Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Just write something, anything.

New Year's resolutions, as far as I'm concerned, are shit really. They defy logic and should be banned. If you want to lose weight then why wait until the first of January to do something about it and if you want to give up smoking then just do it. If you make a resolution it usually lasts until sometime in January and then life carries on as usual.

But this year I made one of my own. It was to do with music, specifically drumming, and it has already made a big impact on my playing. I decided that I'd learn one new drum fill per week. A fill is one of those frilly bits that may lead on to a chorus or a middle eight or any new segment of a song. A change from the groove, maybe a drum roll or a few cymbal hits, it can be anything really.

For a long time I felt that my fills are one of the weaker areas in my play. My mental library of fills that I might call on and use in any situation was no way near as big as I wanted it to be, yet my groove playing has always come a bit more easily. The best drummers will play a fill and always, no matter how hard or how technically simple it may be, they'll play something that fits the music.

Think of Dave Grohl's opening fill on "Smells like Teen Spirit". It wasn't just a fill, it pretty much launched grunge into the nineties, it heralded in a new era and it was perfect for the song. Or think of Stevie's drum introduction to "Superstition". Both of them are technically simple yet couldn't be more musically appropriate.

What I set out to do was to build my own library of fills, not necessarily hard to play but just ones that would sound good and feel right in a musical setting. I'd had enough of sitting at my practise kit and playing around with things, coming up with something I liked only to have forgotten it the following day. So I decided that I'd learn a new one every week for the whole of 2007. They needn't be my own, they could be "borrowed" from other songs and other drummers. Learning and mastering them is only half the job, the other half is to apply them in the right song and the correct setting. Superstition would never have felt the same if the opening fill from Teen Spirit had been its opening now, would it?

I spent some time thinking about how I could do this properly and effectively. If I succeeded in the one a week thing I'd end up with around fifty two new fills in the year (Captain Obvious is here!). However, it's very likely that I'd come up with some crap, or a lot of crap. So I tried to be conservative about it and decided that fifty ish fills in total might give me twenty five good useable ones. If it takes me a year to add that many new fills to my musical vocabulary then I'll be happy.

To learn them properly and get them into my head is not as easy as it sounds. One of the continual musical challenges for me is jamming with others and keeping my mind open and nimble to ideas for fills. I often find that, when under pressure, I tend to play only a small slice of the already small number of fills in my armament. Learning the fifty two (or 25 good ones) will grow my library and give me more available ones. But how do I increase the number that I'll actually use in a "high pressure" environment? How do I keep more at the forefront of my musical mind, so they're ready and waiting to pop out at the right time?

I have to "make them mine". I've got to practise all of them so much that I own them, that they become my fills, my drum phrases and my musical vocabulary. The first thing to help me with achieving this is to write each one down. Drum music is the same as normal written music, note values and rests are all the same. The only difference is that the position of the note on the stave tells you which drum to play. The act of writing down each fill immediately imprints it on my mind with more longevity than if I hadn't written it down, largely because my music theory is so bad that it takes me a shed load of time to write down the simplest of fills.

Then, once I've got it on paper and it's correctly notated, I can return to it and know how it should sound at any time in the future. Practising is easier when you know what you have to practise and there's no "it sounded something like bla bla bap ba doo" stuff going on. Then I keep practising these little babies as often as possible, making them mine.

I've got two pages of the chaps now, I'm ahead of my one a week schedule, only because I've decided to write down every good one I think of. I find that, as I think of one and write it down, that will often lead me to think of others. Sometimes these might be similar to the original one but it's good to get them written down and mastered too.

And that's the great thing about this writing stuff down thing. Now that I've got some creative juices trickling fills come to me at the most odd moments. I was checking my blog comments last night and one came to me. I rushed to my kit and spent about forty five minutes getting it written down. The semi quaver rests, flams and dotted note values were playing havoc with my limited ability. But I got it down, it's still in my mind twelve hours later and I think it's one of the ones I'll use in the future. The funny thing is that I'm sure it's from a song that I know, I just can't place it yet. It's definitely not Dave's or Stevie's though! Even better was the fact that I came up with another one whilst sitting at the kit.

The act of writing, whether it's in the form of words, musical notation or a mindmap, something I'm a fan of, always acts as a kick up the backside. If I'm sitting and contemplating what to write I invariably get flooded by a lack of ideas and a tide of nothingness. The second that I put pen to paper, finger to keyboard or pencil to music manuscript I start to get ideas and the juices start to ooze. I should probably get some treatment for the oozing juices but the ideas thing is good and healthy.

It's early days but I fully intend to continue with my resolution. The rewards are already evident in my play and I'm excited about what's to come. If I finish 2007 with twenty five new and good useable fills in my musical library I'll be well chuffed.

Maybe the New Year's resolution thing isn't such a bad idea after all.


Anonymous said...

i'm already thinking of where the drum set could be come by so i can hear some of em fills that have been made u. can we do something about the oozing juices before u get here? i mean, going out in public n shit may get tricky.. u know? :)

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Now you're putting the pressure on me Mala, I'll collapse in a heap of oozing juices and not enough practise!

Lady divine said...

Well, these resolutions do help to an extent... it keeps you going.. it's like a target that you set to achieve.. i don't have resolutions.. i just make up my mind and do things..:-) But at the end of the year when you look back, it's gonna be an awesome feeling to see what you've achieved. So good luck and keep it going!:-)

Theena said...

You know, that's actually something I've been telling myself to do: learn to read and write music, hear it in your head and then play it on guitar.

Right now its a case of me reading tabs on the net and trying to play it. Often it sounds shit especially if I am trying to play the lead parts. The rhythm is considerably easier, but the same principle applies I suppose.

Your post has inspired me to not look at tabs again. At the very least not look at tabs and play guitar.

Oh I started jazz/classical/spanish guitar classes last week. The guy insists on learning to read music and not relying on tabs.

I am blabbering now.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Lady Divine - You're right. My problem has often been that I don't set my targets specifically enough, I don't pay enough attention to the "SMART" thing. This time I have done everything right and I hope to achieve a lot. Even now I feel as if I have made good progress.

Theena - I can't recommend learning to read music highly enough. As a child I learned piano and that stood me in great stead when I started drumming. I can't imagine how much harder it would have been for me to learn to play if I hadn't read music. I know there are a few legendary musicians who could never read but they are the exceptions.