Teaching Yourself by Roy Burns

The strange thing about playing is that no one can really teach you how to play; you learn how to do it by playing. In order to do this successfully, however, you have to play a lot.

When I was in my twenties, I worked in a nightclub in Mew York City called the Metropole, where many great jazz musicians performed. I had the opportunity to play with many of them. I would start to play with a trio at 1:00 in the afternoon. We’d play forty-five minutes out of every hour, finishing at 6:45 p.m. I’d go out for dinner, and then return at 7:30 to play in a quintet. We played until 3:00 in the morning, alternating with another group. I was playing virtually twelve hours a day, and it was great! The place was uninhibited and wild, so I had the chance to play solos, fast tempos, brushes – you name it.

At a later time, I was playing the Merv Griffin Show during the day and at a club at night. I would finish the club gig at 4:00 in the morning, sleep for four hours, be at NBC by 10:00 a.m., finish the show by 3:00 p.m., sleep for four more hours and then be back at the club by 8:00 p.m. I had the best of both worlds: I was on staff at NBC and playing jazz at night.

Although I honestly would not want that type of schedule today, it was a great learning experience. I was literally playing day land night. It was okay if one tune wasn’t perfect, because I knew I would get another chance at is soon enough. I could make adjustments, try new things and learn what worked and what didn’t. Although I never thought of it at the time, during this period I was teaching myself.

Like most of us, early in my career I had a problem with consistency. One night would be good and the next not so good. All of the older musicians from whom I sought advice said, “Relax! You just need to play more.” That really seemed too simple at the time but in retrospect, it was great advice. So I played every chance I got. I played all types of gigs, whether the money was good or not. As long as I could learn, I would play.

The odd thing about playing is that there is no substitute for it. You can’t practice playing. You can “practice” reading. But “playing” means playing with other people, under conditions where you have to adjust and listen to everyone and to yourself as well. One of the drawbacks of today’s music business is that young people often play for years with the same group. Playing with a number of different people, especially when you are young, can be of great value. However, the main objective is still to ply as much as you can.

Part of teaching yourself is evaluating each night’s performance. Go over the concert or gig in your mind: Which tunes worked and which didn’t? If the fast tempos give you problems, then you need to do two things. First, listen to and watch (if possible) drummers who play the fast tempos really well. Then, practice each day until your skills in that area have improved. If you are having difficulty with slow tempos (which can be tricky), listen to drummers who play the slow tempos with a good feel and good time.

Listening is the primary skill required in teaching yourself. Many drummers “hear” the music, but they are not always listening. Listening means paying attention. That’s the key. It means devoting your full attention to listening, with no other thought to distract you. It means giving yourself up totally to the music, concentrating on it as if you were hypnotized.

One of the unfortunate things about taking lessons is that you may feel you already know what’s happening before you’ve had the chance to play a lot. You may think you’re really playing well, when in fact you may sound very inexperienced. You may be having a grand time wailing way on the drums and drive everyone else in the group to distraction. For example, at a recent trade show, a young drummer was playing with a group headed by a very experienced guitar player who happens to be a friend of mine. I asked him, “How are things going?” He said, “Roy, this drummer is killing me. He’s so busy that he’s stepping on every phrase I play. Half the time, if he plays a break, we don’t know if it will come out in tempo. The guy just doesn’t listen!”

Sadly enough, the drummer thought he was great. He was playing fills, crashing cymbals, pumping away with two bass drums and generally “showing off.” He heard no one but himself and it was obvious that he had done precious little playing. He had good technique but he had never learned that sometimes, “less is more.” This is especially true for drummers. When I was in Lionel Hampton’s band, Hamp told me, “Roy, if it will sound bad if you don’t play a fill, by all means play it. But with anything less critical, just play time.” It was good advice and it helped me at the time.

So the first step toward teaching yourself is to start listening and really paying attention. Evaluate your performance. Discuss the gig with the bass player at the end of the night or at the end of the rehearsal. Play in a manner that will support the music and make those around you feel good. But most of all, listen, listen, and then listen some more.