Audiation: Hearing Music in Your Head and How to Make Use of It

“Oh man, now I can’t get that @*&#&^ outta my head!!!”

Welcome to audiation.

Wikipedia gives a good definition of the word: a high-level thought process, involving mentally hearing and comprehending music, even when no physical sound is present. Musicians have experienced this most of their playing lives, but how many of us have really focused on developing it?

I want to suggest that as drummers, we begin to pay great attention to developing our ability to hear drum set and percussion sounds internally. It takes some work, but if there was ever an area where practice pays off, it’s here.

What’s the value? Well, for starters, the clearer you can conceive of a musical idea, the easy it becomes to execute it. I began doing this when I was 9, imagining drum solos and seeing them played on a kit. Over the years, I refined this ability by daydreaming about music endlessly, just like every other musician out there. I just didn’t realize that by doing so, I was helping myself become a better player.


I write a lot about polyrhythm and odd meters, and I use audiation to practice both quite a bit. Odd meters seemed to come naturally as a kid, but polyrhythms have taken a little more work. If you check out some of my previous posts about 5-and 7-note grouping practice methods, you’ll find some simple two-handed exercises that let you hear 5:2, 5:3, 5:4, and 7:2, 7:3, 7:4.

Using audiation, I can now more clearly conceive of these ratios and improvise in my mind using the drum set and cymbal tonalities. I can then sit down behind the kit and “realize” these sounds with some slow, focused practice. This approach is really nothing new to drummers, but now it has a more formalized name, and believe me, music researchers are fascinated by its potential.

Our instrument is slowly receiving more and more attention from the science world, and this is one esoteric area I believe deserves quite a bit of study. Researchers at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego have technology that lets them map a picture of the brain as you perform. Imagine using audiation to create sounds in your mind and seeing a picture of where it occurs. What might this tell us about how music and language are related?

Point being… from here forward, science will be exploring music perception to a degree that’s light years ahead of what’s come before. If we adapt as drummers and learn more about how we perceive music, it can help us take things further as well.


Peter Erskine often speaks of the simplicity of playing just a quarter note. Here’s a simple exercise that if done correctly will demonstrate a practical application of audiation:

1. Play four measure of quarter notes on your ride cymbal, medium tempo.

2. Pretty boring, huh?

3. Now, close your eyes and play those same four measure in your head, and perfectly and precisely as you can. Focus on seeing the cymbal in your mind and watching the stick hit the surface. Make it perfect. Okay, eyes open.

4. Not so boring.

5. Close your eyes again. Play four perfect measures of time, and then let four more measures pass in silence.

I think you’ll find the results to be very interesting…

When I do this, two things happen: my mind begins to improvise in the silent four measures without effort, and I feel a stronger connection to all four limbs.

Give it a shot, and see what you hear.. literally.

Floyd Sneed: The Unmistakeable Backbeat of Three Dog Night

When I was a kid growing up in Delaware in the 70’s, I listened to a lot of top-40 radio while in elementary and middle school. Three Dog Night was one of my favorite groups, and it was the first group where I distinctly remember listening to the drummer for the feel he created. That drummer was Floyd Sneed.

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He played a clear, acrylic Zickos kit with double bass, which at the time was about as cool as it got. Floyd was built like Billy Cobham, so his physical presence behind the kit was formidable. His solid grooves and use of backbeat were what really got my attention. (Note: If you’re ever in Hollywood and want to see his kit, walk through the doors of Pro Drum and look up and behind you, on the shelf above the door…).

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Disco was about eight years away from invading the airwaves, but Floyd employed a kind of groove that clearly preceded what would become the classic sound, and he also played it in a way that Billy Cobham would later popularize on his China cymbal. “Black and White” kicks that groove in well, and I remember getting a very strong sense of feel that made me appreciate keeping time quite a bit.

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His backbeat always seemed (at least to me) to hang back just a bit, creating a very cool platform for the other musicians to contribute over. Some guys just have it in their blood, and the rest of us have to work at figuring it out. I still cogitate on it from one measure to another at times…

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Three Dog Night owned the airways for a brief period during the 70’s, delivering one pop hit after another with no Pro Tools, and I would seriously doubt any click-tracks. It was human beings playing human feel, with incredible harmonies. As disco began its insidious invasion, I lamented the loss of simple pop music, but I often thought about Floyd Sneed and his great feel. “Out in the Country,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Never Been to Spain,” “Joy to the World,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come” are just a few that come to mind.

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Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet Floyd when I was writing for Easyriders magazine. He lived near the offices, and he was playing in a little bar around the street. I introduced myself during the break and told him how much I had loved his playing over the years, and we had a great conversation. Turns out he was as equally interested in art, and he has done a lot with it as a mode of personal expression.

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We met a few more times at the same bar, and one night, he gave me a small paperback about Three Dog Night. I have no idea what ever happened to it over the years, but it meant a lot coming from a drumming idol.

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Every generation has their music and the values they associate with it. Mine will always be the 70’s, an era that emphasized the human element of real-time performance. Floyd’s grooves, feel, and musical fills hold a special place, and if you want to hear good, solid, musical drumming, check out the streaming tunes available for a bit of old school schooling. You might just find yourself tapping your toes, bobbing your head and humming… the way you do when something works the way it should and is played as it should.

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For me, Floyd Sneed’s playing is a backbeat model for drummers, someone I will always look forward to returning to, providing reminders of when music was truly magical to me, and how to keep my own feet tapping and head bobbing…

 

For more information on Floyd Sneed, checkout his website at http://www.floydsneed.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Top Practice Areas For Increasing Your Drumming Speed

Welcome to the AfterTimes. We live in strange days and a new world as of only a few months ago. It’s filled with a great deal of uncertainty that until now we’ve only seen in movies. Kids born today will be referred as Generation WTF, I’m sure of it.

As we wait for better days, some things never change. The need to practice and improve our drumming craft doesn’t have to succumb to Covid-19 or anything else if we can stay healthy and stay focused. Since a great many drummers of all ages want to increase their speed, here are five top areas for you to work on.

  1. Use Proper Technique: Sloppy practice equals sloppy neural programming. Garbage in, garbage out. Take care of technique, and speed comes much easier. This means LEARN YOUR RUDIMENTS and PRACTICE MOVING VERY SLOWLY AND PRECISELY. Exaggerate your movements to discover the full range of motion of each rudiment you’re learning.
  2. Think Fast: You have to be able to hear the speed you aspire to. Sing patterns out loud. Doing this energizes your entire mind/body connection. Hear them in your head and re-create them, over and over and over and over. You’re priming your neural pathways by doing so. Use a metronome while you do this. You’ll be quite surprised at how effective this technique is.
  3. Relax: Part of proper technique is relaxing. This is different from executing the movements precisely, because if you stiffen up as you speed up, you’ll choke yourself out. Breathe, keep you shoulders relaxed, and the SECOND you feel your muscles tighten up, STOP. Shake your hands off, stretch your legs and calves, then get back to it.
  4. Visualize Your Performance: Close your eyes and see yourself practicing, gradually increasing your speed. This also helps develop the mind/body connection, and if you don’t believe me, ask professional athletes and coaches who’ve been using this technique for decades. See your hands starting slow with say, paradiddles, and then moving faster and faster. The same applies to your feet.
  5. Vary Your Stick Weights and Pedal Tension: Use three different weight sticks (light, medium heavy), and alternate between them as you practice. Try playing marching sticks as quietly as possible to discover the degree to which you can refine your control, then switch immediately to light sticks (7A), then medium (5A), or some similar combination. Likewise with bass drum pedals, although this does take little more work. If you can find small weight to attach to the beater stem, give that a try, or adjust the pedal distance quite a ways back form the head. This will definitely make you work harder.

Most of us have nowhere else to be right now, so give these ideas a shot and see what happens. Ultimately, we want to be able to play whatever we do musically, and there is a time and a place to unleash and make a blistering musical statement. If you put time into developing these five top areas of improving your speed, you may soon discover that your inner drummer has a Ferrari waiting to be revved and cut loose. All you have to do is turn the practice key, and you’ll be leaving these strange days in the dust before you know it.  Good luck!

Readiness Potential and Drumming: Priming Your Neural Pathways Like A Boss

In the spring of 1985, I lived in Santa Cruz, California. It’s a beautiful beach town with hills overlooking the pristine Monterey Bay. I was attending Cabrillo Community College with hopes of transferring to UC Santa Cruz to study the more esoteric aspects of drumming and psychology in a self-study environment. One of the classes offered at Cabrillo really caught my eye because of the link between drumming, the body and the mind, so I enrolled in Physiological Psychology…

It was a fairly dry class until the day the professor introduced us to the concept of Readiness Potential, and that’s when my drumming world turned itself upside down. The concept was simple: when you think abut doing something, conducting an action of any sorts, the nerves associated with that action come alive with a kind of “Ready, Set” priming. The nerves await your “Go” signal before completing the action.

For example, suppose you want to reach for a glass of water on a table. Your mind sends the “Get ready to reach for the glass, activate all nerves pathways asociated with completing this action, and wait for my signal” command. You’re cocked and locked, so to speak…

I was absolutely enthralled with this notion, because it’s applications to drumming and all music performance were immediately clear.

Think about the times you have heard a song and wanted to learn the drumming part. You listen closely, and somehow, your body seems to already know how to play the part. You can almost feel your limbs coming alive with the desire to play…

Get the picture?

When you hear a drum part, you are in effect thinking about it, and by thinking about it, you are sending the signals to your nerves and muscles to play the part… if you can hear and understand it clearly in your mind FIRST. By employing Readiness Potential in your practice, you can strengthen the link between your mind and your body without ever touching a drum set or a pair of sticks. It’s not a replacement for actual physical practice, mind you, but it certainly helps at a deep level. Gary Chaffee mentioned this idea of keeping the neural pathways primed in his Patterns series of books, and I remembered that phrase when I thought about how to apply Readiness Potential to my own practice and playing.

I found a link recently to a scientific study that backs this idea up:

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/08989290152541449?journalCode=jocn

Now, here’s how are some ways you can actually apply Readiness Potential to your practice routine…


Since most of us are right handed, take a second to just look at your left hand. Now, visualize it hitting the snare drum and hear the sound (this phenomena is referred to as audiation). Now, visualize hitting it with matched grip, then switching to traditional grip.

Next, visualize moving your left hand back and forth from the snare to the mounted tom. Then, snare to cymbal…

If you are sensitive enough, you will feel the slightest energizing of your arm and the desire to move it. THAT’s readiness potential.

Try hearing the most famous drum fill that Phil Collins ever played, and visualize your hands playing it. If you can feel THAT, you know exactly what I’m talking about…


Readiness Potential is incredibly powerful as a practice and performance tool that has not been discussed largely to date. It’s application to polyrhythms in particular are awesome, and in terms of practicing dynamic level balancing, equally valuable.

Jazz drummer George Marsh, author of Inner Drumming, uses concepts of Tai Chi to develop a flow from mind to body as applied to the drum set. You can apply Readiness Potential to that book, or any drum study book, by hearing the patterns SLOWLY… and if you’ve ever wondered why drum teachers were SO insistent that you practice slowly, this is why. You are programming your mind with either precision or rough edges… slower really is faster in the long run…

So for now, try some simple exercises like visualizing moving your arm up and down, or your foot up and down. Sit quietly, see it in your mind, and hear the sound of the drum in your mind. You are sending signal to make the action happen… but don’t play. Just THINK about it, hear and see it in your head, strengthen and develop your ability to conceive it first. Do this for 5 minutes, then go play the same patterns you were thinking about…

Do with your weaker limbs first, by the way, and then see what happens…

You can also apply it to sheet music: Look at a piece of music, like say, a page out of Stick Control, and just hear it in your head. Play it all the way through, and sound it out in your mind.

You are sending practice signals to the nerves and muscles to perform the music without actually playing the music.

Try this with a single line of music, and envision, say, your left hand playing it. You are actually practicing the use of your left hand without moving it.

Now, imagine all four limbs playing a simple pattern. You can practice the drums in your mind to keep the neural pathways prepped and sharp…

The potential for application of readiness potential is virtually unlimited…

If you can discipline your mind in this way, you can practice drummer ANYwhere, ANYtime… it’ll open some very interesting doors, I promise you…

 


 

 

 

Now, suppose you hear a drum pattern and think about it, trying to figure out how to play it. Your brain starts sending the “ready, set” signals, which accounts for how sometimes you hear something and feel like you already know how to play it.

I found a link recently to a scientific study that backs this idea up:

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/08989290152541449?journalCode=jocn

I’ve been interested in this subject for many years, but what are the practical applications for you?

Try this sometime: look at a piece of music, and just hear it in your head. Play it all the way through, and sound it out in your mind.

You are sending practice signals to the nerves and muscles to perform the music without actually playing the music.

Try this with a single line of music, and envision, say, your left hand playing it. You are actually practicing the use of your left hand without moving it.

Now, imagine all four limbs playing a simple pattern. You can practice the drums in your mind to keep the neural pathways prepped and sharp…

The potential for application of readiness potential is virtually unlimited…

Hey Drummers, Compose Your Musical Future!

Howdy again from ATX, home of SXSW and some very entertaining bats who erupt from underneath the Congress Avenue bridge. I moved back home two years ago to regain some perspective on a lot of things, including music and drumming. I wanted to share a few thoughts with you about both in this piece, focusing on how we create our true musical future.

Many years ago, a friend of mine from high school (guitarist Chris McDermott) said I should write my own music to showcase myself and my style of drumming. I’ll never forget that conversation, a brief phone call that changed everything. I was heavily into odd meters at the time (1979) and had been since high school, when composer Hank Levy came up from Baltimore on a government arts grants to teach us his style of music. Hank was writing for Don Ellis and Stan Kenton at the time, and he believed a rhythmic revolution was long overdue.

I had very little music education and did not really think I could write my own music. There was no Garage Band, no Pro Tools, no laptops to help you construct music one step at a time on an electronic grid. There was blank sheet music, pencils, and inspiration. For someone with my level of ADD, learning how to read music was agonizing. The symbols barely made sense, and it was extremely frustrating to even think about following my friend’s suggestion of somehow showcasing myself…

But… there were cassette recorders…

I started singing my ideas into a cheesy-assed Radio Shack cassette recorder, hoping that some day, I could find the focus to write the notes down and bring things to life. I dreamed of there being technology like we have today, which probably seems impossible to imagine that it was not around. Every couple of years or so, I’d go back East to Delaware and be fortunate enough to spend a day in the recording studio of another high school friend (keyboardist Paul Harlyn), who’d let me tinker and explore. We’d capture the ideas on tape, and I continued to dream of the day when I could buy all the equipment I needed to spend hours diving into the sonic palettes that awaited.

It would be many years later that I’d finally acquire some equipment and begin my own electronic explorations. I bought a TEAC 4-track from Paul Harlyn in 1987 and started making my very first actual compositions, and here’s one that I wrote in a Washington D.C.

“Morning Walk Through Tibetan Gardens”

I used an Ensonique sampling keyboard, layered a few tracks, and BOOM! I was a composer! It was pure magic to bring these sounds in my head to life and actually MAKE something happen, taking charge of my music and life for the first time. I could finally combat my ADD and be patient enough to take the small steps necessary to bring the ideas out and make them happen. It was a game-changing moment.


Now, fast-forward to today. I’ve accomplished a lot outside of music, written books, screenplays, learned to fly and teach flying, traveled the country as a writer for a Harley magazine… but cranking out my own CD of original compositions still remains unachieved. It’s really the last big goal, because it’s the one I’ve had on my mind forever but had to put behind some of the other larger goals.

And here’s my point. Well, two actually. One… as drummers, if you aspire to lead your own band, to create your own music, know that this is the best time in history to do so, because you have incredible tools at your disposal, more powerful than is sometimes believable. Learn them, use them, and do it TODAY.

Second point… Don’t ever tell yourself you aren’t a composer. Every time you create a beat for a song, you ARE COMPOSING. You can learn the basics of song construction, simple music theory, and you can noodle around with the endless sound possibilities on a synthesizer until your fingers fall asleep. You’ll hear cool sound here and there, learn to cut and paste loops, add some effects here and there, and make music that YOU enjoy playing.

Here are a few samples of explorations from 1987 to 2020, to give you an idea of how things evolved. I hope they give you some inspiration to explore, and to reach out to musicians from around the world to collaborate with. I hope to do this in 2020, as I’ve seen a great of it being done lately and know just how possible it is.


1987-1990: Still living in Washington, D.C., aching to get back to California. I had a one of the original square Macintoshes, with Mark of the Unicorn software that I never fully mastered. Most everything else was just multi-tracked onto my faithful TASCAM 244. I still have those tapes, and I found a newer version of the 244 in a pawn shop for $50!

 

“Go Dog Go”

 

“Funk 5 Dub”

 

2004-2007: I was living in San Luis Obispo and had a Roland TD6, a Korg keyboard (model unknown), and a Fender Squire Strat and Precision Bass set-up. I was using Cubasis, running into a big blue Mac desktop that surely weighed 100 lbs. I used a TASCAM analog to digital converter to bring all the sounds into the Mac, and it was a lot of fun to see where things could go.

 

“The Crawl”

 

“Ghost 23”

 

“Some Thunk Funk”

 

“Nature Boy”

 

2017-2019: Between my last few years in L.A., and then once in Austin, I could more fully dive into ProTools, my Roland Handsonic, and a handful of other Roland synths to discover some cool sounds.

 

“10-4 Tribal Groove”

 

“27”

 

“Chasing Mr. Z”

 

“The Hunt”

 

“Madge Likes Mars”

 


 

I play all the instruments on these clips, trying to lay down ideas that I’ll share with like-minded and more skilled musicians to help bring them to life. I hope you’ll do the same with your music, and compose your own future. Drummers lead, we don’t follow. We drive the band and energize the music. There’s no reason we can’t do it for ourselves if we so choose.

And there’s no better time than now to do so.

– David Aldridge

 

 

 

 

Two Grooves, Keep Your Hands Low

Happy New Year from Austin, Texas, and my nifty new rehearsal studio. I finally found a great room (Music Lab) where I can put allllll of my drums and percussion equipment, including my vintage Fibes and my cool little Gretsch Catalina Club Street kit.

 

Here’s two short clips for you to demonstrate something I’ve spent a fair amount of time on over the past few years: keeping my hands low, until I need to unleash. The economy of movement saves energy, reduces travel distance, and gives me more control over dynamics than I’ve had in previous years.

 

Clip #1 is straight 4/4 groove on the Gretsch kit, something simple but fun to play. I end it with a 6-stroke roll (RLLRRL), played low to maximize rebound and volume control.

Clip #2 is on the Fibes kit, a 5/4 funk groove with a few Cobham-inspired licks thrown in. It’s a louder kit, obviously, so the hands are coming up a little higher than with the Gretsch groove, but the idea is still the same: use the least amount of energy to get the most out of what you’re playing.

I use a lot of wrist snapping and finger squeezing to get the snap and precision that help keep things flowing. The reserves volume is always there if I need it, but at 60, I do find that conserving energy helps me get through the night without cramping my hands and losing my breath!

 

I hope you enjoy these samples, and when you’re practicing, try keeping your hands low to the drums during timekeeping and fills. I use a lot of last-second velocity to bring the stick down quick and then pull it back, as gravity isn’t quite able to do the job alone.

 

Here’s hoping 2020 gives you everything you want in music in more, and as always, thanks for checking things out. There will be many more such clips coming, so please check back or subscribe to the blog. See ya!

Meet Gary Leach and Beats Exotiques – Drum Grooves For Independence

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Three years ago or so, I was experimenting with posting video clips on Periscope. In a short period of time, a following developed, including positive comments and encouragement from an English gentleman named Gary Leach. He posted his own videos, shot in a small room, using his iPhone. What struck me about Gary the most was his sincere enthusiasm and desire to impart his vast knowledge of beats to whomever might spend a few minutes watching and listening.

Fast forward …

After working with exhausting detail to produce and explore his grooves, Gary took the self-publishing plunge and created Beats Exotiques – Drum Grooves For Independence. And take the plunge he did. His organization of materials is impeccable. The level of detail is extraordinary. The cultural range of grooves is indeed exotic, drawing from Africa, Brazil, Cuba and many more countries.

The grooves he presents incorporate both ride cymbal and cowbell, with enough of the latter to satisfy even Christopher Walken. They are beats that Gary enjoys playing, so in a sense, the book was really a labor of love. They are organized into Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced examples, with 850-plus bars of rhythms and ostinatos collected over the last ten years.

Like I said, he plunged.

You can see examples inside the book at the website, www.beats-exotiques.com, where you can also download MP3 examples of every groove in the book. This aspect in itself is invaluable, as the MP3 files may be used by the non-reading drumming to learn the patterns. Gary developed a visual aid system that employs empty and darkened boxes, aligned horizontally, to depict the silence and sound of each pattern. It’s novel, useful, and easy to grasp.

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Okay, that’s the technical end of Gary’s book. Anyone can write a review. I want to tell you about the person. As regular readers of this blog know, I rarely ever mention a product. That’s not what this is about. What it is about is discovering interesting PEOPLE and their path. Without fail, every comment Gary posted about my short little Periscope videos was positive and encouraging. He’s the real deal. He honestly cares about teaching, sharing, improving a student’s playing and breadth of knowledge.

I used to watch his clips sometimes when I was the only person on Periscope seeing his videos. He played and talked like the whole world was watching, and that was intriguing. He really loved figuring out how to make the groove GROOVE, make it sound right and honest. You’d see him tuning it up on the spot, and I really enjoyed this. Point being, you could see where the exhaustive list of patterns found their study origins, and it really gave me some interesting context within which to appreciate his book.

Speaking from personal experience, I KNOW this project took a tremendous amount of effort, and it shows. If you want to broadly expand your groove knowledge with rhythms from around he world, and if you fancy a bit of cowbell to break up the monotony, Beats Exotiques will show you the way. It’ll take a bit of time to get through over 200 pages of examples, but you won’t be bored.

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And when you do take a break, check out the man himself on drummercouk (YouTube). You can hear examples the beats, played by Gary. There’s heart and soul in his sticks and lessons, and that’s something we drummers can never get enough of.

 

 

 

 

Drum! magazine is closing

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As you read this, Drum!magazine is preparing to shut down. One of the longest-running drum publications will be closing its doors after a run of twenty-eight years. Originally spawned from Drums and Drumming, Drum! magazine was launched under the publishing direction of Phil Hood, his wife Connie, and editor Andy Doerschuk in September 1991.

I wrote regularly for Drum! throughout the 90’s, doing features and providing whatever ink Andy needed. I was introduced to Andy when he was editor of Drums and Drumming, where I wrote the introduction to a piece called “The Drummers of Miles Davis” (the body of the article was written by the late Adam Ward Seligman). This assignment was the beginning of my professional writing career, something I’ve always been grateful for.

Andy gave me a truly powerful lesson in writing in that article, showing me how moving paragraph three of the intro to the very beginning proved to be the perfect editorial change. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve used this writing device, but I certainly owe it to him.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to interview some of drumming and percussion’s true heavyweights, including Terry Bozzio and Chad Wackerman, Luis Conte, Bill Summers, Rick Allen, and Virgil Donati. Through Drum!, I also had the opportunity to write my dream article, “10 Billy Cobham Tracks You Must Hear.”

Phil Hood sold Drum! to Stringfellow Publishing in 2016, where it was steered by Nick Grizzle. The magazine converted to a quarterly version, but even this reduction was not enough to prevent the virtually inevitable overrun by the digital world and the reduction in demand for printed matter. In a nine-hundred mile and hour, sound byte world, waiting a few months for something to hold in your hands simply proved too much for conventional publishing.

I have little additional information to offer, but I do know that Drum! will not be forgotten. It was a magazine that wanted to always remind you that you should be playing. The title was a directive, a command, an order of the highest order, to get behind your kit and light it up. The exclamation point in the title was no accident. It was an imperative.

And it IS imperative that we continue to do exactly that.

 

 

Dr. Nadia Azar – A Pioneer in Drumming/Sports Medicine Research You Should Know About

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photo credit: Dr. Nadia Azar

“Drummers should be training their bodies for the demands of their profession, to be able to perform at their peak and to avoid getting injured.” – Dr. Nadia Azar, Associate Professor, University of Windsor

 

The academic exploration of drummers and the drum set is kind of like Oklahoma at the near turn of the 20th century; vastly wide open and mostly unclaimed. It was the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 that sent settlers blazing across the unassigned lands, as they were called, all seeking a spot to stake out and build upon.

 

In the world of human movement studies, Dr. Nadia Azar has hitched her horses to a unique research wagon of her own design and is pioneering the exploration of exercise analysis and pain research as applied to the drum set. With the help of Mike Mangini (Dream Theater) and Jeff Burrows (The Tea Party), Dr. Azar is opening the doors for future academic exploration of the drum set and the players who up until now have not likely seen themselves as athletes who can benefit from a sports training perspective.

 

I discovered Dr. Azar’s work on a Twitter feed and contacted her requesting an interview. Regular readers of this blog know that I usually just write about someone and leave it to you to explore further. The Clem Burke Drumming Project is such an example:

https://davidaldridge.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/clem-burke-drumming-project-studying-drumming-and-the-brain/

 

I wrote a fairly short post about it 2009, briefly describing the project and the research being conducted with respect to drumming and exercise.  However, in this case. I felt it was important to get the story directly from Dr. Azar about her work and its potential application.  If you click on the following link, you can view her university website and background.

http://www.uwindsor.ca/kinesiology/455/dr-nadia-azar

 

What follows is a Q & A conducted via e-mail to allow Dr. Azar to expound on her project. Hopefully, it will inspire drummers to participate in her future research and perhaps even nudge some of you into the realm of academia to help push the research envelope further. It also serves to lay groundwork for the next evolution of this blog, into a second one that will be focusing specifically on Drum Set Research (the new blog name).

 

We’ll be interviewing Dr. Azar again when her current study on drumming and pain is complete. I encourage drummers to check out her studies in this area especially and to please help her complete a survey that could eventually help drummers down the line with respect to pain research, management and avoidance. You’ll find the link at the end of this interview.

 

That said, let’s get to know a bit about Dr. Azar and her work…

 

What first prompted you to study drummers?

“In the fall of 2016, I was at a Dream Theater concert watching Mike Mangini playing, and I thought to myself how great it would be if I could hook him up to my research equipment and see what his back muscles were doing while he was playing. About a week later, Mike tweeted something about his drumming technique, so I took a chance and responded that I’d like to study his technique, not really expecting that he’d respond. Well… he did, and we began corresponding about possible research projects! As I started digging into the research literature, I realized that there is very little research on the biomechanics of playing the drums, and on drumming-related pain and injuries. So, I decided to design some research studies to start investigating these things myself.”

 

Do you play drums? Other instruments? If so, please share some background, favorite groups and musicians, influences, etc.

“I can play a 4/4 beat, maybe even add in a basic fill – but I wouldn’t call myself a drummer. The summer before I started high school, my friend’s cousin set up his drum kit in her basement, and he taught us how to play. We spent the summer playing Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ on a loop. I did take piano lessons for about eight years though, and I also played the flute for three years.

“[As for] favorite groups & musicians – there are so many! Dream Theater, Disturbed, Walk Off the Earth, Walk the Moon, The Tea Party, Imagine Dragons, 311, Phish, and many more.”

 

How did you become interested in kinesiology/biomechanics?

“I’ve always been interested in sports, health, and how the human body works. When I was deciding on potential career paths, my high-school guidance counsellor introduced me to the field of ergonomics. The Kinesiology program at the University of Windsor allowed me to pursue my combined interests, and our graduate program also has a strong biomechanics/ergonomics stream.”

 

What made you want to pursue your Ph.D, and what was the focus of your thesis?

“My father is a (now retired) University professor. I knew I wanted to pursue research as a career, but in an entirely different subject area (he was in Education). When I finished my Master’s degree at the University of Windsor, I was working as a research technician for one of my former professors. I loved it, but it was a temporary position, so I started looking for PhD programs and came across the Biomedical Engineering program at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. It was one of the top programs in the country, and it appealed to me because it would allow me to learn more about biomechanics from an engineering perspective. My thesis project studied the neck muscles’ responses to stretching of one of the ligaments in the spine. It was part of a larger project whose goal was to investigate potential mechanisms for how whiplash-related neck pain develops.”

 

How does your work differ from the Clem Burke drumming project in England?

“With respect to the calorie counting case studies I’ve done: they are similar to the Clem Burke Project in that we both documented drummers’ energy expenditure (i.e., calories burned) during live performances. I am using different equipment than they did, and my approach is also different – whereas theirs was a formal research study, I am using this as an exercise in knowledge translation and raising awareness. It’s an interesting and accessible way to demonstrate to the public that playing the drums is a vigorous physical activity that can be used as an alternative to traditional forms of exercise, like going to the gym or playing organized sports.

“The Clem Burke Project was the first to put his idea forward, and they took some important steps in getting this message out to the public. I’m now trying to take it a step further by documenting song-by-song energy expenditures in high-profile drummers. If information on rates of energy expenditure (i.e., calories per kilogram body weight per minute) were available on a song-by-song basis, people who want to play the drums for exercise could customize exercise ‘playlists’ to their preferred intensity levels as well as their favorite songs. This is my long-term objective with this branch of my research – to get enough drummers to do this so I can create a database of calorie burn rates per song.

“The flip side of this work is to make the point, especially to full-time, professional drummers, that they need to start looking at themselves as athletes, and start training as such. The Clem Burke Project showed that drummers’ HR [heart rate] profiles similar to those of professional soccer players. Professional athletes don’t just get on a field or a court and play games/matches – they engage is a significant amount of training, including both skill-specific drills and general strength/conditioning, in order to handle the physical demands of their sport and to deliver their peak performance. Based on what we know about the physical demands of drumming, it’s no different – but I don’t believe many drummers view it this way. Drummers should be training their bodies for the demands of their profession, to be able to perform at their peak and to avoid getting injured.

“My other research on drummers is completely different from the Clem Burke Project. I mentioned earlier that when I started looking into research on the biomechanics of drumming, there was next to nothing on drumming-related pain and injuries. So, I designed a survey that will allow me to document the prevalence and patterns of playing-related musculoskeletal disorders in drummers, and identify some of the playing-related and lifestyle characteristics and/or habits that might either help drummers avoid these injuries/problems, or put them at risk of developing them. The survey results won’t be able to tell me whether these characteristics or habits CAUSE injuries – but it will tell me which characteristics/habits are related to an increased or decreased likelihood of reporting injuries. From there, I can design more studies to study the different risk factors or protective factors in more depth. The survey is available at the following website:”

https://uwindsor.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4SLzudTazCNBWw5

 

Do you have research autonomy, or did you have to convince supervisors about the validity of your present research to make it happen?

“I do have research autonomy, so I didn’t have to convince my dean or department head that the work was valid. My challenge will be to convince the research funding agencies.”

 

When you first began the project, did you find others in your field exploring this subject matter? If not, what did this suggest to you?

“Not at all – there are very few people studying drumming biomechanics, and no one studying playing-related injuries specifically in drummers. Most of the studies I’ve read only include a handful of percussionists, and it’s often not clear whether drummers were included in the study. Most of them also focus on classically-trained percussionists, and don’t consider the differences in the physical demands of playing different music genres. However, we’ve all heard of high-profile drummers who have battled career-threatening injuries – we know it’s a problem, but it hasn’t been systematically studied and documented. I saw a real need for research in this area, so I took it as an opportunity.”

 

How did you choose your first subject, and how did you get introduced to Mike Mangini?

“The calorie counting study wasn’t actually part of my original research plan. It sort of evolved organically – one day, Mike tweeted a guess at how many calories he burns during his shows. We had already been in touch for a few months at that point, so I told him that if he wanted to find out, I had a way to do that. I told Jeff Burrows (The Tea Party) about it, too, and they both thought it would be fun to find out.

“If you mean, how did I make his acquaintance, see the answer to #1 – it was entirely serendipitous. He tweeted about his technique, I took a chance and responded, he wrote back, and the rest is history. If you mean, how was I introduced to him as an artist? I’ve been a fan of Dream Theater since my husband introduced me to them about 19 years ago, so I was ‘introduced’ to him when he joined the band in 2010.

“I’ve also been a fan of The Tea Party for almost 25 years, so I was thrilled when Jeff Burrows offered to get involved. We kept in touch, and an opportunity to collect data on him came up during The Tea Party’s residency at The Horseshoe Tavern (Toronto, ON).”

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Dr. Nadia Azar and Mike Mangini – photo credit: Melissa King

 

How did they react to the project? Did they contribute to its structure with any suggestions regarding approach?

“Neither of them really ‘reacted’, so to speak – this entire line of work evolved based on my Twitter interactions with Mike and our first conversation, and Jeff came on board shortly afterwards. So, they have both been involved since the projects’ inception, and their interest and contributions have evolved with the projects as they developed. Aside from being participants in the calorie counting study, both Jeff and Mike were active collaborators in working out the logistics and facilitating collecting the data during live shows. Along the way, they have both provided informal suggestions for this and other studies I am planning, basically being sounding boards for my ideas. Jeff also contributed to the development of the drummer injury survey as a member of the expert review panel, and has been actively promoting my work through social media.”

 

Please describe in layman’s terms the calorie measuring device and technology you use.

“The device I use is the BodyMedia®  FIT armband. It is a small device (about 1.5” square) that is secured to the back of your upper arm using a Velcro strap. The device contains four sensors:

  1. A triaxial accelerometer, which measures motion in 3 planes (up-down, side-side, front-back)
  2. A temperature sensor, to monitor your skin temperature
  3. A heat flux sensor, to monitor the rate at which you are dissipating body heat
  4. A galvanic skin response sensor, which monitors the conductivity of your skin (a value that increases with sweating)

The sensor data are recorded once per minute and stored on the device. After the drumming session, I remove the armbands and download the data to my computer. The software that comes with the armbands contains algorithms that use the sensor data, along with basic participant information (height, weight, age, sex, handedness, and smoking status) to predict energy expenditure (i.e., calories burned).”

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Jeff Burrows – photo credit: David Torbett

 

Please describe in layman’s terms the basic elements of your research approach to calorie burning.

“I chose to collect data during live performances because it is the most convenient way for professional drummers to participate – they don’t have to make a special trip to my my lab, which is located in Windsor, Ontario. Windsor is right across the Canada-USA border from Detroit, Michigan, and Toronto, Ontario is also only a few hours away. So, between those three cities, which are typically stops on most bands’ tours, I can easily travel to wherever the drummer will be.

“Sometime before the start of the show ([which] can be minutes or hours, depending on the drummers’ preferences), I meet with the drummer to put on the armbands and synchronize them. The drummer then goes and plays the show. During the show, I also wear an armband that has been synchronized to theirs, and I use the timestamping feature to record the start and ending of every song. I meet up with them again after the show to remove the bands, then I take them back to my computer to download and analyze the data.

 

What were your goals with this project beyond simply measuring calorie burn? Were you able to correlate separate calorie burn isolation for the individual limbs, or is it only measure collectively?”

“Re: goals beyond measuring calories, please see my answer to #5.

“The drummers wear an armband on each arm, and I take an average of the readouts of the two armbands. Normally, you would have a participant wear only one armband on their non-dominant arm, but since playing the drums has a lot of upper limb movement and both limbs are active nearly equally, I wanted to take measurements using both arms. Interestingly, both Jeff and Mike were pretty symmetrical – the estimates were pretty similar for both arms. However, the numbers don’t represent the calorie burn of each individual arm – they are estimates of whole-body energy expenditure.

 

What were your overall thoughts and observations concerning your results? What does calorie burning data tell you about drumming in general, and why is this of value?

“I was really pleased to see the variation between the songs of different intensities. For Mike, because Dream Theater played the same set list on both data collection nights, I was able to look at the reliability of the estimates for each song, and I was happy (and amazed) to see how consistent he was from night to night. I was also very happy to see that the numbers I was getting were in the same ballpark as those that have been reported in the research literature so far (e.g., the Clem Burke project, and two other studies I’m aware of). Those studies used different methods than I did, so I can’t directly compare my numbers to theirs, but it was good to see that my equipment wasn’t wildly off from the published data.

“As far as what this data tells me about drumming in general and why it’s of value, I think I answered that in #5 already. But to reiterate – it demonstrates that playing the drums is a vigorous physical activity, which is important to know for two reasons:

  1. Playing the drums can be used as an alternative to traditional forms of exercise like going to the gym or playing organized sports. This is good news for people who don’t like these kinds of activities – they can still get in a good workout doing something fun.
  2. Drummers need to be aware of the demands they are placing on their bodies, and engage in strength and endurance training to prepare their bodies to meet these demands.

It’s this final though that serves as a vital stepping off point for the future of drumming physiology research. We are indeed engaging in not only a cerebral and a musical activity, but also a decidedly physical one. Perfecting your technique will not turn you into an automaton, but rather, will hopefully extend your ability to play for many years.


 

To this end, once again, please check out Dr. Azar’s link to her survey on drum-related pain and problems:

https://uwindsor.ca1.qualtrics.com/…/form/SV_4SLzudTazCNBWw5

 

And lastly, it’s worth repeating that one of Dr. Azar’s very interesting research goals is being able to design an exercise program based on the calorie-burn rate of songs in your playlist. It would be very interesting to see how double bass songs, for example, differ in terms of calorie burn from more straight ahead single kick drum beats. These are just the tip of the iceberg of research doors waiting to be opened.


 

I’d like to thank Dr. Azar for taking the time to answer my questions and help make this particular blog possible. She’s headed into unknown territory with great interest and curiosity, and that’s exactly what our drumming world needs to further our knowledge of how performance on our amazing instrument can be improved upon. And you can be sure that as a pioneer of drum set research, Dr. Azar is looking waaaaaay past Oklahoma …

– David R. Aldridge

Returning to Roots: Black Sabbath’s First Album and Its Truthful Content

sabbath-1

I’ve been a jazz drummer forever, but rock was the foundation, back in the early 70’s. Recently, I revisited an album that transformed not only drumming but my perception of playing. It’s feeding my soul more than I expected, and I’d like to share some thoughts about that …

 

In 1970, and I was a kid growing up in Newark, Delaware. I had a neighbor who was a little older, and she was into the coolest music. She loaned me a copy of Black Sabbath, and I can honestly remember the first few moments of the opening track like it was yesterday.

 


 

“Black Sabbath” starts with quiet rainfall, then a distant chime … and then the metal. Three notes. Three simple notes … followed by drummer Bill Ward’s deep tom fills, and Ozzy’s unmistakable dark to the depth of your soul voice.

 

The unadulterated purity of musical truth, right there in your face, not racing to the next measure. Just being. A simple hi-hat pulse to carry the rest of the song, dressed with Ward’s equally understated fills. Truly musical drumming, on a level I still look back at with great respect. His use of dynamics in the fills made all the difference.

 

sabbath-4

 

“The Wizard” lit it up with raw harmonica, then Tony Iommi’s fuzz tones from below. Ward’s rock beat had more bounce to it than just a solid slam, something I’m sure he owed to his years of jazz inspiration. His sparse use of an occasional open hi-hat was more like a scoop, but to me, it showed some intentional execution that was placed exactly where he wanted it to happen. And this in itself was a further drumming lesson.

 

The lengthy “Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Bassically/N.I.B.” starts with a jazz waltz! Then it transitions to a solid Ward pulse, a perfect example of how Black Sabbath could and did shift musical gears on a dime. This too was a lesson in drumming that I was really curious about as a kid. Bill Ward could play MUCH more than just a beat. He played music.

 

“Wicked World” … what other songs of the day began with a classic 4/4 jazz hi-hat groove? Then straight into wall-slamming backbeat? The shifts back and forth from feels were what got my attention, because you didn’t know where things were gonna go at all. And about 2 minutes in, a light jazz ride of sorts and strumming guitar, followed by Iommi ripping into his humbuckers with pure raw strings. A twenty second journey into no-frills, right in your face, be a musician bit of grind.

 

 

“A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning” is the closing tunes, or compilation of songs, depending on you look at it. I can best describe it as Ward and Iommi letting ‘er rip in a variety of feels, from blues/rock to heavy metal shred. And by the way, throughout every track, bassist Geezer Butler is about as solid and understated a player as you’d have heard in the day. He’s so there you don’t even notice him. And that’s pretty damn there!

 


 

Black Sabbath was recorded in one day. ONE DAY. October 16, 1969. And on that day, heavy metal was born. It was released released on 13 February 1970 in the United Kingdom and on 1 June 1970 in the United States, according to a wiki article. It captured the truth of the moment, on this stuff called tape. No digital cleanup, no Pro Tools, no click track. Just four guys and a sound.

 

I was 11 when I heard this album, and man, did it ever imprint. I worked hard to understand Bill Ward’s drumming, and only came to appreciate and grasp it further once I got into jazz a few years later. Over the decades, I faded away from rock and metal, became more of a jazz fusion player, went to the extreme end of polyrhythms and odd meters, but sadly, lost touch with the stuff that lit the fires in the first place. You can play a lifetime and master many things, but if you lose contact with your roots, you just float.

 

“I was born without you, baby, but my feelings were a little bit too strong… just a little bit too strong.” These are the last lines that Ozzy sings, and for me, they mean this: I’m grateful that those feelings were strong enough to last and lead me back to the search for musical truth and roots, because this is what feeds your soul and reminds of where your path began.

 


 

As I prepare to return to my hometown of Austin, Texas, in a few weeks, I have felt an overwhelming urge – and really – a desperate need, to reconnect with such musical truth. What the guys in Black Sabbath laid down over 40 years ago remains as valid a statement of moment as any I can find.

sabbath-2

So here’s to the boys from Birmingham, the art they created, and to doing a bunch of that – from the heart, mistakes and all – be they slips or slides. Because What they are a bigger part of is the point. And that only took 40+ years to figure out…

 

 

 

 

 

Virgil Donati, Camille Bigeault, Gretsch Drums, Austin Texas… and a Muscle car named Em

 

Howdy, gang! Well here we go with some updates about this and that, wherein I get off my overworked ass and propel ink thusly forward …

 

Virgil Donati

virgil-1

I wrote the cover story for the July 2017 issue of DRUM! magazine, featuring the incomparable Virgil Donati. What an amazing drummer all the way around! It was a real pleasure and honor to meet him, and I did the interview on my birthday no less!

We hung in his practice studio for probably three hours, hitting all the bases. And of all the thingd we talked about, I have to say, his microphone and recording set-up were a real inspiration, because he’s done several of his album projects recording remotely in a non-traditional studio environment.

It was truly educational to see how anyone can create an AFFORDABLE remote recording environment. Seriously, you don’t need to go into 30-year debt to create a place where you can record your part, export it to friends via DropBox, and have them import and add their own. Many of you already do this, but for those who don’t (raising hand here), it was eye-opening to see how relatively simple it is to do. Virgil was quite patient in explaining it to a newbie, and further on down in today’s blog, I’ll elaborate a bit…

 

Camille Bigeault

camille

About a year ago, I began seeing video posts and references to a French drummer with some pretty amazing skills. No flash, no glam, just pure understated substance with a great sense of humor. Tama artist Camille Bigeault’s specialty is being about to play complex patterns with individual limbs, combining them to create a song.

This is really cool, and after watching a few of her clips, I became sincerely convinced that she would become a leading explorer in drumming. I friended her on Facebook and sent a message saying exactly that. Last month, Camille was in town, and I got to meet her briefly and hear her sit in at the Baked Potato.

It was fairly loud, as always, but the takeaway was this: after several thousand collective views of her drumming clips, she said she never expected such a response nor really intended to elicit it at that level. It began as a simple 4-limb experiment, playing first one set of notes, then another, then another, that collectively created a song of sorts.

For example, in her “Brain Work” clip on YouTube, Camille plays an 11 pattern with her right hand, kick and hi-hit play a 6 pattern, and her left hand plays a 5 pattern. When it all overlays, you hear a really cool groove, and it works. It’s not forced, strained, or contrived. It’s just cool.

Camille said she posts more stuff on FB, but I’d suggest subscribing to her YouTube channel as well. Either way, She’s got much more interesting stuff planned, and you will want to check it. I think Camille opens such an interesting door for the rest of us, a very advanced one, to explore the drum set as musical instrument capable of creating songs in a unique context.

 

Gretsch Drums

gretsch street club

I’ve been so utterly overloaded these past few months that I can’t remember if I posted anything about finally planting my feet behind a couple of really cool Gretsch kits. Short version: I was looking for a bop kit, and Guy Murai at Guitar Center showed me a Catalina Club Street kit tucked away in the back room.

 

The first drum set I ever heard and saw live was red sparkle, and I’ve always wanted one. That was 52 years ago. Well, this little kit made of mahogany stole my heart in two seconds and three taps. Sticks, mallets, brushes… every thing sounded exactly how I’ve always wanted drums to sound. I like sustain with attack at all volume levels, simple as that.

So, I took it home.

gretsch black

Then I went next door to Sam Ash and found a 7-piece Catalina Club black sparkle kit on the floor. Slightly used, but bigger (which I needed for other stuff), and again, sustain with attack at all volume levels. And good lord, when played with mallets? I couldn’t like it/love it enough. To my ear, exactly what I wanted.

I later picked up a 6.5×14” Chrome over Brass snare, a newer one, to add some oomph where needed, and last week, I went back to GC and found a 5×14 1970’s chrome over brass Grestch snare that was headed home… which leads us perfectly to the next item on our blog list…

 

Austin, Texas

Austin-blog

I was born and raised in the Lone Star state, and after many years of here and there, it’s time to go home. Austin may not be as it was, but it will never lose what it is, and I will be heading there at the end of August to begin the next chapter of all things musical. This will include teaching in a private studio and recording remotely as inspired by Virgil Donati’s explorations.

I moved back briefly in the 80’s, learning how to play blues with Kathy and the Kilowatts. I also met and recorded with Arthur Brown (as in The Crazy World of…), but at the time, I felt I needed to be in Los Angeles for several reasons. Some were valid, some not so much.

In any case, the heavy lifting is done here, including writing several books, so now I want to plant myself in the middle of the country a bit south and have access to the East coast and Europe. British Airways has direct flights to Heathrow, so what more could a guy ask for? Time to reach out across the world from a friendly base, and I am looking forward to ditching the sneakers for my boots.

 

Em-blog

 

… and a Muscle car named Em

For you MOPAR car fans out there, here’s a couple of pics of my horse: a 2013 Dodge Challenger, 5.7l, Hemi, six-speed manual shift. It hauls ass, kids, and you can hear it doing so for many a mile. Badass and bold, is what she is. I call her Em (for muscle), and while she’s completely impractical for hauling a big kit, the little red sparkle kit fits just fine. I’ll get a van later I suppose. We’ll see … but for now, me and Em (ya like the symmetry of that phrase?) are gonna light it up and blaze across the southwest at the speed of Hemi!

So there ya go, what’s up with what’s goin’ down. I hope your summer is rockin’ along with music and mayhem, but if not, you still have six weeks to perspire and inspire. My fuse is sparkling, with dry powder at the end just waiting to make a little noise.

Meanwhile, be kind, stay focused, and make it happen. All of it. Big time.