Tapping Into Drums
“In the film Small Town Girl Ann Miller sings the opening line, ‘I like the sound of a tom tom’ from the song “I Gotta Hear That Beat.” If you’ve never seen this production number, you’re in for a treat. It’s percussion heavy with bizarrely disembodied musicians – no gender here, just great music!
Miller was famed for her ultra speedy tap dancing. I see lots of young drum students who are double bass pedal crazy before learning the basics on a single pedal. I’ve been known to suggest tap dancing lessons whilst embarking on pedal studies. If you really want fast feet, this is a great route to getting there. Many of the old jazz drummers were also hoofers – it makes perfect rhythmic sense. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else requiring that much dexterity between the heel and toe.
Yet Jojo Mayer says it’s not how fast you can play, but rather how fast you can hear. A constant barrage of bass drum notes begins to sound like one long note, with nothing in between or left to say. Musicians I find interesting tell a story and engage the listener. Not everything on the drum set has to be hard, fast and loud. It’s quite easy to play aggressively. How do you convey joy, humour, melancholy? I often tell my students anyone can make noise, let’s try to make music.
I can tell I’m playing well when I start a tune with just a drum beat and people get up to dance. It’s one of the benefits of being a drummer – doing something that makes peoples’ bodies move. And in that bodily movement is the space between the notes. This is why swing, funk and hip hop are great to dance to: syncopation creates the space for the body to move.
To paraphrase Gavin Harrison (among others), use the muscle in your head as much as the ones in your hands and feet because that’s where ideas come from. A reliance on speed is a reliance on technique. And technique is not expression. Play not only as a drummer, but as a musician. Beauty is in the nuance and detail. Play like a dancer. Kick ball change.
Check out Fred Astaire’s momentous tapping with drums from both A Damsel In Distress and Easter Parade”
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