Keeping It Simple Is Still Cool

So many times I hear drummers and other musicians trying to play everything they know in one song. They are so absorbed in their own thing that they forget to hear music as a collective sound of everyone present. And it’s not just a problem for young musicians. I’ve heard players and singers alike, who have years of experience, over do it.

We have all been guilty of this at one time or another. I still catch myself getting overly excited or “into the moment” at times.  I’ll go back and listen to recordings of live events or even studio sessions that I’ve been on and wonder why I played so much or why I chose that certain sound. Fortunately, I have had a lot of talented musical friends help me hear music as a collective experience. And with their help and years of experience I think my playing has matured. But I’m still learning.

The best way to get an objective view of your playing is to record or video everything you do. At every event ask the engineer to record it. Then you can go back and really hear what happened. If they can’t do it, use your own digital device to record right on the stage or platform. Be sure to hide it somewhere so it is not distracting for the other players. Sometimes people get nervous or play differently when they know the “red light is on.” Although, I bet the others will want to hear it once they know what you’re up to. It’s a great training tool for the whole team.

Sometimes you don’t know what the artist or lead singer wants you to play. I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions. Remember, you are there to serve the vision of the leader. Every singer and musician has a different opinion about what works best in a song. So communication is a must. Some artists ask me to play very sparsely. Even telling me exact groove and fill ideas, as if they are composing a classical piece. Then there are those who just ask for me to play whatever I feel fits the music and bring more energy to the songs. I’m happy to work either way. If they’re happy, I’m happy!

I always tell my students and clinic attendees to “play music, not just drums.” This concept should apply to everyone. If you are aware of the “group sound” of a song you will play it correctly. In other words you should be playing your part while being aware of all the other elements of the tune. What is the melody doing rhythmically? What are the lyrics saying? What is the bass line? What are the guitar, piano, and other instruments doing? You have to listen carefully. If you are only thinking of your instrument you are not connecting to the team. The music won’t sound cohesive. I always say, “The best musicians are those with BIG EARS.” Always listen to everyone!

I always say, “The best musicians are those with BIG EARS.” Always listen to everyone!

Playing with a wide range of dynamics is also an invaluable skill. Besides adapting to the playing environment (the size of the room), you should use dynamics as a way to express the emotion of a song. Your playing volume will definitely affect the energy of the music. I’ve heard artists and listeners say that when the music is always at one level (“a wall of sound”) that they can’t relax and absorb what is happening. If you allow the music to ebb and flow according to the meaning and spirit of each song, everyone will enjoy the experience much better.

In praise and worship the song leader and band have to “lead” people in a journey of expressing themselves to the Lord. They also need to create “sonic space” for the Lord’s expression to us. The word “Selah” is seen many times in the book of Psalms at the end of particular verses. It means to pause, reflect, or meditate. This totally relates to moments in our music when we should just linger and wait on the Lord. Even the Levites of the Old Testament learned musical interludes for reflection or meditating in the presence of the Lord. Sounds kind of “new age-y” doesn’t it?  We could say God was really ahead of His time! HA! The Lord likes us to linger in His presence sometimes, just playing softly while He moves in our midst.

As a musician I’m always trying to express what is in my heart. What is stirring in my spirit is just as important as the notes actually being played. Sometimes it’s loud and exalting. A real intense, “slamming” groove! Big fills! Loud crashes! Sometimes it’s soft and reflective: light cymbal hits or scrapes with a triangle beater, or a soft pattern played with mallets or hands on the toms. At other times it’s at “rest.” Silence.

I always tell my students that people hear your spirit, not just your instrument. I know that sounds pretty “artsy”, but I believe it’s true. Sure, there is the physical sound of music, but what is happening in your spirit also affects the atmosphere. Remember the story of David playing for Saul when he was tormented by demons. David was talented, but he also had a heart after God. (I Samuel 16:14-23) I love the fact that the story reveals two things. One, Saul would feel better when David played. Two, the evil spirits would leave. Notice both results; a physical and a spiritual impact. Wow, think of the gift the Lord has placed in us as musicians! All the more reason for us to be sensitive when we are playing. So choose your notes carefully! You don’t have to play a lot of them to make a statement.

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