Here is an article I wrote for issue 2 of the drummers journal. You can download a copy of the whole journal here
Can developing your brain’s natural ability to recognise patterns help take your musical creativity to new places?
Music is, in essence, a formulation of sounds and patterns which are either pleasing or displeasing to the ear. These patterns, and the extent to which we find them agreeable, have been shaped and filtered by our own particular cultural memes for countless generations. Rhythmical patterns in particular, can not only pinpoint a certain style or musical movement, but form the contextual and historical backbone on which the music itself is supported. By pushing our pattern recognition skills in new directions and developing rhythmic ideas based on what we discover, we can generate new ideas which will help to spark the imaginations of our fellow musicians.
We tend to think of a drummer at the peak of their musical potential as someone who is technically well versed whilst being able to draw on creative and improvisational ideas. This manifests itself as an acquired instinct, allowing us to react on a momentary basis making creative and technical decisions on the fly. To be able to do so, a drummer has to develop a momentary awareness of their past, present, and future musical phrasing. The drummer is then aware that they are acknowledging a constant series of patterns; reacting in the present to what they have just heard or played in relation what they are expecting to play in the next instant. If we can develop an intuitive understanding of our cognitive processes whilst performing, then we can start to find ways to use these to fuel creative, and not habitual, playing.
Here are some suggestions:
Play With Your Eyes Closed
The idea here is that hearing beats without the visual cues may help to increase your level of concentration and increase your ability to focus on the feeling of playing and also on the immediate sounds. Your concentration takes on a different quality with closed eyes.
Play In Slow Motion
Pick a relatively complex pattern that you know you can play well and slow it down to around 30 or 40 bpm. This can be quite a challenge at first as it can be difficult to keep the style and feel of the groove at such a slow pace. The initial sensation of playing at a super slow speed also tends to lead you to fill in gaps that weren’t previously there.
What I hope you will notice is that when playing in slow motion and keeping the beat steady (as it is originally played) you have much more time to become mindful of what you have just played and what you are about to play. Notice how when sticking to the allotted pattern your mind fills with countless possibilities as alternatives to what you are intending to play. Try extending your set pattern from one bar (un-changing) to two, three, and four bar progressions.
Once you have mastered the ability to stick to the intended pattern while being more aware of the rhythmic qualities and possibilities of your playing, you could continue to improvise at a slow tempo. Here you will notice that your ideas are easier to edit and that you can play patterns that you perhaps wouldn’t think of playing at a faster rate. Once you have mastered a few new patterns speed them up again. I hope that at faster speeds you will begin to notice that your awareness of the patterns you play is more complete, allowing you to open up new possibilities from moment to moment.
Play and Think Backwards
Starting with a simple groove, think about how you would play it in reverse, i.e. starting on the last hit and ending on the first. Once you have thought this through go and play it on the kit. Don’t be tempted to work it out on paper first, just play it as you think it should go. Gradually increase your repertoire by building up to more complex patterns in reverse. Keep playing them over and over until they sound good, perhaps adding dynamics and accents into the mix. Don’t be tempted to play them forwards just yet. Once you have a beat or two rehearsed, write them out or record them if you can. The process of recording an idea can help to solidify it further.