Jeff Ballard

Gimmie 10!

Brad Mehldua/Chick Corea Regular Jeff Ballard

Big-picture tips from the drummer who’s an integral part of Chick Corea, Joshua Redman, and Brad Mehldau’s trailblazing ensembles.

1. THINK ABOUT DYNAMICS AS SIZE OF SOUND RATHER THAN LEVEL OF VOLUME. That way you’re more aware of the space you’re filling up with your instrument, more aware of the whole sound on stage, rather than thinking in terms of playing louder or softer. It’s not a volume level, it’s a size of volume. You’ll fit well in the band’s entire sound and the space you’re playing in. Playing soft can be compared to a bonsai tree: Though it’s small in size, it’s a completely mature tree with fully grown leaves and roots. There’s a whole world in that little tree.2. LOOK LONG AND FAR DOWN THE LINE. An analogy: If you’re trying to balance yourself while walking on a railroad track and you only look straight down at your feet to keep your balance while you’re walking, soon you’ll be losing it. Instead, look all the way down to the end of the tracks, to a focal point, and you’ll find that your balance is more secure. Same as driving a car. You don’t look just to the end of the hood of the car and down at the road disappearing underneath you; you’ll swerve if you do that. Rather, looking all the way down to the end of the road, to the point in the distance where the white lines seem to come together, keeps you straight and constant. The same thing applies to playing a tune. You have to see far ahead, keeping the ebb and flow of the music from swerving off the tracks.

Billy Hart once told me that the drummer is something like the conductor of an orchestra. To me that means we have to be aware of the total landscape of the tune all the time. It’s a kind of global awareness of where we are in the music and knowing, more or less, where we’re all going at all times. I’m talking about the peaks and the valleys, the drama of the music; this is the thing for us to gauge and to care for. Be careful, though—don’t try to dominate it all. Just look far ahead while also being in the moment, and you’ll keep the tune’s balance.

3. TRYING TO BE HEALTHY HELPS YOUR PLAYING A LOT. Being on the road for much of the year, I’ve found that eating and drinking well, resting when you get the chance, and doing even just a little bit of exercise will help you a lot. I notice a big difference in my playing, in my focus, when I do. And this goes for you youngbloods too. You may not feel you need it, but resting up and keeping in mind that you’re playing that night brings a much greater focus and consistency to the gig. And for me, a big difference between a good player and a great player is how much focus they bring to the music.

4. DON’T PLAY CAREFULLY; PLAY WITH CARE. The difference is that the former brings about tentative playing while the latter does not.

5. EXTEND YOUR INFLUENCES. Don’t just start from today, start from as close to a kind of beginning as you can. Knowing where that player you like is coming from musically is a crucial part of maintaining integrity in what you’re trying to do. You’re building on what others have done before you. So check out the players that your favorite players checked out; go back as far as you can.

6. PRACTICE SLOWLY. All drumming can be seen as more or less a matter of balance. This balance is a literal one; it’s the body’s balance. I think balance is underneath everything we’re exploring: independence, speed, good sound…. Underneath all of it is a kind of physical balance to explore. Practicing slowly is vital. It will give you the time to ask yourself questions, get answers, digest them, and apply them in context.

I try to focus on the most universal elements when I practice. For example, how does it feel to pick up the stick? For some reason, in time it begins to feel different depending on when you pick it up. How does it feel coming down? What does it feel like when you reach out and strike the small tom in front of you? Notice what the whole process feels like— physically picking up the stick and then coming down slowly. Subtle but profound info is there. Then, with the same hand on the same beat, hit a floor tom. Notice what changes are felt when you hit it. The other drum is in a different location, so you’re using different muscles. You’re playing at a different angle, so the balance changes.

7. KEEP YOUR FEELINGS OFF THE BANDSTAND. Don’t bring your emotions, like being pissed off or bummed out for some reason, to the gig. Leave all that off the stage, where it belongs. It’s totally unprofessional.

8. MAKE THE LEADER SATISFIED AND SOUNDING GOOD. You’ll keep the gig. Now, I’m not saying you should concern yourself only with trying to please the leader. If you do that, you run the risk of losing your own musical senses, and you’ll end up playing guessing games in your head; you could say that you’d be nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. I’m saying bring your musicality, not an agenda, to the situation.

9. BE ON TIME. It shows a basic respect for the people you’re playing with and the people who’ve paid to listen to you play. Being a pleasure to work with can make the difference in being called back or not. Imagine that there are four or five players as good as you who could be asked to play the gig. (There are at least four or five!) If you’re someone who people like to work with, who they can depend on, then you’re more likely to get the gig.

10. STAY OUT OF YOUR HEAD WHILE PLAYING. You’re in the music, not in your own mental dramas and inventions. That’s for later analysis, or not.

Hear Jeff Ballard on Fly’s self-titled album, featuring tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Larry Grenadier.