Exploring Self-Awareness

There is a rare group of people in the world of percussion that are called “drummer’s drummers”. George Marsh is a member of that prestigious group. George Marsh is an honest person who not only was very thoughtful and articulate in his responses, but also has a high degree of integrity. When talking to George, it became obvious that he is passionately involved with music and percussion.

His talents and abilities are considerable. George Marsh is not only an outstanding performer, but is an innovative teacher, author, composer and a clinician for the Slingerland Drum Company. He was also a corecipient of the Peabody Award for his work as co-producer for Standard Oil’s 10-record Music Maker series.

Eclecticism is another value that George holds in high esteem and it is reflected in this partial list of performing credits: Chuck Berry, Michel Le Grande, Morgana King, Jerry Hahn, Mel Martin’s Listen and Denny Zeitlin. He can also be heard on the motion picture sound tracks of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Black Stallion.

CB: Assuming no one has ever heard of you, what would you answer to the question, “Who is George Marsh?”.

GM: I’d start off by saying I’m a fellow musician.

CB: That’s the way you would like to think of yourself?

GM: I think in terms of the greats as being fellow musicians too. We all play music and we love music and the degree to which I may be afraid of someone because they’re so great is the degree that my thinking is in error. Really, they’re just human beings and they are communicating, they are giving the gift of their ability to transmit music. Music to me is like magic. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but music is related to God. But I don’t have a definition of what God is. There’s something magical about it, it’s life, it’s living. The reason I like music, the reason I’m in it is because of the magic that has bitten me. The really great players like Shelly Manne and Louis Bellson give you that feeling.

CB: They exude it. What bothers you about trying to be creative?

GM: Trying to be creative has always been a bothersome thing to me, just trying to be creative at all. It’s difficult to be creative by trying to be creative. A truly creative act or event just seems to come and there’s nothing I can really do about that.

CB: If you try to force it, or say to yourself, “I’m going to be creative between the hours of two and four . . .”

GM: It won’t work.

CB: Or it seldom does.

GM: What I can really do as a player is learn my craft, and learning my craft means learning how to live, keeping my body in shape, my personal relationships clear.

CB: Playing then is only one aspect of your total self, it’s not
the whole thing.

GM: A long time ago I figured out that for me personally, I needed to work on everything. Not just drumming with my personal life going to hell. Not playing out as much as a lot of people, but playing. Not striving as much as a lot of people for the fame, but doing some. That’s why I teach, because I find I need that. Just looking at playing, looking at how to play, because I’m still learning to do that.

CB: As a drummer, what kind of music gives you the most satisfaction?

GM: Well, that’s one of my problems. The kind of music I like spans such a wide variety, it truly does. I really do like playing Be Bop and a little hard rock, and I really like good country music and a good folk singer. I like totally free improvisation. The experiments of somebody like Steve Reich. I like African music and I like Sambas. Denny Zeitlin, who I work with, is really capable of playing all those types of music, and Mel Graves is capable of doing that.

CB: Since you like so many different types of music, would you say that a band that is eclectic in nature is best suited to your creative desires?

GM: Well, if I’m going to be in a band and devote a lot of time and energy to it, then the band will be that way. I found that out. If I do a short stint with someone, I’ll play what they want. When I played with Michel Le Grande, I played Michel Le Grande music.

CB: And that’s just good professionalism. When they hire you, you know up front the type of music they’re doing. Then it becomes a thing of trying to fulfill their needs and doing the best you can.

GM: But if I’m going to work with a band it will be a labor of love. And if it’s a labor of love, it has to be a labor of love, rather than, “I’m going to play with you because I’ll be famous.” I gave that one up a long time ago. I play all kinds of music, but I interpret and listen and react with the energy and spirit of jazz. You know, sometimes I listen to myself and I say “God Damn” it doesn’t sound like anybody, and sometimes you don’t hit the mark and sometimes you listen to it and say, “Yeah!” “Right!” When I listened to the concert Mel (Graves) and I did, I could hear it two ways: as being out on a limb and as nice music.

CB: That’s the concert you did in November 1979 in Berkeley, which was broadcast on KPFA Radio, with Mel on acoustic bass and yourself on drums and percussion.

GM: It had a lot of potential, but it wasn’t totally there.

CB: But an awful lot of it was.

GM: Yeah, a lot of it was.

CB: I don’t applaud the radio very often.

GM: Maybe you heard us out on a limb.

CB: It was an unusual concept. The fact that it was just bass and drums. You both played very full and nobody felt any emptiness.

GM: I really appreciate positive feedback or critical feedback. I appreciate both. But the point is maybe when an artist gets further and further out on a limb, so to speak, it can very easily become more into focus for a lot of other people, nonmusicians too. So that when you’re half way in the middle, not quite doing what you want, or working your way out there, it’s okay, but finally you say, “I’m going to play it the way I really hear it.”

CB: What you’re talking about is honesty.

GM: Yeah, it would be honest to be in the middle, but it would be an awkward stage where you’re going to be learning your craft too. People react positively when musicians take chances. They react to a new piece of music that a musician has just learned and the player doesn’t know it as well as something they’ve been playing for two years. I’ve noticed this lot. But it’s a fact that when musicians have to make themselves “haul ass” and be extremely conscious, people really dig that.

CB: Is it correct to say then that you are a strong believer in tradition?

GM: I love Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and all of those swing guys. That’s what turned me on to the music. I’m not going to turn my back on that. Man, like just the sound of the way Gene Krupa played the rim shots. There’s almost nobody who does that “Whapp”.

CB: Yeah, there’s a little overtone that he gets off the drum when he plays a rim shot.

GM: Also, I used to listen to George Wettling on records.

CB: Are those the records he made with Eddie Condon?

GM: Yeah. Oh man, those were some good sessions and they were hot. I like hot music like that, really cooking, and it still comes out in my playing some way. And I also like the tradition of Max Roach because of the logic of his solos. Beautiful construction. And “Papa” Jo Jones for dynamics and ways of taking rhythms and twisting them around in different ways that are totally original. He was really into dynamic fluidness which other drummers didn’t do very much.

CB: Don Lamond had one of the best descriptions of Jo Jones. He said, “Jo Jones doesn’t play like a machine gun, he plays like the wind”.

GM: Beautiful.

CB: Earlier when I asked you the first question, the first drummer you mentioned was Shelly Manne. I was wondering why he popped into your mind first. Was Shelly somebody you listened to a lot?

GM: Yes, he was really important. I quickly turned on to Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. One of the first albums I got was one of those Shorty Rogers-Shelly Manne collaborations. The thing that got me about Shelly was that he had all the fire and intensity but he also had a melodiousness and a tonality of different colors which no other drummer had at that time. I loved guys like Max Roach and Art Blakey but they weren’t as melodic as Shelly.

CB: Lately I’ve been seeing him play with different groups and he’s playing as good if not better than when I first saw him 23 years ago. What I mean is that he’s still youthful.

GM: That’s a good word because that’s what I hear in his playing. Youthfulness. He’s always very youthful and positive.

CB: Even though you don’t necessarily sound like Shelly you remind me of him. Would you say that comes from Shelly’s influence?

GM: Sure, also everybody is influenced by Max Roach. How can you not be influenced by Max if you’ve heard him. You want to be, it’s nothing you want to fight. You want to be influenced by him and also by Art Blakey. I remember hearing Shelly Manne records when I could tell he had heard Art. There definitely was an influence. I’m sure those guys respect one another. When I was coming up there were some beautiful players I saw and learned from. Phil Hulsey, I could say, was one of my first teachers. Nobody knows about Phil Hulsey.

CB: Who is he?

GM: He’s a guy that plays very good melodic drums and played in St. Louis with a pianist, Herb Drury, that nobody knows about, except people in St. Louis, and a bass player named Jerry Cherry. These guys would let me, the little young punk, sit in and they’d tolerate me and let me play a few tunes and then I’d listen to them. What I got from those guys was that they weren’t competitive. Phil Hulsey wasn’t competitive, he’d say, “Sure you can sit in, if you play you can sit in”.

CB: He wasn’t insecure.

GM: No way, and the way these musicians all played, like they had “big ears”, they really played by ear. But everything was very intricately put together. They would play things that had a lot of dynamic changes. A solo itself wouldn’t just stay on one dynamic level, it would go through all kinds of dynamic

CB: Little tensions and releases.

GM: All over the place. Sometimes in one measure. Everytime they’d play the tune it was different. Okay, I come out to San Francisco and this is the way I like to play. They think I’m crazy.

CB: I know that feeling, a lot of musicians don’t know how to deal with it.

GM: Some people certainly do know how to deal with it but most don’t. As far as I’m concerned that’s how you play music, you change, you’re moving all the time.

CB: Was there anything else you wanted to say about Phil Hulsey?

GM: Not only did he teach me about noncompetitiveness and how to use my ear, he used brushes beautifully. He had a lot of ways he played with brushes and got different sounds and he was beautiful to watch and listen to. He’s very careful about his sounds. He always made sure the sound was coming out right. He tuned his drums and his cymbals were always well-chosen.

CB: You play odd meters with a high degree of proficiency. What advice do you have for drummers who want to become more proficient in this area?

GM: Well, let me say this, what happens is that drummers do ask questions about this all the time. But I don’t play an odd time for people until it reaches a certain place where it is satisfying to me.

CB: Do you also mean comfortable?

GM: Comfortable and makes sense to me and has a certain property that makes for interest, musical interest and not just intellectual interest. Some of them I don’t play at all, others I do. My feelings about these different time signatures is that in all of them you can eventually find some way of presenting them, make them palatable so to speak, and unique and enjoyable, all of them have something to them. Just the fact that it is an unusual time signature producing a new kind of ebb and flow is enough reason to present it. If it’s really delightful, you keep doing it and if it isn’t you just let it fade out.

CB: Some drummers, when they’re learning an odd meter like 5/4, have trouble being fluid with it. Are there methods that a drummer can use to become more fluid?

GM: Sure, you don’t have to play the first beat of an odd meter loudly. You have to know where it is, and the musical phrases should flow through the downbeat. Usually that takes playing the downbeat for a while, then experimenting with Maybe with two bar phrases so that you’ll hear this rhythm not hitting the downbeat which will be a surprise, but you’ll get it after the second bar. Sooner or later it will turn into a melodic flow that has to do with the tensions and releases of 5/4 and the particular pattern that you’re in. The way to become fluid is to study the time signatures, play them a lot and log the hours like you would log flying time. There’s no other way, you just do it.

CB: It’s just hard work, a lot of repetition.

GM: You play with players that are always trying to work on that, going over the borderline. You make some mistakes, go ahead and make some mistakes, but don’t make the mistake of constantly repeating an ostinato pattern again and again. That pattern will put you to sleep, that’s one you shouldn’t do. Do the ostinato pattern but stay awake, break away from those patterns when it’s time, experiment.

CB: What would you say are some major weaknesses that instructors exhibit in teaching the drums.

GM: The main weakness that I see is that instructors don’t deal with the student’s overall sense of body awareness in relation to drumming. When drumming, you’re using your hands and feet; but what about your head position, your neck and shoulder joints, your back, the whole gamut? Most students that come to me have a problem with their body awareness. The ones that come from other teachers very often have more problems that students who have taught themselves.

CB: More problems? I would think it would be the other way around.

GM: Many of these students have been taught bad habits, physical habits, because they wanted to develop a certain kind of technique for getting a sound out, or getting a certain speed, but at the expense of tight shoulders, necks, all kinds of wierdness. It’s horrible. I get disgusted by it. People come in that have been taught these bad habits for years and it takes me 9 to 10 months of working with these people to break these habits. In a certain sense what I try to do is Psycho-physical Reeducation. That’s a term I’m borrowing from the Alexander technique which I studied. I have also studied yoga and T’ai Chi, all of which help you to become conscious of your movements.

CB: Rather than going into each specific one, do all the techniques you mentioned deal with body awareness?

GM: Yes, your overall sense of movement becomes more conscious and easy. You can’t tell someone just to sit straight, you have to work on why someone isn’t sitting straight and work on certain kinds of exercises. But of course, I concentrate mainly on drumming with my students.

CB: If a student doesn’t want to take these various courses how do you apply Psycho-physical Reeducation to them? Do you have any specific examples?

GM: The most I can do is show them certain approaches to playing with all four limbs and ways of dealing with the energy flow inside their body when they’re playing. I offer them suggestions such as “Why don’t you take a yoga class, or T’ai Chi?” I feel some students have really profited by taking some of these courses, incredibly so. Some people are ready for that, others aren’t. However, when someone comes to me and wants to learn a specific drum pattern and I see that person making the mistake of bad posture, I’m sorry, but I can’t rightfully, in my own conscience, tell them week after week to learn a rhythm when I know that the real problem is that they have to check out their posture. I say something else, too. You can learn that rhythm but it would be better to take a year on your posture and then you will get the rhythm easily, maybe in one day.

CB: It seems that you are really teaching a type of energy conservation. Eliminate wasted motion or incorrect motion.

GM: And it will feel good to the student. It will feel good to conserve energy and use it in correct ways.

CB: One of the fears beginning drummers often express is that if they take lessons it will spoil their natural ability and their individuality will be compromised. How do you, as a teacher, overcome this fear?

GM: I overcome it by teaching in a way that doesn’t include tension. I don’t teach techniques that require tensing the muscles. I don’t teach techniques that require a student to play this way or in that style. I try to teach them how to relax their muscles and use them optimally. If the student looks at it, he’ll see it’s very logical and it is a good way to use their arms and legs. I think it’s a legitimate fear for a student, that he or she might not find the right teacher, because a teacher can teach you things that screw you up and waste your time. I don’t particularly work on that fear with them. I work on what I think is the technique that is logical as far as correct muscle usage is concerned and that won’t hurt the student. A drummer can play any way he wants after learning my technique. He can play tight or loose and use his muscles this way or that way. However, if you’re taught a specific way, such as “You have to use your muscles tight in here and exert a lot of pressure,” you are liable to develop muscles in an unbalanced way.

CB: In the book you are writing, you describe it as a method which deals with the inner approach to drumming. What is the inner approach?

GM: That explanation is not quite good enough, the inner approach. I’ll explain it the best I can. Drummers need to pay attention to how their bodies work. Almost all of us make mistakes in the way we use our bodies to the detriment of ourselves. All of those things come down to habits that turn you off to what’s happening in your body. This is what got me on the path, I had to start figuring out how to get correct posture again after making mistakes. I had to start looking at how I sat and how I used my arms and legs. You have to look at everything and I discovered that there were a lot of ways of relating to your four limbs when you play that I never thought of before. These have to do with, first of all, how each individual limb works. In other words, what is the best way I can play with each of these limbs? The next thing is how can I play with two of these limbs at a time? Any two. That means that I deal with all those groups of two limbs. Then there are three at a time, then four. That, very quickly, explains what a person can work on for years.

CB: In other words, the book deals with coordination exercises?

GM: One, two, three and four way coordination. Leading up to playing rhythms, cross-rhythms, more than one rhythm played at a time. This is what the drums are about. What I feel is different about this book is that I’m working on a classical technique for the drum set, which, of course, doesn’t exist. It is the beginning of an approach towards that. It is an approach that can go in any direction and that is what makes it different. The rudimental methods that have been written are written basically for the snare drum and that’s only one combination of two limbs. That leaves five other combinations of two limbs to deal with. My approach is to discover rudiments that are simple and basic.

CB: For example, a single stroke roll with two hands is obvious but there is a single stroke roll with four limbs. That, according to your definition, is a rudiment?

GM: Yes, a rudiment. It exists, there is no denying that it exists and that that is a possibility for someone playing with four limbs, and a fact that we do that when we play at certain times.

CB: So basically your approach is a universal approach to four limbs on a drumset.

GM: That’s it right there. That sums it up. It means quite a lot though. It means that you pay attention to how it feels to go from, for instance, the right foot to the left hand and back, and what it feels like in your body. If you do it very slowly you focus on what it feels like going up your leg, through your torso, out your left arm and to the left stick. If you discover there are some areas in there you can’t feel, then that’s something you need to work on because you don’t have contact with that part of your body. If there is a stop of flow when you are doing a pattern then you learn that, and that goes into your brain with the tensions involved in that. But there is a greater acceptance of a pattern that includes relaxation so you learn that pattern much faster. It’s as if you say, “Yes, yes, boom, that’s it” as opposed to, “Oh well, I’ll learn it.” The sort of patterns that hurt, I’ve played them. Don’t. Just eliminate them. You don’t have to have them anymore although there might be some that are challenging and require a lot of muscle. However, there is a danger involved in practicing and playing really relaxed.

CB: What’s the danger?

GM: There may be music you don’t want to play, tense music, competitive music or overly loud music. When you start becoming sensitive, it’s not really a danger. I’m only joking, but there is the possibility that you are going to reject many kinds of music.

CB: What would you hope a drummer would get out of practicing with your book?

GM: I hope they will discover that they can play in many different ways they didn’t know they could. They are not going to have just two or three styles they can play, they are going to be able to make up patterns that aren’t necessarily in any style. A drummer will be more capable of understanding what his limits are and therefore feel freer. By understanding his limits he is going to explore and won’t underestimate what he can play. He’ll know what he can play and will play it.

CB: Expanding self-awareness, is that an adequate term in relation to what you have just said?

GM: In relation to drums, yes. Also, there will be a more direct connection in the way you feel about music and what comes out. That is the point of all these exercises, knowing how it feels to go from one limb to another in different ways and with combinations, unisons, and patterns all carefully worked out so that there is a limit and it is real. There are just so many basic ways you can play with three limbs and just so many with four. When you do the exercises you connect yourself completely to them and at the same time you are following it with your mind as much as possible, so that when you play, thinking will be playing and playing will be thinking. There doesn’t have to be this duality, where sometimes you’re totally into it and at other times you are more disconnected. You will be connected to your playing. That is what I have discovered. These exercises must be played with a musical sense. They are exercises you work on, but you have to start hearing what is coming out musically.

CB: You have just joined the Slingerland Drum Company as a clinician. What do you hope to get out of this experience?

GM: I believe it’s an opening up. Being with them is like a credential. It is going to allow me easier access to get around the country, into stores, and meeting people as opposed to just being here in San Francisco, which I do like, but I’ll be able to move around more and be my own boss.

CB: When you give a clinic to a group of people who have never seen or heard of you, what sort of presentation do you usually give?

GM: I usually talk about some of the things we have just talked about, the importance of feeling your body and I demonstrate certain ways of playing, for instance, with the sticks. The stroke in which you allow the rebound to give you energy back. I’m not the only one working with this stroke, but there aren’t many who really explore it. You pay attention to the looseness in your shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers and you utilize this flexibility so that the rebound on the stick can actually give you energy back. I try to turn people on to that. I also show them some odd time signatures and how easy they are to play. It’s also very important that I give them something to clap out so that they are actively involved. I also demonstrate one of the more complex time signatures in a solo on the drumset. Sometimes I have other players with me, a pianist and a bass player and we will work on different styles. I’ll play choruses, explain drum solos, how I hear choruses, things that are obvious. Often I have things written out, maybe the rhythm they have clapped or a few ideas about the basic stroke, which they can take home. If they don’t understand it they can look at it. In addition to the larger clinic I give a smaller one which is more hand picked.

CB: By smaller do you mean 5 or 6 people?

GM: It would be 12 or 13. It’s like a master’s class in which we delve into one of the subjects more deeply. It’s not as general and I demand much more.

CB: What do you hope drummers get from your clinics?

GM: I hope they understand the fact that it’s possible to play easier. I know they get this, I get feedback all the time.

CB: Do you see any future trends in percussion?

GM: Somehow, I don’t know why, I feel there are going to be more original things happening. I think drummers are just going to start playing and inventing their own music. Certain commercial things are going to burn themselves out.

CB: Well, they always do.

GM: So now it gets down to let’s get down and play. That’s what I feel is going to happen. Maybe in a certain sense, take some of the spirit of free jazz except that it doesn’t have to be so angry. Rather it could be, “I don’t care what people will say, I’m going to play it.” It is the 80’s and it’s too late, let’s just play it man. It might come out as swing, down home swing, I don’t know.

CB: At present do you have any goals you’d like to accomplish?

GM: Yes, but it’s a multi-faceted thing. I want to go out and give more clinics and meet more people. One of my main goals is to have my own group, but I’m not sure what that is yet. This wasn’t so important to me before, but now I would like to have that. Maybe by going out and doing these clinics I’ll find out what it is. I would like to take time off from teaching for a year or so and concentrate on practicing and playing. I don’t want to leave teaching, I love it, but I realize that it takes a certain amount of time and energy away from being able to sit down and practice. Those things I want to practice on the instrument will have to do with the music that’s coming out of the group I will develop. I want to be able to better demonstrate what I’m explaining in the book.

CB: I’d like to ask you one more question. What’s so great about being a drummer?

GM: It’s a chance to play music. You can feel your whole body. It forces you to stay in tune with your whole body. You can play music with people and also, I find it to be incredibly interesting. I like the fact that the drumset is historically young. It gives me a chance to be an explorer on the instrument. I can sit down almost every day and discover something new. It’s a very exciting instrument to play. Put those all together and it …

CB: Spells love?

GM: Right.

Selected George Marsh Discography with Denny Zeitlin
EXPANSION—1750 Arch Records 1758
SYZYGY—1750 Arch Records 1759 with Jerry Hahn
THE JERRY HAHN BROTHERHOOD—Columbia CS 1044 with Mel Martin
LISTEN—Inner City IC 1025 with Bernie Krause
CITADELS—Takoma 7074 with Mel Graves
THREE WORLDS—1750 Arch Records 1780