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Artist or Craftsman? by Mike Sorrentino

Artist or Craftsman?

As a drummer, which are you? As a teacher, which one? That’s kind of a strange question, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about for almost a year.  It came about one night when I met up with Joe Bergamini and Tommy Igoe after we all did our respective Broadway shows that evening.  (Joe was learning Tommy’s book for the Lion King and I had just subbed on In the Heights).  As is always the case when a bunch of New York musicians meet up for a beer, we got to talking about the strange business we work in.  Tommy said something that made me think. I’m not sure he even remembers saying it but (as are so many things he says) it was a pretty thought provoking statement.  It went something like “Broadway musicians are artists up until the end of the first show.  From there on out you’re a craftsman, trying to replicate the art”.  Pretty heavy.  During the train ride home I got to thinking about how that statement could apply to all drummers in every situation.

The question of artist vs. craftsman seems to imply that one is better than the other, but I would argue that that is not the case. They simply have a different set of skills, and one can be both at different times. It seems to me that we can create a continuum, with artist on one side and craftsman on the other.  While you don’t need to define yourself rigidly as one or the other, I have found that the better I understand the role required of me at the moment, the better I perform and the happier I am.  Let’s take a look at a few examples and then how it applies to teaching.

Like most drummers I know, I have to wear many hats to make a living.  Aside from my job running the TIP for Hudson, I play in three local bands, tour with two others, do sessions from my home studio, sub on Broadway and teach private lessons.  You would think that with all of those different projects swirling around my first thought would be to define my role. And you would be wrong!  Until recently my dense, overworked brain just thought “play drums now” without any thought of what the role of the drummer was in that situation.  I don’t mean the drumming requirements like steady time, good feel, or that kind of thing.  I mean what is the level of artistry is needed on this gig compared to what level of “getting the job done efficiently”.  The most recent example of this is a recording session I did at my studio, just two weeks ago for a writing team that hires me a lot.  We’re doing a project with a great singer named Karine Hannah. They sent over two tunes that I’ve played live with Karine already.  Since we had played them live and there were few changes to the arrangements I immediately went into my default mode of “session players need to get things done quickly and efficiently” – very craftsman of me.  I did the two tunes in an afternoon and sent them over to my friends while feeling very proud of myself for getting done so quickly. Later that night, I listened back and was very underwhelmed with my lack of creativity.  Not that I believe every song has to change the face of drumming, but we have to say SOMETHING. Otherwise, what’s point? I was a craftsman where they needed an artist.  I redid the parts the next day with my new artist attitude and sent them over a whole new batch of tracks. Needless to say, everyone was happier with round two. They weren’t that much different, but they were a bit more exciting and musical.  Before I play a note now, I make sure I know the role that is needed of the drummer in every situation I find myself in. 

Let’s look at the other side. I have a friend who recently auditioned for a very popular band.  (Band and friend will remain nameless!) He was given four songs to learn. When we talked about the audition he told me all the ways he was going to make the songs “better”.  The band had recorded these songs, the songs became hits, and they were about to go on a tour. He badly wanted to make his artistic statement on those songs. What he couldn’t see was that the band wanted a craftsman to recreate the parts. We all know how that one ended.  Great drummer, great band, square peg, round hole.  Is it true that some bands want to you to bring your style and flavor to their songs?  Sure. Some don’t.  Know which is which and you increase your chances for success.

Finding out what is needed of you from this perspective can help eliminate a lot of problems within your band.  Are you performing a service or are you creating art? I have this disagreement on a weekly basis with a local band I play with. I would contend that a band in a bar is performing a service, but the bandleader wants to fulfill his need to be an artist. Can you relate to this? I’m sure you can.  Have you ever been in a band with a guitar player who constantly wanted to play a slow blues while the dance floor was packed?  Have you ever played jazz with someone who wants to follow the same exact arrangements every night?  Have you ever done a recording session for someone who said “you’re playing very yellow and I need more red?”  These are all times to determine the artist/craftsman dilemma.

The good news is that it is not an all or nothing proposal.  How many times have you gotten a gig and the leader says “play the songs the way they are on the recording but don’t feel like you have to play that exactly”? If you think of our artist craftsman continuum, you can pretty quickly find out where you can be an artist and let your voice be heard without abandoning your craftsman responsibilities to the gig.

From a teaching standpoint, there are a few points to consider. Most importantly, what is your student’s goal? What approach will get you there the most effectively? For example, let’s say your student is having a difficult time playing a clean double stroke roll.  You can invent some new exercise that nobody has done before and is unique to your student’s hand and ability.  (Artist)  Or you can keep your student on the path you’ve set him on and over time he’ll see results (craftsman).  Say your student needs to play a snare drum solo for a state competition.  Do you focus first on correct stickings (craftsman) or dynamics (artist)?  Could the written dynamics be thought of from a craftsman point of view? Maybe. This consideration of artist /craftsman can be a huge influence on the way we teach.  Alan Dawson used to always say to me “that’s part of the art of drumming”.  Another quote I’ve heard from many of my teachers is “dedicated practice will improve your craft”.  I think both apply to every aspect of drumming. Find your balance and you’ll be a much happier drummer!

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