Monday, March 4, 2024

Fifty Years of Random Thoughts About Practicing, Playing and Improvising on the Drum Set - Ed Soph

A big thanks to Ed Soph who recently shared this collection of wisdom on Facebook. Ed was kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts on my blog below.

As per always, when the Masters speak, we listen.


If you cannot immediately play something to your or your teacher’s satisfaction it is because the material is NEW, NOT DIFFICULT. New exercises and techniques require new ways of thinking, hearing, and moving. The more you think about what you are doing and how you are doing it the better your problem solving technique becomes. And that is what practicing is really all about: developing the skills to recognize your musical and technical limitations and learning how to overcome those limitations.

Practice your musical and technical weaknesses, not your strengths. If you sound good when you are practicing you are not really practicing.

Make practicing playing. Movement skills are learned by repetition, by trial and error; by learning to correct, to adjust, and to adapt while actually playing. By applying musical frameworks of form, style, tempo, dynamics, rhythm, and melody to your practicing you will practice musically and prepare yourself for the demands of the bandstand.

Hear everything you are playing whether it is repetitive or non-repetitive, written or improvised.

Practice with a metronome to develop your sense of consistent time.

Avoid practicing in your dynamic and tempo “comfort zones”.

Break exercises into their components. Play individual parts before attempting to play the complete pattern. Play individual measures before attempting to play the complete exercise. This allows your mind to understand the process of playing the exercise. It is your brain, not your hands and feet, that plays the drums.

Practicing new material slowly is the quickest way to learn it. Practicing slowly gives you the opportunity to think about what you are doing. If you cannot play it at quarter note = 40-50 you haven’t really mastered the pattern.

“Sing” parts before you play them. “Sing” one part while playing another.

Be patient. Remember, progress is doing, not completing.

Don’t stop if you play something “wrong”. If what you played is in time it is an improvisation, not a mistake! Go with the flow. Let what your brain initially wanted to play come out. That’s you playing. Work your way to the original exercise. In the end, you will have some variations of the exercise because you allowed yourself to make mistakes musically while practicing. The same process occurs when you actually play music in a band so get used to it!

When you hear an accomplished musician, always ask yourself, “Why does he/she sound so good?” If you learn to hear and identify the good attributes in others’ playing you will be able to bring those qualities to your own playing.

Practice thoughtfully. The accomplished players are those who have invested the most time practicing, playing, and thinking about their instrument and the music. They are also the ones who have listened thoroughly to the musical repertoire. They are the players who have developed their ears just as well as their hands and feet.

“Control” comes from degrees of looseness, not tightness.

Explore the musical past. It will help you to understand the present and guide you in charting your own musical future.

Technique is like handwriting. We all learned to make the same basic letterforms when we were taught to write. Yet now we all possess unique styles of writing because we took those basic, fundamental forms and personalized them, thus creating our own “hand”. So it is with drumming techniques. Learn and internalize the basic forms, let your musical imagination go to work, and you will find your own musical “hand”.

For the foundation of jazz/be-bop drumming, time and comping figures should be played with a good, balanced sound. The ride pattern is analogous to the bass pattern, and comping figures to the accompaniment played by the pianist or guitarist. In a musical jazz rhythm section the piano/guitar and the bass are dynamically balanced. And that same rhythm section as voiced on the kit should be balanced as well unless one makes a musical choice to alter that balance. One frequently hears younger drummers playing the ride cymbal much louder than the snare, bass drum and hi-hat. Asked the reason for that, the player will say that the ride cymbal is the “time-keeper” and should be dynamically prominent. By realizing that everything one is playing, repetitive or non-repetitive, is keeping the time solves this problem. In the context of the actual rhythm section it is like the bassist drowning out the pianist or guitarist.

The dynamic level of the music/rhythm section is the accent level. Accents have dynamics. Accents can be soft or loud. The key to musical accentuation is to put softer notes around the note/notes you wish to accent. If the rhythm section is playing mf and one plays a ff accent it will disrupt the time of the rhythm section.

Dynamic consistency is one of the foundations of consistent sounding time.

“Fills” are not solos. The rhythm section is still playing. The “fill” is part of time-keeping. Unless setting up a dynamic change in the music, as in a big band chart, the “fill” should not be softer or louder than the time-keeping that precedes or follows it. Younger players seem to automatically play “fills”, especially when incorporating the toms, louder, as though another drummer is behind the kit.

Big band playing consists of three processes: (1) reading; (2) interpreting what is read by listening to the ensemble while playing; (3) improvising fills and set ups. Let the rhythmic vocabulary of the ensemble figures of the chart determine the content of your improvisations. That’s really playing the chart and not relying on memorized fill patterns that have nothing to do with the music. Play the music, not the chart!

Playing more or faster notes does not necessarily mean playing louder.

Learn to improvise with silence/space as well as sound. As Miles Davis said, “I listen for what I can leave out.”

How you think about the drum set, what you have heard, and what you understand about the musical past of the instrument determine how you play the instrument musically.

Before you can find your “voice” on the instrument you must have a “brain”. This means having your own concept of what you want to do, how you want to do it, and how you want it to sound. Studying other drummers who have a musical “voice” will help you find yours.

Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, Pete LaRoca, and Philly Joe Jones all sound both wonderful and different. What do you think are the musical traits that they share? Those are traits you want to incorporate into your playing, your way.

Don’t make the mistake of just listening to the drummer when you study the music. You are training yourself to listen to yourself on the bandstand if you do. The drummer you are trying to emulate is not listening primarily to him/ her self. He/she is listening to the other musicians. Always listen to the musical environment in which the drummer is playing. Know the tune’s melody and form. Listen to the bassist and drummer; pianist/guitarist and drummer; the soloist and the drummer.

Listen to the entire group.That’s what happens on the bandstand if you have the technical skills and self-confidence to immerse your self in the music, not it your drumming.

Everything you need to know and to hear is in the music. Allow the music or the silence in the music to suggest what or what not to play.

Have a musical reason for what you play and how you play it. If you don’t you will play “filler”, especially on the snare when you don’t have a concept of comping.

Everything you play should have intention. “Filler” or soft “chatter” on the snare should be a choice, not a habit (we practice so that our technique allows us to make choices spontaneously at many tempos and dynamic levels.)

Mimicry is not improvisation. Imagine if you had a conversation with someone who simply repeated what you said. Obviously, there would be no exchange of ideas.

When I was starting out I thought that by mimicking the soloist’s rhythmic ideas I was “interacting” and conversing with him/her. I thought I was showing the soloist that I was really listening! An older pianist was caring enough to tell me, “Don’t play what I play! Just play the tune like everyone else in the band! That was when I started really improvising when I played, not mimicking what someone else played.

“Right” and “wrong” do not nurture improvisational freedom. “Appropriate” and “inappropriate” do. Again, it is a matter of choices.

To have the freedom to listen to the music rather than just ourselves when playing, we must have an extensive musical vocabulary that encompasses dynamics, tempos, sound, styles and repertoire. Without this vocabulary, we cannot communicate with other musicians. The weaknesses that emerge when we don’t have this vocabulary force us to listen to ourselves, because we don’t sound right in the musical situation.

Finally, remember that you sound the way that you move. Drumming is motion. Smooth, in-time motions (strokes) produce smooth, in-time rhythms and sounds. The character of the silent part of the stroke, the upstroke, determines the character of the down stroke, the part that produces the sound. Consider the upstrokes as carefully as the downstrokes.