As a drummer, I always felt I needed to master the instrument before I considered working on anything else. Endless hours in the practice room dominated my time, seeking to get a hold on this "four limbed monster" called the drum kit.
At the UMKC Conservatory of Music, I took piano classes and began to experiment with my own ideas, but the drums called for most of my time and focus. My knowledge of harmony was pretty limited, although my ears were expanding every day, hanging with friends and listening to records, learning more and more tunes by ear.
My roommates had guitars around the house and I started learning chords. It was very difficult, contorting my hand into positions that seemed nearly impossible for a human hand. But, eventually, I could play major, minor and dominant chords enough to be able to begin assembling my own ideas.
It was liberating. I could play the guitar with no expectations. It was pure fun. Soon, a few tunes were born. Mostly country-ish jams that were super simple, yet very rewarding for me. Then a while later I took guitar classes at the New School and opened up my chord vocabulary. More tunes were born, but mostly the basic germ of the tune, just a foundational idea or starting point.
With help of friends who would suggest chords to go with my melodies, I completed a batch of tunes. But I wasn't really satisfied with them. I recorded them on a few occasions. Two of them are on my album "Suit-up!" which was produced by Dave Stryker and also featured Kyle Koehler on B-3.
The response to my tunes was very encouraging. One of them played on XM Radio and I got some royalty checks in the mail. Wow! OK. Let's do more.
I sat down with almost 20 years of ideas that I'd documented on cassettes, mini-discs and on the computer. Many of them were unfinished, but had potential. But, like Charles Bukowski said: Potential doesn't mean anything... You've got to DO IT."
So I searched and found a local piano teacher, Bob Himmelberger, who listened to my whole life story about never really getting my piano thing together and started me on a path to being able to finish my tunes. It was not going to be easy, but at this point, what else am I going to do? What's to lose?
I learned scales in all 12 keys. Minor, Major and Dominant chords in root position. This took a minute, but so far so good. Then all the chords using A and B voicings. The anty was raised and this took quite a while. Then 2-5-1 progressions in all 12 keys using the new voicings. Then 2-5-2 Tri tone subs. Then standards like "Lady Bird" and "Confirmation".
Soon, I understood how to use chord tones and I sat down with my collection of ideas and started adding melodies, then new sections to the tunes, then finally, finishing some of them. This was quite possibly the most rewarding thing ever!
I took the tunes to sessions and played them down with the cats. It was like going back to school! Some of the tunes clunked along like cars with a wheel missing, but at least now I knew what to do. I went back and fourth to the drawing board, until finally I had 12 new tunes!
This was quite a thing for me. Drummers are often stigmatized with not being complete musicians, which can be true in some cases if the drummer is not hearing the harmony. A drummer may not know the complete theory behind a 2-5-1, but if you can hear it, then you can play accordingly. But now really knowing what's going on, theoretically and sonically with the piano, I felt a big change in my playing and hearing.
Anyways, I write about all this because it has been such a journey for me and has opened up a lot of doors. I understand music itself much better now and even tho I have a long way to go, it feels really good to have my own book of music to play and record.
If you're a drummer and you're reading this, maybe you are thinking about those piano lessons, or wondering how to get started writing your own music.
One of the best ways to get started is to do just that: get started. And take it from there.
There is an artist inside you. Composition reveals that. Especially when you're absolutely true to yourself. Yeah, you could use someone else's chord changes and melodies, but when you're true to your ear, you'll have your own sound. I really believe that.
Anyways, that's a little piece of what I've been experience in writing. It's getting better all the time and there ain't nothing to it but to do it. Write. learn. And write some more.
Little By Little Makes Big
Learning the skill of jumping rope is different than putting that skill to use in your workout routine. Learn the skill first.
Use the little by little principle by following these small and attainable, but very important steps.
- Buy the right rope. Make sure it’s going to be adjustable.
The time frame for this process is not the same for everybody, one maybe able to attain sustained jumping immediately, others may take a week. I suggest that everybody takes their time in practicing the skill so that it is engrained in a relaxed fashion, not in a tight or spastic out of control way.
Big By Big can equal failure with the rope. One maybe able to sustain jumping for a good while right off the bat, however maybe they are straining to keep it going, their breath is out of synch and ultimately cannot keep it going for long.
Little by little will allow you to learn the skill slowly, thoroughly and confidently with a healthy and patient attitude towards the jump rope that will keep it loose and fun.
Learn something new!
There are hundreds of exercise options out there to chose from, we are all but pelted with hot new routines and ideas, and that’s a good thing, however I am left to wonder, do they teach a skill?
Learning the skill of jumping rope will add a fresh dimension to your workout, and the ways in which the rope can be used are many, thus expanding your exercise vocabulary.
Learning a new skill benefits many areas of your brain and the jump rope in particular is a full-body exercise that can increase synapse strength and neurological connection.
Jumping Rope is a skill you can take with you whereever you go. All you need is your rope, a clear space, your sneakers and you.
Once you know how to do it, you will never forget. You may have to dust off your skills after a lay off, but it will come right back to you.
Before I went full-bore into a music career I explored all kinds of other interests: baseball, BMX racing, soccer, wrestling, karate and boxing. Of all of these, boxing left the biggest impression on me. While, yes, taking a punch to the face will certainly leave a lasting mental impression, and hopefully not a physical one, the aspect of boxing that has stayed with me for life has been.... THE JUMP ROPE.
Jumping rope has a rhythm, feel and continuity that really inspires me. One day, I was jumping rope and I thought about the African triplet rhythm and the shuffle. I heard these rhythms in my head as I worked out with the rope and thought... how can I take this further?
So, I starting creating beats in Pro Tools that felt right for the jump rope rhythm. Like a scientist, I went through draft after draft. Each time, taking the tracks to the gym to test them out and then going back to the lab.
I started this process in 2006 in my small Manhattan apartment in New York City.
As I dialed in the tracks, I began composing various programs to enhance different attributes: Endurance. Warm-up, Speed, Power. Interval training for weight loss.
Honestly, I was not thinking about enhancing my drumming with this, but I began to realize that the jump rope was working wonders for my playing.
First, it was a healthy and positive exercise. The music biz is rough, especially for drummers, who have to haul a ton of gear, set it up, play it all night, tear it down, load it up and take it home. If you add unhealthy life habits to that like drinking, getting high, sleeping in till noon... well, you're gonna hit a wall sooner than later.
I mean, ever look at a guy like Kenny Aronoff? That guy is a beast!! He's got to be in his 60s by now and look at him, he looks amazing and plays his ass off!
So anyway, I began to feel much more connected with my core rhythm and it translated into my drumming which became much more effortless and fluid. 20 minutes with the jump rope on the day of a performance paid off huge. When I sat at the drums, they seemed to play themselves.
It doesn't matter what kind of music you play. It works for any music.
Sometimes, things other than drumming can influence our playing, either good or bad. I had tried weight lifting in my younger years and it always tightened me up, so I stopped. I wanted to enhance my playing thru exercise and once I dropped the weights for the jump rope I've never looked back. Sure, I still lift light weights, but no bulking up. The rope can maintain muscle tone, too.
So, drummers, maybe you'd like to try my idea. Check out my "Progressive Jump Rope Beats" album at......
Wishing you all the best in music, health and drumming..
A few thoughts about Canopus Drums
I started hearing about these new "Canopus" drums from musicians around New York. A bassist asked me "hey man, they got a set of Canopus drums down at Cornelia St. Cafe and they sound amazing and open. You ought to check them out.." And, sure enough, the next time I played Cornelia, I was struck by how open and tonally expressive the Canopus were. I made a note of it, for sure.
In 2010 I was in Frank Ascensa's drum shop in the Bronx when I met Eliot Zigmund, the great drummer who was with Bill Evans in the 70s (Eliot is STILL great, he's at the top of his game). I had some old Sonor drums I was having the edges re-cut and I was thinking of buying some new drums. Eliot asked "Why don't you try Canopus? I think you'd like them." He invited me to his house and we played the Canopus club kit in his living room and they just sang beautifully. I was very impressed.
On the way home I stopped off to see my friend Frank Colonnato at the Long Island Drum Center shop in Nyack, NY and there was an amazing Canopus RFM kit sitting there, waiting for me. I played them, they sounded open and full, especially the snare, a beautiful 5.5x14 with die cast hoops and the Canopus Vintage snare wires, it sounded bigger than a 6" deep drum and had more guts than any snare I'd ever owned. It was perfect. So, I promptly stepped outside to call my wife and explain to her how I was going to pull off buying these new drums. "What's the name of them?!?" She kept asking.
The drums sang so much more open than any other drums I'd owned. I found the Canopus to be especially easy to tune and hear the tonalities more specifically. Granted, I had been playing on 60s vintage drums since the early 90s, this was my first "new" drum kit in quite some time, but the alignment and congruity of the Canopus allow them to sing and have tone that no other drums I'd owned ever had.
In 2011, I very gratefully and happily signed with Canopus Drums.
In 2012 I ordered two more Canopus kits, the Club Kit and a "pop" type kit with a 20" bass drum. I enjoyed them immensely and recorded a couple of records using those drums. I used the RFM drums on my album "Suit-up!" in 2013 and took the Club Kit out on scores of gigs, the 15" bass drum always sounded amazing, filling up the room with a full tone.
Canopus Club Kit
In 2015 I switched out my RFM series for a Neo-Vintage M1 kit. The past few years had taught me a lot about bearing edges, hoops, various woods… all kids of nuances about drums I hadn't known. After playing the Canopus kit at Smoke in NYC several times, I found I liked the Neo-Vintage drums a lot because of their tone and feel, which comes from their rounded bearing edges, die cast hoops and poplar wood in the shell design. The perfect kit for me has evolved into a Canopus Neo-Vintage kit with 12" 13" toms mounted from stands, 14" 16" floor toms, 5.5"x14" snare and 18" un-drilled bass drum. Rounded "baseball bat" edges, die cast hoops.
Canopus is doing several things aside from just their drums; the bolt tight washers, their amazing snare wire, the speed star bearing, are all examples of intelligent re-imagining of drum designs. The bolt tights change the feel of a drum, just slightly, taking a bit of the edge off, softening the feel a little bit because the hoop is resting on a bed of leather washers instead of a metal-on-metal. I feel it most in the snare drum. I also feel it gives a slight more depth to the sound of a drum. Their snare wires are the best going, artistry applied to every detail make the wires more sensitive and light, so that the drum breathes. I can't say enough for the snare wires, they are simply amazing! And the Speed-Star, I was shocked at the difference in my vintage yamaha pedals from the early 90s, the re-imagining of the bass drum spring pulley gives a pedal a major upgrade in smoothness, speed and power. You have try it!
The Speed-Star Bearing Rocks!
So that's it, I'm just psyched to be playing drums that are a total joy to play and I don't find myself wanting something more from them, they're opening me up as a player, I can relax into the drum, all the tones are there, the depth is there. I spent 20 years trying to nurse along my 60s vintage drums, carrying them around NYC banging them all up, felt like walking on eggshells. The vintage drums, they always needed work, I was always on Ebay looking for parts, and they never sounded right, even after I had them re-cut. The old drums were cool, still had a lot of soul, but they were limited. I had to move into the present! The Canopus have the soul of a drum from the past, but with all the modern design upgrades of the present. http://www.canopusdrums.com
"It's called show business.... so show up and take care of your business."
We often think of "show business" as some unruly, willy-nilly, free-for-all. We think of entertainers as these untouchable and elevated people who have nothing to think of except their performances and they live in some kind of fantasy world where, if you "make it" then you're excused from overall responsibility.
Today, more than any other time, "show business", the word "business" is just as important, if not more, than the word "show".
Why? Because if the business doesn't get handled, then the show ain't happening. Period.
So what is business? It's everything, even the playing: returning correspondence via email, phone, texts. Being on time. Being absolutely prepared. Dressing correctly. Supporting and serving the music. Doing your job. Doing what you say you are going to do. And further... maintaining a vibrant social media presence, keeping up with the trends, etc....
I am reminded of all of this as I observe musicians in various states of preparedness for performances. I am amazed at some of them, how astute and ready they are. Others, it's the total opposite, they behave as if some magical force is going to tie up all the loose ends they haven't bothered to take care of.
When I'm a bandleader, I am acutely aware of the musicians I hire and their business standard. If I hire a player, and I've sent them music in advance, it's natural to expect them the have it prepared. And if they haven't prepared, I will never call them again. If they are prepared, then their number is on my list when it comes time to make calls.
It's so simple, yet so easy to slack off. Most of the things that a musician can do to make their playing experience better, to give themselves and the band a better chance of making some actual music, are not difficult but just require caring enough to do them. In my mind and in my experience, this is what separates great musicians from so-so musicians. The ones who know that if they want to sound good, then they have to know the music well in order to have a chance at making some good music, and also to show the leader some respect.
Do yourself a big favor. Handle your business, leave no stone unturned and you'll see a big difference in your life.
When I was 13 or 14, some local musicians recognized my talent and told my father that I was a good drummer, but if I was going to be a great musician, then I needed to play some piano.
I got lessons. I tried, but it didn't work out. It wasn't the right time. I was restless and distracted. We couldn't afford a piano, so we got this little electric keyboard that was difficult to play and without any real inspiration from the instrument or the teacher, I quit.
Then came music school.
I earned a scholarship to The Conservatory of Music at Kansas City. For playing drums. When I got to school, my first class was Piano 101, 8am. I stuck with it. I learned my major scales in all 12 keys. But then, when second semester came, I dropped out. Too much theory, not enough actual music. I was't making any music with the instrument that I enjoyed. It was all theoretical.
As the years went by, I regretted not staying with piano. I picked up guitar, easily and taught myself all the basic chords. But the piano remained a mystery.
I even became intimidated by the piano. Mostly because it just confused me and I couldn't play even the most simple of songs on it. Whenever I'd try to sit down and learn something, I just got frustrated because I couldn't get my mojo on it like I could drums and guitar.
More years went by, finally I bought a keyboard, a decent one. I wrote my first tune on it. I'd get a melody going that I liked, then I'd ask friends what chords went with the melody. I really should have been able to figure that out, but I leaned on friends who were happy to talk music theory at me, leaving me in the dust after one or two concepts.
I tried a few more times to deal with it. At the New School in NYC, and then again with friends who said they could teach me. It always ended the same way: frustration and the wall between me and the piano getting taller and thicker.
Then, I found a guy in my neighborhood. A real teacher who happens to be a great jazz player. Cool! I went to him, paid him, and sat down to learn.
We stared off with major scales, the 5 kinds of 7th chords and that was my mission. I created a practice journal and kept detailed track of my progress. In a few months, I could play "Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington. Progress at last!
Where most musicians would go straight over my head with theoretical talk, my new teacher kept it totally simple. Suddenly, things began to stick. I learned inversions of the chords, a task that took several months, but I did it.
In time, I found that I preferred practicing piano to practicing drums. I enjoyed making music, chords, colors. I got addicted to it.
Then, after the first year of study, I was playing songs like "Ladybird" and "Confirmation". I learned all these Tri-Tone Subs for the 2-5-1 progression. Now it was starting to sound a little like Bill Evans! This made me very happy.
Then, I made a huge leap and bought a Yamaha piano. A beautiful upright U-1. I played a chord and listened to it ring out..... The sonics of the strings seemed to change colors as the chord faded. It fascinated me. I sat there all day, playing chords and listening.
Then something really cool happened. I played a gig on drums with a piano trio, and I felt like I didn't have to play so much. In fact, there were many times when I stopped myself from instinctually jumping in and playing the beat right away, I listened more. The drums became something different.
The next gig it happened again, this time even more. I could let the bass and piano be heard more clearly. I found myself finding ways to not play as much cymbals, so that I could hear the sonics of the bass and piano. Suddenly, even playing standards became infinitely more interesting and the possibilities became open ended.
I'd heard drummers talk about the piano changing their hearing, but I never understood until now.
Another cool thing that happened: I started finishing tunes that I'd started, but couldn't finish. I put melodies on these cool vamps I'd written, then added a bridge or another section. My tunes started to make sense, started to sound like what I wanted to write. This was/is exciting! I learned about chord tones, passing tones, leading tones. Ah moments came left and right.
So, I write this post for drummers who are maybe intimidated of the piano, maybe they don't know where to start. My best advice, find a teacher who lives close to you and who is consistent. Also, they must know what you want out of it. Do you want to be a concert pianist? Probably not. You need a basic understanding of music as a whole, and as far as the piano is concerned, you just need to be able to play enough to get what you want out of it. The right teacher is key. Take your time and find the right teacher, not just a friend who can help you with some theory, not a buddy who wants to trade piano lessons for drum lessons. Get a real teacher. one who has a track record. One who has a method worked out.
The piano is such a joy now and it's only getting better. I'm really glad I gave it another chance.
I've been chasing a cymbal sound for 30 years and never even really came close to finding it. Maybe that's a part of being an artist, or it's part of "the journey" in being a musician, chasing something that we never quite find. Or maybe, that magical sound keeps evolving, but whatever it is, I'm still chasing it!
Cymbals are the X factor of the kit for me. Drum sounds are more predictable, more attainable to me, because you can choose the woods, the bearing edge cut, the hoop and you cane TUNE them, choose various kinds of heads and combinations of heads. With cymbals, insofar as their intrinsic sound and feel, you can choose a certain alloy, a certain weight and profile, but still, you kind of get what you get.
Of course, there are many things that go into your cymbal sound; your touch, your stick, your intention, the part of the cymbal your play on, the dynamics and of course, YOU. However, cymbals have that mystical, otherworldly thing that goes beyond description and has remained a mystery to me for years.
Over the years I have gone thru so many phases: Old Ks that always had some kind of weirdness, Old As that sounded good, but still had a clumsy sounding bell, Sabian HH Sound Controls that had a beautiful oceanic sound but too much so, Paiste Traditionals that had this sort of clangy sound to the bell, Bosphorus Master Vintage that had a beautiful under stated woody sound, but void of musical overtones and Sabian Artisans that are a little too thick... why does it have to be so confusing?
And of course, it's one thing to find a cymbal that you love, but quite another to have a whole set that works together. (maybe that's another post in itself)
Of course, cymbals ain't cheap. So, if you're on a budget, as most musicians this day in age are, it's a constant quest of turning over cymbals, buying/selling, to find something that you really love. You have to be absolutely tenacious and unyielding in your quest, and also gotta have some luck!
So, last night I had a chance to visit a cymbal smith, Jesse Simpson, in Brooklyn last night. It was well worth the trip. As I stepped into his shop, I felt like I was transported to an alchemists lab. Finally, I was going to get some answers and some knowledge about cymbals that could help me evolve my conception of cymbals.
Jesse answered all my questions and filled me in on some of the things that determine the sound and some of the things that don't effect the sound quite so much. I learned about the cymbal "profile" the hammering patterns, the balance of thickness in a cymbal, the lathing, etc... Jesse explained some of the myths of breaking a cymbal in (burying it, playing it really loud with heavy mallets, turning it inside out 50 times) It was fascinating to finally get some knowledge and de-mystify some of this stuff. And Jesse is just a cool dude, he's not out to soak anybody for cash, he's not looking for accolades... he just digs making and modifying cymbals. Clearly this man has a passion for what he is doing. Respect and admiration to him for going for it!
I also brought in a few of my Paiste traditional series cymbals that have always had some kind of "clangy" tones in them and Jesse evaluated them and explained to me why that is. I love those cymbals about 70% and the other 30% keeps me from really wanting to play them that much. So, Jesse is going to "modify" the cymbals with some additional hammering and lathing to bring out the qualities that I feel the cymbals are lacking. I'm very excited!
So, the quest continues, but I now feel I am closer to the answer than before. I will keep tenaciously searching, digging and feeding this obsession until, well, let's just leave it at that... until....
Today I was thinking about all the great drummers I've enjoyed so much over the years and how some of them transcend the idiom, some of them transcend the drums themselves.
Ever hear Roy Haynes play funk? Or Mel Lewis play a funky backbeat? Or hear Tony Williams play a rock feeling? It's still totally them, still has their fingerprint all over it, it's improvised and loose, but it's not "stock" by a long shot. It's their personality, their sound, their ideas, transcending the idiom.
You transcend the idiom by learning the vocabulary and the devices, the nuts and bolts, etc... then you're getting started.
On the flip side, check how the drummer on Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" plays a jazzy three feel. Or check the loose feel that Stevie Wonder plays drums on a song like "Seems So Long"
Or check how Paul McCartney plays drums on his first two solo albums and also on "Chaos and Creation", the way they both orchestrate for the music when they play drums is so perfect, so natural and easy sounding.
They transcend the drums, by not thinking like drummers. How can they? They play all the instruments and the drums are just one part of it all.
How can drummers do this? To free themselves of the patternistic trappings of the trap set?
They are not thinking about what they are playing. They are thinking about what they are doing. And that function doesn't change all that much from idiom to idiom. I mean, in be-bop a drummer may be employing a conversational and melodic approach as opposed to in rock or funk a more beat oriented, repetitive approach. But essentially, they're doing the same thing. Serving the music. And hey, a rock song can have conversational/melodic drums in it, too, if the music asks, answer.
Always play for the music. The Melody. The Form. The changes. The dynamics. The statement being made. The musical vision, the composers intent. The energy.
Remember, it's not about what you're playing, it's about what you're doing.
What is practice?
That's a good question. There are more kinds of practice than one may think. As a noun, a practice is an ongoing carrying out of a profession. Like a law practice. As a verb, practice can mean to perform a particular skill in order to improve or become proficient.
Going with the latter and applied to the practicing of a musical instrument, there are different kinds of practice within that definition.
Practice to learn a skill.
Practice to become proficient at the skill.
Practice to master the skill.
Practice to maintain the skill.
Practice to integrate the skill into musical action.
Wow, that's a lot of practice!
The drums are a very physical instrument. The drum set has been referred to by the great Max Roach as a "four limbed monster" and indeed he's right. The manipulation of the sticks and pedals to get the multiple instruments to all speak as one rhythm, one sound, takes a lot of work. It takes a certain amount of conditioning of the muscles and mind.
So, you have a "conditioning" kind of practice that you must deal with in order to train your muscles. Olympic athletes know this well. Have you ever watched the Olympics and marveled at the precision, the timing, the confidence, the clutch performance of the athletes? That certainly doesn't happen by accident, or even with mere "practice". It happens with an intelligent and analytical approach to training, conditioning, muscle memory, mental toughness, self discipline, motivation and probably some qualities there aren't even names for. Let's call that inspiration.
Let's break it down further.
Practice to learn a skill: slow, concentrated practice of the skill to teach the muscles and mind how to respond. Paying close attention to form, feel and sound production, we are literally teaching our neurological system and brain how to fire together. We are wiring the action into our brain.
Practice to proficiency: to be able to perform/execute the skill upon command with good form and control.
Practice to mastery: to be able to execute the skill at any tempo, any dynamic level, under any circumstances, at any time.
Practice to maintain: as they say, use it or lose it. This kind of practice is usually a daily ritualistic practice of going over what we have mastered in order to keep what we have worked so hard to master. What we have mastered is like a jumping off point where we move onto to the next plateau.
Practice to integrate the skill: for musicians, this would mean utilizing the skill within a musical performance context, usually playing with other musicians (but not always) and to be able to maintains ones ease, concentration and form in the "heat of battle". For athletes, this would be in an actual competition.
A lot of practice indeed, but if you break it down into different types of practice, one can begin to put it into perspective and begin to understand how a master musician attains that level of play. Obviously, there are intangibles; talent, culture, opportunity, environment, tenacity, goals, vision. However, if we understand what we are doing when we practice; learning, polishing, mastering, maintaing, integrating, then it doesn't seem quite so daunting, dry or academic. It makes total sense.
Thanks for reading, let's go hit the practice room!