Can feel be taught?
We asked the members of the MD Education Team if they think that feel can be taught. Here’s what they had to say.
Potentially, yes. But rather than saying feel can be taught, my feeling is more that feel can be learned. It has a lot to do with how important feel is to the student and/or teacher. To me, it’s very important. Therefore, I take certain steps to point my students in the right direction. I share music with them that’s easy to digest and has great feel, and I have them play along. A few examples of this are Steve Jordan’s recordings with John Mayer, Phil Rudd’s with AC/DC, Jimmy Cobb on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and various tracks featuring John “JR” Robinson.
Playing with good feel is one of the most critical factors in being a good drummer, and I believe that feel can be taught, or more accurately, feel can be learned by a student who’s ready to invest a good deal of time and effort.
I think that good feel is style-specific. By that I mean that if you play rock with a good feel, it doesn’t mean that you can sit down and instantly play any other style with a good feel without having worked on it. But you can apply the same process you used to develop your feel in one style to help you learn to play another style.
There’s no mystery to feel. It can be analyzed, learned, and improved upon. I’ve thought a lot about this and have worked with many students in this area. As a result, I’ve come up three different but connected areas to work on, with respect to feel in a particular style: physical (touch, tone, tuning, volume balance between sounds/limbs, and rhythmic placement of various subdivisions), aural (listening, imitating, recognizing, and hearing the subtle nuances that make various styles and genres of music and drumming different or unique), and cognitive (analyzing, knowing, and respecting the music and culture that the music came from).
The place where I start my students is with reading about the history of the music and the people and culture that gave rise to it. Sometimes we buy a drum book that contains a lot of rhythms, patterns, and beats of a particular style (jazz, samba, funk, etc.), and then we jump right in and start playing before reading all the information about the music that’s usually contained in the introduction. Playing any style of music with good feel is about much more than just playing the beats or patterns. Feel is more about the “how” than the “what.” Reading and researching the music builds respect for and understanding of the music and the musicians who developed it, so that’s the first step to playing any style with good feel.
Then there’s the most important thing to do when trying to develop good feel—listen. Think back to when you first tried to play a bossa nova or a cha-cha. Although the rhythms might have been correct, the feel was probably lacking. That’s because you hadn’t invested sufficient time to learn that particular musical/drumming language. How do you learn that musical language? By listening—over months or even years. The following two ways of listening will help you develop the language necessary for good feel:
1. Listen to the masters. Listen closely to how the greats in any given style play, and try to identify what makes their feel so good. If you don’t yet have the ability to recognize what’s important, it’s probably because you haven’t listened enough. Keep listening, and it will come to you. The more you listen, the more you will hear. The more you are able to imitate, the more you will understand.
2. Listen to yourself. Once you can recognize the elements of good feel in a particular style, you’ll be able to listen to recordings of your own playing to hear what might be missing. Once you do that, you can then make a concerted effort to improve. Whether you use a simple or sophisticated setup to record your playing isn’t important. Just do it, and do it often.
I think feel can be taught, and I work hard on this with my students. We listen to examples of laid-back and on-top playing. We pay a lot of attention to attitude at the drumset, as well as to body motion. We also work with some yoga and tai chi principles to develop solid posture at the drumset and to learn to generate the groove from the lower body as opposed to the upper body and shoulders.
Most of us rush rather than drag, so it’s usually a question of bringing the beat back a little. This also means you have to have the confidence to stand your ground when other people in the band are rushing.
Each of us has a unique feel while playing, and each style has its unique feel. As a teacher, I try to model these feelings knowing that each student will have their own interpretations. In other words, feel can be nurtured. The study of internal awareness frees up the body/mind connection and helps the drummer play with greater ease. The martial art tai chi chuan has helped me a great deal and was a major inspiration for my book, Inner Drumming. One of the goals of the book is to allow feel to come through. Free improvisation has also helped because it can remove anxiety and foster the development of listening skills, which is the key to releasing feel.
I would say yes. But it takes developed ears and a good teacher who makes you aware of the specific needs of a certain style of music. A motivated student might get on the right track by listening carefully to the masters of a certain feel or style and trying to copy what they hear. I would also recommend that anyone looking to improve his or her feel should seek the expertise of skilled non-drummers (bass players, pianists, etc.), and then rehearse with them in order to accumulate more general musical wisdom that’s not so drumming-specific.
Any talents or abilities that we possess need to be awoken first. This is why I encourage young people to try a variety of activities in order to figure out what their unique talents are. However, talent alone is rarely enough to make a person successful in any endeavor. Success requires preparation, dedication, and hard work.
Part of the work we do as drummers is listening to other drummers and their approach to timekeeping, which is an art. I believe that you can teach feel to someone who possesses the predisposition for musical ability. But I’m still learning about feel. That’s why some of the greatest session players are forty-, fifty-, or sixty-plus years old—they must have learned something.
Feel can be developed—to a point—through assimilation of the music you desire to play. Practicing to recordings to develop your instincts can also help. But is it possible to teach someone to feel the same way you do about politics or religion with the same fervor that you have? You can influence through your teaching and playing, but this essential attribute is what separates the good from the outstanding.
Absolutely! I view time as your overall perspective of a section of music—like bookends on a large shelf. However, I look at feel as the small distance between two notes. A metronome can help straighten out your time in a broad sense. But the smaller, broken-down bits can be indicative of what feel you’re trying to convey. If you hold up four fingers and view them as a grouping of four 16th notes, you can vary the space between your fingers as you open and close them. That doesn’t necessarily change the overall space from end to end, but it changes the feel and the placement of each note (finger) as they relate to each other.
Relating this metaphor to different musical styles, you can determine feel based on the position of your fingers and how they sit juxtaposed to each other. In a straight-rock groove, for instance, your fingers would be evenly spaced to create a very consistent feel. However, in a Latin style, your first three fingers might be closer together and your last finger would be spaced further away to create that egg-rolling approach to the time. You’re still dealing with a grouping of four 16th notes, but the placement creates a different feel depending on how they’re positioned.
I know for a fact that feel can be taught, but it isn’t as simple as teaching someone that 2 + 2 = 4. I teach my students the foundation of feel. In my studies with Jeff Hamilton, he referred to this as “knowing your beat.” And I build off an equation I first heard David Garibaldi use: time + accent control = feel.
A strong sense of time is a must in order to develop feel. This begins with understanding how to subdivide the pulse and learning how to anticipate various subdivisions and rhythms. This strengthens your internal clock, so that you can execute ideas without disturbing the pulse.
A deeper, more intangible level of timekeeping comes with understanding, to borrow Max Roach’s description, how to “steer the time,” meaning how to play spot on, on top of, or behind the beat. These attributes go a long way to producing a good feel in music and are best understood through doing a lot of listening to music and researching why, where, and when each approach is most effective, based on the mood they create. But this is only part of the equation.
If pulse is the heartbeat of music, then accents and dynamic control are its breathing lungs. What I call “dynamic interdependence” is an essential ingredient. Max Roach taught me to look at the drumset like a piano, band, or symphony orchestra; it’s a collection of sounds that strives to produce one voice. Within that collective, there must always be a balance between lead and accompaniment, and that can be ever-changing. To achieve what Max called a “transparent sound,” a drummer must be able to control his or her four limbs inter-dynamically, just as a sound engineer controls the faders on a mixing board. Once again, listening to music is the best way to get a sense of how the balance flows and changes through different styles of music. It’s those nuances that make all the difference in projecting a transparent sound and playing convincingly in different styles.
The next step is to understand something I learned from the great New Orleans drummer and educator Johnny Vidacovich: Any drummer can have a good beat, but it takes two players to create a groove. A good feel requires perspective and commitment from the player/student. You need to see the big picture, have a team spirit, and have a selfless attitude. As R&B/studio great Bernard Purdie says, “Have your mind on [your bandmates], so they can put their trust in you.” Everyone you play with needs to be like-minded for this to truly succeed.
It’s interesting that sometimes a musician better known for playing other instruments can drum with a seemingly quite natural feel. Stevie Wonder and Prince are among those that come to mind. They embrace the big picture. They aren’t as focused on the drum parts as they are the overall feel of the song. Knowledge is power, and having a concept is great, but so is the ability to get out of your own way. As legendary funk drummer Clyde Stubblefield preaches, “Don’t think too hard about it.” Use your ears, let it flow, stay open, and play to win. When you think in this way, playing with feel can be as natural as breathing.
I believe that everyone has a unique groove/feel on the drums, which is part of our human imprint—like our fingerprints. This is what creates the personality that great drummers have, even when playing something simple. From that, I believe to a certain extent that your groove and feel does depend on natural talent. However, I firmly believe that you can be taught to improve your feel. It’s a little more elusive than teaching reading, technique, or a specific beat, and it requires a different approach.
If I’m trying to help a student improve his or her feel, I focus on a few areas. First would be general relaxation exercises at the instrument. Often tension in the groove can be related back to tension in the body, so this must be addressed first. Another thing that can help with feel is to work on the balance of sound among the instruments of the drumset. Sometimes you can assist a student to create a better groove simply by getting them to think about how loud the snare and bass drum are in relation to the cymbals and hi-hat. Once these things are addressed, I have students work on playing along with music, both with a click and without, focusing on the placement of their groove within the song. This should be done, at first, with music that’s easy for the student to play so that they can focus on how they fit into the overall picture.
Lastly, an indispensable step is helping a student learn to listen critically to great groove drummers and try to understand what makes the music feel good. Once you can get someone to internalize an infectious groove in their body and soul, you improve the chances of that feel coming out when they play.
I believe elements of what makes something feel good can be taught, through listening and discussing dynamics and timing. These areas are improved with repetition, practice, and performance.
An analogy for developing good feel would be that it’s like learning a new language. If you took a course in Spanish and spent weeks practicing and carrying on conversations with classmates, you would eventually feel like you had grasped the language. Then if you flew to Spain and hung out with folks in Barcelona, you would be able to communicate with them. But you wouldn’t sound like them because you haven’t had enough time to absorb their cultural dialect and native tongue. Over months and years of being there, however, you would eventually absorb their accent. This is similar to learning the feel of a particular style of music.
By listening and emulating drummers and percussionists with a great feel and sense of time, yes, feel can be taught. The approach used for imbuing feel may not be like what you would use to teach snare drum technique or bass drum control; it’s more intuitive.
When I wanted to learn the feel of a great timbale player, I listened to the phrasing of a specific solo and kept playing the phrase until it became so close to the original that I understood how it felt in my hands and in my body. The same experience occurred when learning great drumset grooves, like what Bernard Purdie played on the Aretha Franklin song “Rock Steady.” Listening to Purdie’s incessant funk gave me good insight into how relaxed his playing is. I attempted to transcribe what I heard and then tried to emulate what I was hearing.
This is how I teach about feel—by using classic grooves and having students listen to appreciate the overall feeling of the piece we’re studying. At times there are certain technical issues involved, which we work through. Essentially, learning about feel is an important mixture of listening, paying respect to those who’ve come before us, and some technical development.
I think a certain amount of feel can be learned through active listening and dedicated practice. As an example, let’s say you want to be a swanky funk drummer and you have a fair amount of facility on the kit. I’d suggest listening to James Brown’s greatest hits album every day and shedding to it every evening. Eventually some of that greasy feel will sink into your own playing. Will you exactly sound like Clyde Stubblefield? No. But you will sound funkier than you did before practicing this way. It’s similar to dieting: You are what you eat.
I think feel can be taught up to a certain level. Feel doesn’t only rely on practicing on drumset but also on being aware of your hearing. You can get a better feel when you understand how some grooves and sounds affect the music. Listening to a bass player or pianist and studying how he or she phrases will affect your feel, and learning to be self-confident behind the drumset in different musical situations will make a difference too.
I think it depends on your definition of the word teach. Does sending a student to listen to the right players for a certain feel count as teaching? To me, it does. I count recording and listening to playbacks of students so I can point out strengths and weaknesses as part of my teaching too, and it certainly helps their feel. Pointing out some problems with the physical approach to the instrument can be a great help as well. So maybe feel can’t be taught completely, but it certainly can be coached.
In order to try to answer this question successfully we have to ask another: What is feel? Saying that someone is playing with a good feel reflects that you have an awareness of what the music is supposed to sound like. This awareness is developed through a process known as “enculturation,” which is a cognitive process by which a person accepts and assimilates certain aspects of a culture and tradition that he or she was not born into. This is what I do when I play jazz, and it is what jazz great Jim Black does when he plays Serbian rhythms from my native country.
What we call “feel” is nothing more than a set of parameters that are learned. As our cognitive understanding improves, so does our intuition as to what is appropriate and what isn’t. But there must be more to this, right? Where is the mystery inherent to music, the intangibles that make the difference between someone who just plays and someone who truly feels it and makes you feel it too? In order to answer that, we have to ask a different question: What makes a good musician? Are talent, musicality, sensibility, interest, desire, and work ethic things you can teach, or are they gifts that not everyone possesses? The way I see it, all of them are indispensable parts of the equation, and they combine within a good musician who plays with a good feel. I believe that some of these things you can impart and nurture, while others seem to fall outside our control. As humans, we should be considered equal, but we are certainly not even. Each of us possesses certain skills and lacks others. The quicker we find out what these are, the easier it becomes to forge a path towards a more fulfilling life.
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