Drums figure in almost every culture on Earth and have done for thousands of years, ever since humans first discovered that an animal hide stretched over a circular frame resonated in a pleasingly loud manner. They are tools of communication, ceremony, celebration and entertainment and their effect on people is visceral. Set up a modern drum kit and everyone passing wants a go on it; even if they’ve never played before or however forlorn their timekeeping. Rhythms are all around us at any given moment: the tick of a clock, the steady idling of an engine, a train on tracks and, crucially, in the heartbeat of all living things.
In music, from a four-on-the-floor disco pulse to rock’n’roll’s backbeat or EDM’s digital thump, the beat is what triggers our most basic physical response — to move in time, to dance or tap along to it. Creating and controlling the beat in any style is a drummer; from symphony orchestra percussionist to laptop-pop producer, all set a tempo and lock it down for other players to soar above. Drummers are notoriously and unfairly derided as people who hang around with musicians but in reality they, with their bass-playing colleagues, are the anchors beneath whatever melodic virtuosity bandmates may display; as the saying goes, a band is only ever as good as its drummer.
A frontrunner for the pinnacle of percussive arts has to be jazz drumming. The most complicated to perform of the 20th century musical idioms, jazz is to many an impenetrable jumble of stabbing chords, horn flurries and perplexing rhythms. But that’s why its fans love it and how they wish it to remain: an acquired, superior listening experience which takes mental effort to be understood and appreciated, ideally in a dark, fumy basement full of cool cats and strong drinks.
For select musicians, jazz is the only music they’d ever wish to play, relishing the challenge of achieving the standard required to perform the works of the artform’s masters, while keeping the style alive and driving it forward. Last year’s film Whiplash portrays an idealistic young jazzer, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), whose dream is to be as good as his hero, the exceptional jazz drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich. Accepted into the best music conservatory in New York, the greenhorn soon realises the enormity and near-impossibility of his chosen path as he endures ritual personal abuse and humiliation over the limitations of his talent from the despotic and demanding band conductor Mr Fletcher, played by JK Simmons (who won the best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role in February).
Neyman’s life as a music student descends into a circle of hell, even though his duplicitous and ruthless tormentor smiles like a jackal while advising, “Just have fun with it” before unleashing another flood of crushing, hateful invective. The pupil’s gradual isolation from family and friends, intensive solo practicing and band rehearsals play out as punishing, stressful and fearful sequences with much literal spilling of blood, sweat and tears.
Like Neyman, I poured teenage energy into drumming — not jazz, I hasten to add. Watching Whiplash was thus a curious experience with memories of playing churning between empathy for the eager kid at the kit and abhorrence of his shocking treatment by the teacher. I largely taught myself to play and bypassed any academic teaching. I knew there were methods taught to serious percussionists but never felt hampered by not knowing them. What I do remember are the similarly endless hours of practice (belated apologies mum, dad, neighbours) before reaching a standard good enough to play in public. For his role in the movie, self-taught rock drummer Teller practised playing jazz for four hours every day for four months. Elite players will confirm it takes many years to become expert on any instrument, so how was the actor able to give the impression of being so good so quickly? Was there a trick or short cut?
Mark Pusey is an in-demand British professional drummer who plays recording sessions and tours with top acts such as Ed Sheeran, Tom Jones, Hurts and Olly Murs as well as working on film soundtracks (Harry Potter, This is England), TV shows and ad jingles. I asked him if he could give me a crash course in “drumming like Whiplash”. In truth, neither of us held out much hope for any significant results from a single three-hour lesson but he happily agreed to see how much we could achieve.
Pusey’s northwest London rehearsal space is a compact, windowless room, stacked with drum paraphernalia, its perimeter lined with half a dozen fully rigged drum kits with their bass drums facing the walls. Pulling up two thrones and two snare drums, he sits behind one, hands me a pair of sticks and asks have I ever played drums before? When I answer yes, a certain relief registers on his face but further questioning reveals my lack of expertise on the rudiments of drumming. Sacrilege! The rudiments are the official basic patterns — rolls, flams, paradiddles, drags and so on — which when performed seamlessly together form extended patterns making up the rhythm lines for songs. They are essential knowledge for professional percussionists, especially jazz drummers.
My tutor reveals that the most prominent key rudiment in the Whiplash drumming performances is the six-stroke roll which alternates right and left hand sticking in the pattern R L L RR L. I give it a go following Pusey’s lead at a very slow tempo and almost immediately send my hand and brain coordination into a tailspin trying to remember the position in the pattern of the one and double strokes. Ten minutes’ perseverance and I’m getting the hang of it, though still with plenty of mistakes. Watching me closely, Pusey spots a problem with my technique and advises me not to hesitate after each six-stroke roll and to try and make the space between all beats equal both inside the pattern and as the next one begins. Then he says, good so far, but we’re going to speed it up. Great.
Surprisingly, I am briefly able to follow the tempo as it rises but soon find myself in a muddle of crossed sticks and stop as Pusey powers away into a beautifully controlled fast roll. We try it again a few times but I can’t get past a certain (slowish) point before my beat patterns fall apart: it is mind-bendingly difficult, my very rusty drum skills notwithstanding. I’m told I’ll need to strengthen the fingers on my left hand to control the stick properly, and also not to overly accent with my favoured (stronger) right; it’s all about evenly matching the power from both hands and thus the volume from the drum. And, I should also be relaxing into letting the stick do more of the work and to feel for and control the rebound as it bounces off the drumhead while using the energy in it for the next downstroke. As Pusey says, it’s not only about stick control, the drum gives you stuff back, too. In short, what he’s telling me, very nicely, is, “You’re not without hope but you need to go and do a whole lot of practice.”
Mark started to learn drums when he was 12, wisely doing it properly with teachers and a regime of incessant practice, and it’s clear that now, 20 years later, such a challenging drum exercise for me is totally effortless and natural to him. Did I mention that the six-stroke roll is just one of the essential jazz drumming rudiments? There are 39 more, all equally devilish. And without being able to play them all expertly, no drummer stands a chance of getting into a jazz ensemble. Or orchestra. Or marching band.
He shows me how the six-stroke roll can be incorporated into playing the full drum kit, tearing into a Whiplash-worthy solo with thumping bass drum accents, tomtom fills and cymbals pinging and crashing on, off, under and around the beat. He pauses to explain how triplets are the basis of jazz drumming, the whole style is rooted in them, and that the tempo and accents of the notes played determines the feel of the music. The mantra for jazzers, Pusey says, is swing is king.
As he turns back onto his kit again to play, four limbs pumping in time independently, coaxing thunder from the tomtoms and machinegun staccato from the snare and high-hat, I stand transfixed, sticks dropped to my side, unable to stop the unconscious grin of enjoyment and appreciation dissecting my face. The power of drums: Not much can beat it.
Whiplash is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray