Creating and Maintaining a Thorough Music Collection
by Russ Miller
I was booked to play on some TV shows, movie soundtracks, and album projects this past summer. Usually I’m on the road during that season, as it’s the busiest time for touring. However, this particular summer I was going to be home for fifteen weeks straight. My friend and drumming great Ralph Humphrey called and asked if I would be interested in teaching a few courses and directing an ensemble at the Los Angeles College of Music (LACM). Since I wasn’t going on the road, I agreed.
One of the classes I was asked to do was a music history lecture. This particular course was based around the lineage of R&B music. It came together fairly easily for me since I had spent a great deal of time interviewing, researching, and assembling content on the subject for a book that I did with Zoro, called The Commandments of R&B Drumming. Each week of the semester I needed to write a one-hour lecture about specific eras of R&B music. That comprised basically four or five pages of text with audio references, facts, and observations about a given time period. While creating these lectures, I was constantly referring to the library of music in my studio.
I’ve always been obsessed with acquiring music. I love to get CDs and add to my reference shelf. Even though I have a digital library as well, having the CD gives me all of the liner notes, credits, and artwork, which adds up to a better understanding of the entire piece of art. I think of my collection as a reference library similar to what I would have if I were a lawyer or doctor. Recorded media is our knowledge reference.
It would’ve been impossible for me to create this weekly course without a thorough and organized reference library. I was constantly pulling out pertinent albums and grabbing tracks to add to my lecture to drive home certain points. Let’s break down the process for creating your own reference library.
Assemble the Content
People don’t generally buy records they don’t like or haven’t heard before. But as musicians we need to study the language of music. Some players try to learn to play styles of music without immersing themselves in the music, instead relying solely on patterns and exercises in books. This approach is like trying to learn to speak Italian by only reading it. You have to hear the language to get the flow of the speech. And you hear the accent. It’s exactly the same with music. Each musical style has a specific dialect.
When someone says, “I need to get better at my swing playing,” the first thing I ask is, “How much swing music did you listen to this week?” The answer is usually none. You can’t learn to play jazz by reading about it in a book. Recordings are where the history of music is documented. I encourage you to research the top songs and albums in different styles of music and eras. Acquire copies of the most popular recordings in each style, and spend time listening to them.
You can find lists of top songs in various styles all over the Internet. I included fifty top jazz standards in my online classroom, and the fifty top brush tracks are posted on my website. In the Commandments book, Zoro and I included what we found to be the top songs for each era of R&B. Focus on one song or album at a time. It’s taken me years to put together my library, so don’t get overwhelmed. It can be an expensive and time-consuming process, but it’s well worth the effort.
Most CD collections consist of a stack of discs in the corner of a room by a stereo. Some more organized people may have them in a CD holder. In order to be able to reference your collection, you have to organize it. This has to be done in a way that makes sense and makes it easy to find something when you need it. Put your library in alphabetical order, and use header cards. Within each letter bin, keep titles together for each prominent artist. For instance, inside the R section, group all fifteen Rush albums with a separate header card. Do the same for each significant artist who has several titles.
Without having my library organized, every time I needed to get an album for my lecture I would’ve had to search through 1,100 CDs. The same goes for learning a specific style, groove, or song for a gig. Do yourself a favor and take the time to get your music organized.
One of the great things about a digital library is the ability to have the same song included in multiple playlists. Do the same with your iTunes library as you did with your CDs. You can have it organized by artist, style, and grooves. I have playlists organized alphabetically (each folder contains subfolders as well) and style, and there’s a research playlist that includes tracks organized by the kind of groove (6/8, 7/8, guaguancó, etc.) and by player (Colaiuta, Rich, Gadd, Roach, etc.).
In the music style folder, I created playlists for specific styles. This can help you greatly when you need to work on something for a gig. For instance, let’s say I have to play a piece in 7/8 on an upcoming gig that includes a drum solo. Having a library of materials in 7/8 can help you immerse yourself in that time signature. And you can play along to different tunes in 7/8 leading up to the gig. To the left is an example of my music style playlists.
Utilize Your Library
One of the great things about owning vinyl records is that you have to take some deliberate action to listen to them. It takes effort to get out the album, put it on the turntable, and drop the needle. That commitment to listening to music enhances the ability to soak up content. Now everyone has a thousand songs on their iPods, and they jump around often, rarely listening to an entire album in one sitting. This mentality of instant gratification often causes music to become background noise while we do other activities. But as serious musicians, music can’t just be a soundtrack for making your bed. You have to focus on listening very intently. So get a set of high-quality speakers, headphones, or in-ear monitors. Take time to listen to music without doing anything else. Focus on the sound of the instruments, the feel, the overall mix, and the interplay between the musicians. I love picking up on things like when session great Jim Keltner goes from playing in the center of the snare during the verse to cracking a rimshot in the chorus. These are the types of subtleties that help to lift the tune without changing the pattern itself, and these are things that are missed without focused listening.
As musicians, recorded music represents something deeper for us than for the rest of the world. Recordings are documentations of our language, to be used for study, reference, and inspiration. If you’re not already, become a devoted music enthusiast. Set up a high-end listening environment, and work on building an organized and thorough music library. I guarantee you will see the fruits of your labor in all areas of your musicianship. Happy listening!
Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more info, visit russmiller.com.