Music Learning Systems - Guitar, Piano, and Drums

The Next Note

by Omar on November 19, 2009

in Education

In a previous article which appeared back in September ’09, Brute Force Learning, I came to the realization that I had to back away from the kit for a bit, and focus on technique, from many different angles.

Practically everything I know about drumming comes from air drumming, and studious observation.  You could say that my ‘formal’ training began for me much later in life, instead of at the beginning.  Because of this, my playing is somewhat ‘rough around the edges’, as it were.  I may know the ‘what’, but not always the ‘why’.  The ‘how’ may come instinctively because of observation.  I’m trying now to focus on the ‘how’ and ‘why’, but I’m discovering that there are as many explanations on technique as there are drummers.  Not a bad thing, but it goes to show that this thing we call drumming is a lifelong endeavor.

In addition to just practicing on the practice pad (which I still don’t do as often as I should), I’m watching many more videos of drummers, be it professional or amateur.  There is a wealth of information you can gather from these drummers.  Make sure to hit up on YouTube regularly and look for these gems.

For example, you could search for any of your favorite drummers and find many videos where they showcase their talents not only in solos, but in songs.  Thomas Lang comes to mind.  So incredibly fast, impeccable technique; something to aspire to, yes, but will I get there?  Let’s just say that I’ll enjoy the journey, ‘cause it’s gonna be a long one!

Occasionally, though, you come across an incredible amateur talent that just makes your jaws drop.  In the article "Musicians Helping Musicians", Jerome Flood II, Guitar Center’s 2008 Drum Off champion, was showcased.  He’s an example of someone that, when you watch, you wonder how he does what he does, and it makes you want to imitate him.  It makes you want to go to the kit and try out what you can figure he’s doing.  Musicians helping musicians!  (A link to the video of his winning performance is in the article.)

I came across the video of another one of these amateur drummers that just inspires.  I’m a big fan of drum solos, and although I’m not the soloing type (at least not now), I’m always looking for what to glean.  I wrote an entire series on Neil Peart’s published solos, which if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so.  Very enlightening.  In any case, Dylan Elise, 16 years old at the time, put on a ten minute solo at the Tauranga National Jazz Festival in New Zealand.  His technique is very similar to Thomas Lang’s, at such a young age!  So inspiring, I thought I’d post the video here so you can be shocked and awed, as I was.

However, when it comes to drumming for a song, the scene changes.  In a solo, you’re pretty much free to improvise.  Some drummers have a general framework that they want their solo to have, and improvise within those frames.  Other drummers, within their solo, will have well-rehearsed sections, and will also have improvisational sections.  As long as you remember your ‘frame’, per se, the playing can become quite instinctual, ‘in the moment’.  You’re all by yourself, no other musicians to worry about.

In a song, there are several things to worry about:  groove, tempo, being in sync with the other musicians, and not forgetting the drum parts of the song!  Whereas in a solo you don’t really need to know exactly what you’re going to do next, in a song it always helps to always know what ‘the next note’ is.

Obviously, because music moves forward, beginning to end, each beat or note is measured.  If the drummer is always thinking two, three, or four notes or more ahead, the playing will be smooth.  The transitions will be easier.  There will be a flow to the playing, almost effortless.  When a drummer plays like this, it looks like they’re not even thinking (even though they are).  It becomes more about feeling the song instead of thinking it, hence smoother play.

On the other hand, if in a song you’re just trying to play the note at hand, your playing may be a little choppy.  Since the next note is suddenly upon you, your movement to play that note may come off as a little hectic.  Yes, you may get through the song, but the frantic pace of ensuring you get all the notes might drain you, not allowing you to play relaxed. And that is precisely one of the things that I discovered that plagues my playing.

You can check some of my drum covers on my YouTube channel, but particularly on “I Will Follow”, “Toxicity”, and “Girl Gone Bad”, in looking back at those performances I look a little, well, tense, tentative.  If you’re going to do a drum cover, or play in a band, the more far ahead you think as far as what part of the kit you’ll strike for those notes, the smoother and more relaxed you’ll play.  This is something I certainly need to work on.

I have a deep respect for live performers (I have a soft spot for drummers, of course!) who can pull off remembering so much music, and playing with aplomb.  When I hear some of the live performances of Yes, for example, particularly in the 70’s, with all of those epic 20+ minute songs, with all their complexities, there’s no doubt that to play that music the musicians must be thinking about ‘the next note’, and beyond.  It’s one of the reasons Alan White is one of my favorite drummers.  He was not only a great timekeeper, but he was rhythmic when needed; melodic when needed.  There’s no question that he understands the concept of ‘the next note’ (“The Gates of Delirium” is a ‘wondrous’ example of this).

I also tend to gravitate towards drummers that are more compositional than just rhythmic.  ‘Compositional’ drummers must be thinking of the next note and beyond to ensure the group of notes convey what they want to express with those notes.  Strict timekeepers don’t need to remember as much if for the most part they’re playing straight fours (‘not that there’s anything wrong with that!’).  One of the reasons I’m such a huge fan of Neil Peart’s style of play is that it irks him to play the same pattern more than once in a song.  He may transition from one verse to another playing a certain pattern, but when the song returns to a similar transition, he plays a different pattern.  And if that same motif appears yet again, he’ll play yet another pattern!  That requires more than just knowing what the next note is going to be.  That requires thinking verses and choruses ahead!  Neil is a masterful song drummer, which is why, percussion-wise, Rush songs are very colorful - always have been.

So, coming full circle, the dismantling of my kit has allowed me to take a step back and notice certain aspects of my play I didn’t notice before (in addition to the videos).  I’ll still be ‘rough around the edges’ when the kit comes back together, but at least I’ll have more ‘instruction’ to go by.  In the meantime I’ll continue to admire and learn from the great drummers, the masters of ‘the next note’.

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