Concepts

Staying Current

3 Keys to Keeping Relevant Without Losing Your Identity

by Russ Miller

Everybody faces the challenge of staying current. It happens in just about everything in life. The music business in particular always seems to be looking for the next new thing, which can be a problem because it ignores the fact that truly great music should stand the test of time. I believe that some of today’s most popular artists won’t even have one song that will still be played ten years from now. Most cover bands play songs from twenty or more years ago, which is partly due to the fact that much of today’s pop music is created on machines by non-musicians, and as a result those songs don’t translate very well to a live-band setting. I also feel that many of these songs aren’t crafted with much depth. 

The pressure to stay current definitely applies to drummers, especially those who want to participate in the commercial music business. The conversation here focuses on how to stay relevant within your personal playing.

For years I would see someone play something cool on the drums and think, I have to learn to do that. In some cases it was helpful to do so, but as I matured I realized that I was largely chasing what other people were doing instead of focusing on what I was going to do.

There’s an epidemic of copycat drumming going on right now. Many players use the exact same licks, sounds, and setups. I think the confusion lies in thinking that staying current means imitating others. To the contrary, staying relevant means constantly evolving. So how are you going to evolve? Let’s take a look at some possible ways.

Have Many Influences
First let’s talk about being influenced by a larger selection of drummers, including some who could be younger than you. This may be hard for you, as it is for me. We often develop an unhealthy ego as we age. I have a quote in my notebook from the great jazz drummer Tony Williams: “Don’t confuse experience with mastery.” Doing something for a long time doesn’t make it perfect. Be open-minded when you listen to a younger player. You might spot a few flaws in his or her playing, but also some things that are really happening.

For instance, I see a lot of younger jazz musicians playing in a style that I don’t really dig. I grew up playing time in the style of Shelly Manne and Art Blakey, so when I hear younger drummers playing more freely, it’s hard for me to grasp. But I need to set aside what I think is wrong with that approach and appreciate the artistry involved. Then I try to sit down and work on these concepts to combine them with my more old-school approach, in order to create my own version of the current style.

Search Out New Ideas
Actively searching for new ideas is a crucial component to staying on top. There comes a point in your life as a musician when your extensive experience puts a sizeable distance between you and the newest generation of players. Many big band musicians felt disconnected with bebop, and a lot of modern jazz musicians looked down on early rock ’n’ roll. I find it interesting that after our favorite period of music has ended, many of us feel that the next one seems worse.

If you’re a doctor, you have to constantly research new techniques and medications. If you’re a lawyer, you’re always keeping up to date with new case precedents. We musicians should be just as serious about our jobs. That means we need to always be listening, studying, and applying new ideas.

Stay on Top of Technology
I sometimes see players who are using the exact setups they’ve been using for thirty years. Does that mean there hasn’t been a technological advancement in gear that they see valuable? Or are they just too stubborn to try anything new? I’ve been heavily involved in gear design over the years, so I know that companies are constantly innovating the instrument. You might dig vintage tones, but there might be some new gear whose sound you’d be perfectly happy with, without having to deal with dated, flimsy hardware.

Staying on top of electronic percussion is key as well. Electronics are a huge part of contemporary music making. Make sure you have some electronic gear that can be customized to what you do musically. And make sure your skills with that gear are at a point where you can manipulate it quickly and effectively.

Good luck finding your own ways to keep current without abandoning the things that make you unique. It’s an ever-evolving process.

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 information, visit russmiller.com.