Stick technique and the loss of prejudice via a shrinking planet

This is a story about how a shrinking planet has changed my POV on the issue of proper stick technique on the drums.

(For those of you who are not drummers–don’t run away yet. This is meant to be relevant for everyone.)

My formative years of drumming were spent in a drum and bugle corps in high school and college. I didn’t totally realize it then, but this was a technique adapted from Western European master drummers and their American counterparts. It was a technique that evolved for the purposes of rudimental, or military drumming. They were wonderful at this music, and I’m very much in their debt for what they created and how I benefitted from it.

However, many of these folks had no idea idea how to play jazz music, let alone Elvis, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Nirvana music. Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, West-African? Nope.

So now we get to me.

When I first started teaching, this technique I grew up with is what I taught. Even though I have many injuries from using this technique to play too tight, too loud, too fast, etc. This is what I stuck with…it was what I knew.

One day when I lived in Portland, I decided to rehearse with a Brazilian group–the Lions Of Batucada. Wonderful group, great people, great fun playing that music.

When I first joined, I was very judgmental of the variety of stick techniques I saw around me. I was the new guy, so it made no sense to say anything, but I thought to myself, ‘given time, I could straighten out all this weird stuff’.

But a funny thing happened…

My problems with injuries started to get more acute when I played that music for an extended time. So, I adapted my technique to manage the pain, but I stayed within the boundaries of the Western European/American technique that I knew. What I was doing wasn’t 100% effective, but at least I was able to manage the pain a bit.

I don’t know exactly when the realization dawned on me, but I know I was playing the Brazilian repique (heh-PEE-kay) at the time–sort of a small timbale, played with one bare hand and one stick. I was trying to play the repique rhythm for Samba Rio-style, and I was having huge problems with my hands–esp. the hand holding the stick. Finally, out of desperation, I tried one of the techniques that I had seen while playing with these other Brazilian players–a technique that, until that moment, I had considered ‘crude’.

And you know what? It worked. It totally worked. It did take me a while to get used to it, but it totally worked for that rhythm on that instrument. Then, over time it slowly dawned on me–my technique was totally inappropriate for that rhythm on that instrument, much as that Brazilian technique would have been totally inappropriate for the drum corps drumming I did as a kid.

And so we finally get to my new outlook on stick technique:

It’s all good. As long as you can get the sound and ‘feel’ you need consistently, without hurting yourself, it’s all good.

And…it all came from my exposure to a technique from another culture–a culture with some European roots, but much more strongly influenced by West Africa. Shrinking planet stuff, right?

So, whats the big idea here? I guess it’s that we all have some amazing things to offer, but no one culture has a monopoly on the ‘best’ of anything. In the past, I would have told you that my stick technique that I learned growing up is the best this, the best that. That was just my lack of experience, or lack of exposure to other cultures talking. I now know better.

I want to leave you with a quote that I picked up from Mark Twain:

“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”

The way I think of it is like this: If you travel widely and come into contact with a lot of different cultures, at some point in your travels you will be discriminated against. And, if you’re paying attention closely, you’ll see that the discrimination is just baseless, random stuff–just silliness. Then, when you catch yourself doing something similar (you discriminating against some other thing or people), you will have some experience to see things from anothers perspective. Then, maybe, you will question where this idea of yours came from.

This idea of ‘seeing things from anothers perspective’ is, to me, the key here. I think there is no better way to lose your predudices than seeing things from anothers perspective.

And lastly, to connect the dots from marching drumming to Brazilian to Nirvana–that Brazilian repique technique I learned? It’s perfect for playing that ‘thrash’ ride cymbal technique and Dave Grohl popularized with Nirvana. Yessir.

(Remember when I said that military technique was developed before Jazz, much less Rock? This is one area where it fails todays drummers.)

Check it out in this video of Dave Grohl and the surviving members of Nirvana…What I call the ‘thrash’ ride is what Dave is doing when the music gets loud in this tune with Annie Clark from St. Vincent (BTW, she’s is a total badass–not many humans can totally rock and hang with Nirvana). Check her out singing this version of “Lithium” with Nirvana at the R&R HOF.

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