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.