Conscious, disciplined engagement with work we love elevates our highest human virtues. The objective may be to connect with our best on the instrument. As the level of our musicianship is raised, there lies the potential for profound transformation as a result of such discipline.
An effective personal discipline positively influences all aspects of our work, from making space for drums in our lives to strategies for smart practice. And on a higher plane, it forms an essential component of self-mastery. When we develop our musicianship, we uncover the complexities of ourselves and the instrument, and witness the transformative effects it has on our lives.
What follows are not my personal directives or philosophies for success, for these would only apply to me. Far more useful is a guide in the establishment of unique, flexible mental and integrative skills which enable the development of one’s own critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Instead of simply being given answers to problems, we work from a conceptual interpretation of how details function within a context. We take responsibility for how we function in the dynamic, microscopic interface between ourselves and the instrument, between ourselves and the music, and within the larger context of the interface between us and our world.
We therefore develop the ability to extract our own unique solutions from a wide range of complex problems, whether musical, improvisational or beyond. Devising and implementing analytical skills through problem-solving and critical thinking polishes these important internal skills, after which we are able to apply them intuitively across multiple domains. As we shall see, the internal skills developed through the disciplined pursuit of musical excellence are transferable well beyond the domain of the instrument.
In the immediacy of work, we ourselves must apply our mettle to the task. We must bring all of our cognitive faculties to the place where the rubber meets the road. This text focuses on the connection between our cognitive and experiential faculties as they intersect with both the immediate and long term processes of learning, creating, and improvising.
In these pages we take an ontological and epistemological look at playing the drumset in light of our internal and external aspects, and in the process, close the gap between them. Through themes in line with Buddhist philosophy and current research in contemporary cognitive science, we explore the importance of our role in connecting our inner faculties with all that lies beyond them.
A major hurdle for the drumset player is bridging the perceived divide between the technical and the creative. With the proliferation of drum books, instruction videos, clinicians and websites, technique is now perceived to be the dominant characteristic of the instrument. As a result, players have become technicians more than musicians, with little if any guidance or discussion in the field regarding how to approach the instrument musically.
As drummers we have become used to looking outside ourselves for fixes and easy answers, particularly in the areas of instruments, gear and technique. Rather than providing easy answers, the primary thrust of this book is to urge the reader to summon their determination to go deep; to come to terms with his or her own responsibility in the processes of creativity and personal discipline, and to establish natural avenues for personal growth and consciousness.
To do so, we simultaneously make use of and develop our most valued assets: our internal skills. Playing the drumset involves more of the body than most other instruments, yet it would be a mistake to assume it takes less of the other parts.
Music is an aesthetic concept that arises from our uniquely human capacity to symbolize. To conceive and comprehend symbolic thought is an important part of our consciousness, as is our capacity for self-regulation, self-reflection, and vicarious learning. Humans create language and art, music, science and philosophy all based on the capacity to symbolize. At the very core of what makes us human is our capacity for abstract thought - the ability to see one thing in terms of something else.
Playing creative music is a state of being which requires musicianship, which lies in the interaction of reason and intuition. The parts of us which define our musicianship are nothing less than the flexible cognitive convergence of our experience, our sensibilities and our imagination. It requires intense listening skills. We are mindful and present. We make use of seasoned cultural awareness and operate with a sense of collaboration.
Our musicianship is guided by personal discipline and informed by peers and predecessors in the drumming community. All of which are delivered via our touch with a good degree of empathy, bravery, humility and technical skill.
Far more than that which is simply learned, musicianship is a life-long process of absorption, discovery, and assimilation.
Efforts directed at sounding and playing better are typically populated by attempts to control or arrange external factors for our benefit. External factors are complex and include the full range of the drumset and all its gear, technique, the music, other musicians, our responsibilities, and the performance environment. Even factors that motivate us can originate externally.
However, on the road to mastery, too much attention given to the external overshadows our more important internal aspects, which are frequently overlooked. While acknowledging the relevance of the external factors on which we generally focus, here in the present text we will deal with the development of a more dynamic internal/external connection. The task before us is to see how working with what we have inside us connects us with all that is outside. This connection, this bridge, this pipeline, enables the sharing of the currency with which we trade: our human-ness.
These external parts can become internalized. For example, the drumset becomes a transparent yet tangible part of us. Music also comes to be internalized, filtered through our intuitive and emotional selves. Over time, our priorities, responsibilities and motivations become internalized, and as a result we act of our own volition.
Although we may perceive the world as ‘us and everything else’, the discipline of developing our internal sensibilities dissolves the artificial boundary we’ve created between our internal and external worlds. This internal world, made up of a wide range of aspects either inherent or developed,[i] must be employed in the art and discipline of creative drumset.
The vast majority of what comprises our world is internal, whether perceived in relation to drumming or in relation to everything else in our lives. Through a process of inquiry, our state of being, and the convergent nature of the instrument, we transform our musicianship and discover the drumset’s potential for the development of our self-determination, well-being and self-mastery. Let’s look briefly at how an inquiring mindset connects our awareness with our actions.
A process of continuous inquiry
As a creative drumset musician we stand between the evolutionary tradition of American music and the truth of our contribution. What we bring - our contribution - is context-dependent. What we deliver is, hopefully, relevant within the musical and cultural context. Intuition is our guide as we strive to uncover, connect with, and propose truth amidst the push-pull of tradition and creativity.
Let’s take a moment to consider truth. Somewhere in between absolute fact and the Postmodernist view of individual perception and limitless interpretation, we search for, rely on, create or discover diverging dimensions of truth. In our work we may encounter truth in beauty, or uncover personal truths, musical truths, or resonant truths. We may not even recognize them as such. Truths may be fleeting, with short-lived certitude; others, more rarely, endure for generations.
The processes of inquiry we use in our work and daily life get us closer to something resembling truth, as long as we are cognizant of our individually colored perceptions. Everything we perceive is colored and distorted by our experience, emotions and motives. We are likely not even aware of it. If we are to see the world as it is, we must be aware of this. We must put in the personal effort to know ourselves well enough to see our world as it is. Or, risk living a life of illusion, bias, emotional reactiveness and false identity. To do so is to live in ignorance.
We work for truth in our touch, timing, phrasing, and accentuation. These basic truths help us to present and represent our place in this moment in time, within this phrase, and this cultural context. In the moment we are called upon to be a witness for and to testify on behalf of the human condition.
Being true to ourselves and living in harmony with our principles are aspects of truth. Personal, musical or resonant truths are not representative of any ‘absolute truths’ or factual ‘propositions’. We encounter these truths at a deeper intuitive level. We may initiate a search with only a glimpse of what shape they might take. We may not identify them until we’ve found them. When we do, whether fleeting or eternal, we must have the wisdom to recognize the resonance within them. And yet, they evolve, and may eventually be disproved.
Simply stated, the pursuit of truth is a choice of either blind adherence to misguided beliefs or an open-minded, flexible state of inquiry. In the pragmatism of John Dewey, we may wish to accept the fact that any kind of “inquiry, whether scientific, technical, sociological, philosophical or cultural, is self-corrective over time if openly submitted for testing by a community of inquirers in order to clarify, justify, refine and/or refute proposed truths” ("John Dewey", 1967, p. 383).
In my view it is the latter which takes place in the creation, evolution and endurance of American music. Its truth is integrated into the complex fabric of American culture, where it bonds with new relevance in the shifting dynamics of this democratic ideal.
Any of us who have gone deeply into the instrument can sense that discoveries are limitless. We find commitment to the drumset means to be continuously engaged with processes of inquiry and investigation.
Although at times certainty is illusive, or may be non-existent, the pursuit itself brings with it many beneficial rewards, such as sharper senses, imaginativeness, self-knowledge and more. Creativity arises from uncertainty. It arises from the desire to grasp the unknown.
It is a pursuit in which we reach, using a scientific methodology, to get closer to truths framed within the context of the moment. The pursuit leads us through realms of the personal, cultural, and universal. Through our entire relationship with the instrument, the work involves intensive observation, determination, and experimentation internally and externally. This requires us to be actively and continuously engaged in the process of inquiry.
In the following chapters we take a deeper dive into how the processes of inquiry form the connection between our practice and the sensibilities needed for music-making.
Creative human consciousness is energized in the charged space between the acceptance of uncertainty, and an unending attempt at clearing away the perplexities which obfuscate truth. In the process of inquiry we refine our sensibilities, in service of our internal musicianship, and uncover a personal discipline for growth and mastery. The process of inquiry sharpens our capacity for reasoning, and with each careful step we hope to uncover what is more likely to be true.
In-depth musical instrument artistry is a non-linear form of inquiry. We don’t start at the origins of music and work our way to the present. We might explore from where we are, looking back to better appreciate how we got here. As in any complex pursuit of knowledge, we ask questions, we look for threads. We follow them with self-guided openness, to see where they will take us.
Through intensive, directed observation we must bore down into countless points simultaneously and continually make connections between them. These connections form a multi-dimensional latticework which further expands as we learn. It informs our intuitive sense.
We must formulate our own unique questions to discover our own unique answers. Some answers may be universal. Discoveries may be quick and easy, while others are part of our own evolutionary process, refined over several decades. What we thought we knew once may no longer hold relevance. Revisiting and reassessing are essential processes which coexist with creative exploration. Questions are framed in countless perspectives arising from the music itself, from the culture in which it is created and through the discipline of thoughtful practice. Our questions guide the direction of inquiry.
Attentiveness and curiosity feed an observational mindset and initiate inquiry. It is a non-linear process requiring continuous observation, trial, and failure. Attentiveness, presence of mind, observation, mindfulness are the prerequisite for all else.
As musicians we devote great effort to achieve specific elements of skill and musicality through practice. Without question, the complex cognitive skill which creates the complex abstraction we call music requires practice.
Behind these important achievements is the internal cognitive work of top-down executive function we use and develop through processes of discovery. This is the vital link and is one of the main areas of focus of this book.
Once a certain level of competency is reached, we are able to make music via intuition, clarified via direct perception. In the making of music, consciousness shifts from self-critical awareness to a wider state of being. In this state, our capacities, thoughts and senses are free of directed self-criticism and may be used to their fullest. More on this in the next section.
The work we do in getting closer to what we feel holds truth ought not be neglected. The path is not easy, but few efforts are more worthy than the pursuit of truth, regardless of whether or not it can be found. Though indisputable truths may be unattainable, the perspicacity developed through the discipline of inquiry is itself of utmost value. Intensive personal investigation enhances our cognitive abilities, which, as we shall see, are the very tools by which we make creative music.
State of being
Consider for a moment, the state of being we experience when playing creative music. What are some of the primary states directly associated with creative music-making?
The creative musician’s state of being is one in which the being-state takes over, and several sub-states exist simultaneously. One might describe the state as if events in our field are flowing. It is a state of being in which we are in the moment, fully present and ultra-focused. We may experience direct perception, an un-obscured clarity of things as they are. We possess a larger field of attentiveness. There is a kind of defocusing, or a broader focal range. There is a powerful feeling of connection while also a feeling of detachment. Self-consciousness is absent; we are not focused on outcomes or self-criticisms. We are simply in the moment, in the music.
So far, not a bad state to be in, no matter what we’re doing.
The state of being is further characterized by a feeling of musical embodiment - we experience the instrument and the music as part of our body - giving us a sense of control and the feeling of becoming the music. There is a heightened state of listening. We are fully engaged, conversing and responding, collaborating in a human interlocking with something larger than ourselves. The sense of time passing is suspended. We are pleasantly challenged by the music but are able to meet the challenges with little effort. We feel an unconscious yet immediate engagement with our touch, our ability to sculpt tone and dynamics, feel and phrasing, on the fly. Intention and intuition unite.
Our state of being is also a real-time reflection of our unique personal, cultural and musical experience, which in turn activates our intuition. Intuition provides imaginative, creative content, reflecting our emotional state and personality, our life experience, cultural awareness, musical influences and more. It forms an inexorable narrative not only within the moment, but within the piece of music, within the performance and within the cultural context.
The moment is also characterized by the circular, immediate energy between us and the other musicians, by surprise elements within the performance, the acoustic environment and, importantly, the audience. The circular nature of the energy amplifies the energy of the performance.
The act of making creative music is a state of being that not only animates our actions, it transcends them. It is a state where being and doing are directly linked. We externally manifest the internal.
There is a correlation between technical ability and the above states of being, but technique itself is not causation. Technique does not create music. When considering the states associated with making creative music, the technical aspect is but a facilitator. It enables the fluid connection with the dominant, internal, primary states of being through which we make music.
In the musical moment, our presence of mind is not directed at technique, nor should it be. The sum of the state of our being, of our music, of us, is far more than technical ‘hardware’: technique and our neuro-muscular, motor controls. In fact, the ‘soft’ states of being, outlined above, are simply a result of the totality of who we are.
Each one of the states we experience in the creative moment is an internal aspect of our selves. Yet these profound architectural components of our identity, of who we are, not only become evident in a creative moment but become the focal point of the music we make.
Therefore our work, by work I refer to nothing less than the entirety of our personal discipline, ought to emphasize the aspects of ourselves with which we make music. What we desire in our musical encounters is access to the state of being where creativity and engagement flow, the merging of intention and intuition. This state must be the primary state of our practice. Creative music-making, in its immediacy, is a state of being defined by presence, listening, intuition, musical embodiment, and receptivity.
Let me make a slight distinction at this point. The 'state of being' associated with creative music identified above occurs, and is required, in every creative musical performance. Much of what I describe above could be considered the ‘flow state’, the elusive state in which one’s prior experiences come together in an activity combining awareness and action, challenge and skill (Csikszentmihalyi,1990).
The flow state Csikszentmihalyi describes is one we hope to attain, yet it remains elusive in creative music-making. We’ve all experienced it and welcome its presence in our music and in all areas of our lives.
Herein we are not chasing the flow state, per se, since to do so would push it beyond our reach. Nor is our purpose here to describe or identify the characteristics of the flow state. More important, in these pages we are tasked with creating and connecting with the internal cognitive conditions.
These conditions are conducive to clarity, attentiveness, and being fully engaged with our critical faculties and sensibilities in any creative environment or situation. In doing so, we draw out the internal dynamic within us which is conducive to living, working, and playing creative music; to implement a dynamic personal practice moving us to a positive state of well-being, mastery, creativity and artistry on our instrument and in other domains.
There is a distinction between the disciplines used for self-directed criticism in practice mode and the receptive, creative state we enter for music-making. However, the distinction is not as black and white as it is made out to be. Our aim is to develop the sensibilities which we require for creative music through the states of inquiry used during practice. At the same time, we must use, expand and evolve our musical sensibilities in practice. This exchange between awareness and presence significantly widens our available capacity for the cognitive interaction of all we use for music.
Our relationship with the drumset is largely defined by a combination of experience, sensibilities, intuition, reason, listening skill and technical ability, within a framework of culture, collaboration, support and leadership. Why focus only on the technical in practice? Perhaps it is time to rethink our role in determining the level of control we have over ourselves, the instrument, the music and much more.
Proper use of the tools of inquiry in our practice can dramatically enhance the cognitive states for creative music making. We don’t use external tricks or techniques to do so - the tools lie entirely within us.
To use the tools of inquiry deliberately is the conscious choice to fully connect, in the present moment, all the parts of ourselves with the continuous exchange of observation, questioning, discernment, experimentation, participation and more observation. Our conscious participation in the discipline of practice is unlike the customary view that practice consists solely of repetition. To be engaged during practice is to be engaged during music. Simply put, it is to care.
What lies in the gap between the drumset and the creation of music? We do. And since we are far more than a body, it is far more than the body that makes the music.
If we look beyond our physical makeup, we see that our internal world makes up a large part of who we are. Beyond the body, we are our experiences, intellect and intuition. We are our instincts, emotions and motives. We are our identity, our principles and our sensibilities. It is through the real-time interplay of these collective aspects and characteristics that we connect with culture, music and the drumset.
Although the drumset appears to be the final vehicle for the deliverance of this exchange, it is not the primary player in the game. Ultimately, we are the instrument which must be mastered. We don’t achieve mastery by some kind of magic. It doesn’t happen automatically. We must bring to bear all we are. Our role is hardly a passive one; we are simultaneously the instrument of observation and the subject - the observer and the observed.
Themes of unification, or convergence, inherent in the drumset play out in several dimensions. Details we may normally perceive as separate can be thought of as one. Principles of convergence (a) lie naturally within us – it is a natural desire to live harmoniously; (b) are collectively the primary interface with the instrument - creative musicianship, and drumming in particular, makes use of all parts of who we are; (c) are embodied within the instrument itself – in its origins and formation, as well as the diversity it represents through its place within the culture at large, and (d) hold potential for a broader sense of unity – a life of meaning, well-being and connectedness. These principles of convergence will be explored in Chapter 10, Collective Purpose.
Directing our conscious awareness cultivates a personal discipline which integrates all we are. Our ability to think awakens, we feel and act more holistically. The discipline is not limited to the drumset or to music-making. When this discipline synchronizes with our entire selves, it permeates and arches over all of our behavior, influencing all we think, say and do.
I suspect each one of us is determined, through great personal effort, to bring together the complex parts of whom we are in the pursuit of musical truths. For it is nothing less than this harmonious and ragtag collection of self that we summon and present to the musical moment.
The complete assembly of the individual internal aspects of who we are is far greater than the sum of the parts. Our consciousness is an assemblage, a pointedness of being; a presence which elevates and transcends the limitations of each part.
It is a beautiful thing when all the parts of ourselves convene in the midst of a performance. The experience is one of effortless fluidity, of total immersion in the moment; the music and the body, time and space, resonate harmonically, radiating high-vibrational energy. Everything flows effortlessly.
For most of us, the assembly and unification of our entire being doesn’t happen by itself. It is a practice we must be mindful of each and every day. The convergence of all we are within the context of a creative performance is no small matter. Creating the internal conditions for this convergence to happen naturally and continuously ought to be our number one priority.
Along with the continued awareness which brings about the unification of the internal parts of who we are, we can work to break down the partitions needlessly separating the external parts of our lives, too. Many of us tend to compartmentalize and create unnecessary differences in aspects of our lives. We fabricate distinctions between personal, family, and profession; we may even have several cultural, social or political identities. Juggling separate lives seems like a kind of insanity.
The aim here is to look at ways in which we can work with ourselves in bringing about the complete unification of the complex parameters of which we, the drum set, the music, and our environment intersect. Each one of us has the opportunity to artfully bring together and unite all of these divided parts, whether internal and external, in creating a life in which connectedness, ability, service and independence convene.
Doing so is truly life as art.
This organic and holistic alchemical integration, this noble and worthy endeavor, has the potential to transform our thoughts, beliefs, words, actions, habits and values.
Let’s explore ways in which these foundations for self-determination, authenticity and convergence are present in the drums. We will examine how each leads us not only to playing better but can also contribute to a life of well-being and self-mastery.
The benefits of positive cognitive development and personal discipline which result from musical instrument study (Hille & Schupp, 2013) can be realized through most any instrument, and are abundantly present in playing the drumset. The instrument itself is a catalyst for connecting ourselves with the world around us and is a bridge for self-knowledge. Via the personal disciplines established through our practice, we act of our own volition to hone and polish musical ability. Yet it is the honing and polishing of our sensibilities arising from these personal disciplines which are of the most value, musical or otherwise.
Sustained music participation on almost any level, from childhood band to a lifetime devoted to music, cultivates many positive personal characteristics. As one goes deeper into creative and improvisational music and masters his or her instrument, the skill set expands in even more practical ways.[ii]
For example, improvising musicians have been shown to possess higher than average problem-solving skills (Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2014). Improvisation fosters divergent thinking - the ability to see many possible answers - as well as convergent thinking - the ability to find the most appropriate answer.
Drummers are typically self-motivated learners who have the opportunity to recognize qualities of connectedness. Although this is less prevalent in recent years, drummers typically develop skills through context-based learning.
When asked why he or she plays the drumset, the most common answer is because it’s fun. Besides the fun, we may also notice playing drums shares personal benefits with other instruments, such as it is cathartic, therapeutic, inspiring. It challenges us to be our present best within a positive context. It provides the opportunity for self-guided pursuit of excellence, and a real sense of connectedness with something larger than we are.
For many of us, we play because we must. We could not imagine our lives without it. Over time we develop a positive inseparable relationship with the instrument. It becomes a part of us. It fully belongs to us. It provides a medium by which we connect with ourselves by connecting with others.
The musician’s journey typically gets underway before the age of 12, typically between the ages of 7 and 12. Instruments such as piano and strings are commonly suggested by parents and/or teachers. The reasons for choosing particular instruments vary, and can be inspired by practical concerns with regards to parents, instrument availability, economics and personal choice.
As far as selecting drums goes, the choice is usually an emphatic one, made by the kids themselves. This is an early indication of independence and self-direction. Being driven to create what is theirs alone and being allowed to make their own choice is a significant turning point in a young person’s independent development.
It fosters self-efficacy, the belief in one’s own capacity for effectiveness, and self-determination, the sense of control one has over their own destiny. This self-direction plays a key role in the development of intrinsic motivation and positive cognitive development (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991).
This degree of independence, or autonomy, is the ability to work on one’s own, to follow one’s own set of rules without the need for direction or supervision from a higher authority.
Drumming is a self-directed, self-initiated, autonomous activity. It involves making an infinite number of connections, and inspires us to keep learning and growing. In the music, drummers are simply given more leeway in providing exactly what the music needs. There usually aren’t charts to follow and seldom is there detailed instruction regarding what to play, though at times this would be useful. In creative musical situations, intuition can outperform chops.
Allowing for supportive autonomous exploration and learning at a young age encourages positive cognitive and character development, yet produces positive results at any age. Learning that is self-initiated, with timely guidance, creates self-efficacious individuals capable of personal responsibility. In addition, the process of discovery develops imagination, builds skills in problem-solving, reasoning, risk-taking and assessment.
Importantly, self-guided learning establishes the self-efficacy, the internal belief we can take on challenges and succeed. It improves spatial-temporal reasoning, conceptual comprehension, and flexible use of knowledge.
These factors, embedded within our relationship with the drumset, build the critical-thinking skills required to face the adversity and challenges of day to day living. The skills we develop are not so much answers as they are flexible problem-solving skills applicable across multiple domains.
Individuals who are intrinsically motivated - are driven to work by their own curiosity - have increased conceptual and critical thinking skills and are therefore well-positioned for self-learning. Being intrinsically motivated is an important outgrowth of autonomous exploration, particularly when a high level of discovery and personal responsibility are allowed from a young age.
Learning through exploration allows us to see the connectedness of the world, to know how to find answers in a variety of circumstances instead of simply knowing a ‘right’ answer. Self-motivated learners learn not simply the ‘correct’ or expected answer, but develop unique skills for solving problems. In the process we learn the value of a thing, not simply its price.
Wisdom is not a matter of simply knowing, but is the ability to identify patterns within complex behavior and to apply knowledge in a flexible manner, in a way that is contextually appropriate.
By using intuition, self-reflection and reason, creativity and collaboration, drumming combines the unique attributes of what makes us human. Collectively, our capacity for abstract thought. The cognitive skills enhanced by the discipline of drumset study are among the most important and desirable attributes for growth, development, and maturity, attributes which shape a person’s character.[iii] The more mentally engaging and stimulating activity we subject ourselves to, the more our capacity for connections is increased.
Regardless of age we play drums because of its unparalleled fun while implicitly acknowledging we are on a path of continuous improvement through deliberate effort. The implication is to devote a certain amount of time and effort to the path. We know from experience the love of playing increases as a result of our efforts. The more we give, the more it gives back, which inspires more intrinsic effort. This simple cycle describes what we consider to be talent: the inclination to work hard at what we love.
Simply in playing the drums we feel a sense of well-being and self-improvement. We recognize the self-engendered personal growth arising from playing and practicing. It holds many positive benefits, lets us express emotional content and connect with others while being true to ourselves. It is not surprising that young players who have made their own choice to play the drums remain committed to it over their lifetime. It simply has so much to offer.
The exploration related to creative musical instrument study, in particular the autonomous nature of the drumset, establishes a discipline which cultivates a desire to bring out our best for ourselves while in service of others. Drumming is a personal investment in authenticity, done simply for the joy of doing it. The return on this investment belongs entirely to us, and can be re-invested in pathways near and far, bringing about further growth.
Creative drummers - naturally curious with an aptitude for experimentation - take calculated risks and learn from failure. All of these are part of learning how to think and building a direct connection with intuition.
Drummers are typically self-reliant while also the ones who build bridges, and are demonstrably diplomatic. It is time to put to rest the tired, negative, Euro-centric stereotypes of drummers as non-musicians. As master recording engineer Steve Albini says, “Generally speaking, if there’s a smart guy and three dumb guys in a band, the smart guy’s the drummer” (Albini, 2005).
Our role in learning and in the development of our sensibilities
Within the complex mix of what constitutes our sound, touch is the secret sauce which provides the essential expressive component to all the choices we make. A prized attribute, touch shares a direct link to our sense of hearing and listening. It is a reflection of our inner state. Touch connects what’s inside us with those outside us – the other musicians, the audience, etc. How we touch the instrument conveys the tone by which our music is felt and heard.
Touch exemplifies the level at which we are able to hear. It is also linked to our sensibilities – our capacity to sense the world around us – and forms a bridge between our precepts and our humanity. How well we make this connection depends on whether our individual capabilities are adequate to the task.
‘Adequate’, you say?
The concept of adaequatio, adequateness, states “the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known” (Schumacher, A guide for the perplexed, 1977, p. 39). But before we resign our efforts and give in to the pre-determinateness of fate, we ought to realize our capacity for mastery, for sensing, for being, can be expanded. No matter how limited our sensibilities may be at any given time, it is not a static condition. With training, our sensibilities become significantly sharper, finer, and perceptive. This is a continuous effort.
Although what we perceive at any given time is in no way all there is, our attempts to see what we don’t know illuminate the darkness ahead. The degree to which we sense, and make sense of, the world around us is limited, at least in part, by our own desire to do so.
This is where we must step up our game.
When we are cognitively engaged in the careful re-examination and reassessment of our biases, we can extend the range of possibility and sharpen our senses. Simply having an awareness of what we don’t know helps us make flexible use of our present sensibilities and guides us in the direction of our interests. Combined with an acute awareness of the present, seeing how much we don’t know clarifies a path of inquiry toward comprehension and creativity.
In balancing an awareness of the limitations of our understanding, we must also recognize the wisdom in our maturity. The usefulness of our experience, degrees of certainty, provides the stability from which we explore the unknown. The present is a result of all previous experiences, and allow us, at the very least, a functional network of information with which we survive. What’s more, the task before us here is how we use and combine these experiences in the present to create our future.
In the present moment, how we work directly influences the outcomes which result from our work. While it may be obvious, the depth of engagement we have with the music and with the drumset is an important relevant point. The depth of awareness we have with the instrument defines our personal success as musicians.
What we ultimately bring to music is all we are in the moment. Practice that. Practice the aspects of ourselves we use to make music.
If we practice rudiments as tools separate from the flow of music, what results is the ability to play rudiments separate from music. Similarly, working solely on technique will result in a way of playing originating in technique. And so on.
This text is not advocating against technique or skillful knowledge of the drummer’s rudimental vocabulary. The aim is to strengthen and intensify the degree of cognitive engagement we have with the entire act of playing.
Well beyond merely ‘showing up’, we must bring the sharpness of our cognition to the practice of the technical and the physical, and engage with it. Only then are we able to cover the entire scope of what we are and what we must bring to the act of making music.
Although it is important to learn the technical and physical aspects of the instrument, to play creative music well it is more important that we actively develop the sensibilities by which we make music: listening, imagination, control, our communicative and collaborative sense, conversation, being supportive, intuition, logic, experience, language, our cultural awareness, creative capacity and personal responsibility.
Practicing in a way in which we are cognitively engaged makes finer the full range of our intellectual senses[iv], not limited to the bodily senses alone.
For more than 100 years, American music and its diversity of influences has been and must continue to be the primary teacher for drumset players. Historically, the drum has been the primary carrier for the rich culture that makes our music unique. Like cuisines from diverse cultures, peoples and climates, the drum carries these diverse and fiery flavors. And like food from around the world, the drum is representative of people, without whom there would be no culture.
An aural tradition, music is the single most important teacher. Other than the music itself however, resources for drummers are limited to verbal and visible, or to what I call ‘teachable’ content – aspects which can be demonstrated and repeated.
Yet verbal communication covers but a tiny fraction of the language and architecture of our music.
Bob Moses’ 1984 book Drum Wisdom (Moses, 1984) helps us get closer to making a real musical connection. The text is both immediate and effective in the way it connects the drummer to the reality of making music through the direct involvement of one’s self in practicing.
We are lucky to have available countless great books of exercises, rudimental vocabulary and approaches, with others offering clear guidance in accenting, phrasing and soloing. But most of them have two characteristics in common: they are well-removed from musical context, and most of them ignore the importance of our role in the process.
Music is music and must be approached and internalized as the aural experience it is. Text, including notation and speech are inherently problematic in experiencing and assimilating music. Any discussion or textual representation of music instills the notion that music is outside of us. It’s external. Too much verbal or visual communication can reduce and limit the music experience to technical knowledge alone. Verbally communicating an aural tradition mistakenly presents the appearance that the technical is the main component of the art form. This is a disappointing misstep in learning the instrument.
Besides the music itself, many fine publications share the rhythmic systems and language of cultures. As an accompanying guide to the music, these are necessary for deciphering the rhythmic architecture of the sophisticated and diverse music of India, Central America, Brazil and West Africa; of funk syncopations, jazz comping, phrasing and the rhythmic traditions of American music that coalesced in the creation of the drumset. Gaining knowledge in these areas goes a long way in providing the substance of what to play and what to practice.
Rhythmic language books can help develop a deep foundation for clave, for diverse cultural representation and the 3-3-2 universal rhythmic pulsation. However, we must also deeply immerse ourselves in the context, in the music. The context is what matters most.
We must make connections that allow assimilation: the integration of patterns into emotion; the flow, the contours, the emotional waves, the turns of a phrase which make up the human aspects of music, and the deep internalizing allowing for embellishment, collaborating and creative improvisation. We absorb the local, personal interpretations of countless musicians who’ve lived the music their whole lives. We elevate our intuitive skills.
We cannot be solely concerned with the external aspects of playing, and we must actively develop strategies which combine our external and internal worlds on a regular basis. It’s important to develop strategies which incorporate creativity as a natural state of being.
With respect to the internal aspects of playing and practice, drum books generally offer little if any guidance on how we ought to approach practice, or how to set about doing the work. It seems as if ‘we’ are the elephant in the room that goes un-acknowledged. This is by no means a shortcoming of drum-book authors. Hardly. I simply wish to point out that when talking or writing about the technical aspect of drumming, the nature of the medium limits the ability to offer guidance in how to solve the complex internal problems encountered within the work. Although, with the proper attitude, this limitation can be a blessing since it forces us to find our own answers, if one is so inclined, which profoundly deepens the value of the work.
And this is what we must do.
Video learning adds the visual component, which makes it easier to demonstrate specific techniques. But with video instruction, learning is still critically limited to the technical, to the visual, and to the external aspects of playing. There is less emphasis on listening, internalizing, and self-observation, etc. For many, the visual eclipses the audible.
In addition, we may sometimes find conflicting, inaccurate or incomplete information in the videos. The lyric, “video killed the radio star” (Horn, Downes, & Woolley, 1979), was prophetic in demonstrating the power of the visual to diminish the aural.
The overwhelming amount of books, videos, clinics and instruction websites focusing on the technical aspects of playing drums leads one to assume technique is the primary ingredient, the one component we must master.
As a result we place too much emphasis on the externals, the ‘what’ part of practice, not on our own role in the entire process: the ‘how’.
Instead we must take the reins and develop the mental plasticity for learning. We must devise strategies for recognition, assimilation, alteration and application – the creative process. Within the work itself, we must learn to think critically, how to find and solve problems, and cultivate divergent thinking for creativity.
We may not, at times, have all the answers but with a holistic perspective and mindset we can know where and how to look for them. The practice encourages and challenges us to work mindfully, to walk our own path, to uncover our own essential truths. Not for the sole purpose of reaching a destination, but to also make essential discoveries along the way.
The practice is most effective when we are present and engaged.
Frequently we face specific musical challenges requiring us to explore more deeply. Avenues of development may require focusing energy on derivative or related areas. We may feel such deviations slow us down, or we may tell ourselves we need not learn something so deeply. In fact, going deeper is precisely what we need to do.
The attentiveness we use to bore down deeply expands our cognitive potential and allows for connections across a broad range. Learning to play one phrase in multiple iterations is far more useful than learning multiple phrases we are unable to modify or adapt.
Attentiveness itself is the prime component we must master. Short-term gains, the lick or pattern we develop, are not the only benefit. The sharpened senses and skills resulting from such attention are more broadly applicable and hold tremendous value.
A large part of learning includes knowing which questions to ask. Deconstructing exposes the hidden essentials of function. In doing so, we not only expose the hidden elements of our outer world, but of ourselves, too. Deconstruction, or retrograde analysis, is an essential component of improvisational practice. Done with contextual awareness, it lets us make connections as to how individual aspects are put together and why.
Asking, ‘what if’ ought to be a regular part of how we think. With context-based learning we make the vital connection between creativity and technique. Form follows naturally from a deeper appreciation of function.
Practice and playing music makes possible an artful pursuit of essential truths within the context of now. This now is the moment in which we create change through action. Being present in the moment is the heart of the creative tradition. We let ourselves be fully present, with clarity of perception unclouded by past or future affairs. The now allows space for us to take action in creating something we think might hold truth.
Our work cannot be regarded as simply a journey toward a destination. The path is rich with opportunities for growth along the way.
At times it can be difficult to gauge one’s own progress with any certainty. But for what purpose must we measure ourselves in this way? No matter what our skill level or accomplishments, whether we subscribe to the notion of innate talent or hard work or both, we still wish and need to work each and every day at being our own best.
Among the many conditions embedded within the fun of playing drums we find freedom, independence, discipline and personal connection. The discipline shows us that the work we do within us creates the change we wish to see. This is of the most value in connecting with our own resonant truths in the external and internal realms.
In the next chapter, we examine the demands and expectations placed upon the drummer, and in the chapter on Practice, we’ll dig deep to develop strategies which expand our sensibilities. We will discover by being fully present in our daily practice, we can uncover the internal skills to excel in any situation, in our own way and with our own voice.
Thanks for reading.
-- Brett F. Campbell, 2021
(1967). "John Dewey". In P. Edwards (Ed.), Encyclopedia of philosophy Vol. 2 (Vol. 2, p. 383). New York: MacMillan.
Albini, S. (2005). Drum mic clinic. TapeOpCon. New Orleans. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/FvLuP4Kya8U
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational psychologist, 26 (3&4), 325-346.
Hille, A., & Schupp, J. (2013). How learning a musical instrument affects the development of skills. SOEP Papers on Multidisiplinary Panel Data Research.
Horn, T., Downes, G., & Woolley, B. (Composers). (1979). Video killed the radio star. [The Buggles, Performer] London, England.
Kleinmintz, O. M., Goldstein, P., Mayseless, N., Abecasis, D., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2014). Expertise in musical improvisation and creativity: The mediation of idea evaluation. PLOS|One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101568
Moses, B. (1984). Drum wisdom. Cedar Grove, New Jersey: Modern Drummer Publications.
Schumacher, E. F. (1977). A guide for the perplexed. New York: Harper Perennial.
Addendum for Chapter One
[i] Some of the internal aspects which constitute our musicianship:
- Motor control
- Divergent thinking
- Convergent thinking
- Truth or bias
- Internal motivation
- Musical embodiment
- Musical assimilation
- Cognitive skills
- Peers & predecessors
- Technical skill
[ii] Personal Qualities learned from Drumming and Improvised Music (not measured by testing)
The creative drummer’s unique skill set:
- Intrinsic motivation
- Set goals, develop strategies
- Conceptual thinking
- Divergent thinking
- Spatial reasoning
- Personal independence
- Personal responsibility
- Personal accountability
- Experiential learning
- Critical thinking
- Listening skills
- Cope with success and/or failure
- Cultural capital
- Cultural awareness
- Social justice
- Personal achievement
- Personal identity
- Support others
- Personal integrity
- Freedom / responsibility
- Increased cognitive capacity
- Mental focus/clarity
- Physical self-control
- Awareness of how much there is to learn
- Core values
- Sense of beauty
- Aesthetic sensibility
- Failure / opportunity
- Being present
[iii] Cognitive refinements simultaneously used and developed in deliberate practice, music-making and in daily life:
- DEVELOPING SENSIBILITIES: LISTENING, AWARENESS, MINDFULNESS, PRESENCE, INTUITION, GRATITUDE, EQUANIMITY: receptivity, open to receive, allowing space for others, for different perspectives, for new ideas; accept something new, allow for difference; assessment, discernment, listen for fine details, able to see the big picture; trusting instincts; recognize the difference between an object or event in isolation vs its context or arrangement; hearing subtle differences as a result of making changes to what we are doing; initiate and enhance positive harmonic resonance; diplomacy, service to others; being thankful, having all that we need, the end of desire; happiness is the path not the goal; cessation of blame; no longer feeling a victim; awareness that all is in a state of change; live in the present moment; engaged with living; conscious choices; holistic mindset; non-judgmental awareness; observing distractions, returning to the center; meditation; clarity; recognizing, uncovering; perspective-taking; empathy; awareness of how our actions might affect others; perceptive capacities; direct perception; wisdom; humility; allow space to be; neutrality; compassion; share knowledge and experience; work for justice and education;
- IMAGINATION: POTENTIAL, POSSIBILITIES: discovery, wonder, excitement of learning; following an organic path of curiosity; combining, uncovering, exploring Nature, understanding basic laws of physics; having a scientific/intuitive mind, testing theories; awareness of design, form, function, composition; collaboration; get out of comfort zones, reaching, asking “what if?”; autonomy; making space for playfulness; de-clutter your life; release tension & burdensome emotions; modulations; unearthing; renewal; educing; removing layers; insight; applied knowledge;
- DISCIPLINE: MENTAL / PHYSICAL SELF-CONTROL: choosing right thoughts, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, not out of fear; having moral convictions which resonate beyond our sphere; seeing things as they are, undistorted by emotion or motive; organizing our time to focus on what’s most important; conscious choices for health & well-being, for ourselves and the world; ability to focus, choosing where to direct attention; conservation; transmutation of energy; polishing; immersion; coaxing; living fully; patience;
- Discipline: according to and apply to
- Determination / Perseverance: working each day at what we love because it is the work itself which gives us the greatest pleasure; going beyond ‘hope’, setting goals, attending to details, solving problems, assessing risk, taking chances, doing the work of preparation; prioritizing, making choices, eliminating drains on resources; failure; failure as opportunity; taking action; being the change; personal responsibility; action in the ‘now’; cannot wait for ideal conditions to act;
- INTELLIGENCE: REASONING, PROBLEM SPOTTING AND PROBLEM SOLVING, DISCERNMENT, KNOWLEDGE, TRUTH: critical thinking; questioning; understanding of basic principles of physics; living harmoniously with Nature; reasoning from the ground up; not reasoning by analogy; gaining knowledge, practicing discernment; scientific reasoning; testing hypotheses; trial & error; doing something for a reason; taking alternate perspectives with the goal of getting closer to Truth; truth as continuous evolution; knowledge pertaining to one’s field; cross-disciplinary relationships; seeing the connectedness of all things; not putting ideas or information in boxes; an openness to learn; applying knowledge for positive results; using knowledge selflessly, for the good of all; non-linear problem-solving
- PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION
- Diligence; Continual Sensory Development: challenge self; evaluate; answers easily found; direct perception; wisdom;
[iv] Senses bodily, intellectual and intuitive:
- Balance and symmetry
- Sense of right and wrong
- Sense of proportion, fairness and justice
- Gut / the GI-brain connection
- The free flow of energy
- Common sense
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