Performance is all about making musical choices: what to play, and when to play it. Although it may not feel like playing music is a decision making process, it is. It is therefore important to understand that every note we play is selected based on a large number of variables, which we will refer to here as context. We spend endless hours practicing in preparation for our performances so as to strengthen our ability to make decisions, and then execute on our ideas. This practice time is primarily devoted to the development of skills necessary for the articulate execution of our musical ideas—our choices. It is important to understand that in order to transform our practicing into performance preparation we must learn to first place primary context at the centre of our efforts.
General context is a complicated issue. It may be best described as the combination of all of the elements that provide the foundation for a performance. This includes qualities such as time (pulse and meter), feel (subdivision and rhythmic interpretation), sound quality, understanding of form and musical style, knowledge of the associated repertoire, and consistency of performance. In jazz, for instance, much of the context is constantly in flux due to the unique interactions among the musicians.
Primary context is a much simpler issue and will be the focus of our performance preparation. Primary context for a trumpet player is sound production, intonation, and articulation. For the drum set player it is strength of time, depth of feel, and quality of sound. The consistent production of all three constitute primary context.
Content is that which we choose to play. There is nothing simple about our musical choices; they are based on an enormous number of constantly changing variables. When done well these choices are an instantaneous response to the needs of the context. It is in the expert manipulation of these variables that we hear the creative strength and unique voice of a player.
In the past, a focus on acquisition of repertoire combined with a busy performance schedule was sufficient to keep context at the center of a musician’s development. Technical skill is what gives a drummer’s playing breadth—the ability, for instance, to be technically effective in a wide range of styles—but it is the understanding of context that gives depth to any performance. Without a clear understanding of context what we chose to play is arbitrary and therefore unmusical. With fewer and fewer formative playing opportunities available to young musicians we need to more actively incorporate awareness of context into our practice regimen. A simple axiom will serve to demonstrate the importance of context: In an audition, all technical considerations being equal, the player who knows the most tunes—that is, demonstrates the deepest understanding of the music to be played—will get the gig. At the professional level this is true of all auditions.
The question, then, is how can we bring strength of context to our practicing? The answer is to place primary context before content. This is more easily done than one might think and takes no more time than other methods of practice.
Let’s look at how we might apply the above to our daily practice. We will start with a simple Ted Reed independence exercise in the Allan Dawson style. Previously, we might have approached it like this: First, we would have worked on acquiring the mechanics of the exercise (this hand goes here, that hand goes there, etc.) rather than first taking the time to learn each part of the exercise. This would commonly have been done with little or no regard to strength of time, feel, consistency of sound, or overall musicality. Having achieved a minimum level of control we would perhaps turn on the metronome and begin the process of fixing these things. This approach means spending an enormous amount of time on this work of fixing. By design it places content before context, giving greater weight to the exercise itself rather than emphasizing its primary function in performance. Given that the point of learning to play this particular exercise is to improve our ability to produce reference quality time and feel with great sound, it seems only sensible then to instead put those qualities first. Remember, all other elements, although critical to a strong performance, are secondary.
Now let’s look at the same independence exercise, placing it in the primary context of time, feel, and sound. Given that these qualities are now our focuses, it stands to reason that we should first start with the time. Fixed meter and solid pulse: these are the life-blood of great time and feel, and of the music being played. First, set the metronome to the desired tempo; a fixed reference is first order context, the when of all things. The exercise is written in 4/4 time and consists of four parts: cymbal, snare drum, bass drum, & hi-hat. Learn all of the parts of the exercise first. Then while counting the time out loud, begin to play the jazz ride pattern. Continue to play this pattern until you are generating strong time and feel, and the sound is consistent bar to bar. Only after developing this solid foundation should you begin to add the other parts. The overriding goal at this point is not to disrupt the time and feel being generated by the cymbal part. The snare drum part may be added as little as one note at a time or in its entirety, as long as the time and feel are not compromised. Continuing to learn the exercise in this manner keeps the generation of time and feel as the primary goal and the exercise remains the medium through these qualities are generated. This is a mere sketch of the process, but I believe it illustrates the concept and its application.
Regardless of how, what, or why we practice, the primary goal of that practicing will dictate what we get out of it. If our goal is simply to learn exercises well we will become good exercise players. If, however, we learn that each exercise we work on is a medium through which we strengthen our time, improve the depth of our feel, and become one with our unique sound we will become known for our great time, great feel, and studio-quality sound. Any questions?
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