As a drum teacher I spend a lot of time teaching my students the different techniques at the drumset. Essentially, this means I spend lots of time working through exercises to develop control, independence, grip and all sorts of techniques to make the student’s head spin. The aim of teaching all these techniques is to give the student the possibility to play at the drumset whatever he or she may feel like at a given moment.
We’re talking about that celebrated word “expression”.
To be able to express oneself at the drumset or indeed any instrument is an important part of playing music. In fact, searching to express oneself and be understood by the listener is something that is not only applicable to music, it is something that is absolutely essential to every human being, and failure in this domain is the cause of more unhappiness and difficulties in everyday life on all levels than we may care to imagine. We spend a lot of time on learning the techniques of language, and with the advances in technology that exist in today’s modern world we now have so many different ways to put our thoughts into words for others to receive.
And yet, how many times do we so desperately want to say something to someone but we hold back from saying what is really in our head?
If we carefully analyse a given situation, more often than not we’ll find that the reason is the apprehension of being judged (or even ridiculed) if we open up and display our true thoughts to others. What comes out is often a tempered and adapted version of what we really have to say, a version that conforms to social expectations. Coming back to playing music, and in my case specifically drumset, is the same thing true?
Whenever we sit down to perform at the drumset, be it for a live event in front of a large public gathering or a small demonstration in front of an eager family member or friend, more often than not we are limited by what we consider to be the listener’s expectations and the consequent judgement that can go with it. This judgement does not necessarily have to be negative for us to fear it to the point of letting it choke our creativity. As a teacher of the drumset and a performer of drum demonstrations and clinics I can find myself drawn easily into this situation. In a way I am limited in my artistic expression whenever I let myself succumb to an inner pressure to use techniques to demonstrate a certain level of playing.
Obviously it is a good thing to try to attain a high level of playing using good techniques. I certainly want to play to the very highest standard that I can reach every time I sit at the drumset. But this way of thinking can sometimes risk transforming me into a victim of technique, playing in a way that may not be true to how I’m feeling at that particular moment on time.
I brought this subject up in a drum evening last summer. I was playing in Marseille with some of my students and one of the students I was presenting has Down’s Syndrome. He is a student who I’m very proud of, and this particular evening his playing was exceptional, eliciting an enormous round of applause from the fascinated public.
Before the student took to the stage, I talked about to the public about the difference between succumbing to expectations in a performance and having total freedom of expression. My student, having a certain level of difficulty due to his handicap, is limited in technique at the drumset. However, his artistic expression when playing is nothing less than a gift he gives to the listener which comes straight from his innermost self.
This student has absolutely no preconceptions of what is expected in a performance in terms of technique or standard, and yet every note is fascinating and every note is felt sincerely by those listening. He plays often in unconventional manners, finding sounds not only by striking the drums in the normal way, but by bouncing the sticks of the heads vertically, tapping the hardware, tapping the sticks together, tapping the cymbals with the tips of his fingers, and scratching the different drumheads. In one of his more experimental moments I’ve even found him blowing gently on the drumhead, and another time, shaking a cymbal stand!
However, one week he came to the lesson to play a solo, and this time there was no sign of unconventional playing, no tapping with fingers or anything similar. I have to admit to being a little surprised and indeed intrigued. When I asked about the difference in his approach to his solo this particular week, it was quite simple. “I just didn’t feel like it this week” was the response, given in a very calm, matter of fact tone.
This is true expression!
How easy would it have been for him to simply imagine that I expected to hear the same style of expression that I had heard and been impressed by another week, and then to succumb to this expectation by reproducing it for my benefit? This kind of freedom is rare in a student. Specifically, new and younger players are often timid and tread carefully when let loose to express themselves early in their learning experiences. Even something as simple as feeling enough freedom to hit the drums in a more solid manner, thus leading to a more confident sound, can be repressed by fear. We can all succumb to this at times in our life – the fear of simply letting our true voice be heard.
One of the greatest challenges I have as a teacher is trying to liberate the student’s true voice. I also have the same challenge as a player. I use and teach techniques on the drumset that allow access to the true voice that is simply waiting to come out and speak. These techniques include all sorts of widely renowned concepts covering independence, control, economy of movement and much more as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. But a large and challenging part of the learning process is the concept of developing the courage to use this voice. For this reason, the young player who took to the stage last summer and played from the heart without restraint is amongst my greatest influences.
Rob can be reached via his website at www.robhirons.com