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Play From The Heart

The following is an article I wrote back in December 2009 while living in Las Vegas that was never published online. I found it on an old hard drive and after reading it again, I made some edits and now I want to share it with the world. It's about digging deep and really exposing your soul through the music you're playing. Think back to your last gig, session, or performance and ask yourself, "Did I really Play From The Heart"?

Here it is.

The other day I was teaching a drum lesson to one of my younger students. We were working on playing some simple rock and funk beats with syncopation in the bass drum. I asked the young student to play the first exercise on the page and he responded with “I don’t want to play that one, it’s boring.” You see, we had already worked on and practiced that exercise and had moved further on down the page to exercise #11 and beyond in previous lessons which gradually became more and more difficult. My first reaction to his comment was surprise but I soon realized there was a very important lesson presenting itself for me to pass on to this unsuspecting student.

Let me take you back a few months to another scenario that I think all drummers (and musicians in general) can relate to. I received a phone call asking me to play drums for a show in which I knew the style of music would not be something I would care for very much. But it was not a difficult decision for me to make. I knew I had the chops to handle the gig, it paid well, and furthermore could lead to more gigs with this group and other artists in the future. I took the gig. The music for the show was already predetermined so I asked for a copy of the drum book as soon as possible so that I could familiarize myself with the songs and arrangements.

Upon receiving the drum book, I thumbed my way through it and my initial feeling was confirmed. My opinion of some of the songs in the show were okay, but there were a few I seriously didn’t like. There was also a CD accompanying the charts which contained a board mix of a previously recorded live performance of the show with another drummer in which they were ‘unhappy with”. “Okay,” I said, “How am I going to make this music sound good and convincing?” I left the charts and the CD on my desk and thought about it for the next couple of days.

After mustering up enough courage to open the book again, a few days later I dove into the charts and the recording on the CD. The CD quality was worse than I thought. The mix was terrible with some instruments much too soft and the voices much too loud. Typical board mix. Still, I persevered on. My job was made easier because the charts did in fact correspond correctly to the recordings, so I didn’t have to do any re-writes or make any phone calls to ask about new arrangements.

Fast forward to rehearsal. We had one rehearsal and a pre-show sound check to make this 90 minute show sound tight. I was thankful that the bassist on the gig was a strong player. It gave me that much more to cling to and embrace. Rehearsal consisted of running the songs in the book, but there were a few new additions including a medley of songs which had just been arranged, all of which were in jarringly different tempos. None of the tempos were indicated on my chart, and song names were not indicated either so the first run through was very difficult. It was definitely one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants charts, use your ears and go with the flow! Needless to say it took a few run-throughs before the rhythm section became comfortable with all the changes and I knew where to put each song tempo-wise. By the end of the rehearsal, I knew this would be a good show and I was starting to believe that I would enjoy every moment of it from behind the drums.

So what happened? Why the sudden change of attitude? Am I just a moody kind of guy? Probably, but that’s not it. Did we get a huge raise for the gig? No, it was none of those. What really happened was that I found a way to get inside the music and embrace it whole-heartedly. I cast my opinions and pre-conceptions of the music aside, like or dislike, and in doing so I let the truth of the music take over me. You might say I checked my ego at the door. I could no longer help but play this music from the heart with all the passion and creativity I could muster.

For this particular gig, I was trying to bring as much of a “pop” sound as I could. I chose my gear and tuned my drums carefully. It required simple but authoritative playing and I found beauty in that simplicity, making each note count as if my life depended on it. I focused on the space in-between the notes, and the quality of sound and timbre I was coaxing out of each drum and cymbal splash. I attached myself emotionally to the music, got INSIDE of the music, and let it dictate where it should take me, without any preconceived ideas or notions other than the notes I had taken from rehearsal about shape or phrasing.

When the gig was over I felt satisfied about the job I had done. Moreover, I received many compliments from audience members and band members alike. They said I brought a whole new sound and dimension to the show. It felt great to know I had made a difference and brought an element of emotion that had been missing.

Getting back to scenario #1 with the student, I asked him to step aside from the drums for a moment while I demonstrate something. I asked him to watch and listen carefully as I proceeded to channel the energy of John Bonham or Phil Rudd into my limbs and play exercise #1 with all the heart and emotion I possibly could. The look of astonishment on his face was priceless and I knew my message was getting through to him. I said, “As someone who makes their living playing the drums, sometimes you’re asked to play music you dislike or don’t care for. When this happens, it helps to find something in the music to attach yourself to and play from the heart. Otherwise, what you play can come off as insincere and weak and an audience or band member will see right through you.”

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