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Me Playing the Melody: "I've Got Rhythm"

Trying to play the actual melody
I mentioned yesterday that I just got a new recorder in the mail, and today's video is the first example of my new vastly improved audio capacity! In a conversation on the excellent drummerworld forum I brought up that I was trying to get a way from just thinking about the melody towards trying to simulate it's actual pitches.  The video above is the first example of me trying to play an actual melody, in this case (somewhat ironically) "I've Got Rhythm".

I was able to play this simulated melody by carefully tuning my drums, playing with mallets, and applying very specific amounts of pressure to the drum heads (all inspired by the incredible Ari Hoenig).  This is a real challenge for me, and it still needs a lot of work, but I think that I got the basic point across. 

What is the point of this?
In the aforementioned conversation, Todd Bishop from the excellent drum blog Cruiseshipdrummer brought up really good question.  Essentially, why bother with trying to play the melody at all.  The drums are a primarily rhythmic instrument, so why not, as he put it, "Just play your instrument?". 

I am still relatively inexperienced at trying to play the melody on the drums, so I can only speak from a limited perspective, but my basic thought is this.  The history of jazz is full of examples of people who took the approach they learned on one instrument and applied it to another, often with revolutionary results.  Two classic examples of this are Lois Armstrong singing like a trumpet player, and Paul Chambers playing horn lines on the bass.  These initially bizzare-seeming imported techniques were enormously influential, eventually becoming standard practice for those instruments.

I am not suggesting that playing the melody on the drums is going to become standard practice any time soon.  Rather, I am saying that we should not limit how we play our instruments to what people assume is possible.  As long as there is music, people will continue to find new ways to approach their instruments, and this pan-instrumental technique can yield incredibly fruitful results. 

Musical Benefits
In addition to this broader historical idea, there are also more practical musical benefits to learning to play melodies on the drums.

The first and most obvious benefit is that by forcing yourself to be accountable for the actual pitches of the melody, you will get much closer with the melody.  A deeper connection with the melody will always provide better insight into the music, regardless of whether you are playing the melody, or accomanying someone else playing the melody.  As Ari put it, "If you can't make music by yourself, you can't make music with other people". 

The second slightly less obvious benefit is that by playing the melody this way, you will get your audience to listen to you in a new way.  When I played the melody of "I've Got Rhythm" for an audience last week, I got more positive feedback than I have ever got for anything I have played before.  People love new sounds, and people love melodies, so playing this way can lead them to appreciate what you are doing on the drums much more than they ordinarily would. 

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Ari Hoenig: For when your friends ask what melodic drumming means

Playing the Melody on the Drums
OK, so if you haven't had the pleasure of listening to Ari play a melody, here is a great place to start.  This is the most extreme/literal melodic drumming possible, an evolution of the earlier Jeff Hamilton post.  Notice how Ari makes the phrases of this thorny bop melody breath.  Also in the drum/bass solo notice the constant references back to the hits on the bridge. 

One more.  Check out how clearly the melody comes out, and how he even modulates up a half step in the final A section!  He also quotes the famous Lee Morgan solo at length and trades melodic ideas with the guitar player.  Just beautiful playing.

New Role for a Drummer
Ari has found a unique way to tap into both songs of jazz (read the post "The Two Songs of Jazz" for more on this idea which I reference frequently on this blog).  By taking complete responsibility for the pre-composed song at the top, as well as by taking the first solo and clearly shaping the song of his improvisation on the pre-composed song, he has demonstrated to a certain extent that the drums can function as a sort of melody instrument.  In any case, his playing is closer to a melody instrument than any other drummer I have ever heard.  That is not to say that I think he is the "best" drummer, or even my favorite.  But you have to respect how he uses his phenomenal technique to bring the music out, rather then just resorting to typical jazz drumming aerobics.