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Matt Ingram - Picking Your Battles

Matt Ingram - Picking Your Battles.

It was my birthday recently (if you missed it I’m still accepting gifts, drinks and cash…) and it was quite a special one because this year marks my 25th as a drummer. A quarter of a century ago on my 12th birthday I got my first kit and have been hooked on drums ever since. This milestone has naturally made me quite reflective and to me experience brings a strange paradox: on the one hand I am of course a better drummer than I was 25 years ago. I am more proficient on the instrument and naturally I have better feel, time and technique than when I first started. However on the other hand my relationship with the drums has hardly changed at all. By this I mean I’m still as frequently fascinated, excited and often perplexed by the instrument now as I was when I first started.

No matter how advanced we become as drummers, the instrument will always present us with new challenges. However as we mature as players we should be able to avoid the pitfalls of our past mistakes and focus on the issues that really matter to any given musical situation. In other words, experience teaches us to choose our battles.

I naively always used to think that given enough time and practise I’d eventually “arrive” somewhere as player. As a beginner I would look to my heroes like Buddy Rich, John Bonham and Ringo and as far as I was concerned they had all “arrived” at what I then considered to be the final destination of music. If I could just do that thing with my left hand like Buddy’s, or with my right foot like Bonham’s or be in a band like the Beatles then I’ll have arrived too. However experience teaches you that there is no end point in music, no final destination.

Although different stylistically, I feel that in the universe of music my aforementioned influences are similar in that they all reached musical territory that had previously been uncharted. They were all on their own paths and were at their best when travelling these courses at the fastest pace. So rather than the stationary concept of arrival, to me innovation and inspiration takes place when we are moving toward something.

Most of us at some point or another (usually when we first start playing) end up following the musical trails that our heroes previously established. The Bonham right foot triplet, the Gadd  paradiddle groove, those concepts that were once unchartered are now well trodden drumming pathways. So perhaps to really improve it is not just up to us as players to rely on what has gone before us but to also experiment and set our sights to an unknown horizon.

So back to my reflective mood; I’ve been thinking about what has changed in the last 25 years and I’ve decided that the biggest lesson experience has taught me has been this: only give your attention to the things that matter.

I got hit with the drumming bug hard and therefore when I first started every facet of the instrument, from my playing, to tuning, right down to the way my kit was set up REALLY mattered. It mattered to the extent that I used to worry that the pattern of my first kit (white marine pearl) clashed with the finish of my snare drum (burnt orange)... and in typing that last sentence I’ve just realised that the 13 year old me displayed some worryingly extreme OCD tendencies.... When something means a lot you naturally pore over the finer details. When in early development this can be a positive trait, one which allows the player to get under the skin of the instrument. However something a younger me had yet to learn is that in a session no one would know or care if the drummer’s snare and kit are not complementing one another aesthetically.

I feel that the direction, or redirection of our attentions can be one of the most profoundly positive evolutions we can make as musicians.

To give an illustration I used to be obsessed with fills. To me the fill, and the quest for the “perfect” drum fill was one I had taken pretty seriously. So concerned was I with it that I would take a half bar and practise it over and over. If I was in the studio, I would ask the engineer to drop me in for a fill again and again until I achieved perfection. Of course I never did. In fact, the more I worked on the problem the worse the problem became and I soon realised that therein lies the key. The issue was not the drum fill but was my approach to it. I discovered that I had become so obsessed with the fill that I had completely ripped it away from it’s context to the point where it no longer made any sense.

Years of playing have taught me that if something’s not working you have the power to change it! I know that sounds horribly simplistic but it’s true. Before I realised this if something wasn’t working I would keep repeating it in the belief that repetition would alleviate the problem. But of course it doesn’t for in doing that there’s a chance you are simply practising what is wrong. Now if there’s something in my part that not working I stop playing it and find something different. With regard to drum fills I realised that sometimes the most powerful question you can ask yourself is does there need to be a fill here? I have found this question solves 90% of all fill based issues as invariably the answer is “no”.

So next time you are faced with a block in your musical flow stop focussing on what’s not working and turn your attentions to new possibilities. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results. 

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