Ethan Iverson: The Drum Thing

Ethan Iverson, on Do The Math, has a response to the movie Whiplash, which comes down, broadly, to a long history of jazz drumming, and the importance of feel over flash.

A story about Mel Lewis: Mel hated giving lessons, but finally a kid talked him into letting him come by a record session and watch Mel at work. During a break Mel gestured for the kid to sit behind the kit, and said, “Play me a snare roll.”

The kid played a good, professional roll. Maybe not as good as the one that starts the movie Whiplash, but still, a good roll. Not easy to do.

Mel took his sticks back and said, “See, right there is your problem. You shouldn’t be able to do that. I can’t do that. You gotta quit that shit and start becoming a drummer.”

While I think it’s important to remember that Whiplash isn’t about jazz drumming,1 Iverson’s piece is fascinating and well argued.


  1. It’s about obsession, and an abusive relationship between a teacher and a student, but besides the last scene it could have just as easily told a story about boxing, or war, or even classical music. (Certainly the characters are far from unbelievable, in my experience of the classical music world.) The jazz in the film doesn’t have to be good for the film to be good; the story being told in this film is of a young man obsessed with becoming great. To an amateur listener, “greatness” is easiest to represent with speed—with “flash”. That way you don’t have to spend half the film describing what to listen for. 

Frank J. Oteri: Caroline Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!

Still catching up on my reading after my surprise hiatus. New Music Box has a really extraordinary, must-read interview with Caroline Shaw, one of my favourite living composers (though she doesn’t like the term).

Classical music is a broad term that means many things, but to many who are not in that classical music world, it means a particular thing which is a particularly 17th, 18th, and 19th century version of music. And there’s a comfort level in experiencing that music in museum-like situations which I’m actually not critiquing. I love museums. I love concerts where I sit and listen very carefully to something that was beautifully constructed a long time ago. I love that experience. But I think that sometimes there’s not a real awareness and consciousness of what that is and what it means for new music now and what the possibilities are for thinking about older music and thinking about newer music.

Composers since Beethoven have applied stricter and stricter performance directions to their music, but Shaw’s music allows performers an unprecedented (in classical music) level of freedom. She’s following an established path: Terry Riley and Witold Lutosławski, for instance, have allowed improvisation in their music, but within strictly controlled boundaries. (Lutosławski once said that even though the tempo was uncontrolled, every note written was still wholly his.)

Shaw grants a truer freedom: play the music, and enjoy it. I can’t imagine Riley or Lutosławski ever giving a performance direction like “get crazy town”.

Maria Popova: “How Playing Music Benefits Your Brain More than Any Other Activity”

I saw a few people posting this piece a couple of weeks ago, describing the effects on the brain of practising a musical instrument. A couple of the claims seemed dubious to me, so I held off on mentioning it until I’d run it by my favourite musical neuro-skeptic. She was broadly skeptical, and concluded thus:

I would say there are some very right things in the video, but they are either over simplified or speculation presented as fact…

What is extremely true of musicians is every time you pick up an instrument (or sing) you are reinforcing a whole host of synapse highways that in turn reinforce things like muscle memory.

So there you have it. The video’s entertaining, but keep your skeptic hat on.