08 May 2015
As a drummer, there are any number of aspirational targets or goals to achieve. Precision, speed, groove, timing: all these are talents that a professional drummer needs to possess. However, above all this, there is one skill that is often both overlooked and underestimated.
I once read an inspirational quote from a highly respected drummer of the big band era. He said, if he could offer one piece of advice to up and coming drummers, it would be this: “be a great witness”. Upon reflection, I realized what he was saying was this: listen to the song and become part of it, truly feel it, and bring to it what it needs. Sometimes, a song is screaming for blast beats, blistering triplet fills and, perhaps, even a gong. Other times, it may need less…far less. In fact, it may require silence from the drummer. Knowing what the song needs, and delivering exactly that, is to be a great witness.
Young, new drummers, eager to impress, are often compelled to pull out all the stops. The fastest fills, the most complex polyrhythms and dizzying stick work are all presented in a way that is intended to amaze. Sure, it’s great to have all these in our tool kit, but we need to ask ourselves…did the music tell us what was needed, or did our ego? How closely did we listen to the piece before we threw everything at it? Did we try to understand how the song makes us feel and, then, try to respond to that emotion?
Imagine if a novelist consistently used polysyllabic words and esoteric concepts simply because they possess the knowledge and skills to employ them. Would this make for a compelling read? Likely not. Great writers, sculptors and artists of all forms know how to communicate through their work. Complexity may sometimes be an effective tool, but only when the piece calls for it. More often than not, some of the greatest works of art appear deceptively simple in their creation: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Thoreau’s Walden or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata are just a few examples.
As a musician for more than thirty years, I’ve aspired to achieve many goals – to be just like Bonham, to develop seamless open rolls and to perfect the Moeller Method are just a few. Some I’ve achieved. Others I’m still working on. However, as I’ve matured, I’ve learned that above all the technicality and the showmanship, one goal has become my greatest aspiration – to listen carefully and deeply to each song, to understand its emotional impact and to witness that through my contribution to the music.
And what’s funny is this: I’ve found that listening…truly listening to the heart of a song and responding to it, is one of the most challenging goals I’ve ever put before myself.