The Art of Quiet Playing

Once drums are mentioned, mostly anybody will immediately associate the instrument with the sheer production of noise. That is an image that drummers, as a rule, tend not to avoid – and, even, give some incentive: “Hit hard”, goes the motto. So, the image one usually tends to associate with a drummer is somewhat like that of “Animal”, the character, pit drummer from The Muppet Show. A subhuman creature, incapable of anything other than mercilessly spanking drums.

On went Animal, in each and every appearance: mouth open, head turning around, arms madly flailing all around, randomly hitting (hard), and sometimes missing, all pieces of the staggering instrument almost at once.

Maybe Animal was a misplaced rock drummer, but maybe he could (no, he, of course, couldn’t) play in a somewhat more appropriate fashion to endeavor the audience to the music being played and the music, in itself. But he always seemed to ignore the music and the audience, altogether, like many drummers still do, to this very day. But Animal was, of course, the star of the show, and there wasn’t ever any risk at all of his loosing the job for such inappropriate behavior, no matter how much the two old chaps in the balcony complained about him. (Not to mention “he” was a toy.)

Well, too bad for Animal, because he might have been loosing, all along, one new whole world of musical approach: playing within all possible ranges of sound volume – the dynamics palette. This was a lesson I learned early on, and the consequences of my light attitude towards light drumming granted me many years of good professional work, and a reputation for being a musician, first, who played the drums – of which, to this very day, I’m particularly proud of.

When I started my professional career, tossed out of my parent’s house after telling my dad, MD, that I wanted to pursue music professionally, I was playing in a number of pop bands, one of which was led by Claudio Savietto, a singer/composer. We played hard, punchy pop rock music.

One day, knowing about my poor situation, he asked me if I could play percussion in a theatre play in which he was musical director. I agreed, of course, even without owning a single percussion instrument other than my drums (a standard set), added of two small roto toms (8″ and 10″). “Well, why not drums”, I asked. “Because I have told the group there would be no drums in the picture, and they are all particularly adamant against it’s use”, was the answer.

So, there was I, one fine morning, like a drum castaway, to attend the very first rehearsal of the play (“OH! Krisis!” was the name, no translation), with a bag full of miscellaneous small percussion instruments I had borrowed from a friend, the day before. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I could not honestly use those instruments. So, after the work had taken place, I, quite quietly, told Claudio and the director of the play, Louise Cardoso – who’s a dear friend of mine to this day –, that I had no intention whatsoever of using percussion instruments.

I was straightforward and serious enough to catch their fullest attention. So, before my musical director friend could, let’s say, come back to his senses I went on with my speech. I told them – and the group – that I was not the “typical drummer” (Animal, of course). Drums, I said, “are capable of doing much more than to produce sheer noise”. And also that I, in my approach to the instrument, “respected each and every lesson ever learned by me in musical perception and instrument technique, which included the dynamics palette, which ranged from ppp (“pianissimo”, or very light) all the way to fff (“fortissimo”, or very strong)”. And, of course, that I had studied “well enough and long enough to be able to play, properly and musically, within any portion of that range”.

After my defense, I could tell, from the looks in their faces, that they looked, very frankly, quite skeptical about the possibility. But… to make a long story short, I convinced them to test drums and me, and took the job. I only used one percussion instrument, a “tamborim” (a small 6″ x 3″ metallic drum piece, with one head – made in genuine leather).

The band consisted in a trio of: nylon acoustic guitar, flute (both slightly amplified via Barcus-Berry pickup equipment, both plugged into a sole one-speaker amplifier) and drums. Of course I had to play my drums in a way quiet enough not to cover the sound of the other instruments, which were of an acoustic nature.

There was only one other sound produced in a fashion other than drumming, sort of an incidental percussion: I slapped my cheeks, while closing and opening my mouth (try this at home, only). It sure looked quite ludicrous, but that was a small price to pay (and the two other guys also did it – not to mention it sounded cool, too).

But I did my job properly not only by playing quietly. Moreover, it was done with creative use of plain drumsticks, brushes and mallets, on sound sources such as drums’ (including drumheads bending effects) and cymbals’ rims, stands, the wooden parts of toms… you name it.

One, specially, hitting the bell of the bottom hi-hat cymbal, was an attitude which, I recall, particularly impressed musicians and non-musicians equally. “It was unexpected” – I was told, many times. Well, maybe. I’ve never seen anything of the sort, to this day. The attention it brought was due, I guess, to the physical side of the treat – I had to twist my body quite a bit in order to see the sweet spot to be hit – and the beautiful sound of that cymbal’s bell – a bottom 14″ Zildjian New Beat, quite thicker than the upper cymbal.

I had no shame of being a drummer and playing like that. As a matter of fact, I took pride in it – and still do. I was cast away from the flock, for once, as there was nobody doing anything similar, at the time. As a consequence, my name flew around, and one job led to another. I got many more theater gigs after that one, either live or in recordings, until I was able to figure in one of the most successful plays down here, ever (where I was supposed to play hard, most of the time). But I only got this specific job because the musical director had heard me in another play, a while before making the call. When this happened, as he told me, I was not only playing very consistently, but, also, very, very quietly. Both impressed him equally, as he told me, later, when we became friends.