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It stands to reason that in order for drummers to play well in a jazz band, they must hear how drummers actually play in a jazz band. How can we expect our students to have any idea of what it means to “swing” when they’ve only been exposed to rock music all their lives?

Incorporate DVDs, CDs and the Internet

Play videos of the great jazz musicians. There are wonderful DVDs available, and your students will be able to see and hear everyone from Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Jo Jones to Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Tony Williams. (Tell your students about, a fascinating resource filled with short “clinics” and numerous video and audio clips of historic and contemporary drummers.)

But make your listening time an active experience. Have the students draw up charts and compare drummers by listening for specifics, such as:

  • The rhythm of the ride cymbal: who plays with a broken triplet feel; who plays with a dotted eighth-sixteenth feel? (See A Swinging Ride Cymbal below)

  • The drummer’s presence: who is more aggressive and who is more laid back

  • The balance between basic timekeeping and colour: which drummers stick more to the ride rhythm and which move away from the cymbal rhythm to use the instrument more for colour and effect? (You’ll find more contemporary jazz drummers playing this way.)

  • At what points the drummers use the left hand for snare drum accents and comping patterns.

And if, for example, your band is playing Sing, Sing, Sing, find the Benny Goodman version and play it. (For that matter, the first time you play Ode to Joy from your beginning band method book, take advantage of the opportunity to play a corresponding section of the original Beethoven symphony. I’m always amazed that students can study music throughout high school without ever having experienced how this and other great works were intended to be heard.)

A swinging ride cymbal

The reason many students don’t swing when playing jazz is that they accent the 2nd and 4th beats of the ride cymbal too heavily, breaking up the rhythmic flow.

Have your students concentrate on an even, unaccented quarter note feel. The notes played before beats one and three should be thought of as pick up notes. While great drummers may place those pick up notes very differently – depending on the tempo and the individual concept, they may fall on the last note of a triplet, the last 32nd note of the beat or anywhere in between – a good starting point is to place them as the last note of a triplet. The triplet provides a more relaxed, less edgy feel.

Have the students practise by counting triplets out loud while playing the rhythm. And, as always, impress upon them that their role is to keep steady time.

Practising with a metronome

Constantly speeding up and slowing down the ride rhythm while practising does nothing to develop your students’ sense of time.

Have them practise with a metronome at slow tempos, making sure that the quarter note of the cymbal beat falls exactly in place. They may complain that they “can’t play with the metronome” – implying that it somehow impedes their ability to play. At that point, you just have to tell them that if they can’t play with it, they can’t play without it.

In my studio, we call the metronome the lie detector. When students finally do meet the challenge of playing along comfortably with the metronome they will take pride in their accomplishment – and the benefits will be felt throughout your entire band.

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