What we learn from copying

Neil Peart of Rush

Precise copying may be the greatest learning tool for the development of your own style. It’s difficult to do, and you might be tempted to ignore or alter what you think is easy. Don’t. It may be the thing you learn from most.

How do we learn to play in an unfamiliar style, or to incorporate new techniques into our playing? I’ve seen books on the market that claim to be able to “get you playing real funk drums in less than a week!” No way. Mastering the nuances of a particular style requires years of practice. It requires something else, as well: immersive listening.

Motion and Meaning

In 1932, jazz composers Irving Mills and Duke Ellington declared, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Fifty-two years later, Dee Snider of the 80s ultra-glam metal band, Twisted Sister, screamed, “I wanna rock!” Now, these songwriters could hardly be more different, but on this they would agree: music’s gotta’ move. The key to making music move is understanding the rhythmic and dynamic subtleties that give that style its distinct character, its deeper musical meaning.

Whether it’s jazz or rock, hip hop or funk, at the heart of every musical style is a signature rhythm, and every signature rhythm has a unique “swing:” a distinctive way of dividing time.  This means that it’s not enough for musicians simply to play in time; musicians must learn to play with time in the manner determined by the style.

Let’s look at samba. In Brazil, I took weekly samba lessons on a traditional drum called a repique from an old, illiterate man named Miguel. In my first lesson, Miguel explained to me that the essence of samba is contained within a single bar of time. So for the next five weeks I practiced one, 2/4 rhythm – over and over and over. At the end of each week, I took a long dusty bus ride back out to Miguel’s miserable shack, only to hear him tell me, “No, Eric, not quite right. Watch me again, and listen!”

And listen I did, because even if Miguel could write, it wouldn’t have helped me. Here’s why: the heart and soul of samba’s signature rhythm is its peculiar swing, and no conventional musical notation can adequately illustrate it. The time signature of samba is traditionally represented as 2/4, and each quarter note of time does contain four short notes. However – and this is the key to samba – six of the eight notes don’t land near enough to 16th note markers to be depicted honestly as straight 16th notes (see image). In fact, both because of where the notes land and because of which notes get emphasized, the rhythm can sometimes sound as much triple as it does duple, as much 3/4 as it does 2/4.

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This image is from an actual recording of a samba instrument called a tamborim playing samba’s signature rhythm as it should be played.

Samba is the rhythm of a nation, reflecting its beauty and complexity; Brazil’s stories are told and its dances swing on samba’s slippery skip. Samba without it’s distinctive motion simply is not samba – and Brazilians will tell you so! The way I eventually grasped the essential subtleties of samba was by listening to as many samba records as I could get my hands on, and later, by actually going to Brazil to watch and to listen to the musicians whose day-to-day lives are reflected in the rhythms they play.

The Peculiar Power of Listening

Mastering samba’s swing on my repique took me months of listening and active practice. But mysteriously, sometimes listening by itself is sufficient to influence, even revolutionize, our playing.

Last year, my band, Spymob, performed with N.E.R.D on a t.v. show here in the States called “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” The band leader for “Late Night” is the great drummer, Max Weinberg, from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Growing up, I loved Max’s rock drumming with Bruce, but on “Late Night” he’s always played a lot more jazz than rock, and he swings really well.

After taping our show, I asked him if he’d been a closet jazzer all his life. “No,” he told me. “I never actually played any swing music until I started this gig with Conan.” He went on: “But I’ve been a huge jazz fan my whole life, and when I became well-known with the E Street Band, I got to know Buddy Rich pretty well. Buddy would always let me sit right behind him at gigs and watch. I saw him play lots of shows. I honestly don’t know how I made the physical transition to jazz. I’m sure that watching and listening to Buddy had something to do with it.”

Max’s story is not typical, to be sure; in most cases, a transition like the one Max made would require much practice, regardless of a lifelong love of jazz. Still, the power of even passive listening can’t be denied. In his great book, Effortless Mastery (1996, Jamey Aebersold Jazz), pianist Kenny Werner tells this story:

“There is a radio station in New York City that celebrates the birthdays of various musicians by playing their music all day, or sometimes all week. One time they were playing Art Blakey for several days. I had the radio on that station all weekend. Day and night, listening or not, Art Blakey was drifting through my ears… Monday night, on my way to the Village Vanguard for my regular gig with the Mel Lewis Orchestra, I was still listening to him on the car radio.

When we started to play, I noticed that everything felt different. I had automatically absorbed Blakey’s groove, and I was playing things with a different gait. Others in the band acknowledged the change in feeling. Effortless listening is like breathing. I nourishes you without your even knowing it.

Kenny’s story is one many of us can relate to. Listening, however active or passive, rewires our body and mind. Suddenly we hear new musical possibilities and, mysteriously, we find ourselves playing something we’ve never practiced before.

Xerox Listening

Sometimes when we listen to learn something new, we’re not trying to comprehend such fine points as motion and meaning – all we want to know is “What the #$%@ is this drummer doing!?” Basic copying is crucial to our musical growth: opening our mind and limbs to new ways of thinking and moving is the first valuable step in learning new technique. And if you’re not listening closely, it’s easy to get it wrong – perhaps missing the very thing that makes the original great.

Here’s an example: Like a lot of young drummers growing up in the 80s, I idolized Neil Peart, the drummer of Rush. My rock band in middle school performed more than 20 Rush songs, and I tried hard to copy every lick of Neil’s I could. In high school, I became interested in other bands and I completely stopped listening to Rush. One day in college, I was feeling nostalgic, so I put on some of my favorite Rush records, and the more I listened to Rush that day, the more I realized I had never really listened to Neil’s playing before.

As a kid, I was very aware that Neil Peart was one of the world’s most technically advanced drummers. In my futile effort to be equally impressive, I cluttered my renderings of Neil’s parts with unmusical fireworks in almost every bar. In fact – and to my great surprise – Neil often plays very simply, just laying down time (though it may be in 11/8!).

Because I had listened so selectively as a kid, I heard only Neil’s mind-boggling fills and I wrongly took them to be the basis of his entire style. As a result, I failed to learn what really makes Neil a great drummer: it’s not the complexity of his playing, but his thoughtful contrast of simplicity and complexity.

Precise copying may be the greatest learning tool for the development of your own style. It’s difficult to do, and you might be tempted to ignore or alter what you think is easy. Don’t. It may be the thing you learn from most.

Roadmap for Learning

As drummers, our possibilities for learning are, literally, endless. We constantly have to make difficult choices about what we need to know and what we don’t – there just isn’t time to learn it all! Our natural listening preferences are like a flashlight on our map of learning – they show us where to go, because when we’re learning about something we love, we learn the most.

Conversely, no matter how much you may listen to something, if you’re not interested in it, you won’t grasp the heart and soul of it, and therefore, you won’t be able to incorporate its essence into your playing. So though you may feel bad that you’re not a great jazz drummer, or though you may wish you were a better reggae drummer, if you don’t like jazz or reggae, spinning all the records of Miles and Marley won’t help your playing. And so what? For most of us, our musical interest extends to just a few styles, and that’s just fine – most of our favorite musicians also have had limited stylistic ambitions.

Now it is important to listen to musical styles that are unfamiliar to you, as well as to styles that you once thought you didn’t like: doing so you might discover some amazing music, or realize your tastes have changed. But forcing yourself to listen to music you have no interest in is an educational dead end. Listening long and deep to the music you love and admire will, over time and with much practice, allow you to fully absorb vital subtleties which you can then incorporate into your own playing.

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