«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»
5.6 PLAYING A MELODY ON THE DRUM USING CONTOUROnce one is able to internalize a melody and properly express its phrasing at a basic level, an approach that Hoenig has developed consists of approximating a melody on the drums by emphasizing the tonal direction of the melodic line. This approach stops short of trying to completely execute the exact pitches of the melody. While this method does involve manipulating the pitch of the drums to a certain degree (by pressing into the drum head and raising the pitch), the goal is not to produce a direct note-for-note reproduction of a melody on the drum set. This is consistent with Jeff Hamilton’s approach and his solo drum set interpretation of the composition “A Night in Tunisia” as described by Rodrigo Villanueva and then Hamilton himself with regards to his interpretation of “Oleo.” Hoenig describes this approach as analyzing the organization of pitches in a given melody in terms of a series of “leaps” and “steps” and then orchestrating them accordingly on the drum set
by taking into account the overall “contour” on the melodic line:
One way that I like to think about a melody, if I’m not trying to get the actual pitches out of the drums, is in leaps and steps. A “leap” would be an interval that is large, like the interval of a fourth of fifth or anything larger than a third. A “step” is much closer. This allows me to get the right contour out of the drums. Again, I’m not trying to get the actual pitches, just the general contour of where the melody is going.179 He further describes his approach to playing a series of either half or whole steps on the drums
by either changing the pitch of the drum or changing to another drum all together:
In this approach to melodic expression on the drum set the key is really in capturing the overall direction of the melodic line or, as Jeff Hamilton describes, the “spirit” of the melody. Hoenig claims that the key really lies in an intimate knowledge of the original melody, paying particular
attention to its phrasing and then reflecting the change in intervals:
Hoenig is very quick to point out that an exact note-for-note execution of the melody isn’t necessary to create a successful and complete melodic statement on the drums. This can actually be achieved through specific attention to the overall phrasing and melodic construction. This is also consistent with Villanueva’s observation of Hamilton’s melodic approach to the drums. In
this regards Ari Hoenig claims that:
The pitches don’t always have to be exactly right but if the phrasing is correct then they (the audience, other musicians, etc.) are going to recognize the melody.182 This assertion is consistent with what Jeff Hamilton described, from conversations with Mel Lewis, as creating a musical “mirage” that set ups enough information, allowing a listener to “fill in the blanks.” What Hoenig and Hamilton commonly refer to as the “phrasing” of a melody represents not only attention paid to the specific rhythm of the melody but also its nuances in terms of the direction of the melodic line, reflecting the change of intervals (as Hoenig describes as being either “leaps” or “steps”) and finally accents or emphasis on major cadences within the phrase itself.
5.7 PLAYING ACTUAL PITCHES To take his melodic approach a step further, Hoenig elaborates on his previous method and demonstrates how he can also be more specific with the pitches he is expressing on the drums.
To accomplish this, he claims, one must not only know the original melody to a very specific degree but also develop the ability to manipulate the pitches of the drums in a specific way so
that the tones produced match those of the original melody:
When Hoenig describes “changing the pitch of the drum” he is referring to the idea of applying direct pressure to the drum head with either his hand, elbow or stick with one hand (or arm) while striking the surface with the other. Alternatively, one can also achieve a similar effect by pressing into the head with the stick (or sticks) being played (i.e. muted strokes). The more pressure that is applied to the surface of the drum head will allow for the pitch itself to increase as well.
While one can indeed alter the tension of a drum head, changing its pitch, its overall range is still limited. Depending on the initial tuning of the drumhead, at the most one would only be able to play two, perhaps three, more discernable tones from one drum. The lower the drum head is initially tuned will allow for a wider range of notes to be developed (i.e. because of more flexibility in the drum head), whereas the higher it is tuned, the more limited its range will be.
This method is, as Hoenig demonstrates, more effective when the snare drum is played with the snares off. The actual tones are also more obvious when played with mallets, although this can
certainly be done with sticks as well. Furthermore, it’s only possible to raise the pitch from its original tuning, not lower it.
Hoenig admits that a lot of practice and “trial and error” goes into the process of learning how to play like this. He compares how a drummer would use sticking patterns and become acquainted with the different amounts of pressure necessary, as applied to the drums, as being similar to how a pianist would develop a system of fingerings on the keyboard to address different scales and
patterns. Specifically, Hoenig even recommends practicing scales on the drums:
To practice this, you might play scales like you would on the piano. On the piano you would have to figure out fingerings to use and on the drums it’s the same with sticking patterns you would use and the amount of pressure you apply to the drums.184 The ability to coax numerous tones from a drum is indeed possible, however the key to expressing recognizable melodic content lies in being able to match those pitches in an accurate way. Hoenig explains that this comes from developing a high level of ear training skills, which ideally allow one to recognize the pitches of a melody of a musical phrase and then either sing
them back or match them on the drums as accurately as possible. As Hoenig further describes:
It is very helpful to have “relative pitch” and some background in ear training. It’s going to make the process much easier. You can do it without but you still need to make sure that you can sing the melodies before you play them.185 While Hoenig admits that he doesn’t have perfect pitch, he highly recommends developing one’s ear training skills with regards to relative pitch in order to develop the ability to recognize
I don’t have perfect pitch but I do have very good relative pitch. Relative pitch is all about being able to distinguish intervals.186
In fact, Hoenig also points out that using relative pitch to “find” a note on one’s instrument in
practice is something that other musicians deal with on other instruments:
You can compare changing the pitch of the drums to other instruments such as the bass, the violin or the trombone, and others, where you are not “exactly” sure where to go on the fret board (such as the bass or violin) to get the instrument in tune. It’s the same here.
You’re not exactly sure how much pressure you need to put on the drum so you really have to use your ears. My first instrument was the violin so it was very good ear training.187 Furthermore, Hoenig feels that being able to initially sing, accurately, whatever it is he is trying to play helps tremendously in his attempts to match specific pitches on the drum set. He feels that there is an inherent tonal connection between the human voice and the tuning range of the drum set. Connecting the two allows him to successfully internalize a melodic idea before further
expressing it on the drum set:
The range of the drum set is very similar to that of the human voice, which is one reason why I think it’s very natural for me. Because when I sing something, it’s something that I’ll be able to play with the same basic range on the drum set.188 This idea of singing ideas and then proceeding to play them on the drum set is a significant one, explored by other drummers as well (for example, Alan Dawson and Dan Weiss, among others, both elaborate on their own the use of singing phrases and using this in the context of their drumming).189 Ibid Ibid This will be further discussed and elaborated in several other contexts in Chapter Six.
5.8 TUNING While any drum in theory, could be manipulated in order to change its pitch, Hoenig tunes his drums in a very specific, organized way that allows him to express melodies on the drums with a high level of definition and clarity. Hoenig tunes his drum set specifically to an F major triad in its second inversion (or sometimes to a variation on that) to achieve and maintain a sense of melodic cohesiveness when he plays. Using a four-piece drum set (consisting of a snare drum, bass drum, floor tom and one mounted tom tom with a collection of cymbals), Hoenig tunes his
drums to the following configuration:
The specific use of intervals larger than a tone or semi-tone between the drums is significant.
With intervals consisting of a perfect 4th between the floor tom and mounted tom tom and a major 3rd between the mounted tom tom and snare drum, a decent range of just over an octave is created (once the additional, higher pitches that can be derived from each drum are considered).
If the drums were tuned closer together, it would be difficult to distinguish the tonal character of each drum individually. Ideally, Hoenig tunes each drum so that he can extend the range of each drum by approximately a minor 3rd interval.
5.9 REACTIONS AND CRITICISMS The technical approach to expressing melodies on the drum set, represented by Hoenig, is acknowledged and appreciated by many. Similarly, Jeff Hamilton’s approach to playing melodically on the drum set, by somewhat similar means to Hoenig, is also recognized for its effectiveness and overall musicality. However, as impressive as it may seem, many drummers expressed their own concerns with this approach. For example, Joe LaBarbera offered that fundamentally, he is interested in hearing melodies and melodic material played on instruments
that he finds more pleasing to his ear:
Well, you know, I’ve heard these tuned toms and drummers that have a couple of octaves and they can actually play melodies. I’m not particularly impressed by that. Because if I want to hear an actual melody stated, I want to hear it on a more pleasing sound!190 Matt Wilson offered that while he is impressed with the overall technical ingenuity that goes into playing such a way, he also feels that he isn’t attracted to the musical premeditation that is
required to play this way:
I admire them for all that [playing pitches]. But I’m not very good at that part of it because I’m still really an in-the-moment kind of improviser. And to me, if I have to have stuff like that then everything has to be sort of set in a certain way, or the drums have to be tuned to a certain pitch, and I’m just not that kind of player. I just don’t have that kind of patience to be that way. I’d feel like it would be getting in the way. So, I like to really use whatever is there, whatever I have to use in front of me, to give the impression of the shapes of those melodies more than use specific pitches at times. So that’s the only difference. But I totally admire it and what they do.191 In Wilson’s opinion, playing melodically like Hamilton and Hoenig requires a certain amount of pre-determination. Wilson is more attracted to improvising in a way that requires less specific foresight and instead chooses to use melody in a broader way that requires less technical pre
determined specifics. This approach, according to Wilson, also satisfies his goal of being an “inthe-moment kind of improviser.”192 To expand on this Wilson offered that one can still use a great deal of melody in one’s drumming, even if the specific pitches are not apparent. For example, Wilson often assigns his students simple melodies, standards drawn from the American Song Book, and requires them to
play the piece on only the snare drum:
I have students play melodies on just one surface. Because if you can play a melody convincingly on one surface, then you are going to be able to play on two surfaces or more very easily. If you can play the tune “Have You Met Miss Jones” on the snare drum then you can do it anywhere.193 For Wilson, as others, the consideration of a melody from a simple, yet consciously musical, foundation will still yield valid and successful musical results. It is ultimately the creativity and imagination of the musician in question that determines the quality of the music in question.
While the techniques needed to manipulate the pitches of a drum set to achieve more specific melodic possibilities are recognized and acknowledged, it is not necessarily seen as the only practical approach to dealing with melody on the drums. As Erskine emphatically stated earlier with regards to this concept: “They may play an actual melody on the drums and still be playing some really dumb stuff!”194 Wilson (2011) Ibid (2011) Erskine (2011)
5.10 SUMMARY For many contemporary jazz drummers, developing the technical ability to manipulate the pitches of a drum set represents a legitimate option with regards to melodic expression on the drums. Overall, this approach represents a significant step in the evolution of the technical possibilities of the drum set. By exploring techniques on the drum set that allow for further and expanded musical possibilities, the potential of the drum set continues to evolve and the specific use of melody on the drums continues to offer much potential.