Whether we’re on the bandstand, in the studio, or in the practice room, there is one thing all those situations require of us. Attention! When we are completely present, we can flow with what we are doing and complement the music we play. This carries over into the rest of life, whether we are alone or interacting with other humans.
Our wonderful friend and colleague at Berklee, the late Bob Gullotti, was a legendary Boston-area drummer who formed a trio called The Fringe (with George Garzone) - playing improvised music for fifty years! One can imagine how present one has to be to perform spontaneous composition night after night.
Gullotti developed an exercise he called “Levels Deep,” with the intention of developing concentration and focus. It’s an exercise that never gets old because it can be played a different way every time it’s practiced.
The practice is to take any two-measure phrase from Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation - or any phrase you compose - and orchestrate it on the set over a foot ostinato. The challenge is to move one note to a different surface, followed by moving another note, and another. “You’re going to make a million mistakes,” said Gullotti. I find this to be both a challenging and rewarding exercise. After practicing this, I can really feel a sense of flow.
Step one is to pick any two measures of an eighth note phrase and put them together. Let’s take the first two measures of Ted Reed’s Exercise One for example:
Step two is to move the phrase to a cymbal (or another surface of your choice):
Step three is to fill in any eighth notes with the opposite hand on another surface. In this example, I use the cross-stick:
In step four, we choose a foot ostinato. Feel free to use any ostinato of your choice: boom/chick, samba, left foot clave with tumbao, etc. In this example, we'll use a Brazilian baião pattern:
In step five, the pattern is orchestrated on two surfaces over a foot ostinato. This is what Gullotti referred to as being “on the surface of the water”:
Before you move on, make sure everything is lining up, and that it feels like it’s in the pocket. Try it with a metronome sounding on quarter notes or half notes.
Now, let’s go levels deep! In step six, we’ll start by moving a note from the cymbal to the floor tom. This happens on beat four of the first measure:
You always have the freedom to choose any sound source, so if you’d rather move it to a bell, stack, alternate snare, or alternate tom, feel free. Just keep it in the same place every time the note comes around in the pattern. We are now one level deep under the surface of the water.
In step seven, we move the opposite hand to a small tom on the and (+) of one of the second measure, bringing us two levels deep:
If the tempo too fast to handle, be sure to slow it down. The idea is to challenge yourself, but you want to be able to play it so that it feels good, and keep track of it without becoming discouraged.
In step eight, we move to a tom on the and (+) of three in the second measure, bringing us three levels deep:
Remember to take your time with each level of this exercise. Find the flow and the pocket for each pattern. In step nine, we move the first cross-stick hit to a snare drum rim shot on beat two of the first measure. This will bring us four levels deep.
As always, be patient with yourself and practice from where you are. This way, you’re getting the most from your practice. If you’re ready to go deeper, step ten moves the cymbal to a cowbell on the first two eighth notes of the pattern, as well as the last eighth note. We have arrived at five levels deep.
Remember, you can keep going from there, reaching out for different parts of the set and going to six, seven, or even eight levels deep. Try a different phrase every time you practice. Or try the same phrase with different variations. It doesn’t really matter; the goal of the exercise is to develop your concentration and focus, which will serve you in any situation. Don’t worry about making mistakes and falling. It happens to all practitioners of any art or sport. Keep breathing and relax as much as possible…and smile! It’s all about the practice.
Thanks for practicing and see you at www.markwalkerlessons.com!
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