Creative vs technical expression.

A while ago a non drummer friend of mine declared with regard to a well know drummer after attending a drum clinic that despite his obvious technical prowess and remarkable dedication to practice and concepts they would rather hear someone play musically than technically. When I asked him what he meant he went on to say that he considered the acquisition of “to much technique” on any instrument to be a killer of creativity. This sentiment has jammed its self in my subconscious and has started to make me wonder…

Is it possible to maintain a creative approach to drumming while continuously striving for better technical skill?

The simple answer is yes but before I move on to explain further here is a video of the sort of thing my friend witnessed. A highly technical drum solo by Thomas Lang.


[Thomas Lang clinic solo]

Drumming is such an immediate musical form that the very act of playing is a creative one and so even the most technical drummer is being creative. For example a drummer such as Terry Bozzio creates highly technical compositions. These conceptual performances are inspirational to many drummers. Mostly (in my opinion) because we realise how many ways there are to apply our skills and are inspired to try out the most appealing ideas involved in his performances.

I suspect my friend had picked up on the convoluted aspect which is apparent in the performance of many technical drum solos (especially at drum clinics) and dismissed them as a somehow non-musical form of drumming. However this is not always the case especially when the concept is one other than pure technical prowess.

[Terry Bozzio Clinic 2007]

Although it is true that drum playing at a clinic will tend to be highly complex and precise in its execution, the licks, rhythms, fills and concepts are all conceived in the clinicians head and so they are part of their creative output and imagination all the same. So it could be said that they are not so much un-creative as less appealing as a musical format. Despite this it is true that those same ideas as played may not fit into a regular drummers musical output. I suspect this is what my friend meant. He didn’t feel musically inspired.

Despite this opinion there is an obvious problem here with regard to the gap between what you might aspire to being able to play on the kit after having seen an inspirational performance or clinic and how to incorporate that information into your own musical knowledge as part of your everyday drumming.

This leads us to a new question.

Can the application of technical skill in some way inhibit your creativity in performance?

It is a long-held belief of mine that creative flair will suffer if during a performance, technical ability is present anywhere except the performers sub conscience. Technique and the application of concepts involving coordination, phrasing, independence, various sticking and bass drum methods, relaxation etc should ideally be second nature when it comes to giving your best possible performance on the drums. When in the ideal performance situation we are comfortable enough to let our technical framework fall away, all that is left is creative expression and ultimately the ability to concentrate on connecting with the music.

This means that we have to be careful when preparing for a show or gig, analysing what technical skills we utilise in the songs and studying the technical aspects of these skills so that we can perform the songs with maximum artistry.

Lets imagine two approaches to the same scenario.

You have an important gig coming up and you will be playing a new track. You have some creative ideas involving some counter rhythms etc.

  1. You decide to notate the idea note for note and practice it over and over to a click track then with your band you go over the section with the new idea during rehearsals. You get it to a point where you have it down. When the gig comes you are more tense and nervous than you would be at a rehearsal. You fluff the part you where intending to play and it throws you to a point where you have to reign your playing back and you lose confidence.
  2. After notating or recording the idea and practicing it you start to think about other possible ways to play it. You try out different feels, tempos, phrasings and count it out loud to get it in your head. You then try out the idea repetitively against various rudiments, sticking patterns and feels. When it comes to rehearsal you concentrate on getting the songs tight and perhaps try out your idea here and there to see if it works. When the gig comes you are tense and nervous but as you play you find that things are going well and start to relax, you decide to try the idea out you pull it off a couple of times, despite it throwing you a bit you have a good gig. Eventually your concept becomes second nature and the drum part for the song is all the better for it.

In the first scenario the drummer put the acquisition of a technical lick before the performance of the song while in the second scenario the drummer learns the lick as well as understanding it from various perspectives. They are interested in the creative possibilities of technical application more than showing they have technique. They don’t push themselves during performance to show technique unless they feel comfortable doing so. and new technical skills are treated as musical ones rather than a showcase of talent.

This is probably something close to how Oceansize drummer Mark Heron prepares.

[Oceansize Trail of fire]

So the gap between clinical playing and creative musical performance isn’t all that big after all. The aim of a drum clinic (apart from showcasing an endorsees various affiliations) is to show how skill can be applied on the drums. The purpose of a regular gig is to give the best possible presentation of your band’s music. If in doing this you want to enhance the performance with better playing through technical skill then practicing beyond what your bands requirement of you is technically will provide you with a buffer zone that allows for extra special performances.

I will leave you with another Video featuring Terry Bozzio and Chad Wackerman. Here they play with the idea of improvisation by incorporating a compositional attitude. Dose this bring clinical musicianship one step closer to every day drum playing?


6 thoughts on “Creative vs technical expression.

  1. Pingback: Advice For Home Recordists – how to programme convincing drum tracks | John Robson Guitar & Music Blog

  2. Is it possible to maintain a creative approach to drumming while continuously striving for better technical skill?
    Clinics are for specific things, you can’t take them out of context.

    Can the application of technical skill in some way inhibit your creativity in performance?
    yes and no. There are so many examples of over playing.

  3. I believe clinics move too far away from what real playing is. Many times that has to do with the clinicians themselves who spend so much time playing solo that they don’t impart what is necessary to get and more importantly to keep a gig. This what drummers want and need to know. A drum clinic should be done with a band to hear the instrument in its proper context.

    • Thanks for the comment Mike. The ultimate would be to see the technical stuff and then see how practising this stuff can then enhance a drummers output in performance.

      • Hi Ben, Nice to talk with you. I agree that practicing the technical stuff can do a great deal to enhance your performance. My issues with clinics continue to be a total lack of time devoted to performing real music as opposed to all kinds of technical exertions. It’s that overly technical display that impresses a crowd but many times there either short or no explanations of how to apply it in a real situation. Thats what worries me about it. I would like for you to take a look at my blog on rhythm sections and let me know what you think.


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