Timing is everything

I once had a very talented Berklee graduate jazz guitarist give me the total thumbs down while in the middle of playing a Coltrane tune live at a public event. He made darn sure I saw him as he gave me a thumbs up followed by the big thumbs down.

We found ourselves at a corporate gig. At break, he told me my timing had slowed down during his solo or bridge on one or two fast swing tunes. He probably was right, but it was by far the rudest thing I had ever experienced during a gig, particularly since he had actually approved of my playing on the same tunes at a prior library gig. We all have off nights. Suffice to say, I never got invited to play with those musicians again. You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

The story here is why did I slow down. I can play jazz fairly well and have for many years both by reading it and with my ears. In fact, the Chair of Berklee’s jazz piano studies dept. even told me so at a freelance gig once. That’s a pretty hefty endorsement. Despite a guitarist nearly half my age being disrespectful on stage about it,  it’s still my fault. When I screw up with time or anything musically – and we all do – I always reassess what happened and how I can improve. At that particular gig – and not to make excuses – we were crammed upstairs basically in a hallway playing down to a bunch of people’s heads who could care less about jazz music and were celebrating the opening of some corporate product like windows or something. I honestly forget.

It was such a crammed space for instruments or sound projection that I didn’t feel right playing the whole night. It was like performing in a closet. The drums were stuffed in a corner of the hallway and we all played basically in a  straight line, which was a ridiculous setup by the event organizers.  We could not really see each other. I could not hear anything except saxophone. Still my fault.

I took it all in stride and re-examined my timing over the next few months to make sure a bad habit had not crept into my playing. There is an ebb and flow to timing on the drums and in music in general. Without that freedom, music would sound like a robot – and unfortunately already does in many of today’s loop-centric pop recordings. That said, we as drummers need to maintain solid tempo despite its inherent fluctuations. We need to know when to drag it back or rush it, paying heed not to lose control of the origin tempo.

There are many jazz tunes where the starting beats per minute is not how the song ends or solo transitions, and it was not due to a time signature change. It was due to jazz being about improv and responding to the energy of the music presented at that given moment.

The antagonist guitarist obviously knows this already as a Berklee grad. What he doesn’t know is that I used his thumbs down gesture as motivation to further refine my timing by working with a metronome regularly again, and also counting subdivisions during song passages. I made it  a point to get accurate metronome BPM markings written down for all songs with other bands I play in. I started recording every gig and important practices for later critique. I’m not sure if my timing improved because it was already solid to begin with. But it served as a great reminder.

In life, the best thing to do is turn a negative into a positive. That rude Berklee guitarist helped me become a better drummer. Sometimes the best thing to do is listen to constructive criticism and then take action.