Creating Your Own Voice – Copycat

When I first started playing drums, back in 1976, my main inspiration came from grooves produced by guys like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Deep Purple’s Ian Paice – just to name two –, whose swing, drive and feel pushed ahead the rock powerhouses of the day. I just loved the way they sounded (still do). But, although heavily attracted to their instrument, I could not envision a way to practice without owning real drums. My first real incentive came from a friend, who lent me his small kit for a few weeks.

I started to play, then – oh, so wrongly –, and took the liking of it very badly. So much that, soon after he took the drums back, I arrived immediately to a practical practice solution, which I was to use for the next two years: play on a plastic office chair, my own sub-standard version of a practice pad kit. It worked real well, especially for those around the house, who only listened to the guys I was trying to emulate, not to my relentless efforts to do so.

For two years I practiced for an average six hours a day, no less. My life was this: listening to records, memorizing both music and drum parts and reproducing the latter to the best of my ability. I didn’t consider myself satisfied until it all “sounded” like an exact copy. It was drums for breakfast, lunch and dinner – no other fun sources, except from an occasional girl friend (well, I’m only human). My “teachers” were some of the best that no money could buy: top notch rock players like those two above, plus many others: Genesis’ Phil Collins; Yes’ Bill Bruford; ELP’s Carl Palmer; Triumvirat’s Hans Bathelt and Curt Cress; Jethro Tull’s Clive Bunker and Barriemore Barlowe… you name it.

Since all the guys I copped could really beat the hell out of a drum set, I learned the basics of the craft that way, even without a single clue about any specific technical aspect of music or drumming. When I finally bought my first set (a standard, mentioned in another article), I was already quite an accomplished drummer, except for the fact that I had only played on my own. And drummers who play alone… well you know, may end up that same way.

After I started to play with live creatures, though, two problems arose. First: None of them could play like Jimmy Page (guitarist from Led Zeppelin) or Chris Squire (bass player from Yes). Second: I could not play like myself, for I had not yet developed any kind of distinctive voice on the instrument, due to the simple fact that never before had I played to any original music.

Although no solution was possible for the first problem, a solution for the second showed itself. Since I did not have any opportunities to play along with musicians of the level I was “used to”, I instinctively started approaching music I knew quite well in a different way, creating personal variations within, let’s say, “my current repertoire”.

To do that, of course, was not either a case of my ignoring – or putting down – what those guys had played, or of comparing my new ideas to theirs; I didn’t think about that, I just played out of my soul. In the end, it was all about training my mind to create my own musical ideas and, consequently, to recognize and establish a more personal voice.

To me, individually, it worked out, but not to some of those who listened to my playing “new versions” of “sacred”, adored music (anyone who knows progressive rock fans will immediately understand what I’m saying). It didn’t matter that, in order to evaluate my skills, a while before, I had recorded exact “doubled” drums” to a number of very demanding tracks.

The importance of others

This was good, anyway, because it also had me started on looking around for other types of music – Brazilian, for once. I decided to concentrate on the music being played, rather than on the drums played to them. It sure has helped, but what really did the trick was to start playing with a more demanding musician – my friend Tony Pelosi, guitarist, singer, composer, a well known luthier, here, in Rio. That has led me into the path I’m in to this day.

Since then, I had to start studying music and instrument technique, so I’d understand what a seven note bar meant without him having to spell some odd sentence, phrased in seven terms (yes, that happened). I found out that conscience about what’s being played is very important in any given musical context, because it frees us to let our limbs flail freely in search for the one most perfect beat within any part, since it’s already well understood. Understanding, feeling and thinking are the key factors to a good musical arrangement, be it for an orchestra or for just one instrument.

For a wide period of time, after that, music, to me, was all about my own impressions about it. I played only what I felt and wanted. But there was something missing, yet. I won’t go so far as to say I was a bad player, technically, no. But musically, sometimes… listening back to old tapes I discovered that I was getting in the way of the music in many occasions. You know, like somebody who talks too much, when it seems that he has so much to say that he wants to say everything at the same time… and, in the end, is not understood at all. This type of person is always frantic, it seems, anxious, out of context, and musicians can act just the same, in instrument playing.

And when this happens to a drummer… ouch, it’s the worst! The thing is that these offenders are usually thinking they’re extra cool, up there, filling the air with words and sentences lost in the wind. I used to play with such abandon – eyes closed –, regardless of music, audiences and fellow musicians. In fact, I was doing quite well, anyway, because I hardly ever missed, in my exquisite inventiveness.

Until, once, I had a gig with a very talented lady pianist, flutist, composer and singer, Eliane Salek, where I was subbing for my teacher, Joca Moraes. It was a four days engagement at a local bar. After the first date, the trumpet player, terrific solo and section musician, Nilton Rodrigues, offered me a ride home in his car. When we reached the corner I was supposed to drop by, he asked me to wait.

Quite gently, this guy pulled my ears so to say, about the way I played. He told me that he found me quite a good player, but not as good as I could be simply because I did not give the music much room to breathe, the other musicians spaces to play in and the rhythm a proper characteristic statement. In other words, I played rings around the bush, almost soloing all the time, forgetting the most important part of what we are, as musicians: Audiences. True: If you don’t make music relate to an audience, just forget it. If you’re a drummer and can’t make people dance, give up.

Constant growth

From this day on, in my playing, I started to use a bit more of my intelligence, and quite a bit less of my ego. As a consequence, my voice in the instrument has become more and more powerful and distinctive, even though I play less and less notes, as time progresses. I found out the pleasure of opening my arms and embracing the music, staying behind it, under it, over it – all around –, driving it forward with economy and precision. If there’s one guy I think about, today, this is the late Jeff Porcaro, who could drive a song like no one else ever has, yet.

Some conflicts have risen with fellow musicians in progressive rock, the style I play mostly, but I hold on to my quarter (notes). I simply refuse to play anything other than what enhances the other elements of music: harmony and melody (which are supposed to combine with rhythm to make music what it is). I never want to be in the way of music, and a day always comes, during playbacks, when the guys realize how open the tunes sound without a clumsy talkative drummer, playing chit-chat along with the melody, distracted of the music by himself.

There’s surely more than one way of creating one’s own voice in drum playing than the one pointed out, based entirely on my personal experience. But I find that some things just have to be in common existence to us musicians and drummers: music we play; fellow musicians and audiences. All these elements, within the wider context of music, cannot be disregarded, if one plans to make a career in music.

With that in mind, there’s all the space in the world to experiment and create our own voice, making it something conscious, within us, to give ailment to our art form. Then, even if we “only” get to position ourselves in the smallest of niches, out there, in the “business”, that would be OK. It would have been just because we wanted it to be that way, wanted to say just that, not because we have been cornered to stay there by our incapacity to acknowledge, in stubbornness, our possible inadequacy to other roles. You can play what you are, yes, but you’ll do it better once you know what you play, who you play with and what (who) you play for.

In loving memory of Alice, grandmother, who heard me play through all of this.