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Matt Ingram - Beyond Nailing It

Looking back to my first ever drum performance (the 1993 Westwood St Thomas Big Band Summer Concert, a big gig at the time) my only concern as I stepped up dry-mouthed to the kit was, “I mustn’t make a mistake”. To the 14-year-old-me getting through the music without any obvious errors was the apex of my thinking. 22 years on, I still of course wish to play without mistakes but that’s no longer the sole aim when I sit behind the kit. In fact not making mistakes is pretty far down my list of my priorities. For a lot of drummers though, making any kind of error is deemed completely unacceptable and in this mindset they are closing themselves off to much of what the instrument is capable of.

Firstly let us define the term, what is a mistake in music? Obviously there are different types of mistake that are graded in severity. Not turning up for a gig, forgetting your snare drum or soiling yourself whilst playing could be seen as pretty severe mistakes but for the most part a musical mistake is just playing something that you did not intend. Now is this such a bad thing? I would say absolutely not. In fact I see moments like this as helpful creative opportunities, it just depends how you respond to them.

For example, you’re playing a gig, you’re a song in and it’s the first bar of the first verse. You go to hit the snare drum on beat 2, miss… and let’s freeze time here. Now at this precise point you can choose how to respond.

You could react like a bomb disposal expert who has realised he’s just cut the wrong wire. Responding emotionally like this will almost certainly have a derogatory effect on your playing and could impact negatively on the rest of the show.

Or you could pick up the back beat on beat 4 and just carry on (and then perhaps in an inventive turn miss beat 2 of the next verse. Everyone present will then think that that’s how the part’s supposed to go).

When I see drummer respond in an emotionally negative manner I know they’ve made a mistake not because I’ve heard it, but I’ve clocked they’re reaction to it. It’s important that as musicians we don’t live in our own heads but within the context of the music that we are playing. To react negatively is not only unnecessary and unprofessional but it represents a kind of egotism that places YOU and what YOU are doing in the centre of the musical universe. As we have previously discussed, our aim as drummers should not just be to perfect what we’re doing but also to open ourselves up to the musical synergy of our group. If we are only concerned with our own performance then how are we to achieve this?

A point worth mentioning here also is that when it come to mistakes NO ONE IN THE AUDIENCE CARES. Audiences (and when it comes to consuming music they are a large part of the equation) respond to music emotionally, not to the sum of a performances individual technicalities. When asked why someone may have enjoyed a gig the answer will never be “because the band didn’t make a single mistake!”

I’m currently on tour with Laura Marling. The music is at times very stripped back and if she makes an obvious error, rather then react negatively the crowd really like it. Unintended “jazz notes” are often greeted with whoops and smiles from the audience. I think that in a world where music is so readily available, portable and at our disposal at all times, a mistake at a gig reminds the audience of the magic of a live show; that what is happening will never be repeated and is only happening now for those who are present. And that’s a special thing.

So let me be honest, I make mistakes ALL the time. I will frequently play a fill that ends up going off in a direction that I did not intend, or play a beat that has an emphasis that I didn’t expect, or miss a cymbal or whatever it is. I like to think of these moment as my creative subconscious speaking and when that happens I like to hear what it has to say. I lot of the best stuff I have ever played has been unintentional (which can be a bummer because I’ll have no idea how to recreate it!).

Of course I accept that these detours of intention can be scary and there are situations where such accidental creativity is most unwanted. I can think of many times where the “just nail it” approach is definitely what’s needed but, as I have mentioned in previous articles as drummers we ebb and flow to the demands of the music. If the music needs mechanical repetition that’s what what you should deliver but don’t make this your default because you may become unstuck if another flavour is required.

To conclude drumming could be seen like skiing (and go with me on this). You have to get from the top, to the bottom of the mountain and in order to do this you have a number of options available to you. You can choose one of the prescribed routes (or pistes) which are clearly marked and will, ridden sensibly, get you to final destination safely. This is a valid option, nothing wrong with it.

Another choice though is to go “sod that”, and hurl yourself down an uncharted trajectory because well, it might just be more fun.

And sometimes it pays to go off piste.

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