Sunday, February 14, 2010

How To Make Your Drumming More Meaningful

Pj Roduta, Harry Pepper and Bryan Fazio of Drum the Ecstatic International.
Photo by Kaylyn Oshaben


by Jim Donovan

A few years before I joined Rusted Root, I was studying at the University of Pittsburgh to become a professional classical percussionist. As I honed my musical skills, I remember thinking that when I could play a piece of music perfectly that I was "finished' with it and that somehow just executing a performance well was all there was to making good music. But after years of performing and watching the ways in which an audience reacts to and interacts with music, I discovered that ''good execution" is only the beginning. There is a vast world of experience to be had beyond just playing the patterns.

Through this realization I was inspired to figure out a way to share these ideas so that anyone, regardless of their musical ability, could easily learn how to make their drumming as well as other musical experiences more meaningful right away. What follows is a five step process that I use to connect with the music I play. 

1st step: Learn the mechanics of the music. This is a fancy way of suggesting that you learn the song, or rhythm or passage that you're interested in playing. Whether it is something you've created, or a traditional song, it helps immensely to train your muscles to do what your brain is asking them to do. Generally this is best achieved by slow repetition at a consistent tempo and by gradually speeding up only when you can execute the pattern or passage flawlessly. Continue to work on the mechanics until all of your motion is as effortless and relaxed as possible. Staying relaxed will allow for maximum endurance when playing something that requires a great deal of power or speed.

2nd step: Integrate your physical body with the patterns. Many times when we are making movements with our hands, all the motion and a majority of the energy ends up coming from our brains into our hands. This brain-hand coordination is only part of physically integrating a rhythmic pattern.

In this step you are allowing the rest of your body to participate in the pattern or phrases. Stevie Wonder is good example of someone who does this. Think about how he moves his body as he plays his piano. His whole upper body is moving with the rhythm of the music almost like a dance. If you were to see his feet, they would be moving around as well. His whole body is moving within the patterns he is creating.

A simple way to practice this idea is to allow your upper torso to sway back and forth ever so slightly in time with your pattern. The goal of this step is to really feel whatever your playing throughout your entire physical body. Eventually your motions will become very fluid and these motions will help to direct your musicality. This second step will help you to internalize the music and make it a part of you. This isn't about forcing movement that feels unnatural, but rather an encouragement let yourself move with your music in whatever way feels natural to you. 

3rd step: Integrate your breath with your phrases.
Here you are learning a vital step in discovering how to deeply connect with the music you are making through the conscious connection of your breath to your musical phrases.

This process involves lining up your exhalations with the downbeat or beginning of a rhythmic phrase. To do this, simply breathe in before the beginning of the first phrase and exhale at the very beginning of the next phrase on the downbeat (also known as beat "one"). It's not necessary to do this on every phrase, but the key is to get into the habit of connecting your breath to your phrases as often as possible without hyperventilating. This kind of process not only keeps you relaxed, but it significantly helps you to remain focused and in the moment.

4th step: Align your intention and thoughts with the music you are creating.
This step underlines something vital about the responsibility of any musician, no matter what skill level you are. 

Know that your instrument serves as an amplifier for the intention, energy and emotion you hold within you as you play.

To utilize the gift of music to it's fullest potential, it's important to take a few moments before you play to clear your mind, center yourself and reflect on your intention. Consider why you play music in the first place, and why you are playing in this very moment.
Find a way to put yourself in a focused state of mind as you let go of the "outside" world. Use whichever techniques you enjoy like stretching, yoga, deep breathing, going for a quick walk, meditation, etc. If you are playing a piece of music with lyrics, and you know the meaning of those lyrics, you can hold in your mind the message or idea that the particular song is trying to convey. Bring this idea into your mind every so often as the song progresses. In this process you are aligning your own personal energy with that of the music. If you are not aware of the meaning in the lyrics of a particular song, or if it is an instrumental piece, it is still possible to inject intention into the music. You can decide to hold a specific emotion or idea inside of yourself as you play. For example; you can hold the intention of spreading the energy of peace and imagine that every note you play expresses this idea as it sends that idea out into the world.

5th step: Be the example. This step is all about action. It's about doing all of these things; learning the mechanics, integrating your physical body into the pattern, integrating your breath into your phrases, aligning your intent into the music you are creating and then displaying these actions. Remember, that the best way to positively influence those around you is to just "do what you do" and let them watch and potentially assimilate your actions.

Many musicians get stuck early in their learning thinking that the whole goal of being a musician is the flawless execution of technique. Once the execution becomes highly advanced, sometimes they will feel they have reached their highest potential as a musician and will stop working towards a true connection to he music.

Music is not just the notes, lyrics, chords or rhythms- it's all of those things combined with humanness. Once you begin to integrate all that you are into your music, your whole perspective will change on what it really means to play.

You may also discover that not only are you playing music, but the music is just as much playing you.

You may also be interested in these recent posts:

5 Steps To Using The Hidden Power Of Your Mind

How To Create Your Ideal Condition in Under 5 Minutes

Why do I drum?

View Jim Donovan's upcoming workshop schedule here... 
Get Jim's Instructional CDs and DVDs here...

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