What is the 50 State Challenge? Want to join the Challenge? Email me here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

11 Ways Drumming Can Help Your Training: Martial Arts and Drumming Part II

This is Part 2 of 3 in the Martial Arts and Drumming series, which began with How to Teach or Learn Any Physical Skill: Martial Arts and Drumming Part I.

About This Project (and introductions for some names you're going to hear a lot in this post)

Before I get into anything else, let me start with Buddy Rich. Depending who you ask, Buddy Rich was either the best drummer who ever lived, or one of the best on a very short list. What is less widely-known is that he was a black belt in Goju Ryu karate. If there was ever any authority in the world to talk about the overlap between drum set and martial arts, he would be it.  He once said, "I'm the first guy in this business to take karate seriously as a way to stay in shape."  And if he wasn't also the last, I have not been able to track that person down in time for this project.

But I'm pretty sure Buddy Rich is not doing interviews with martial arts bloggers these days. (Although if I managed to interview Zombie Buddy Rich, that would pretty much cement me among the most interesting martial arts bloggers, 'cause you can bet Zombie Bruce Lee would be next.) Fortunately, when you can't interview Buddy Rich, you can interview a Buddy Rich look-alike. I promise this is not quite as crazy as it sounds, so bear with me.

This project started one day when I was mindlessly surfing YouTube being extremely productive while just having YouTube on in the background. I saw a music video with a drummer doing cool stuff.  Of course any professional musician making a music video is very likely to sound cool and even look cool, but what caught me off guard was that this guy moved cool. I was professionally intrigued. It was fascinating to watch the economy of movement, the fluidity and intent of his movements.

I had two takeaways from this experience. First (to borrow a phrase from Paul Wilson over at Karate Café) I basically have a "karate crush" on a drummer.  That will definitely get me laughed out of some circles.

Laugh all you want, but first tell me you don't wish you
had this guy's fluidity.

Second, it occurred to me very abruptly that drummers and martial artists probably spend about an equal amount of time thinking about hitting things. I thought there must be quirks of biomechanics that are common between the two, and details or ideas that drummers and martial artists could learn from each other.

Drumming and martial arts have been part of the human condition for pretty much as long as there have been humans.  There has never been any culture on Earth without music and drumming, and martial arts have been around since the first time a caveman punched another caveman in the face.  These are two disciplines that are so intimately connected to who we are as human beings, that it seemed inevitable that there would be some overlap.

Going on that idea and not much else, I signed up for drumming lessons. Opening my school has meant that my "martial journeys" are going to have to be more metaphorical than literal. The sea is calling me, but I can't travel right now. I also took to heart the advice of some martial artists who I greatly respect, especially Master Do Ki Hyun when he said that a martial artist should "read a lot of books" about anything and everything because "the more knowledge you have, the better you can understand your martial art." He even learned two styles of dance to improve his taekyun.  Sensei Kris Wilder expressed a similar sentiment when he harped on the importance of exploring outside of your field.  He talked about how it can open doors for you, and how at worst it's just going to be an interesting dead end.

This is how Kai Andersen got a really weird student. I'm the last in the line of people who will ever be amazing drummers, but Kai has been more than patient with me. He has been teaching drum set for 15 years and playing since the 7th grade.  He has been in bands since then, and still is. He plays just about any style of music, but might give you a dirty look if you mention country music. He also has a degree in journalism, and works for a radio station.

Is this photo in black and white, or are Kai and his drums just covered in that
much ice?  It's winter in Wisconsin, so you can never tell.  Photo credit.

So that just leaves one last introduction—the drummer from the video that inspired this whole project. That was Casey Grillo, who is most famous for his work with Kamelot over the past 20 years, but he can and will play anything.  He started touring at the age of 16 with Debra Dejean.  He owns a custom drum head company and used to teach drumming. He's also apparently willing to be interviewed for martial arts blogs. I caught up with him when he came to Madison playing for Queensrÿche. Coincidentally, he also bears some physical resemblance to Buddy Rich, which will be important later.

Casey Grillo is almost as blurry in this picture as he is in the pictures I took
myself.  Thanks Jon Freeman for rescuing my blog from my terrible
photography.  Photo credit.

Turning off all the snark for just a moment, let me say thanks to all the people who helped make this project possible, but especially Kai Andersen, Casey Grillo, Bekah Simmons, Ruth Hansen, Iain Abernethy, and my students.

1.  The Intangible Skills, Character Building, and the Pursuit of Excellence.

The first people I interviewed for this project were martial artists who had dabbled in drumming.  When I asked them what they felt the overlap was, their answers tended to be along the lines of discipline and patience toward practice, the value of hard work and perseverance, and the like.  Originally I hadn't intended to include any of these answers in this post, because to quote Mark Law's excellent judo book, Falling Hard, "We can declaim that self-discipline, initiative, confidence, and courage are all fostered by judo, while we neglect to remind ourselves that these are also the very qualities required to be a successful bank robber."  Intangible skills like these are valuable in practically any pursuit, and can be pursued in practically any field.  For this project I was more interested in gems that might not be learned elsewhere.

Drumming and martial arts are both harder when cats are involved.
But then again, so is everything.  Also, yes, that is where I practice.
Who will trade his hi-hat for my boxes?

I changed my mind when I saw how much the drumming community emphasizes these things.  I was a little worried asking an extremely accomplished drummer like Casey Grillo about what he is still learning.  That wouldn't be an insult in the martial arts world, but what about drumming?  My fears were unfounded and he (like everyone else) emphatically told me that no one ever is so good that they can't get better.  My favorite example of this came from something Buddy Rich said at the age of 69, shortly before he died and long after he had first been heralded as "the world's greatest drummer."  He said, "This is something that you have to become dedicated to it. ... It is something that you learn constantly.  I'm still learning."  There are a lot of martial artists (myself included!) who hope to be saying something similar at the age of 69.

In a similar vein, I listened to this list of lessons learned from interviewing hundreds of great drummers.  It's worth your time even if you have no interest in drumming, but martial artists will find familiarity in items like "everything takes time" and "hard work and consistency are the differentiators," as will harping on ideas like the importance of being humble and having a great attitude.

2.  Broad Physical Skills and Technique Development

The physical overlap between drumming and martial arts seems to come down to who you ask--if it's a drummer who does martial arts or a martial artist who plays the drums.

Buddy Rich was dismissive of the idea that karate could influence drumming technique, because the movements require different muscles.  Certainly that makes sense, in the same way that you wouldn't practice punching to improve your kicking.  He did say, however, that martial arts training was good for his drumming by improving his overall health, stamina, energy, and his speed.  Those are curious points because each item in that list resonates with something he was known for--his back problems and multiple heart attacks, the way he would end a performance being drenched in sweat, and the kind of speed that caused problems for the video technology of the day.  He had the same problem as Bruce Lee, where he was just too fast to be recorded well.  In Bruce Lee's case, they could slow him down and get a decent result.  But a lot of video of Buddy Rich looks very choppy because the frame rate was just too slow to catch what he was doing.

Whoa, there are pictures of Buddy Rich in
the public domain?  Yay!  Photo credit.

Casey Grillo had a similar take on physical activities and their overlap with drumming.  He uses long distance running for conditioning "because for being able to play double bass fast for long periods of time, the running definitely helps."  He also suggested that activities like kiteboarding can improve balance, which is also helpful to his playing.

At my level, I'm not very physically active when I'm drumming, so I don't think my martial arts experience has had that kind of impact on my playing.  The only physical overlap that I have noticed was a fill that was giving me particular trouble.  I was getting my hands tangled up together until I associated the fill with a tai chi movement that would get my hands out of each other's way.  Then the fill straightened itself out.

Other martial artists who have taken up drumming mentioned similar experiences, saying that drumming was easier to learn because martial arts had already taught them coordination and some measure of limb independence.  Kai said that this is consistent with what he's seen in his other students who train in martial arts.

The most fascinating thing about this to me is that anyone who was a martial artist first and a drummer second felt that their martial arts background helped them with their technique and nothing else.  Then Buddy Rich, who is the only person in this case study who was a drummer first and a martial artist second, seemed to strongly believe the opposite.  It's natural that when people learn a new skill, they take what they already know from elsewhere to help them with it.  I wonder very much what Buddy Rich was like as a martial arts student.  I'd love to be like a fly on the wall during one of his lessons and try to see how much his drumming influenced his martial arts training.

3.  Martial Artists Use Rhythm.  A Lot.  (No, really a LOT.)

The notion of martial artists using rhythm is not a new one.  We usually don't call it rhythm--we call it timing.  But if it quacks like an eighth note...

Quacks like an 8th note!  I'm HILARIOUS!  Or something.

In the past when I thought about rhythm in martial arts, I thought of things like taekyun's dancelike method for teaching timing by using a distinctive 3-beat rhythm, or drills that use rhythm to develop coordination.  I've even taught rhythm, albeit in the very crude way that martial artists tend to approach rhythm.  Sensei Ando, who has a YouTube channel full of good drills and ideas, put an excellent example of this into video form, where he's using rhythm to teach technique and posture.

After starting with drums, I've started seeing exactly how prevalent rhythm is in everything we do.  It's so much more than just when a technique should land.  Every single movement, even just parts of a technique, has a rhythm to it.

One example that shocked me early on was while I was teaching a student who was struggling with a speed drill that every taekwondo practitioner will recognize--hopping in between roundhouse kicks.

This is a common way to build speed for sparring,
later replacing the hop with more advanced footwork.

For my struggling student, I did the normal process of breaking down the drill in different ways to try to find something that clicked for him, but nothing was getting through.  The way his feet moved reminded me very much of how my sticks moved when I first tried to play a simple beat.  This particular student had played the trumpet for years, so I was sure he could handle a slightly more nuanced rhythm lesson.  I had him hop on one foot and count eighth notes (for those not musically inclined, this is usually done by saying "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and") and let his other foot only touch the ground on the "ands" and hit the target on the numbers.  It wasn't a magic bullet, but it helped him a lot.

4.  Managing Looseness and Tension

In my (granted, limited) experience, pretty much any drummer will tell you that it's important to stay loose and relaxed.  But if you press them, a lot of them (including Casey and Kai) will admit that tension has a role to play, too, but they don't put a lot of thought into that tension.  That mirrors the martial arts world fairly well, in that looseness has such an important role to play in movement and power generation, but so does tension.  We don't usually emphasize tension, though, because tension is easy.  It's developing that looseness that's hard.

Fortunately, I got some good advice on this.  In drumming, getting that looseness seems to come down to four main pieces: warming up, mentality, breathing, and practice.  (Sound familiar?  I hope so.)

  • Warming Up - As far as I can tell, there's no standard way of warming up in the drumming world.  Some people do stretches, others work rudiments as quickly as they can, others play simple patterns to a metronome, and so forth.  Kai emphasizes the importance of being hydrated.  Basically, it's as all-over-the-place as warm ups in the martial arts world.  But practically everyone agrees that warming up is essential to playing well, by having that looseness and the fluidity and speed that comes with it.
  • Mentality - Kai especially had a lot of interesting things to say about "mentally getting into that space where you can stay relaxed."  What martial artists might describe as focus or discipline, Kai described like this:  "I think it's a serious conversation you have to have with yourself constantly.  I always tell everybody ... you constantly have to keep yourself in check.  Constantly remind yourself, because otherwise you get excited and just lose your technique. So I think a lot of that is having a real good internal dialogue with yourself pretty much constantly while you're practicing."  If you're a martial artist and have never fallen into the trap of tensing up when you're nervous, concentrating, or even just losing your fluidity because you're focusing on something else, you are definitely in the minority.  One common pitfall is clenching the jaw--something I've never done in martial arts, but I catch myself doing a lot as a drummer.  Weird.
  • Breathing - Casey told me that some drummers have specific breathing techniques, but the people I talked to didn't.  Still, they agreed that breathing was important for staying fluid.  They didn't think about their breathing.  The important thing is to make sure you're not holding your breath.  Unfortunately, it's pretty common to start holding your breath when you're concentrating.
  • Practice - Of course, a lot of it comes down to repetition.  When movements are familiar, they are more efficient and comfortable.  When I asked Casey about his fluidity, he told me it came from playing in a Top 40 band, four hours a night, six nights a week, 50 weeks a year, for 15 years.  (Casey, if you're reading this, I don't say this very often to people who aren't martial artists, but you are way better at hitting things than I am.  I guess this explains why.)  Maybe take that thought and throw a few extra kicks today.
15 years x 50 week/year x 6 nights/week x 4 hours/night x 60 minutes/hour x
maybe averaging 300 strokes per minute = Maybe I should be getting my own
reps in instead of doing math.  300 kicks per minute, though?  Photo credit.

5.  Being Smarter About Overuse Injuries

One thing that the average martial artist could probably learn from the average drummer is a healthier attitude toward repetitive stress injuries. I'm not talking about the injuries that come from the punch you didn't quite evade or the breakfall that went badly—I'm talking about the joint pain that comes from repeated incorrect movement. This is something I've ranted about in the past, and I will scream it from the rooftops until the day I can't tie my belt anymore: your art should make you stronger, not weaker. There are times to be tough, but a repetitive stress injury is not one of them. I've seen students, usually testosterone-poisoned teenagers, respond to my caution toward injuries with "I ain't scared of nothin'!" To which I reply, "Well, try to develop a mild fear of doing permanent damage to your body." More often, though, students bear it silently and an instructor has to be very attentive to realize anything is wrong. I've seen students, usually older adults who learned their stances from someone else, respond to a correction with an awed, "I don't feel any pain at all when I do it this way!" To which I reply, "You're not supposed to! Your technique shouldn't injure YOU. It should injure the OTHER GUY."

Drummers don't seem to have this problem. If a drummer's back, hip, wrist, or whatever starts hurting, nobody seems to think the solution is to just toughen up and keep doing the same thing. I was told in a very early lesson that if something hurts, even if you're doing it "correctly," you need to change it. We could use more of this attitude in martial arts, where instructors sometimes rigidly adhere to stylistic details that are not healthy or safe for some body types.

6. Thinking Ahead to Optimize Solo Performance

Whenever I do an interview for Martial Journeys, there's no telling what's going to happen. I'm going to relate a somewhat personal story here. At one point Casey said that when he's playing he's thinking not about what he's doing but about what he's about to be doing. When he said that, I had a sudden flashback to when I was training seriously for forms (kata) competition.

Yep, that was me doing my thing.

I took silver at Nationals twice before I grudgingly had to accept that there was no gold at the end of this rainbow and I would never do any better. But back when I was training that seriously and at the top of my game, that's exactly how it was for me, too, all the time. Once a movement was done, it was completely inconsequential. Even when it was in progress, once I was committed to the movement, it was too late to change it, so it was a waste of mental processing power to think about it. I was always thinking at least one movement ahead of where I was.

I don't train that way anymore now that I'm not competing. My limited training time has to be optimized for my current situation and new goals. But remembering it so vividly in the middle of doing an interview was a gut punch. Getting all nostalgic would have been exceedingly unprofessional, so of course I just finished the interview. But if that hasn't haunted me for days weeks… anyway, I'll round out this bullet point by saying that thinking one step ahead is a good way to train for solo performance.

7. Larger Muscles vs. Smaller Muscles

One thing that absolutely floored me over the course of this project was something Casey Grillo said in his instructional DVD.  (It's out of print, but my Google-fu is strong and I was able to buy a copy.  Tracking that down was no small feat, probably my greatest accomplishment in drumming.  But this story ends with Casey finding out I was looking for it and even agreeing to be interviewed, so I can't complain.  Anyway, I digress.)

Here's the thing that shocked me in the DVD, where he's talking about playing fast double bass:

"Basically, the feet are floating, and you're using your ankles instead of your legs when you play double bass.  What happens with most players is they ... use their whole legs and they are pounding back and forth. ... So what's happening with the floating feet technique is we're not using our leg, the full leg, we're using our ankle, and it's just basically moving back and forth, and it's making a really fast motion. ... This, for me, is the fastest way to play, and I don't get fatigued, ...  And what you should do, you should play with this ... and see what muscles it's really working.  If it's working your bigger muscles, you probably don't want that."

Wait what?

In martial arts, if you use your smaller muscles to power your movements, you are going to at least have a bad day, and maybe even some significant injuries.  My first thought was that he must be conserving energy by moving less of his body.  Of course you'll be less fatigued if you move only your feet and not your whole leg.  But no, his whole leg moves when he plays.  I can't say I understand exactly what he's doing, and I don't have enough bass drums to even try it, let alone learn it.

I can't show Casey's DVD because that's copyrighted
material, so thanks Ryan Alexander Bloom for making 
this video of similar movement publicly available.

So I ended up approaching this from a very academic direction.  Preferring large muscles over small muscles was something that I thought was a universal principle not just in martial arts, but in body movement in general.  But here I've seen a glaring exception to that rule, and I wondered if there are any similar exceptions in martial arts that I had overlooked.  Maybe there's some weird joint lock or something where you're not displacing much of your own body or the other person's, and it is better to use smaller muscles to drive the technique?  For the life of me I can't think of one.  Even so, I don't think it was a waste of my time to really think about and analyze the muscles I'm using for various movements.  In fact I'd say it's a valuable exercise for anyone to try.

8. Balance and the Importance of the Throne

So a drummer's seat is called a throne, like you're going to rule the world from the center of the universe or something.  Martial arts instructors don't get to laugh at this, since we get paid to be called sir or ma'am and have people bow to us while we yell stuff at them.

Snark aside, the way drummers talk about the throne often reminds me of tai chi.  The throne is a drummer's connection to the ground, and it's the source of the drummer's balance.  Drummer and biomechanics expert Brandon Green says, "Really we should be building our drum set entirely around the drum throne."  Casey Grillo hauls his throne all over the world because he won't use any throne other than his own.  He also devotes an entire chapter of his DVD to the importance of the throne and how it contributes to very nuanced balance work--such that just moving one arm to a drum on the opposite side of the body can shift the drummer's weight enough to disrupt the balance and pedal work.

You can only train in tai chi for so long before you hear some variation of this blurb from the Tai Chi Classics:

"Tai chi is rooted in the feet, powered in the legs, directed in the hips and expressed in the hands."

In both drumming and martial arts, the untrained eye focuses on the extremity that's doing the hitting.  We see a hand doing some intricate work with a drum stick the way people see us twisting our hands around to create a joint lock.  What the hands are doing is important, but that movement all starts closer to the core.  It's the rest of the body being in the right position that makes that intricate hand work possible.  And that body positioning comes from being properly balanced, and the balance comes from being properly rooted to the ground.

9.  Using Rhythm to Manipulate an Opponent

Some pretty standard Lesson 1 stuff for learning to play drums.

Some of these are more difficult than others.  With my limited musical background (a handful of instruments I played for 1-2 years each as a kid) it was very strange to me that playing the exact same beat but delaying a bass drum hit by a fraction of a second could make such a huge difference in the difficulty.  Moreover I learned from Kai that this wasn't just a quirk of my experience, and in fact the ones that were hard for me are hard for most beginners.

I absolutely loved what Casey had to say about this phenomenon (after a quick detour to encourage me just because I mentioned that something was difficult--class act).  Basically, he explained that rhythms are more difficult when you put things in between other things.  "You're filling in gaps.  ... There are these subdivisions." He was pointing to some 8th notes and 16th notes in my lesson book.  "And you can divide it way more than that.  You can have 32nd notes, 64th notes, basically you have 64 notes in a measure, it's pretty stinking fast.  And you can take some away.  Like these 8th rests, you can put a little rest in between those, a little bitty gap."  Essentially, the difficulty comes from the speed and/or complexity that comes from subdividing and inserting something in between those subdivisions.

This reminded me greatly of something I heard from Ruth Hansen, a martial artist who has dabbled in drumming.  She recalled her first tournament sparring experience like this: "She came at me throwing continuous rear leg roundhouse kicks.  It was my first tournament, so in the moment I didn't know what to do.  Later it was obvious; strike between the rhythm of her kicks.  I couldn't, at the time, because I was standing wrong, my feet too far apart to change up my own rhythm."

I like this example because it is simple, but advanced tournament fighters use the same principle.  If you can land your scoring technique while your opponent is in the middle of a transition, they are especially vulnerable.  This inevitably involves sneaking your technique in between whatever movements your opponent is doing.

So, the way you make a rhythm difficult for a drummer is the same way you make things difficult for your opponent--by getting in between.

10.  Establishing and Breaking Rhythm

Taking this idea one step further, it's easier to score your points if you are the one who sets up your opponent's rhythm.

I happened across this fascinating quote by drummer and author John Lamb:

"You should define rhythm according to how the brain and the body changes when you listen to rhythm.  And to make a long story short it's actually pretty straightforward and really well studied in the field of music therapy. ... Basically when we listen to rhythm, when we listen to music, our brain synchronizes to the music ... [it's] a bit of a simplification, but we start to think in time with the music.  And so rhythm isn't a thing that we have.  There's no metronome in the brain that keeps perfect time.  Instead, it's something that we're in.  It is something that is by definition shared."

This is extremely useful information to competition fighters.  If you can synchronize your opponent's brain to your rhythm, how much easier would it be to get your points?  A lot.

Bill "Superfoot" Wallace had a very effective way of doing this.  It's not a terribly unique strategy, but he was uniquely good at it.  (If you go to his seminar, he'll break it down in all the gritty detail, but for our purposes I'll just give you the broad strokes.)

  • First he would skip in and throw some kick, not intending to score and intentionally coming up short.  Then he'd immediately fall back to a comfortable sparring distance.
  • He would then skip in and throw the exact same kick again, but this time a little deeper so that his opponent would have to move.  This is enough to establish the pattern.  His opponent is now in this rhythm: watch the skip, watch the kick, evade; watch the skip, watch the kick, evade.  
  • On the third time, he would spring the trap.  He would skip in and kick according to the established rhythm, but it would be a different kick.  If his opponent was expecting a roundhouse kick to the right side of the head, he might evade by shifting to the left with his hand up on the right side of his face.  But if the attack is now a hook kick coming to the left side of his head, his evasion will do him no good and he'll eat the kick.

There are a lot of good fighters who do this, or some variation of it.  As a general rule of thumb, if someone reacts the same way twice, there is a very high probability that they will do it a third time.  Build your rhythm with your opponent, and once they are in your rhythm, you know what they will do and when they will do it.  Hit them where and when they are vulnerable.  Easier said than done, of course, but this is the principle of how it works.

11. Another Take on Forms/Patterns/Kata

People practice forms in a lot of different ways for a variety of purposes.  Some take it seriously strictly as a self defense textbook, others focus on performing for competition, and some enjoy it just as a solo workout.  Others use it as a connection to the great martial artists of the past, in a way that Sensei Iain Abernethy explains far more eloquently than I can:

"When we read a good poem, or listen to a good piece of music, we can connect with the thoughts and emotions of the people who produced those works. It's more than letters on a page or vibrations through the air. Good art can profoundly connect two human beings in a shared experience. Kata is similar. When we move in the way the past masters moved, when we connect with them through their work; we gain the opportunity to feel what they felt and think what they thought. We are walking in the footsteps of the past masters when practicing and studying their kata. It's much deeper than just mimicked motion."

Drummers don't do kata per se.  It would be very unusual for a drummer to try to completely copy another drummer's movement, right down to their look and mannerisms.  But wouldn't it be interesting if somebody tried it?  If a skilled drummer tried to copy a great drummer of the past as perfectly as possible, to "move in the way the past masters moved" and connect with that past artist in a way that martial artists sometimes do but drummers usually don't?  Wouldn't it be cool if I could interview someone who did that?  I'm just kidding, I totally did.  Here's Casey Grillo auditioning to play Buddy Rich in a movie.

What Casey Grillo is doing here seems very kata-like.

Casey wasn't doing this as a learning exercise, but he ended up learning nonetheless.  The experience caused permanent changes to his drumming.  "That was my first time ever playing traditional grip."  He still mostly uses matched grip, but now he has another tool in his toolbox, and it comes out sometimes.  But there was a more sweeping change to his playing as well.  "Also I tilted my snare like Buddy to try to make it more authentic like him, and that was the first time I ever did that. ... That's the way I do it now.  I just did it for the video, but after I did it I thought, 'Wow, this kind of makes sense.'  It just stayed like that.  I started tilting everything else now, too. ... It's more comfortable.  I can be more on top of the kit instead of leaning back."

Seems like there's something to be said for "walking in the footsteps of the past masters."


This series will be continued with Drumming-Inspired Martial Arts Training: Martial Arts and Drumming Part III.