Though he’s a founder of Dazzling Killmen, Laddio Bolocko, and the Mars Volta, bands whose influence extends widely among experimental, progressive, and technical hardcore musicians, the author’s playing and teaching go far beyond genre and are rooted in rudiments, Scottish Pipe band drumming, jazz, and beyond.
Blake Fleming is an omnivorous student of the drums, so his announcement about self-publishing The Book of Rhythm was met with keen interest by those familiar with his career. A conversation with a student in November of 2017 prompted Fleming, who’s been teaching drums since he was a teenager, to actualize his dream of creating his own method book. After a few false starts, research into the theories of composer, theorist, and advisor Joseph Schillinger inspired him to create a rhythmic “book of spells.” The resulting Book of Rhythm is an encyclopedia of 5,096 possible rhythmical permutations of 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-, 9-, and 12-beat combinations that can be used for rhythm study, reading, compositional inspiration, or creativity—on any instrument.
For Fleming, this kind of open-ended reference book is a perfect model of his teaching style. “I want to unlock students mentally and physically,” he says, “so that they can start to get their own ideas out in an articulate and powerful manner. I’m very interested in helping people find their own voice on the instrument. The fact that this book is a vast archive with which you can create should make it appeal to composers and musicians of all backgrounds. It truly is a reference book, workbook, and an overall creative manual.”
One of the book’s strengths is its simplicity. The rhythms use only quarter notes, 8th notes, and dotted quarter notes. Even students with limited exposure to reading will be able to sit down and play most of the examples, and a little effort can unlock them all. Fleming lists every permutation of possible three- to twelve-beat combinations progressively through the book’s 229 pages, but you could also just open a page at random, pick a rhythm, and start playing. The book includes a short introduction and an appendix of “creative usage” ideas that you can apply to the rhythms, but the material is generally unadorned. As Fleming writes in his introduction, this is “not just a collection of exercises and patterns but rather something alchemical and universal.” Your instrument or compositional practice could include working from any one of these thousands of rhythms while applying multiple approaches to the source material.
Fleming says he wants The Book of Rhythm to become the Syncopation for the 21st century and recommends that drummers use the “Alan Dawson method” on the rhythmic material that can be found in his book.
Blake outlines his teaching approach further: “Even within a basic snare solo, all four limbs and all parts of the kit can eventually be utilized. There are so many miniature lessons just within one piece, and sometimes there are many lessons just around one measure. This is where The Book of Rhythm comes in, because you can take one measure of rhythm and see how many ways you can utilize and manipulate it.”
The Book of Rhythm stands in opposition to the over-engineered tendencies in drum pedagogy and gives the reader more control to develop a personal path through the essential elements of rhythm. It’s a unique addition to the literature and is a recommended book for creative drummers.
Blake Fleming shares some ways to interpret the source material.
1. Have one limb play the written line and one limb play the rests. Do this hand to hand, foot to foot, hand to foot, or foot to hand.
2. Play continual 8th notes, 16th notes, triplets, etc. in the hands so there are no rests, and then play the notes of the written line as accents.
3. Play any variety of ride patterns—say, the traditional jazz ride pattern to start—and use the written lines as comping material for snare, bass drum, or hi-hat foot.
4. Play the written line with the hands, and fill in the rests with the feet, either bass drum or hi-hat, or alternate between the two.
5. Have your lead hand and foot play the rhythm in unison while the other hand fills in the rests. To expand this, have your other foot keep straight time.
6. Layer two, three, or four rhythms, a different one for each limb.
7. Play every other note on the opposite limb, whether it be between both hands, both feet, or some combination of hand and foot or foot and hand.
8. Think of the rhythms as riffs, like a guitar riff in band practice. Verbalize the rhythm out loud, either by singing or counting, and play around the riff on the kit, the same way you might if your guitarist just showed you a new riff to jam on.
9. Play the rhythms over various ostinatos.
10. I mention in the intro to the book that any of the Alan Dawson methods can be applied. So then we can…
• Play a jazz ride pattern: have the snare play the written line, play the hi-hat foot on 2 and 4, and the bass drum fills in the rests.
• Do the same thing as above, but switch the bass drum and snare drum so the bass drum plays the written line and the snare fills in the rests.
• Do the same thing as above, but instead of the traditional ride pattern, have the ride play the written line in unison with the bass drum while the snare fills in the rests.
• Have the hi-hat foot play the written line, the non-lead hand fill in the rests, and the other hand play various ride patterns.
• Snare plays the line while the bass drum and hi-hat alternate playing the rests.
• Assign the kick to play all the long notes and the snare to play the short notes, or vice versa, underneath various ride patterns.