I once took a few lessons from a drum teacher who had great advice on how to loosen one’s hands, which meant his students and protégés had blazing speed. After one lesson, a couple of them stopped by, and soon the conversation turned, as it so often does with a certain breed of drummers, to a list of complaints about how other musicians were insufficiently interested in their chops.
They mocked Ringo.
The youngest complained about “all these bands and songwriters who pay you for all the notes you don’t play.”
The next youngest chimed in, “We got a lot of thoroughbreds out there pulling garbage trucks,” a reference to the supply of drummers whose blazing chops were wasted, in his opinion, on playing backbeats.
Having by far the slowest hands in the room, I said nothing. I simply listened and thought to myself, “All three of you could learn a lot from the likes of Ringo.”
The drum-jock mindset, which misses the forest (music) for the trees (mechanics), is nicely skewered here.
The first time I saw this video, it took me a few minutes to realize that I was watching a parody by comedian Fred Armisen, not an actual instructional video. That bit of confusion says a lot about Armisen’s comedic insights as well as the bloated size of his target.
One needn’t dismiss such things as hand-speed to understand that improved mechanics might not be the ultimate purpose of practice. What if the ultimate purpose of practice was expression, for which mechanics are only a vehicle?
The trap many drummers fall into (the problem extends beyond drummers and beyond music) is this: Improving one’s mechanics is a simpler proposition than learning to express.
Compare two tasks:
A) Practicing a backbeat with a metronome
B) Making one’s backbeat more beautiful.
In order to accomplish B, you’d do well to spend some time on A. But A and B are not equivalent. B is a more demanding and more complicated task.
Though A can be hard work, judging one’s success in A is fairly straightforward. One records oneself, listens, and identifies where one is ahead of or behind the metronome.
B, however, demands that one raise aesthetic questions for which there are no easy answers. I may know how to play in time with a metronome, but does my time sound alluring? Is it saying something? Are the sounds coming out of kit in conversation with each other? How will all of this sound when the other instruments are added? What surprises am I encountering?
These are harder questions to answer, which is why metronome work can become a refuge.
We can telescope back and compare . . .
Mechanics—playing in time with a metronome, playing a faster single-stroke roll, developing limb independence.
Expression — bringing the music to life. Understanding that a song has a spirit, a narrative shape, and so forth.
Mechanical facility may aid expression, but it falls short of fulfilling all of expression’s demands. Mechanics are sometimes called technique, but this ignores the fact that expression requires the development of other techniques such as . . .
- Listening to what the other musicians are doing
- Thinking in terms of a song's drama and narrative structure
- Understanding what the melody and lyrics want from the drums
- Understanding what silence can do for us
- Thinking about the tradeoffs we make with each note we play
- Learning to channel our intuition
Mechanical technique is important but these non-mechanical techniques are more crucial still. And they are the most overlooked, especially by those who dis Ringo, one of the most deeply musical drummers ever to pick up a pair of sticks.
Thank you for reading.