How do you find inspiration?

In the last episode (February 29th, 2008) of Drummer Talk, the guys discussed how to get out of a musical rut. Many good ideas were discussed, but I wanted to challenge you to consider this: how, or in what, do you find inspiration?

For myself, I wanted to elaborate on two points that I feel have provided me musical inspiration: using electronics to step away from being just a “drummer”, and taking a break from playing.

Electronics can allow you to open up your view of music and drumming. Instead of having just the spectrum of sounds of an acoustic kit and cymbals, you have access to any possible sound you desire or wish to create. With a touch of a button, I can be a guitarist or I could be throwing aluminum pipes against broken car parts in a scrap yard. My kit can allow me to continually tear different pieces and types of fabrics or conduct a choir. I can even have complete control over the forces of nature! Granted, there are some serious limitations with regard to expression and sensitivity, but having the opportunity to stop thinking of oneself only as a “drummer” and removing the perceived limitations of the drum kit by allowing any possible sound to be played from your pads can be quite a fun and refreshing experience.

As an example (and without sounding too avant-garde), I spent a pleasant afternoon working with a synth module, controller, and my Macbook, just playing with the sounds of a storm. It was interesting how I had to start thinking more about space instead of focusing on keeping a steady pulse or being right on time. I found that the space between the sounds became more important as I didn’t want thunder to be in 4/4 at 80bpm. It wouldn’t have sounded natural. I had to intuit or feel the space between the claps of thunder. This caused me to think more about what would make a digital storm sound natural. When would thunder happen?

At the height of a storm, there seems to be moments where the thunder never seems to stop, but suddenly there’s a pause; a tense moment before the storm crashes back in. There are significant variations of dynamics that not only vary from moment to moment, but with natural orchestration. Percussive harmonies can form — distant rumbles mingling with the nearer crackles and booms. Even just working with the sounds of rain can be fascinating. Rain can be driving, steady, gentle, sparse, or fall in sheets. The drops could be huge and plodding or miniscule and prick like needles on the skin. Rain can make wonderful music by hitting metal or wood, sand or leaves, or more water. It can be a steady wash of sound, or the rainwater coming down the downspout can be interrupted by the tiles on the roof causing little random crescendos. Thinking about these things and playing with the sounds (either from a controller or directly off pads) can take you outside of the realm of ‘drummer’ and shake some of the dust loose.

Just recently, I was in Madeira for a short time and was completely isolated from drumming and technology. I was so busy being inspired by other things that the physical act of drumming became something of a distant memory. “That’s the stuff I do when I’m back in my real life!” But my musical senses weren’t dampened. There were a few experiences that elicited very musical, as well as emotional, responses.

The instant I got home (and dealt with the nervous breakdowns of my cats), I sat down to do some drumming. Let me tell you… my hands felt strange. Everything seemed so overwhelming and I didn’t know what to hit first. All the patterns that my arms and legs naturally would have described seemed so distant. So I just thrashed about for what seemed like five minutes or so. It turned out to be three hours and it was a completely fresh experience. I felt a bit on the edge. I was playing without a safety net but I had so much that I wanted to say musically that I couldn’t stop. I had more memories and experiences to draw from and ‘speak’ about. I can guarantee that there were some sonically awful moments in there, but I wasn’t just bashing away to Firth of Fifth or trying to be Dave Weckl. It was a great musical moment. Taking a break from my daily routines gave me the excitement, desire, and inspiration to express myself in a musically different way.

I think sometimes we forget about the sounds and experiences around us as we become so focused on drumming, or on playing in a certain mode. Experimenting with, or just appreciating, new sounds (whether they be electronic, of household items, the sounds of nature, or even the footsteps of people on the sidewalk) can be a liberating experience. Also, taking some time away from being all-drummer-all-the-time and removing the physical mechanics of performance from the equation can lead to some intriguing possibilities. Take advantage of the world around you and find interesting new things to inspire and excite you. Your experiences can provide you with new methods of expression through your playing, whether you use your music to express feelings for yourself or to describe your experiences for others.

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