I just watched a snippet of an interview with the great Eric Harland — one of my drum heroes — and he said something that got me thinking. He was talking about “grounding” a song; about bringing it “back to Earth a little bit.” This is more relevant to jazz players than other genres, but the lesson is the same: when the song gets too far out into space, bring it back around to simple time and establish a solid groove.
After he said the word “Earth” he went down a path briefly, but didn’t finish the thought: he mentioned the Classical Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. He didn’t explore the thought much further than making his point about Earth, but it got me to thinking about how you can run that analogy onward. So, if you’ll indulge me, let’s talk about the concept a little more.
Let’s start with exploring each element as it relates to the Classical Elements, and then how it relates to music, and then to drumming in a band.
Classical Element: The Earth is equivalent to a solid in the classic sense; it represents solidarity, stability, a sustaining nature, and familiarity. When somebody says that another person is “down to Earth,” we take it to mean that the person they’re describing is very even keeled, reliable, and humble; they are approachable and become immediately familiar to us. They often put others before themselves and work hard to maintain healthy relationships.
In Music: What Eric Harland was saying in his video was that “sometimes you just need something to ground everything.” In his example, he is relating it to simplifying the time or the pattern you are playing — taking a song that has gotten a little crazy and “left the Earth” (so to speak) for the unknown of Space — and reining it back in. In other words, when everything else feels out of whack and unpredictable musically, we can balance that out by creating an underlying groove that helps illustrate all the other relationships between the other instruments in the group, helping to solidify everyone’s understanding. We can bring stability, solidarity, and familiarity (there’s those words again) to the situation to make the music more approachable.
As Drummers: Playing with really solid time and simplifying our patterns is a great place to start. Think about what makes something familiar to us; it’s repetition, right? What’s more solid and repetitive than a backbeat? Very few things! You don’t have to play a big fat 2 & 4 on the snare, though; even hinting at a backbeat will help greatly.
Classical Element: Mind, intellect, reasoning, imagination and flight, power, open space, breathing, energy — all of those words can be applied to various interpretations of what air represents. It’s a manifestation of the unseen; you can feel air moving over your body, but you certainly don’t see it. When the wind knocks down a tree or power line, you witness the power of it; when that power is harnessed, it can result in a great deal of energy being created. (We know this locally, as wind farms dot the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.) 😉
In Music: Think about the words open space, breathing, and power above. How do we apply those concepts to music? When patterns get too busy in our playing, we’ll often hear a director (or random YouTube critic – *wink*) say that the music “needs to breathe a little more; it needs more space.” While playing sixtuplet fills every four bars can be a lot of fun for us, our responsibility is to serve the music at all times; more than we often realize, a lot of what happens in the heat of the moment on a live gig can be controlled from the drum chair. For example, at your next band rehearsal, take the volume of a pattern way down, but keep playing it with integrity and intensity; watch as everybody else in the band takes your cue and does the same thing. Why? As musicians, we inherently know that when we’re all playing together, we need to find balance: both in our volumes and in our mental intensity.
As Drummers: To bring more Air to a piece, I find it helpful to think in terms of wind. You can be a light, gentle breeze (sparse cymbal work, with occasional swells and ‘tings’ like wind chimes on a porch) — or you can be a fierce storm: lots of bright, loud cymbal work with punches on your lowest drums, like a hurricane picking up and throwing cars and trucks to the ground like play toys. Or, another option is to simply leave more space in your grooves. (Think Steve Jordan on John Mayer’s “Gravity”; there’s so much air in that groove you could fill a weather balloon with it.)
Classical Element: Fire represents the creativity and passion that all intellectual and emotional beings have. It is an active force that has the passion to create and animate things. Fire in many ancient cultures has been known to purify the land with the flames of destruction; however, it is also capable of the renewal of life through the warmth and comfort of those very same flames. Often we think about fire’s negative connotations: a house fire that destroys all the belongings of a family, or a forest fire that takes the lives of those trying to contain it. But think about the creative powers of fire; have you looked at your cymbals lately? Think about what it took to create them: massively hot fires that made the metals malleable enough to flatten and shape! Fire helps create beautiful things (like blown glass vases and fine china), as well as functional things (like steel beams in a skyscraper or the chassis of a vehicle).
In Music: I think that at one time or another we’ve all been told to “play with a little more fire”. Typically, that means that the moment you’re in musically calls for something more – something exciting! It means that we need to elevate the music (maybe ‘escalate’ is a better word?), and create a moment that the audience/listener can latch on to and will remember well after the concert ends.
As Drummers: How do we create excitement as drummers? I know that for some of you, your mind automatically went to things like stick tricks and crossovers on the toms. (No shame in that.) But we can “play with fire” by doing simple things, like pushing the tempo of a tune just a little bit (not rushing, but just gently pushing), or by adding some intensity to our groove; sometimes even just mixing things up sonically – like playing a ride pattern on a china or sloshy hi-hats – can prick people’s ears just right and get them engaged. Of course, you can always just play louder, faster, and with more authority. That’ll always get people’s attention – as well as the death stare from your bandmates. 😉
Classical Element: Fluidity of movement, intuition, cleansing/purifying, depth, clear, rain, and energy are words that came to my mind when thinking about water. Water is fluid (both literally and figuratively); it is heavier than air and always takes the path of least resistance. Water cleanses and purifies in most instances (thankfully – I can’t imagine taking a bath and being dirtier when I got out than when I got in!), and sustains life here on Earth. When water flows, the power of its currents can be harnessed to create a great deal of energy. (Yet another thing we see in the Northwest: plenty of hydroelectric dams.) 😉
In Music: I think the biggest word association that can be made between water and music is “flow”. I’ve heard writers, arrangers, and conductors talk about the “flow” of a piece — about how one part connects to another and hopefully does so with as little musical disruption as possible. (Remember what we said above about how water flows down the path of least resistance?) We can relate “flow” to “time” in many cases, pulling and stretching musical phrases but keeping those actions within the parameters of the spirit of the piece we’re playing, and moving things forward with more purpose rather than floating around (like we think about with Air).
As Drummers: Like Air, Water has many similar connotations: it can go from very powerful to meek and mild in no time, and it can be used to destroy as well as give life. So think about the extremes the same way you did with Air: you could be a gentle stream, rolling over rocks and spilling over banks (tom and cymbal work with mallets); you could be a mighty river, moving along calmly and with purpose (swells of sound, rolls to lift and drop the feel); and obviously, you could just as well be a stretch of raging rapids, tossing things about at will (heavy, sudden crashes and kicks). Along those same lines, remember that downstream from the rapids is the mighty river, and branching off of the mighty river are the gentle streams; in other words, take the music to different places thematically. Don’t just be a stretch of rapids, musically speaking; be willing to be as meek as the babbling brook. Contrast is what gives the listener perspective, and what brings music to life.
Now that we have an understanding of the elements, think about what I said about Balance earlier; we need to use these elements wisely and in harmony with the other musicians around us. Think about how these elements counteract each other, but how they can also work together. Think about the cycle of the elements: sometimes the wind picks up and fans the flames of the fire; the fires need to be extinguished with water; the water helps cool the Earth and regenerate what was killed by the flames and wind; the Air sucks the moisture out of the Earth after the rains fall. Now think about that in terms of a piece of music: there are moments of Fire (solos), of Water (transitions and bridges), of Air (intros and outros), and of Earth (the groove).
The analogy can be a little confusing, but the moral of this article is this: you have access to all of the elements. You can use them at any time, but knowing how to use them wisely can help make you a better musician. Listen to what the players around you are doing, and make decisions that serve the music (and not yourself) at all times.
Do you have any thoughts to add, or ways to improve or expand on the analogy above? I’d love to hear it! Leave your comments in the box below and contribute to the conversation.