When I was 15, my Dad took my brother and I to an outdoor piano concert near Austin, Texas. Several young classical pianists were performing that night, and I remember more than one of them saying, “I would like to play TO you tonight…” rather than play FOR.
I thought about that phrase for years, and when it finally made sense, it changed my drumming. But not forever. It’s something you have to constantly think about, which is really what makes it work. What it all comes down to is what you are doing with energy…
When you give someone something, there’s intention. When you put a plate on a table, you place it to stay where it is. When you push the plate across the table to someone, it’s leaving you and emptying out something inside.
From that concert years ago, I thought about giving to an audience. Sometimes in clubs and bars, I would watch a single dancer and play just to her. I’d change things and watch the result change the way the dancer moved, and one time in Santa Cruz, a woman came up to me later and said, “I figured out what you were doing. That was pretty cool…”
As drummers, we work with playing either behind, on or ahead of the beat. When the band wants us to push, we tend to play stronger, a little more aggressive, maybe louder… but tonight as I was practicing, something clicked in my mind, and I redefined “pushing.” In turn, it changed how I gave and put sounds in the process.
Yeah, I know, this really does have the makings of yet another esoteric ramble, but if you bear with me, it’ll actually make solid sense.
As we play over the years, we tend to do a lot on autopilot. Tonight, as I was keeping a very simple funk beat, I watched the bass drum beater, and as it was about to hit the bass drum, I mentally “pushed” it, with intention. Not louder… just… more of a sense of pushing it to the bass drum head. Not INTO to it to muffle the tone, just more presence in getting it there.
I did the same thing with the snare and cymbal, and my playing and the energy flow changed instantly. I mean, in two seconds, I was a different player. My concentration improved as fast, because I had different frame of mind altogether. I used to watch Vinnie Coliauta play in Los Angeles, and I think in retrospect that he was doing something similar.
I was nudging each contact of stick and pedal just ever so slightly more, and it was making the whole thing much more fun to do. Usually, I get bored just banging out time, but this was different. I was creating, giving, putting the sticks and beaters on their respective surfaces, and then then I gave it a little push…
I don’t think this is something that any notation or video could ever convey. All I can say to describe the sensation is that you should try playing quarter notes on the cymbal, and think about pushing the stick and the tip on the cymbal. If you get it, you’ll know it. If not, give it some time and a little practice.
I am really looking forward to spending more energy doing this. If you watch Dennis Chambers playing today, I think you’ll see a really good example of this concept. He stays where he is on the beat, but the energy is always going out of him. Check out his early Parliament playing on YouTube as well.
To wrap it up and hopefully make sense of things, I found that my wanting to give the music to the listener and focusing on where in time I wanted to put the kick, snare and hi-hat/ride, the concept of “pushing” seemed to greatly energize my body and improve my concentration for timekeeping. Hopefully, it can do the same for you.