NEWSFLASH!!
Vic Firth Headphones Help Cure Sterile Time Playing

By Murray Gusseck

Nonhavinus Groovus - the tendency to play too many notes with little or no groove. I have figured out, over the years, that because those of us rooted in drum corps tend to play short little high-impact exercises when we practice, our muscles don't get the lessons in efficiency that they typically need in order to obtain "long-range" chops. The kind of chops I'm referring to are the kind that start with the ability to play in time well, with notes that mean something, over extended periods of time. Typical drum corps chops can seem amazing at the time, but if you talk to someone who's been out of it for a while, you always hear about how they've "lost all their chops". There are some ways to minimize this, and make it relatively easy to get the muscles tuned back up more quickly. My solution? Practicing along to recorded music.

I have recently discovered a great new product from Vic Firth that has really helped transform my playing and teaching skills, and I've been given the opportunity to share some thoughts about it here. They have become an integral part of a very simple practicing technique that has done wonders for my playing abilities, as well as for the playing abilities of my students. The product I'm referring to is the Vic Firth SIH1 Musician's Stereo Isolation Headphones.

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When I "aged out" of drum corps a little over ten years ago, I decided that I wanted to play drum set. I started taking lessons with a great bay area drummer named Curt Moore, who during my first lesson, asked me to play a simple jazz beat. I can only imagine what I must have sounded like, having come off of five years of playing as loud as I could with tenor mallets. He politely said something like, "Uum, you don't have it." Ever since then, I have struggled with what it was about drum corps drumming that kept me from having the kind of touch and relationship to the drum set that was exemplified by all my favorite drummers. Drum corps is a great activity, and I'm very proud and fortunate to be associated with it -- particularly with the Santa Clara Vanguard (SCV). But there is something inherent in the activity that seems to show up again and again as I watch young players coming up. Ask them to play all-flam quintuplets at 200bpm and you're golden, but ask them to play a simple beat that feels like something, and you might be out of luck.

If you're a rudimental player (or gear-headus maximus), you probably practice exercises that are short and to the point, and these exercises are probably high-impact. If this is all you do, however, you're likely to have chops that are a little (or a lot) out of balance. When you play lower impact exercises over extended durations of time, though, your muscles are allowed to learn efficiency. Efficiency, in turn, leads to flow. Flow leads to better time and feel, and on and on. It's like that anecdote about Bruce Lee, where a student asks him, "How do I deliver a proper roundhouse kick?" Mr. Lee responds, "GO THROW 500 KICKS."

This is where the SIH1 headphones come into play.  While playing along to recorded music, you will inevitably be playing for more substantial periods of time without stopping.

One of the obstacles in the road of music/headphone practicing is what can be called competitive volume levels. I used to use regular in-ear headphones (called earbuds) when I would practice. Since I want to hear the music at a detailed level, I would have to turn up the volume on the CD player, which would in turn cause me to listen at abnormally high, and even dangerous, levels. And because the volume was cranked, I would tend to play louder, which might make me give the volume another upward tweak, and so on. You end up competing with yourself, and it's not good for your ears.

The SIH1 headphones were designed along with excellent drummer Rod Morgenstein to help protect the wearer's ears (they reduce overall ambient noise levels by 24 decibels) and feature high quality stereo sound. They also happen to be extremely comfortable to wear. Actually, I think they're the most comfortable headphones I've ever owned! With the SIH1 headphones, you're in a virtual isolated music-listening environment. This enables you to listen to the music at safe, normal levels, and the comfort of this isolated, non-competitive environment helps you relax while you play.

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So, what, just, like, put on the SIH1 headphones and play? Exactly. Whether I'm playing on my drum set or a marching drum, I keep a bundle of CD's and Minidiscs handy (and believe me, ever since I've started using these headphones, I've never had more fun playing). Much of what I use for this purpose has a clear, well-defined groove, and over this groove I can play exercises, improvise, or emulate what the drummer on the tune is playing. Sometimes, I'll even put on orchestral music and play along, and because there's often no percussion part of any kind, it forces me to be super-creative. Again, the SIH1 headphones make this possible because of their clarity.

I have started implementing this kind of practicing with many of SCV's drummers. You can use just about any type of rudimental exercise over the top of many types of music. I have a few exercises that I particularly like for various reasons, and I'll list one below.


(click thumbnail to download a printable PDF of this exercise)

This exercise easily plays over the top of anything "swingy," such as straight-ahead, hip-hop, shuffles, etc. Find a tune that fits the groove, start playing the exercise at the top and don't stop - not even for "4 for free" - until the tune ends. Be "all ears," and encourage your students to be likewise. If the exercise contains accents and "taps" (unaccented notes), go for extreme differentiation that makes an audibly meaningful difference. Even if it's a very basic exercise, encourage your players to say something with it against the musical background. So far I have gotten 100% positive results from this, because it gives the students context and application, as well as muscle training and timing practice. They also love the fact that they are not killing their ears, as they most surely would be without the Vic Firth SIH1 headphones.

Click here to watch a video of Murray and members of the Santa Clara Vanguard perform this exercise!

Songs used in this video include:
Spirit
by Mike Stern - (from Voices, Atlantic Records)
Fantasy by Miles Davis & Easy Mo Bee
- (from Doo-Bop, Warner Bros)

There are some logistical considerations if you want to include multiple players in this. You have to have a way to get a stereo signal to several sets of SIH1 headphones at once. You would also typically want to be indoors, since you are dealing with powered stereo equipment. You can purchase some tasty little devices for splitting the headphone signal (such as a 4-Way Headphone Amplifier) for a reasonable price and get separate volume-controlled headphone outs from one input. This way you can have small sessions with yourself and a few others. (Hint: Always include yourself. Nothing works like demonstration). Or you can use a combination of signal splitters, or one of the many other devices available on the market like the one listed above, to include more players.

Many great drummers tell stories of spending countless hours in some basement putting on records and playing along. It's no coincidence that they turn out to be the great players we all look up to. Practicing your craft for hours and hours certainly takes discipline. However, something tells me a lot of these same players, whom we would normally think of as extraordinarily disciplined, might have been just disciplined enough to sit down at their drums, put the headphones on, and start having fun. For all I know, having fun might have been the only thing that mattered. I see no reason why rudimental players and drum corps drummers can't benefit from the same methods.

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full-sized picture)

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I highly urge anyone reading this article to pick up a pair of the Vic Firth SIH1 Musician's Stereo Isolation headphones, plug them in, put them on, and play until it's time for dinner. They will protect your ears, enhance the way your drums sound, and truly help make you a better player. If you teach, recommend a set of these to your students for the same reasons. Don't let them burn out for lack of experiencing the joy of playing drums, or from being overly critical of their current skills. Slap the headphones on while you show them how it's done, and they'll love you for it.
Check out two MORE exercises from Murray Gusseck!  

(click thumbnails to download printable PDFs)

Click here to watch a video of Murray and members of the Santa Clara Vanguard perform this exercise!

Song used in this video:
Here to Stay
by Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays
(from We Live Here, Geffen Records)

 

(click thumbnail for full-sized picture)

Click here to watch a video of Murray and members of the Santa Clara Vanguard perform this exercise!

Songs used in this video include:
Here to Stay
by Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays
(from We Live Here, Geffen Records);
Spirit
by Mike Stern - (from Voices, Atlantic Records)

 

Murray Gusseck is currently the percussion caption head for the 6-time World Champion Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corps, from Santa Clara, CA. Murray started his tenure with the Vanguard in 1988 as a marching member, aging out in 1992. He was on staff as a percussion instructor in 1994, 1996 through 1999, and again from 2002 to the present.

During the early 1990’s Murray attended San Jose State University where he studied world music systems and drumset. Some of Murray’s friends, mentors, and teachers include Royal Hartigan, Dan Sabanovich, Ralph Hardimon, Glen Crosby, Curt Moore, Ed Barguiarena, and Dennis Aquilina. He has taught and arranged percussion music for many high schools in country, including Amador Valley (which placed 2nd at the 1997 WGI Winter Percussion Finals in Phoenix, AZ), Richland Hills (TX), Lassiter (GA), and Beyer High School in Modesto, CA.

In 1997 Murray teamed up with long-time friend and peer Jim Casella to form Tap Space Publications, now based in Portland, OR. Tap Space specializes in producing forefront percussion literature in the areas of marching, concert, and drumset percussion. The company continues to ramp up its list of publications, one of the newest of which is a sound sample library containing a multidude of Santa Clara drumline samples, called “Virtual Drumline.” Murray uses percussion products by Vic Firth and Remo.