I select rudimental solos on their ability to combine the precision associated with the activity with a sense of lyricism, because it’s about BOTH elements and WHEN they are most effective.

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I could go on, but this is enough variety to make the point.  Precision is a great and noble goal, and a critical element in many areas of music, but balancing it with lyricism is the highest goal, giving each its place to achieve the best results.

DIY Marching Bass Drum Practice Pads

For a few years now I’ve been pondering a way to teach large numbers of students good Marching Bass technique without large numbers of Marching Bass Drums.  I would also like this to cost less than $500 dollars.  And be quiet so I can talk while we play.  And if the students could see their hands and be more accountable to playing areas that would be great too.

Easy, right?

There is no commercial solution to this list of demands, so I started solving it myself. What follows is the current attempt, with pictures!

For the overall design, I decided to use some cheap, bulk mouse pads for the playing surface.  All my dimensions are based off of that, and depending on what you might use, yours will vary.  The critical dimensions are as follows:

Head to head = 14″ That means (pad thickness x2)+(Bottom board length)+(lap joint thickness x2)=14″  Since the pad thickness is set and the lap joints can be predetermined, the part you adjust is the length of the bottom board.

Playing Surface Dimensions = Pad+0.2cm  In my case I used contact cement, and didn’t plan to be perfect so this was a good margin of error.

Support Pole = Bottom Board Length  This was just easier than remembering different numbers.  The pole is sunk into the sides the same depth as the lap joint.

Here are some materials I used.  1″ Poplar Dowels, 3/4″ Birch ply-wood, 1/2″ threaded pipes /w floor flanges, bolts for the flanges, screws for the dowels, air nails and wood glue all over.

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I used a router table to cut the lap joints, and a drill press with a forstner bit for the dowel holes.  I would rather have done the joints with a stack dado blade on a table saw, but didn’t have that option the day I did the cuts.   The forstner bit is perfect for attaching the dowels because the dimple gives you the center of the dowel for securing the screw.

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You can drill all the pieces quickly after measuring the first one by clamping a piece of wood to the table.  This ensures all the post holes will be consistent.  Placing this hole is the hardest part of the whole project, so only having to do it right once is a big time saver.

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I used a chop saw for the poles.  Like the dowel hole, just set the right length on the first one and clamp a piece of wood as shown on the left for the rest.  You can chop through the rest in about a minute without needing to remeasure.

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For assembly, lay the wood pieces out, then glue and press everything all together.  It takes two people to really get it lined up.  To set the dowel right, drill down into the dimple of the drill press hole, then set the dowel in place and drill into it from the other side of the hole you just made.  Now the dowel is aligned and pre-drilled for a screw. After everything is glued, use bar clamps for pressure, squares to make sure it’s all aligned, and THEN nail the pieces and screw in the dowel.

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I used a simple polyurethane coat to protect the wood.  It took a few hours to coat ten units two times each and let them dry.  After that I attached the floor flanges with bolts and lock washers.

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The scariest part for me was putting on the pads.  I used contact cement, which is basically a “no mistakes” process.  It paints on wet, curls the mousepads, then they flatten as they dry.  Contact cement only sticks to other contact cement and only when it’s dry, so it’s easy to handle, but you only get once chance to do it right.  I used three drumsticks to keep the pad off the wood.  I lined up the first edge, smoothed the pad on a little, and pulled the sticks out one at a time, smoothing as I went.  I did twenty surfaces in about 1.5 hours with no mistakes and no rushing.

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After they finished drying I twisted on the pipes and used some simple Yamaha and Gibraltar drum set add-on clamps to attach them to old stand bases.  Unfortunately the pipes and flanges that are easily obtained at big hardware retailers won’t fit IN most cymbal stands, so clamping was necessary.

In the end the whole project cost about $325… which is over $500 less than buying the closest thing that’s out there.  My students immediately reported an improved sense of playing areas and hand position, and love being able to see how big they were playing.  I’m planning to use the pads for years to come, and think it will be a game-changer in developing new Bass Drummers.

If you’ve made something like this or have ideas about how to improve on my design I’d love to hear about it!

Carrots, Eggs, and Coffee

I was recently reading two books by my favorite leadership guru, Dr. John C. Maxwell.  The books were, “How High Will You Climb?” and “Sometimes you Win, Sometimes you Learn“.  In one of those books there was a story about two people talking about adversity in their kitchen.  I’ll paraphrase:

They put on three pots of water and starting them boiling.  The boiling water is adversity.

Into one pot they put carrots, the next eggs, the next some coffee grounds.  After talking for a few minutes they took these things out of the water to see how adversity affected them.

The carrots had lost their crunch and gone soft.  They fell apart when squeezed.

The eggs had turned hard.  The outer shell cracked under pressure and became sharp and spiky.

The coffee changed the water around it into a delicious and energizing drink.

People are the same way in adversity.  Some go soft and are easily squished, others become hard and spiky towards others.  But some embrace their circumstances and change them into something better.

I must confess I am an egg more often than I am coffee, but reading Dr. Maxwell’s thoughts is causing me to pause and evaluate my responses to adversity this week.

Technique: Alignment and Capacity

I’m introducing a lot of technique to students right now, especially 4-mallet Stevens Technique and Marching Percussion.  I find that students can either get through this initial period and on to music making very quickly, or can get hamstrung and struggle along for months without much measurable progress.

The difference in most cases, is understanding the interaction of Alignment and Capacity.

Alignment is getting the mechanics lined up efficiently.  Because everyone is built a little differently, this is an individual exploration.  As a teacher, I emphasize how it “could” feel, rather than how it “should”, and look to remove things that are almost certainly NOT working, as way of aiming their self-discovery.

Capacity is the physical strength developed through repetition.  It is also the sensitivity to how something feels physically.

These two things feed on each other.  The better aligned technique is, the more targeted the muscle and sensitivity development is.  The more strength and sensitivity there is in the system, the faster new discoveries can be made, and the longer practice sessions can last.

To discuss Alignment, I talk with my students about “Monkeys and Coffee Cups”, a study of chimpanzees I read about a while back that mapped brain activity and physical regions of the hand in relation to a sensor object shaped like a coffee mug. The control group was given the “mugs” and tested, but the other group was given objects identical to the sensor “mugs” to play with for a month before testing.  The chimps with a month to experience and manipulate the objects displayed 30x as many discrete regions in the hands.

I teach a lot of runners and swimmers, so an easy analogy for them on Capacity is to run or swim with boots on.  The way you have to move in boots develops all the wrong muscles and movements, and the results will be less than optimal.

In my own high school experience, when I first learned traditional grip, we played the timeless classic,”8-16″ for upwards of an hour at a time.  Within a few minutes I was blistering up and miserable, like so many first-timers are, and in the first week I found a LOT of different ways to hold the stick so I could preserve what little was left of my skin.  Between that manipulation within the motion and the repetition, I quickly developed a very effective approach to playing, which I used to build the rest of my rudimental skills.

Bottom line:  Play every day that you can, and focus on improving HOW you do it.  Every day is more important than lots of hours on occasion, because the consistency is what improves strength and sensitivity.  Doing it better each time is more important than doing it a lot, because the small improvements in alignment and execution will pay off bigger over the weeks and months.

If you constantly improve your Alignment, and consistently develop your Capacity, you will succeed in developing an excellent technique.  Many people can advise you, but in the end, it is your personal journey to understand and use your own body that will bring you the most success.  Embrace yourself and your journey!

Are You The Keymaster?

A few months ago I started the “Rudiment Champion” challenge with my students. It only took about a week to realize a keyboard version was needed as well.  I decided quickly on the name “Keymaster” because we’ve gotten into the habit in my program of referring to keyboard instruments and their players as “Keys”… also I love the original Ghostbusters movie :)

The Keymaster challenge has four levels.  Each level has a collection of related skills, all using 2-mallet technique.  It is my personal opinion that players are forced into the excessively technical world of 4-mallet techniques much too early, and generally long before they master the basic musical elements of their instrument. The Keymaster challenge, therefore, is a concise approach to mastering as many skills and fundamentals as possible before beginning more technically advanced studies.

Level 1: “Artist Scales”

Worksheet

I learned “Artist Scales” from Leigh Howard Stevens in 2005.  They are a reaction against the kinds of scales typically played in band class, which are tailored for wind players.  The challenge is to complete all 12 major scales in under three minutes following the rules on the worksheet.

Most students take between 25-30 minutes on their first attempt.  As each technical or musical issue is mastered, times come down 3-5 minutes at a time, sometimes faster.  It generally takes between 8-12 weeks to complete with weekly testing and correction.  This is the single most valuable lesson I ever teach, because it makes students so completely accountable for results, and covers an enormous range of developmental areas: musical, technical and psychological.

Level 2: Scale Patterns

Worksheet

Scale patterns are about exactly one thing: breaking up the straight line from left to right to left mastered in “Artist Scales”, which results in mastery of the visual layout of the keyboard.

Students generally start on Scale Patterns before finishing “Artist Scales”, because the skills overlap somewhat.  Students who complete “Artist Scales” in three minutes will frequently come back after 4-5 weeks of Scale Patterns and play “Artist Scales” in under two minutes on the first attempt.  This is because the patterns force generalization of key layouts for each scale, which helps the brain to group and process information dramatically faster.

This skill is fundamental to sight reading, memorization, rapid learning, and improvisation, and underlies every other skill by speeding up the ability to see and create on the instrument.

Level 3: Ideo-Kinetics

Worksheet

Gordon Stout is a famous player and teacher, and the head of percussion at Ithaca College.  He is known as one of the few marimbists who plays from music with page turners in concert.  When asked about it he once replied, “By the time I’ve read a piece down 3 or 4 times I play it almost as well as I ever will.  In the amount of time it would take me to memorize it, I could learn 8-10 more pieces.”  His system and accompanying book?  Ideo-Kinetics.

I have six very basic exercises to begin the study of Ideo-Kinetics.  Stout’s book has dozens, but the principle is very simple:  Know where the notes are by FEEL, not by SIGHT.  The marimba is one of the only pitched instruments in the whole world that the player does not touch before playing.  Even a pianist can touch the keys lightly before playing them.  For us, touching IS playing.  This system of finding notes accurately and consistency while essentially blind is fundamental to any level of playing beyond the most basic.

Level 4: Octave Scale Patterns

Worksheet

Using the material from Level 2, this final level tackles the challenges of:

  1. Not being able to see both notes at the same time
  2. Adjusting the distance of an octave as the bars get wider or narrower

Octaves are incredibly common in both 2- and 4-mallet playing.  The secret is to apply pattern visualization and Ideo-Kinetics together, making it possible to simply add an octave to anything you can play.  Easier said than done.

A Level 4 Keymaster is a person with a very highly tuned and tested understanding of tone production, line, groupings, body placement, and note accuracy, and has killer 2-mallet chops as well.  Beginning 4-mallet technique with a player at this level is no longer about learning an instrument with four sticks in your hand, it’s about applying a new technique to a familiar instrument, and reaching for the same level of mastery from day one.

I know which position I’d rather be in.

Awesome Article on How to Practice

I just finished reading “Practice, Made Perfect?” in the sports section of this week’s TIME magazine.

Once again, something I’ve been doing in isolation by accident turns up in an article and goes from a specific success to a general principle.  It’s a good day :)

There was a time, not long ago, when it seemed like I was auditioning for everything all the time, and almost always winning.  The secret to my sudden and unexpected success was what I called “rotation”.  The idea was simple:  Set up every piece on the audition in a circle, and walk around the circle, playing each piece once.  When you get to 5 times around playing everything exactly how you want it, turn around and go the other direction.  When you get that, tear the whole thing down, set it up in a different order and do it again.  And again, and again, and again.

I usually took me about 100 hours to feel like I could nail an audition hanging upside down in my sleep underwater, which is what I was going for.  My specific ability to play the audition became a general ability to play anything in my active repertoire exactly like I wanted, on demand, over and over and over.

These days I’m not auditioning for things very often, but I’m using “rotation” to prepare chamber music, recitals, orchestra parts, and to develop my student’s practice habits, all to great effect.  I’ve never been so efficient with my time, or had such retention in my life.  I’m not anywhere near the article’s “10,000 hours” with this method, but I’m seeing results I never dreamed of even 5 years ago.

Some Drumming Basics

Not long ago I started a challenge for some of my students called the “Rudiment Champion”.  Basically, it’s a list of rudiments and drumming concepts, each played for one minute continuously to prove you have consistency and endurance.  It’s actually pretty hard to do.

I sequenced rudiments/concepts in a logical developmental order, drawing on ideas from, among other things, Bill Bachman’s new book, Stick Technique, which everyone should own a copy of.  I grouped forty different things into four levels, ten per level.  After many iterations I landed on something I thought was pretty good.

My assumption was that most people would quit after Level 1, because it’s pretty hard, time-consuming, and gets you into territory that is less and less applicable outside of marching.  The challenge, therefore, was to pack Level 1 full of the most fundamentally valuable stuff I could.

Here’s the Level 1 list:

  1. Long Roll
  2. 5-Stroke Roll
  3. 9-Stroke Roll
  4. 7-Stroke Roll (16th Base)
  5. 7-Stroke Roll (Triplet Base)
  6. Paradiddle
  7. Paradiddle-Diddle
  8. Tap-Accent no. 1 (Based on Flam-Accent no. 1)
  9. Tap-Drags
  10. Inverted Paradiddles (RLLR LRRL)

Upon reflection, I had to laugh at myself for starting with rolls, because so much time in my college rep classes was spent mocking early drum books for demanding that the open roll be mastered before introducing the quarter note.  I TOTALLY GET IT NOW.  The above list has no written component.  This is drumming as a spoken (played) language.  You get it by DOING it, preferably with others around you who already do it better than you do.  Reading and academically understanding notes is all well and good, but in the end, it’s about pronunciation and execution, and that cannot be learned without hours of repetition, trial, error, and correction.

After some time spent teaching this, I organized the basic concepts on tone production, sticking coordination, and mental focus into three pages, designed to get you through Level 1.  Here they are.

Rudimental Roll Builders

Tone Production and Stroke Types

Alternating Tap-Accent, Paradiddles, and Drags

There are a few exercises on here very minimally adapted from Bachman’s book and named after him.  Everyone should buy his book and get the full scope of what he’s doing, as it is incredible and what I have here is not representative.

In the past few years, my philosophy has become more inclusive, putting marching and concert ideas together in the same space.  These sheets reflect that, and allow me to focus not only on the mechanics of how to get up and down between notes, but also the tone produced on every note.  Indeed, mechanics and tone production inform and affect each other cyclically.

I’m by no means the only person doing this, and I’m always on the lookout for similar resources from people working and developing their ideas.  If you know of any, please share in the comments!

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