The Pros and Cons of Role Models

More than once, after I started reading and discussing about drums and drumming, I ran across guys who complained about some lack of originality in today’s young drummers’ musical approach – both in playing and instrument sound. It seems that all some of them are up to is sound as exactly as possible like somebody else, like this or that role model of the day.

Such behavior can be strongly influenced and enhanced by the contemporary existence of a vast number of products – unceasingly increasing – all industrially designed and marketed; allegedly created with the “growth” of young musicians mind. The industries selling such products are all created and maintained on the fringe of the recording industry – from which both music and musician’s names emerge to recognition. The instrument industry creates more and more “name” products each day, an evolution (?) of endorsement policies. The educational industry produces more and more video master classes, where favorite drummers show any technical aspects of their playing. All such products are provided almost anywhere, and equally advertised.

But maybe those people whose growing these industries seem to worry about so badly – us, drummers, included – may not profit as much as they could from this vast array of products. Maybe the many options for choice might even be somewhat confusing. Maybe playing with tools of the exact same fabric can help to create an illusion. Maybe it narrows the chances of a number of not so highly advertised but equally valid options. Maybe…

The fact is that there’s much more to music than the instrumentalists we prefer, or the equipment they use, mainly because when we get to play, for real, it’s going to be us, up there, with what we’ve got as musicians, nobody else. And with all the exposition now given to “name” drummers, a moderately smart audience will know exactly when a young drummer (hopefully) is trying to emulate somebody else. No matter how hard he’s tried, he’ll sound like himself trying to sound like another, even if he might be using the emulated drummer’s “name” sticks, drums and cymbals, altogether, or whatever.

What comes out of an instrument, anytime, good or bad, is only a reflection of what the players are as creative individuals. So, I guess we should not limit our chances of, in time, finding our own voice. After a reasonable amount of experience, copying others might be a useless effort. Professionally, it may be the next thing to death.

No one but Steve Gadd, for instance, will ever sound like he does. If anyone needs any further convincing about what I’m saying, square this out: Not one of those “name” drummers out there sound like any other among his peers. Their playing has individuality. Personality and style are the reasons why they have had their names recognized, in the first place.

In no way am I saying that one should not ever copy other guys, sometime along his career (it would be better on it’s very beginning), or that it’s wrong doing so. On the contrary, I encourage this attitude – it’s a useful tool, no doubt. It may help in a number of ways: Good time keeping; playing for the music; enhancement of vocabulary; concept creation etc. To be honest, I did practice a lot of listening and copying, myself, as you’ll see, so, as it is, I could not honestly give such advice.

What I mean is that this “cloning” process can be better used as a tool, as means to an end, not as an end in itself. Later on, in professional life, the knowledge acquired from copying will be more useful as a way to get to know, as much as one can, about what has been played before – all, if possible, of any particular chosen style. Or, even, just to know, for sure, that one’s own “latest original personal invention” is not uncovered territory, that somebody else has already been there, before, and done the exact same thing.

Yes, more opportunity to experimentation is also a factor to be counted as a difference between us common mortals and them up in Nirvana. The longer one has stayed in the business, the more chances one has had of trying new solutions out. Experiences in originality are quite common among top players, simply because such findings are prone to be a significant part of all that has driven them so far up. Steve Gadd, on his “In Session” video, says that he has tried some new solutions, on recording dates, “probably to keep from going crazy” because some producers wanted him to do the exact same thing he had done in another different musical context. That is to say: Even those guys don’t want to sound like themselves, sometimes.

A friend of mine, Saulo Battesini, an incredible guitar player who’s also a music teacher (acoustic and electric guitars and electric bass) told me a funny but exemplar story, the other day.

A friend of his, who teaches electric bass, receives a pupil’s first visit. The first thing the kid does, while going inside the classroom, is to ask him, right on the bat: “When do you think I can play like Stanley Clarke”.

After such a demand, the teacher pauses. He looks intently at the kid, and, after a while, asks: “How old are you?” “Fifteen”, the boy answers. Another pause, and the teacher goes on: “Well, let’s see, and follow me on this: Stanley, who’s now forty, has huge hands, and is one hell of a bass player, probably the best in the world. He is a composer and bandleader, who has listened to lots of music. He has studied violin, cello, has played with Chick Corea and many other top players.” The boy just stood there, in wonder, as the teacher continues. “Well, if you start to pursue this goal right now, try to listen to everything he did listen to, study all that he did, grow as much he did, physically, get to play with everyone he did… you should sound like him… never ever, no way, in no amount of time, simply because he’s twenty five years your senior. Maybe you can even get to sound better than he does, but there’s not a chance you’ll ever sound a bit like him, because he’ll always be ahead of you in time.”

And, he might have added, just to clear things beyond a shadow of doubt, Stanley Clarke will always, forever, be another human being.