Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Drumming - A Perspective

I sense that the art of drumming is in dire straits these days. For the benefit of my rhythmically-minded brothers & sisters, let me expound.

I once saw an interview with Peter Erskine that elucidated something I had been feeling for a long time but had previously been unable to a put a finger on. Erskine is a master of the jazz arts and has been able to craft a more-than-30-year career for himself from behind the drumset. What he said was something along the lines of, "We drummers spend far too much time playing for other drummers and ignoring the rest of the audience." Boom. There it was.

The Queen's Hall / / CC BY-NC-ND
If you've paid any amount of attention at all to this blog, you're probably aware that I find the current state of music to be precarious, at best. We, as a culture, are in danger of losing the art of music to those that would use it as nothing more than a tool in their unyielding pursuit of commercial success. Thus, we have come to live in a time where songs are focus-grouped as if they were political candidates running for an office of Time On The Airwaves, and radio DJ's are nothing more than push-button automatons, serving at the beck and call of their rank-and-file station managers. It is an inelegant time for music, to be sure.

But, alas, new mediums and means of distribution have arisen that are allowing more people to get their hands on more music than ever before. Radio is not the almighty gatekeeper to musical success that it used to be, and this is a good thing. But, alas, the new mediums have also served to shine a light on a what I perceive to be a distressing trend in my particular neck of the musical woods: the percussive arts.

YouTube has become flush with drum videos - clips of drummers performing their own renditions of previously recorded songs. Typically, the original song plays while the drummer simultaneously performs over the top of it, and the drummer and his performance are the front and center of the video's focus. At first, I thought this was a pretty cool way to illustrate pop music's sedentary approach to the drums - players like Cobus Potgieter showed people all over the world what was possible within pop and rock music when it comes to drumming and not just what was typical. (What is typical is the mind-numbingly boring approach most producers and artists have taken to the drum parts in their music - fake, computerized beats reminiscent of dance club electronica.)

So, at first, I thought this whole thing might be a cool way to make listeners aware of what they were missing out on and how much better music could be if we decided to put in the effort. However, I began to notice an unseemly trend - most of the drum videos themselves were becoming  pretty amusical. That is to say, most of what these players were performing would never fly on an actual gig. The videos began to become chock full of licks and flash, but not a whole lot resembling musical drumming. But, I realized, isn't this what the nature of the videos all-but-demanded? Doesn't a drummer have to overplay in order to keep a 3-and-a-half minute video interesting for anyone who might be watching?

The reality of the drumming situation is this - 95% (if not more) of what we play when we're playing musically is simple, groove-driven stuff. It's not uninteresting, it's just simple - subtle, smooth, tasty. We keep the beat and make the music feel good. We lay a foundation for the other members of the band to perform on top of and give the audience something to dance or clap along with. Yes, of course, there are opportunities for flash and whiz-bang, but I liken it to a metaphor about film directors: would you rather be Steven Spielberg, a master storyteller who summons the special effects when the movie calls for them (and then proceeds to execute them perfectly), or Michael Bay, a guy who cares little for the fundamental elements of moviemaking such as dialogue, plot, or character development, but will guarantee that a whole bunch of stuff is going to get blown to computer-generated oblivion. The choice, ultimately, is yours.

My suspicion is that most drummers these days are choosing the latter route. The internet is packed full of videos and instruction and how to play this or that lick, but precious little on things like how to establish a great-feeling groove or how to improve your dynamics. Vinnie Colaiuta, a drumming master if ever there was one, told Modern Drummer magazine that the reason he doesn't do clinic tours anymore is that all that the kids coming to the clinics want to see is a demonstration of lick after lick after lick; he's become frustrated with being unable to communicate music to people - all anyone wants to learn is the flashy stuff. It is my fear that the world of musical drumming is falling by the wayside as more and more players pursue their own dreams of  becoming a drum god rather than doing what's right for the music 100% of the time.

Now, don't get me wrong - musicians all desire to be recognized for our efforts and they all like to blow people away from time to time. Drummers are no different. But forcing the issue is another problem entirely. Consider this: great art, music or otherwise, is at least two things: firstly, it's communication, and if you're trying to communicate with someone, you need to speak in a language that both of you understand. Talking over someone's head just because you can is going to get you nowhere fast.

Second, great art is both emotional and intellectual. It hits you in the head and the heart. If, as a drummer, all I do is play lick after lick in an effort to make your jaw hit the floor, I might succeed. But, odds are, I won't move you. I'll never make you feel anything. You'll just sit there and say, "Wow, that was amazing. Now, what?" Consider the aforementioned Colaiuta and the drum part he played on Sting's Fields Of Gold. It was one of the simplest drum grooves ever recorded and yet the song is largely considered one of the most beautiful love songs in history. Conversely, listen to the music the so-called drum gods play when they want to demonstrate their crazy abilities: most of it sucks. People might listen to it once or twice (if they themselves happen to be a drummer), but then they would relegate to the back of the CD shelf and pull out something that speaks to their heart as well as their mind. People want to be impressed, it's true. But, they also want to be moved.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if we drummers wish to have a coherent and meaningful voice in the music world (and not just get paid to play what some computer laid down on a track), we need to seriously consider how we approach our instrument. What's more important to us - being known as great drummers or as great musicians? Are we more interested in making great art or making the cover of Modern Drummer? Are we more interested in making people go, "Wow..." or making music that they'll still want to listen to 20 years from now? Do we play to impress the other drummers in the audience or everyone in the audience? If we cede the territory gained by the all the masters who have gone before us, we will relegate ourselves and our art form to little niches and corners of the musical world where even fewer people care about the depth of our technicality.

So, to my fellow drumming brethren, I say: don't make it easy on the producers to plug in their dumb computers in order to record simple drum parts. Go convince them that simple is better when a person does it, and play it well. Play it real. Play it human. Play it musically. Leave the whiz-bang and the flashy stuff for the drum solo. It'll be happier there, anyway.

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