Drums Learning System

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Brute Force Learning

by Omar on September 3, 2009

in Editorials, Education

Those of us who are X-Men fans may recall a particular scene in "The Last Stand" where there was a competition of opposites. On the one, you had Shadowcat. She had the mutant ability to phase or move through solid objects. Very graceful in execution, seamless. On the other, you had Juggernaut. He had the mutant ability of super-human strength and invulnerability, in addition to possessing a helmet which protected him from psychic attacks. Pure brute strength. Although opposite, they at one point had a single goal: to reach Leech, the mutant that could neutralize any mutant's ability that got near him. This was the mutant who's DNA was used for the 'mutant cure.' In any case, one mutant wanted to reach him to destroy him, the other to protect him.

Their methods to reach Leech were polar opposites. While Shadowcat whisked through the walls, leaving nary a trace of her passage, Juggernaut bulldozed his way through the walls, leaving ample traces of his passage! Eventually, both reached their destination. Shadowcat was first. She finessed her way through the walls, making the necessary adjustments to be able to reach Leech first. Juggernaut was just bumbling his way through, although he did eventually get there.

So how does the above relate to drumming? Yes, I know you were wondering! Some of us may have had an interest in drums, and at a young age (or even not so young) we had older ones who saw the advantage of providing structured lessons for us. With someone monitoring our progress directly, they could see whatever bad habits we may have been developing, and corrected them on the spot. They could also steer us towards proper technique, practice routines, and the like. If we continued with this structured learning, it would be possible to learn to play with some type of, well, finesse. Some of the nuances that our mentors mastered would be passed on to us. They would possibly even teach us to read sheet music, so potentially we could play a song after maybe hearing it once, then looking at the sheet music, and then pretty much know how to play it based on the music as it is written. Shadowcat.

And then there's another group of drummers (we'll keep this at the amateur level for both examples) who either never took lessons, or started later in their lives to hit the skins (or both!). They may have been a fan of the instrument and of certain people who played them, and watched them in awe. It's possible that they were very into air drumming (see "The Emergence of Air Drumming"). Eventually, they get a drum set of their own. With all these favorite songs in their head, they start playing, and discover that, well, drumming is hard! The pro drummers, many times, either took some type of formal lessons, or went to a musical college, or the like. So they play with finesse. But this amateur may think he (or she) knows how to play, but they discover they don't know more than they do know. But they have a good idea how to play, so they try out some songs. After playing a few times, it doesn't sound bad at all! They get through the songs, beginning to end, and maybe even with good timing. It may not be totally pretty, but the job gets done. Juggernaut.

In both cases, the drummers can play the songs (the goal). But they get there via different methods. Neither one is bad; it just depends what you want to do with what you know. If you want to be worldly famous, you may want to take the route of the Shadowcat-type drummer, because that type of drummer will know better how to play certain styles, even heavy rock if necessary. The Juggernaut-type drummer may also play the same music, but they may take longer to get there. And on the way (and even when they arrive), it may not look pretty. But they get it done.

I've been scrutinizing my style of playing lately, and I've come to the realization that my style is more Juggernaut-like. I learned to play via a term I call brute force learning. Without taking any lessons, I grabbed a kit and started playing away, without any concern for reading music, rudiment knowledge, etc. Don't get me wrong: drumming is downright fun ('even if it sounds bad')! I could get to the end of songs, but only because I know what it sounds like. I may miss a few nuances, but I'll get there, and it can turn out to be a pretty good performance, if I do say so myself! But ultimately, I'm missing the nuances of Shadowcat.

We'll continue to use myself as an example. If you take a look at my YouTube channel, you'll notice several types of videos that I've produced over time. There are some promotional videos, how-to's (i.e. 'Rudiments In Action'), and drum covers.* You're encouraged to watch them all if you like, but for the moment we'll focus on the drum covers. My first drum cover was "Crawl Away", by Tool. It's my favorite Tool song, and I had heard it several times already. I was testing out a video camera I was considering purchasing, so I decided, without practicing, to play to the song. I had never played it before, but I had heard it enough times that I thought I could play it. Plus, I had finally put my kit together, and I wanted to test it out! All in all, not bad for a first time playing a song through to the end. I was also testing the headphones, of which I determined quite hastily that I needed drummer-quality headphones (I got the Vic Firth headphones which you see in subsequent videos; they are excellent).+

Anyways, I was very rough around the edges. It was proof that air-drumming is not enough to play good drums - you actually have to play them to get any good! I was aware of that, of course, but this video session was what I needed to start growing as a drummer. It exposed my weaknesses, and showed me what I had to work on. It was invaluable in that sense, and I encourage anyone who has the equipment to record yourselves playing with a video camera. That way you can watch yourself play and notice what you do wrong (and right!), and turn around and just listen as well; sometimes the eyes can deceive you.

Fast-forward to my latest drum cover, "Girl Gone Bad" by Van Halen (well, after you've seen the other ones!), and there's noticeable improvement. I'm hitting the drums a little harder, I'm playing with more authority, I'm better aware of the placement of each piece of my kit - it just looks like I'm playing with more confidence. Of that I am proud, because it does show that if you play enough, you'll come around! I'm constantly trying to develop an ear for music, because I like the satisfaction of knowing that I can play a song just by hearing it a few times. But all of these videos have taught me something - I need more.

Way back when, I wrote an article called "Rudimentary, My Dear", where I talked about the importance of the drum rudiments. These drumming sessions have made me realize that I need to take a step back and start focusing on the vocabulary of drumming, the rudiments. Sure, I could play any song if I hear it enough times, and I'd be playing rudiments without even knowing it. But it's more satisfying if you know the language, the 'vocabulary', so to speak. So I've taken a somewhat drastic measure and broke down my kit (as in 'I took it apart'). The only thing I have set up currently is the practice pad on the snare stand. I want to scrutinize every aspect of my playing and how I can better it. I'll be examining my posture, how I relax, my stick technique - really fundamental stuff. Then, when I've done this for a little while, I'll start putting the kit back together little by little, at each step ensuring that I only progress, and not regress.

This move is not unprecedented. Many professional drummers, after many years of playing a certain way, take a step back and examine their style and see how they can improve. One noticeable example is Neil Peart, who after the Counterparts tour in the mid '90's determined that he took his style of play as far as he could take it, and basically re-invented himself, with the assistance of Freddie Gruber (you can read more about this in the article "Neil Peart Solo Number Two - Counterparts, 1994"). Even as recently as within this past year, Neil, under the tutelage of Peter Erskine, only played his hi-hat for a couple of months to work on his hi-hat technique. Steve Smith went through similar changes (although not as drastic, methinks). Take a look at the kit he used in the 80's vs. now - very different, but I think now he's a much better drummer.

Now am I putting myself on the same level as these drumming greats? Heck yes! Ahem, I mean, no.  I'm just saying that sometimes you may need to take a step back and determine what it is you need to work on, and focus on it. Taking my kit apart was the only way I was going to focus on my fundamental play. Does this mean that if the situation comes up where my kit is needed that I won't put it together? No! Maybe I'll come to the conclusion that I really can play that song that I thought I couldn't play before, and I'll set it up again and play it (and record it!). But it just won't be the focus for now.

I'm using a couple of instructional materials to aid me in my 'rudimental discovery' section of my training. "Stick Technique", by Jim McCarthy, is an excellent book that covers the essentials of gripping your sticks properly, effective practicing methods, etc. You can read my review of the book - I highly recommend it. Another tool I'm using is Mike Michalkow's "Drumming System". This is a DVD/CD collection that is chock-full of tips and guidelines for better drumming, from hand and foot exercises and practice schedules, to sheet music lessons and learning different styles of beats, from Jazz to Rock to Latin. An absolute plethora of information that I'm still combing through. (For a review of the "Drumming System", click here).

Till now, my method of learning (and playing, actually) has been by brute force. I bulldozed my way through the songs. I may have not known exactly how the drummer played the original, but dang it, I'm getting to the end! Even if I had to knock down some walls. Does it work? Yes. Is it pretty? Not always. But maybe I'm the only one who's noticing. The crowd may still love it! But in the end, I neither want to be Shadowcat nor Juggernaut. My goal? Easy: I want to be Wolverine.
*One of my drum covers, "Future Times/Rejoice" by Yes, is not on YouTube due copyright issues with YouTube. You can read about it (and view it) via this link.

+For more on this experience, check out "Education of The Paradiddler"

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