Don’t underestimate the importance of understanding the problem at hand. In our “neurotic” (obsessive) percussion culture we often concern ourselves too much with playing the geekiest, nerdiest, and most expensive gear. While this obsession isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and often is the most important thing) there are some instances, especially for younger players, where it can throw us off course.
As usual, I like to take things I learn in life and apply them to my teaching and playing. I recently got back to water skiing. And, as is often the case, I was reminded of something I learned way back in my skiing hay-day (too long ago) that applies to my profession today. You see, I learned to slalom ski (one ski) on mediocre to good equipment. After several years of experience I was invited to try a top of the line, very expensive ski. I got up, hit a cut as hard as normal and the next thing I knew I was eating serious water. I learned the hard way that I had greatly underestimated the ski! It was TOTALLY different, almost to the point where I was a beginner again. That ski took time to adjust to, a long learning curve to be sure! I wasn’t able to continue skiing with it, but if I had, I know my skiing would have eventually taken a big next step. Why? Was it just because the ski? Well, only partly, if I didn’t have the strong foundation of skiing well on good equipment, I would be less likely to adapt to the high test qualities of the new ski. If I had started on that high end ski I would have failed immediately.
That story leads me to my question today; how important is the equipment (both instruments and stick/mallets) we use? Could it be that we look to our instruments and mallets to solve problems that only we can solve as players? If this is true, are we really reaping the benefits from that super geeky expensive gear?
Learn how to make more than one sound out of one set of sticks than only one sound out of each stick you own.
I’ve seen it often; younger players allowing their tools to distract them from the more important goal. This summer I witnessed a student insisting they needed a deeper snare drum when what they really needed to do was solve a more important problem first; playing any drum in time with the orchestra and conductor. Often students, after learning a new trick of the trade, are too eager to unveil it in an important audition or concert, and after doing so don’t realize that it made that excerpt flop even harder. Or, what about that show player, who is more concerned about having 8 sets of timpani mallets at their disposal in the middle of a large Broadway show set-up, than taking into consideration how that seemingly constructive idea actually causes logistical issues because it causes more problems that it solves (extraneous timpani mallets flying about the set-up as mallet changes are attempted but failed).
Actually, maybe this is a phenomenon seen all around us. Think about the infamous launch of the iPhone 4. It was made with 2 sides glass! Cool and shiny right? So I bought in.. (you did too..) and in a matter of weeks or months one or both sides of my “super elegant and high-end” smart phone were shattered. Think about it. How many iPhones have you seen around you with shattered screens? So much so that it gave birth to an entire business of screen replacement establishments eager to make money off of a design that had noble intentions but was a terrible idea. I fell in love with the bling, the status symbol, drank the Apple cool-aid; “this is what YOU want”. When all along what I really needed was a more durable smartphone, a hardware design that was more practical for the constant and stressful use of a device that went with me everywhere. Imagine a phone with a rubber back, one that didn’t feel like a slippery “fish” in the hands. Admittedly, a bit less “high end” but way more functional and durable. So I turned to Android, a platform that was at the time a bit less design oriented but infinitely more customizable. After experiencing the stable but restrictive capabilities of iOS Android turned out to be the high end ski! A software experience more adaptable with more practical hardware.
But what is the problem at hand? The point is to encourage younger players to find your own solution. Don’t let the bling of a new set of sticks, or a new super geeky marimba design distract you from making a mediocre to good instrument sound great. Ask questions like: why do I only use my teachers mallets? Keep it simple. As a starting point use minimal amounts of mallets. Learn how to make more than one sound out of one set of sticks than only one sound out of each stick you own. When you fully explore this minimal approach and learn to make your best sounds the bells and whistles of a new set of mallets, or a new instrument design will then become as important as they were meant to be by the brilliant designers who created them. Because you understand the foundation you will know how to apply the icing on the cake.
Real artistry doesn’t exist on high end equipment alone. Make the marimba sound great when you play it without resonators. Learn how to play an entire show with one set of timpani mallets while still creating articulate and legato notes. Learn how to make a lower end drum kit sound like DW’s top of the line model. If you can do all of these things and you finally get that “high end ski”, you’ll begin to really understand the difference between low and high end gear.
As always, I like to hear your perspective. While I’m obviously passionate about what I write here I’m also convinced there are many other ways to this end. Please share them and any other reactions below the post.