Listening by Roy Burns

The is a famous story that circulates in the business world in many forms an variations. The way I first head it was as follows: A huge ocean liner was due to be launched. However, there were problems. The new high tech engines were not producing enough power to propel the ship on the open sea. In test after test, all of the experts were stumped. Finally, in desperation, the owner of the new ship called a famous consultant.

The consultant, an elderly man of great experience, puffed his old pipe as he studied blueprints of the ship’s engines. He was given a complete tour of the ship by the foreman and the owner, who explained the intricacies of the ship’s energy system. The old man watched, listened, observed carefully and spoke very little.

After three hours, the old man lit up his pipe again and removed from his pocket a small hammer. He approached a large valve and tapped it sharply with his hammer. Suddenly, roar was heard as all of the engines began to function smoothly. Everyone was pleased. The owner thanked the old man and said, “Great job. Just send me the bill.”

About a week later, the owner received the bill and went into a state of shock. The bill was for ,000. The owner dictated a letter to his secretary that stated, “Dear sir, it seems to me that your bill is extremely high for tapping a valve with a little hammer. Please reply ASAP.”

A week later, the owner received a revised bill along with this note: “Dear sir, you are quite right. My bill for tapping is only .00. However, for knowing where to tap, the charge is 9. This adds up to ,000.00. Thank you very much.”

It seems to me that this story applies to many endeavors – including drumming. After all, knowing where to tap and when, is what drumming is all about. Successful drummers are highly regarded, not for how many beats or taps they can play but for how they organize and place them. I’ve heard drummers with little real technique play just what was needed, when it was needed – not too much, just what the music called for. Of course, I have also heard drummers with great technique and great training do exactly the same thing at just the right time.

What ties together drummers who are different in their training and approach to the drums? I believe it is listening. For example, have you ever had the feeling, when talking with other people that they were just waiting for you to finish so that they could say something? Listening is a great deal more than waiting for someone else to finish so that you may speak. It means listening with all of your attention whether it be to a conversation or a musical performance.

All great drummers are great listeners. They hear everything that is happening around them. They even hear the “holes” where a fill-in is needed. They play in such a way as to complement everyone. They never “step on toes” by phrasing against the soloist or the group. They play “with the flow,” because they hear it. They listen for it.

Listening is much more than owning a large record collection or s storehouse of videos. Listening, in part, is learning what to listen for. Listening is a way of learning to focus one’s attention on what is important musically.

For example, one of my talented young students and I were discussing song forms. He had no idea of what I was getting at. So I asked him how many measures there were in one chorus of the blues. He didn’t know. On a keyboard, I demonstrated the basic structure of the twelve bar blues, the most fundamental song structure. As a result of this lesson, he enrolled in a basic music course at a local college.

Learning song forms and chord patterns is an example of learning what to listen for. As a matter of fact, some music theory training is almost a necessity today if you want to be at the top of the drumming profession. It also helps drummers to listen to the entire band not just themselves.

I think it would be fair to say that young drummers of all eras often fall into the trap of listening only to drummers of one style. With experience, the more talented ones learn to listen to the music as a whole, with the drums being just one important part. As they grow and develop, they not only learn to appreciate drummers of different styles but also music of many kinds. There really is so much music out there. All you have to do is listen.

If you want to improve your listening skills, try some of the following ideas: Analyze the form of the song you are listening to. Listen just to the guitar part of the bass line for one entire song. Then listen again and concentrate on the bass drum and snare drum. Then listen yet again, this time concentrating on how the drummer and bass player play together. Listen still again for accents in the drum part of how they relate to the melody line.

Buy a used piano or mallet instrument. This helps you to visualize the keyboard so that you can see as well as hear how chord progressions actually work. Take a basic harmony and theory course at a local college. In many cities, you can take a summer class even if you are still in high school. As a matter of fact, the student I mentioned is only fifteen. However, he had no problem signing up for the class.

Invest some money in your ears. They may be even more important than your hands or all of your equipment. Invest some time and effort in learning to listen to music, as opposed to just hearing music. Listen to music as if you were a composer as well as a drummer. Try to hear what is inside the music. Listen to everyone and everything as the opportunities present themselves.

With dedication, effort and experience, perhaps you will be like the old consultant. He watched, he listened and he knew just where to tap. I can think of no better concept for a musical drummer.