Improvising Music on the Drum Set

The drum set is not typically a solo instrument, so I find it challenging when I have the opportunity to play improvised pieces in this area. It’s a kind of playing that requires confidence and sensitivity where the outcome is a reflection of the sum of my musical skills and sensibilities. The context will usually determine what I play. In situations where there’s a need for atmospheric music, I’ll develop a loose compositional structure. If I’m playing for a dancer who is improvising, their movements inspire the things I play. Occasionally, I’ll take a more of a narrative approach, where I try to take the listener on a musical journey.

As I begin a piece, I try not to be too judgmental about the first sounds that come out, I have to allow time for things to develop. The process involves establishing musical parameters such as tempo, meter, repetition, contrasting timbres, changing dynamics and musical style. I try and create musical consonance and dissonance by juxtaposing musical extremes and the shades that lie between them. I play phrases that are smooth and connected and contrast them with ones that are more disjointed or angular. I can also do this by changing between playing in strict time and free or irregular time or setting sections that are polyrhythmic against parts that are built on simple rhythms.

Yesterday, in a sparsely lit performance space, I created over a dozen short drumming pieces for improvised dance solos that were done by the students in a modern dance class. I was set up in the rear corner of the space, and the students and the instructor sat in a row of bleachers, which were situated beneath a set of lights. Each dancer came up to my drum set to acknowledge that they were ready to begin. A few of the students whispered their musical preferences: a funky beat, something tribal, a nice groove, play slow and full, or nothing too loud or crazy. At the end their dance they returned to me to signal that we were done.

As I constructed the pieces I tried to make each contrast to the one that preceded it. I used drumsticks, brushes, timpani mallets, and my hands to create varying sounds. I sometimes played only the cymbals or just the drums. I also played the two types of sounds together in varying combinations. There were also two hand drums to my left, which I used sporadically. In one instance I limited my sound choices to the floor, the small movable wooden riser that the drums were set up on, and the metallic cymbal stands.

My recent experience was challenging and rewarding. Overall the dancers seemed to appreciate my contributions to their improvisations. The dancers who had experience in this type of moving before danced with abandon. I feel that my drumming help to launch them and carry them through space. For the students who were not quite as comfortable moving this, I think that my playing made it easier for them to explore their creativity.

I should play in this format more often. It’s very different the role of sideman, which I usually play in. Luckily, as a dance accompanist, I get to do this kind of playing.

July 2 in Bedford, Pa

IMG_0028It was Hot Summer Night in Bedford with Queen City Funk and Soul. A big crowd was on hand to hear some great soul music by one of the region’s best bands.

I’ve played percussion with QCFS for over 10 years and it’s always a great time when we get together.

Our next performance in on August 6 at the Garrett County Fair near Deep Creek Maryland.

Last Night Was a Success

Last night was a busy night of drumming. I performed with two bands show at Howlers Coyote Cafe in Pittsburgh. The first band was Batamba — a band that I’ve played with for almost a year now. We were originally scheduled to be the opening act for the Zambian musician Mathew Tembo. However, four of the members of Batamba plus a bass player and a trombone player ended up backing the xylophonist/mbira player from southern Africa.
He’d contacted us about a week ago and asked if we’d like to be his band for the Howlers show. So with one rehearsal under our belt, we managed to pull off a good performance. Good enough that he’s asked us to join him for more shows.
Michael’s music is very enjoyable to listen to and it definitely makes you want to dance
For Batamba it was our first performance since last November when we opened for the Tuareg guitarist Bombino. It was so good to play with those guys again. We’ll be headlining our own show at the AVA Lounge next Friday, May 2.

Speaking of great Africa influenced music (and dance), a good friend of mine will be performing with the AfroCuban dance ensemble Oyu Oro at the Dance Africa being held at the August Wilson Center tomorrow, April 24.

Nothing to Write About

Daily writing for me represents a time when I can reflect on what’s going in my life and to sit with those thoughts during some quiet time in my day. I don’t have anything specific to share, so there’s really nothing to write about. However, I can describe the stillness at this time in my neighborhood. It’s usually full of energy with people moving around and cars passing by, people talking as they walk together, and sometimes some renovation or construction going on – and there’s the occasional siren.
No, today this writing time is just for me and my thoughts: what I did last night, what I’ll be doing today, and where my life is heading – it’s gone in so many directions lately.
So I’m looking forward to doing this more often. I intended to write more, but I got sidetracked trying to get more information about the gathering I played at last night. It was an event marking the progress in making the August Wilson home a historical site. I was part of a production that consisted of monologues where actors became the voices of Hill district residents recalling the rich and controversial history of a legendary Pittsburgh neighborhood. A jazz quartet played musical interludes and my djembe drumming provided the rhythms for the “juba dance” that closed the show.

New Year’s Performance with Americas Latin Orchestra

I’ll be performing with the Americas Latin Orchestra (ALO) at Pittsburgh CAPA Creative and Performing Arts High School, as part of the First Night Celebration. I’m the conguero with this Latin jazz big band, which performs the music in the style of Ray Barretto and Poncho Sanchez. The group will perform three 45 minute sets between 7 and 11 p.m.

Last year’s performances drew over a thousand people.

Performing at Bakery Square Friday, April 1, 2011

I will be performing this Friday as part of “Fresh Baked Goods,” CMU’s Master of Fine Arts Exhibition, on April 1 at Bakery Square near Penn Circle in Pittsburgh.
I’m part of a percussion quartet, where the musicians play from video game music notation generated by four gamers playing a war-themed game.
The instillation was created by CMU student Riley Harmon.
Here are some response we received at the first showing this past Sat., March 26.
“They’re best in show” “This piece made me actually feel something,
it actually gave me an experience.” “Intense” “Aced” etc …

Photos from the first performance:

Drum lessons and performances for this week

This week (8/2 – 8/7) I’ll be teaching private lessons at Brighton Music on Babcock blvd. on Wednesday and Thursday, and at my own teaching studio on Craig st. on Friday.

I’ll be performing with the Queen City Funk and Soul Band in downtown Cumberland, MD on Friday night (public), and on Saturday I travel to Erie, PA to play solo steel drums at a wedding reception