Work has been really busy the past couple of weeks. So, instead of loading you up on blog posts, I’ve been loading my calendar up with work. The rest of my time has been spent either practicing drums or working on this new video series I’ve wanted to start for quite some time. Dubbed “Session Insider”, this new video series takes you into the studio with me where you get to be a ‘fly on the wall’ at all sorts of recording sessions that I am apart of. The whole series will probably be drum “heavy” in its content but will also include tracking and mixing sessions for projects that I am engineering and producing.
(*Once we get 5-6 episodes deep on this series, I’ll open the Session Insider website and downloadable podcast version of the program.)
So, without further adieu, here’s Episode #1 of “Session Insider”. Let me know what you think by leaving comments here or on the video’s YouTube page:
In my last blog post, I pointed you toward the YouTube playlist that I have created featuring a bunch of great recordings of some very important jazz standards. Today, I want to put a spotlight on another great resource that I am using in my study of jazz music, brought to us by a great Atlanta-based jazz musician and educator, Dr. Gordon Vernick.
Dr. Gordon Vernick is Associate Professor of Music at Georgia State and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Georgia State University. He can also be seen playing regularly in and around the Atlanta area. (Most recently, I saw him gigging with Joe Gransden’s 16-piece Big Band on their regular ‘every-other-Monday-night’ house gig at Cafe290 in Sandy Springs.) Gordon is also a pretty nice guy… unless you’re late for class.
In addition to all those things, Dr. Vernick is the creator and host of a great radio program / podcast called “Jazz Insights”. “Jazz Insights” is a radio program that puts a spotlight on important individual musicians in the jazz idiom, discusses the history of jazz as well as the ‘nuts and bolts’ of this great art form, and seeks to provide a context for this musical institution that been around for almost 100 years.
Each episode averages about 10-12 minutes in length and is focused on a very specific topic within jazz music. Whether it’s a specific jazz musician, a sub-genre of the style, or a breakdown of “How Jazz Works”, this program helps students of jazz (as well as casual listeners) understand what makes this music ‘tick’. Gordon presents these topics with great passion and love for the art form. He also takes topics that run the risk of being dry or academic and uses them as a framework to tell pieces of the story of this truly American musical invention.
As drummers, we spend a lot of time looking at things very specific to our instrument: rhythm, coordination, tempo, groove, etc. Where many drummers fall short lies in making those points the beginning AND endpoint for their studies. It is astounding to me how very little the average, off-the-street drummer actually knows about music. Very few pay attention to melody, chordal / harmonic structure, song form, composition, or the other tenants of music that are responsible for… well, MUSIC. (And for Heaven’s sake, don’t EVER ask a drummer to sing you the lyrics of most any song, especially any jazz standard.)
In ignoring these things, we are not missing half of the picture that is music. We are missing MOST of it. While very important to the performance of music, what we as drummers contribute on the band stand or in the recording studio is only a small percentage of what makes a song an actual freestanding, living, breathing, individually recognizable work of aural art. Without all of those other tenants in mind, all we drummers serve up is tempo sync’ed rhythm with the occasional melodic inference. Music is so much more than that and more than what most drummers are actively aware of. I have found that infusing my own drumming with the knowledge and understanding of things like melody, harmonic structure, song form, and the like makes me a better accompanist to the people with whom I play and record music. Ultimately, it allows me to assist my fellow musicians in creating an intelligent, emotional, and specific sonic experience for the listener.
What I enjoy about “Jazz Insights” is that that I learn so much more about music, specifically jazz, and the ‘why behind the how’ of the other musicians responsible for what I hear. By getting that more complete picture of what’s going on in the recordings I listen to (and subsequently, the musicians I end up playing with), I feel that I can more intelligently join in on the conversation that is found between musicians within a song.
You can listen to and subscribe to the “Jazz Insights” podcast for FREE by finding it in iTunes [JUST CLICK HERE]. With the addition of the iTunes U app to Apple’s line of media products, you can simply search for “Jazz Insights” inside that app on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod, subscribe to the podcast for FREE, and easily make it a regular addition to your weekly musical study routine.
For students of jazz music or for listeners who are new to this musical style, I suggest starting with these five episodes. (Right click each title for the direct episode / mp3 link. Just choose “Save Link As…” to save the file to your computer.):
- What Is Jazz?
- How Jazz Works: Part 1 (This one doesn’t show up in the current feed)
- How Jazz Works: Part 2
- How Jazz Works: Part 3
- How Jazz Works: Part 4
**There is an older RSS feed for this program with even more programs / content. You can find it by clicking here.
As some of you may know, I have taken the past couple of years to *really* work on the swing / be-bop jazz area of my drumming. I have been playing jazz music actively, both for fun and for pay, for about 20 years now. However, I have always considered myself to be a very poor jazz drummer. When it comes to things like corporate events and wedding bands, my abilities in regard to a sort of vanilla, “wallpaper jazz” have served me well. But, if we're grading my skills and musicality in this style of music using the barometer of great jazz drummers like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Jimmy Cobb, then the drumming of Brian Stephens pales in comparison to those guys.
Since my late teens, I have learned hundreds of jazz standards and played them on scores of gigs, but I can't think of a time in my life when I truly studied the artform that is swing / be-bop drumming with a qualified, seasoned professional drummer who is both skilled in and revered by others in this style of music. Most of my training and study has either come from textbooks on independence (like the works of Jim Chapin and John Riley), casual hangouts with other drummers, or from simple osmosis of music, both from attending jazz concerts and in listening to jazz recordings. The rest of my education has actually come on the gig… not really the best place to learn something for the first time. As in learning any language, whether spoken or musical, this method of study is fine for short phrases and sound bytes, but it never gives the student any sort of deep, masterful understanding of the art found inside of the “conversation”.
So, in March 2010, I began taking regular lessons with an Atlanta-based drummer named Justin Varnes. Justin is currently the jazz drumset studies instructor at Georgia State University, and he plays around town with some great Atlanta jazz musicians including Kevin Bales, Mace Hibbard, Joe Gransden and Gary Motley. In the past, Justin has also worked with marquee jazz artists like Mose Allison, Kenny Baron, and Earl Klugh. To say that Justin *knows* this genre of music and plays it with a high level of musical mastery would be a gross understatement. The fact that his name was given to me by some great pro musicians that I regularly work with AND through glowing recommedations from several of his students (who are also working pros around town) just made this educational decision an easy one to make.
So, almost two years ago, I walked into Justin's office at Georgia State and did what any great musician *has* to do to improve and grow on their instrument. I put my track record and accomplishments aside, humbled myself, and became The Student to a very capable Teacher. Now, I have always considered myself to be an eternal student of the drums and of music in general. I have always had a regular, structured drum practice routine consisting of the content from method books, DVD's / videos, musical recordings & transcriptions of recordings, and material from past lessons I have taken both privately and in settings of more institutional-style education. The reason I am a better drummer now than I was a year ago (and light years beyond the drummer I was when I moved to Atlanta in 1995), is because of this ever-continuing education on my instrument of choice.
All that being said, becoming a blank slate to another drummer who is almost my same age was no small feat. I have done a few cool things and made a few dollars in music over the past 2 decades. So, I know a *little* bit about playing drums. Also, to say that I've been burned by other people's ego or personal agendas while inside the experience of private instruction would be a bit of an understatement. I do come with a little bit of baggage, both good AND bad. Long story short, I considered this to be a completely fresh start for both my drumming and my musical education.
That first 10 month-long period of private instruction and the subsequent 10 months of incubation, where I've been “shedding” this material and absorbing this music, have been nothing short of amazing. I feel like my personal, musical growth has been exponential. As I write this, I am preparing to undertake another long stretch of regular lessons and intensified, focused practice in hopes of taking things to some sort of “Next Level”. I am looking forward to the pressure cooker that is studying one-on-one with and being accountable to a great Teacher.
With Justin's help, I began compiling a playlist of jazz music “standards”. Along with adding mp3 versions to my iTunes library (and various digital music devices), I have also now started compiling them in a handy playlist on my YouTube channel. Many of them are songs I have played live in the course of my work as a working class, professional drummer. Most of them are considered to be the seminal versions of these historical songs. Several of them are live versions of tunes played by some of jazz music's great innovators. For others like me who are students of music, I hope it provides you with a great educational resource. If you're new to jazz music and don't know where to begin, this playlist can serve as a great “jumping off point”. If you are a long-time fan of jazz music or a musician who is stuck in an educational rut with regard to this style of music, I hope it serves as an entertaining, inspiring tool that leads you to your own “Next Level”.
[**NOTE: I will be updating and constantly adding to this playlist as I continue on my journey. So, keep checking back there for new songs and great performances by some of jazz's greatest musicians]
Enjoy! And feel free to share this playlist with your friends, fellow musicians, and any students that you may teach.
I posted this to my FB wall the other day. For the past few weeks, I have been judging the local rounds of Guitar Center's 2012 Drum-Off here in Atlanta. Watching all of these up-and-coming drummers play three minute-long, unaccompanied solos has made me take a little extra time in my practice sessions to analyze and refine my own soloing. Whether inside a tune on a gig or all by myself at a drum clinic, I have always thought that soloing is one of my weaker areas.
To start correcting this issue, I have begun watching, listening to, transcribing, and learning portions of drum solos from some of the greats. My goal is to build a better vocabulary for this portion of the artform. By learning directly from the work of others far better than I am, I don't have to totally “reinvent the wheel” in honing these soloing skills and further defining my own voice on the instrument.
A lot of drummers, especially younger ones, think that most of the showy stuff that drummers do now started in the Rock era. Whether it's playing with your bare hands like John Bonham or Tommy Aldridge or spinning drumsticks and playing “crossover” licks like EVERY hair metal drummer did back in the 80's, this sort of showmanship has been going on since drummers moved out of the orchestra pit and onto the stage.
Here's one of my favorites drummers and the guy responsible for much of our modern drumming, Papa Jo Jones. After seeing him play this drum solo, how many contemporary drummers can you name off in 60 seconds that were influenced by him?
I’m rather embarrassed that I’ve just let my blog lie dormant for all this time. Part of the reason is that I’ve been VERY busy with work and the other part of it is… well, I haven’t been the greatest time manager lately. Most of this year has been an experiment with what I call “Running With The Muse”. It involves only setting “hard appointments” on my calendar and letting the rest of my day be completely liquid. This method has been great for allowing me to work according to inspiration, but I find (more often than not) that inspiration usually comes in the form of desperation. I have spent a ton of my time this year playing “Beat The Deadline”, sometimes working for days without sleep to finish a project in that last chunk of time just before a project’s Due Date. That sort of lifestyle can (and has) become exhausting.
On the Flipside, I had a period of time where I micro-managed every moment of my day (including what time I’d take a shower, practice drums, or eat lunch). While I like the amount of productivity I can get out of that sort of structure, the artist side of me finds it VERY limiting. That sort of anal retentiveness leaves very little room for improvisation. And, as you know, my life as a musician and music producer lives and dies on the creativity found inside of improvisation.
A significant trait I possess (that can be either limiting or totally freeing) is that I have an “All-Or-Nothing” mentality. When I do something… ANYTHING, I’m into it 500%. I don’t really have a throttle to help me find a “sweet spot” for any activity. When I decided to start watching Mad Men two weeks ago, I took every available minute to watch the show on Netflix (including ditching sleep on many occasions). [NOTE: I am now 2 episodes away from completing Seasons 1-4] When I decide to be a gym rat, I will drop 20 lbs in the first month or two and work out as if I’m attending church [read: religiously]. When I stop going to the gym, those 20 lbs come right back and I gorge myself on Pistachio Almond ice cream and Frontera’s queso dip.
When I moved my home office from one side of the house to the other, everything else in my life stopped while I sorted through piles of things in my office, organized what I would keep, set aside what would get given away or tossed, painted the new office, set up my video/podcast studio, wired up all of the technology, and totally reset my workspace all in a week-long series of 22 hour days.
That sort of ‘all-or-nothing’ methodology is both a blessing and a curse. For the artistic side of me, it IS the reason why I get to do this sort of creative work for my career. It is the reason why I’ve progressively gotten better at what I do each year for more than 25 years. The best recordings I’ve made have come from locking myself away and shutting out the world while I work. The most progress I’ve made in any of my disciplines has happened when I shirked other responsibilities and concentrated on ONE thing mono-maniacally. But is also the reason why some people have to wait on me to get around to them and their priorities.
So, in the spirit of “All-Or-Nothing”, I’m trying to shunt all of my energy toward moderation. 50% structure and 50% of my “Running With The Muse”. A mix of productivity AND creativity thru a combination of organization and improvisation. And to start it off, here’s a great article I read today on becoming more productive from Robin Sharma: “21 Tips to Become the Most Productive Person You Know“
Ask I am getting back into regular blogging, I wanted to continue to share with you the kinds of things that I read every day. Hopefully it will help you understand my own thought processes and the internal struggles I go through as I am making my way through a very odd journey that I call my Life and Career.
So, I read this very interesting article today. As I have begun putting some new things in place over the past year, things that speak to long-term plans I have in mind for my life and career, I’ve encountered some of the stuff that this article talks about. In fact, a lot of my time over the past 20 years has been spent in the first two phases of the process that Jeff Barnett talk about. Only a few of my endeavors have made it over to Step 3. The ones that have gone the distance have been wildly successful.
Many of those things I have done that didn’t make it through Step 2 usually ended up becoming great successes for other people who persevered and pushed through. This year, I am all about making it to Step 3 in every area of my life and career.
Here’s Jeff Barnett’s article entitled, “Man in the Arena: The Rise of Critics in Every Creative Journey”. I hope you get some encouragement from it.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
I had started putting together a video blog for you Monday, but to be honest, it would’ve only been interesting to me. No use in boring 30 people to tears when you can wait another week and get something that might actually be worth your time. Speaking of “worth your time”, I said I was getting back to regular “Random Riffs” blogging and here’s my first one.
I love it when people find alternative ways of creating sounds. Here’s one using Photoshop and a low-cost program called Photosounder. Short version: you create a picture / image in Photoshop, load it into Photosounder, and the result is a noise you can use to make drum machine-like sounds. Combine these simple pictures together into some sort of regular, repetitive visual pattern and you can actually put together an entire drum groove visually.
Last Friday, I had the opportunity to sit with Dave Chick and guest host on the Inside Home Recording podcast. It was a great time and an action packed 90 minutes. We talk about what my career looks like as well as some of the new developments in what I’m currently doing. Then, we get into answering listeners questions and take a look at some new software releases. We end up talking about my system and set-up for doing remote recording sessions with clients all over the world in real time.
If you’re an audio engineer, own a studio of ANY size, and love to hear interesting talk about the recording process or the business of being in this industry, you will certainly enjoy this episode.
I’ve been listening to this podcast since the very first episode back in August 2005. The guys who have hosted this podcast over the past six years have done a great job of bringing home studio owners valuable information that they can immediately use. I was honored to have made a significant contribution to the episode that is essentially their 6 year Anniversary episode
Visit the page for the IHR #93 episode by clicking here to download it / subscribe in iTunes or listen by clicking the play button below.
Inside Home Recording: Episode #93
My Remote Recording How-To Video
After I get some website stuff plugged into SudsAndBuds.net’s podcast site and the new PedalPusher.TV site, I’ll get back into regular blogging here. It really has taken every single minute of my time to churn out the content for these audio and video podcasts in addition to doing the work that I actually get paid for. Truth be known, I wish that I lived in a world where there was enough money generated from these new side projects and my in-house “pet” projects to focus on them exclusively… maybe one day.
So, here’s this week’s video blog which, for obvious reasons, I am just going to start calling my Monday “vlog”. (I know, that term is SO 2009.) This week, I fill you in on the events of the week including working with renowned drum educator Pat Petrillo, mixing audio for Pat’s new series of online drum videos, and then I break the news about the possible reunion of my old band Tattooed In Screams. I also take time to talk candidly about consistency and give you some thoughts on improving your own personal consistency.
Here’s Episode 9 of “Yep, It’s Monday!”