One of my interests away from music is cycling. When I started riding and training in earnest in Spring of 2016, I regularly consulted my local bike shop and online resources for ways to improve my strength, skills, and endurance on the bike. Every inquiry that I made seemed to lead to the same maxim- “In order to get stronger, you have to ride with stronger riders.”
I did this in the Summer and Fall of 2016 by joining more group rides. These rides helped me to develop the skills and strength needed for group pace line riding for longer distances. In the Spring and early Summer of this year, I started riding with a group of some of the strongest riders in Huntsville, known locally as the “Sufferfest.”
It is just that.
I can normally hang for distances of 20 to 25 miles at a 19.5 to 22 mph pace. The riders in Sufferfest usually average 24 to 26 mph. In short, blazing.
I have never finished a Sufferfest. Each attempt leaves me gasping for air and watching the brilliance of multiple blinking tail lights fade into the distance in front of me. The first time I tried, I was dropped after 5 miles. The second time, I was dropped after about 7 miles. On my third attempt, I was dropped after about 9 miles, but I managed to join the pace line once and actually pulled the pack for a bit. So even though I cannot finish this ride, being around riders this strong is in turn making me stronger.
So what is the musical equivalent of this approach? Play with better players. Here’s how this can be done…
1. Play along with recordings.
Respected artists within any genre can be the best example of how that genre should sound. Spend some time listening to some of the highly-regarded groups in this genre: The Chieftains, De Dannan, The Bothy Band, Arcady, Stockton’s Wing, Altan, Danú Flook, Beoga, and Goitse, just to name a few. Then grab your drum and try to play along with the recordings.
Consider the following when playing with recordings:
-Tempo- Initially choose selections that are not too fast. When you are comfortable with one particular tune in a given tempo, chose another in that same style (i.e., jigs, reel, etc.) that is slightly faster. Just as one would add weights to a bar to increase strength, using tunes that are increasingly brighter in tempo can increase your proficiency on the drum.
-Matching Style- The interpretation of Irish traditional music can vary greatly from artist to artist. Some may interpret rhythms in a straight or even fashion while others add a bit of swing or lilt to the tune. Some tunes and bands work beautifully with simple yet effective drum accompaniment while others employ a little more flair. Listen to the drummers on each recording. Try to match what they play. Pay attention to how their part compliment the melody and other rhythm instruments in the ensemble. Figure out the role of the drum in these various bands so that these performances can inform how you will play with others.
-Learning New Styles- About 90% of the Irish traditional music that we consume in the U.S. is either jigs or reels. There are so many other great styles out there- polkas, slip jigs, slides, etc. Spend time listening to these other styles. Get them in your ear. Immerse yourself in these sounds from better players.
2. Take lessons.
A musical personal trainer is the equivalent of riding with a pro. I learned more about shifting, braking, drafting, and pace line rotation by riding with one or two other superior riders than I ever did with a group. The lower student-to-teacher ratio means that the teacher can spend more time assessing you, and you can spend more time asking questions. In addition, seeing a better player model a skill set in person, and then perform that skill set with you, is invaluable.
While you learn from a private teacher, the teacher also learns from you. They are learning about your strengths, your deficiencies, your learning style, your personality, and then deciding which skill set or step is the best next step for you. As such, this can be extremely efficient and effective as you continue to grow on the instrument.
3. Learn a Melody Instrument.
This advice was given to me at a lesson with Josh Dukes. I originally took a lesson with Josh on the drum. He quickly realized that my understanding of the music was limited because I was experiencing it though the drum alone. He impressed upon me that I needed to learn the tunes, and the only way to do so was to actually get away from the drum.
So I did. I tried whistle, and I was not very good. But trying to play tunes on whistle gave me a greater understanding of what Josh was trying to say. I moved on to learning tunes on the melodica. I am less bad at this instrument, but I am continuing to develop my comprehension of the genre in a way that could not be done on the drum alone.
4. Try to Play in Intermediate to Advanced Sessions
Once you learn more about your drum and its musical context, it is time to join sessions. Sessions can be tricky. Most people would agree that sessions generally have a standard etiquette, but it is not standardized from group to group. In a way, it can be like learning to ride by joining a strong and fast peloton.
It can be uncomfortable, but I can not recommend it enough. This is a great situation in which to demonstrate and learn new skills in real time. The session offers the opportunities to apply the following cycling concepts:
-Knowing when to draft. Cyclists will assist each other in a group ride by drafting each other. One will take the lead into the wind while the others ride behind him or her, blissfully absent of the effort that the rider in front is maintaining. The session equivalent is knowing how much or little you should play, constantly assessing the music around you (style, tempo, tune) and deciding whether or not your current level of ability will allow you to join in.
-Knowing when to attack. In cycling, an attack is basically a rider feeling strong and confident enough to break away from the pack and then ride with little to no assistance (drafting) ahead of that pack while finishing a course. The session equivalent to this might being confident enough in your abilities to jump into tune sets with a little more energy. You are not hiding in the background, but rather keeping pace with those around you. (I should note that this should be governed by some universal musical principles- not playing too loudly, not playing too much, and doing your best to support the music and not cover it up.)
-Knowing when to drop. I know that riding in the Sufferfest makes me a better rider. But discretion is also the better part of valor, and I know when to call it quits. In the session, this is knowing when and where your abilities as a player do not meet the abilities of the group. But this is not a loss. I know some players who view this as a defeat, but I see it as a classroom- an opportunity to open my eyes and ears and try to make sense of my musical surroundings. This can also help me develop a list of questions for which I need answers… answers that a private teacher can provide.
Oh, and time to sip on my pint.
In summary, everything that I have said in this post can be distilled into yet another maxim- “Get out of your comfort zone.” Yes, it can be challenging. But calm seas never made a good sailor, and my best lessons came from rough waters.
Good luck to you as you venture out!