In order to excel as a drummer each of us must at some point in our journey explore the meaning of balance.
Over the past year or so I have explored concepts including, timing, pattern recognition, instinctive counting, technical expression, mindfulness, the subconscious and muscle memory; all of which I consider to be subtle but essential parts of a modern drummer’s repertoire. Developing creative ‘awareness’, is no less important than practicing rudiments or coordination exercises to improve our technical ability; it only adds to sharpening our approach and self-understanding. In essence, realising what drives us from within to better aid our ability to play and perform on the drum set.
We need to balance self-awareness with our technical prowess, in order for it to become anything more than a theoretical concept. Below, I discuss how we might best achieve this equilibrium.
What is balance to a drummer?
Drummers are poised to react; the very nature of our instrument, requires us to not only sustain momentum and carve out rhythmic structures, but to continuously assess what we are doing on a cyclical basis by listening and reacting to our musical surroundings. Balance is evident when we are performing to the best of our ability, without struggle, and without the need to over-analyse our performance as it happens. It is a combination of utilising all our skills and theoretical knowledge, to arrive at a point of action where our reactions are perfectly tuned into the present, moment by moment.
I have identified three distinct categories, under which reactivity can be incorporated into musical performance: technical response, musical response and decision-making. By developing a greater awareness of our reactions, we might then be closer to achieving a more malleable approach and adopting more adaptive methods of performing; thus developing a sense of balance.
If you have ever marvelled at the freakish speed of drummers ‘competing’ in online sponsored events, you will no doubt be aware of the concept of ‘fast hands’; by this we mean a fine-tuned nervous response, giving the drummer the ability and freedom to manipulate the drum sticks at speeds far beyond the point of comprehension. If you don’t have fast hands, then you could be forgiven for thinking you are out of luck. However, muscle response is all about balance. If you can find the natural balance between the sticks, your hands, the velocity of the hit and the drum’s rebound, you are much closer to achieving mastery of speed.
To clarify my point; I am not suggesting one particular stick technique is better than another, rather, that no matter how you hold the sticks it is possible to become aware of how these balance in your hands and therefore become better positioned to play in a more adaptive way. This doesn’t just apply to mastery of speed but also to the subtlety, loudness and range of tone achieved, all of which can be vastly improved through attention to balance.
There are three states in any drum hit that will allow for better control in any given situation;
Potential. Each stroke starting from a point of potential energy.
Kinetic. Converting potential into action, using as small a movement as possible.
Response. Action taken to allow a hit to happen, without inhibiting return to the potential state.
By balancing these three states you are allowing the stick to do the hard work while you act as a guide.
Knowing how you feel in any given moment and how the music you are playing can affect the decisions you make is important.
What does your band’s musical style mean to you?
If you have found your musical tastes at times in conflict with the rest of your bandmates’, you will understand how frustrating it can be, to be out-numbered in the creative process, where you would opt to take a different direction. However, this could also be viewed as an opportunity to bring your own particular musical style to the mix and learn new styles and disciplines that are perhaps outside your comfort zone. Finding such a balance, could well lead to a positive outcome, adding to your own repertoire and giving your band the edge it needs.
Most musical styles are defined by the types of rhythm being played. So, if you are an amazing blast-beat drummer seemingly at loggerheads with the rest of your band who are all jazz musicians, to make your mark you might decide to venture into bebop; the chances are that the results will be at the very least an interesting experiment and at best set your music apart as being groundbreaking. Finding a balance between blast beats and subtle bebop licks to make the music just so, would be your task.
Having faith in your choices and sensitivity to the musical situation, will improve your confidence and chance of creating a meaningful connection with the audience and the music.
Finding a balance between the analytical and creative processes can be difficult. For example, when learning a new beat, you may stop half-way through with a feeling that what you have been doing sounds wrong or was incorrect in some way. This comes about due to the amount of information that needs to be processed when learning a new drum pattern. At some point the analytical mind calls a halt to proceedings, in order to appraise what has just happened before it can move on. One way around this problem, is to attempt to ignore what you have just done, with the assumption in mind that if you are still playing you are on track. In essence focusing on the future and not on the past. Once you have done this a few times, your mind will automatically relax and focus on memorising your new skill in a more holistic fashion.
This example, illustrates how strong the pull to analyse our performance can be. During a performance this can be a huge problem; our anxiety to do a good job, the situation we find ourselves in and the complexities of the music all strive for our attention, leaving very little room for creativity and enjoyment. At its worst, your mind can give up completely and your concentration will wander away, often seeking solace in something banal such as your christmas present list.
The only real way around potential mind-block, is preparation and experience. Taking the time to centre yourself before a performance (again, finding a state of internal balance) will also be of benefit.
So, in order to gain a more balanced approach to playing the drums, we must first hone our ability to observe our habitual responses and become master of these, as opposed to hostages. Our feelings, thoughts and behaviours are intrinsically reactive; thoughts give rise to feelings, more often than not determining our behaviour, before feeding back this information to the brain and translating into thoughts largely based on our feelings and actions. This happens so quickly (milliseconds), that we are largely unaware of the process. Pausing to observe how fast this process really is, it is possible to intercept, for example, between our thoughts and our resultant feelings; thus allowing us greater mastery over how we then choose to respond as opposed to merely reacting. Whatever path you may take in musical direction, in order for this process to become apparent in your composition and performance, you must develop you ability to respond and balance your physical output with your cognitive workings. I hope that my musings will have pushed you in a positive and colourful direction.