The Itch & Musical Claustrophobia
The drummer’s number one enemy when grooving isn’t an inability to keep time (though that’s a big one too)… it’s the itch. It’s the feeling you get to break out (musically) when you are locked in the pocket. It’s like the musical equivalent of claustrophobia. Staying in a groove can make your musical universe seem very small. So you leave the pocket to come up for air… deep breath… and then you’re back in again. You did it even if the music would have been better served if you had just stayed in the pocket. Just like with an itch, scratching isn’t good for you but it satiates the itch for that instant that you give in… then it’s back again.
One of my favorite examples is the drummer talk show on solos. Chad Smith’s solo from the MD Festival DVD was just him holding a groove for about 5 minutes. However, around the second minute mark you start to get the itch by proxy. You’re not even the one drumming, but as Dave commented “you keep wanting him to fill.” Being able to sit in a groove has much to do with loving to groove. Or at least being able to camp out comfortably in the pocket. Some drummers just don’t suffer from the itch. For them, hanging out in the pocket is just inherently a satisfying experience. If you aren’t that kind of person or are playing something that you really just can’t fall in love with, you gotta grin and bear it.
If you suffer from the itch and have musical liberty to change the beat then change it to something that you enjoy playing. That makes it easier to stay in place. If not then you’re going to have to do it the old fashioned way. You’ll just have to suck it up. The only way to practice sucking it up is to just take 5 or 7 minutes of your practice time and just play one beat and keep it there. No fills, no tempo shifts, no improvisation. Just you and the groove for 7 minutes. After the first 3 minutes it probably isn’t very fun anymore. That’s part of being a musician though, at least a working musician anyway. Past some point it isn’t about your comfort any more. It’s about the music. Pros don’t please themselves at the expense of the music.
A few final thoughts … Don’t confuse being a pocket drummer with a drummer who is scared to leave the groove (a musical agoraphobic.) Also, don’t think I’m suggesting that being a good pocket drummer means never playing a fill. I’m just saying the fills you play and when you play them should be dictated by your sense of musicianship.
Don’t let the itch drive you to scratch.