Drum notation for a practice log

Andrew Booker 2009-08-28 20:02:59

For the last four or five years I have tried to make regular time for acoustic drum playing. For me, that means an hour or two week on my own in a rehearsal room, on top of any other occasional acoustic kit playing in bands. I just shocked myself there slightly by writing an hour a week. I know this is all I manage, but seeing it in text really brings home just how little time I spend even keeping fit on the instrument, never mind coming up with new ideas.

Before I decided to splash out on practice rooms, I used to patter around on the electronic kit at home (I originally bought the kit as a practice tool). Those were the latter days of Pulse Engine, and I used to keep a drum practice log on the PE site. At the time I thought it would be useful to keep track of what I was doing from one session to the next. In retrospect it is fascinating. I have almost no recollection of practising any of the weird stuff on there.

I used a home-made notation for describing what I was practising. It had a grid table describing the pattern, showing where to count the beat and what to play within the subdivisions of the beat. Here's an example...

My little dictating machine proves I can no longer play this properly. I just about managed to loop together a bar of my less unsuccessful attempts to resurrect it on acoustic drums at about 66 bpm last week...

The grid was a simple HTML table, constructed from a series of numbers in my database, with different coloured cells for representing a drum played loudly, played quietly, or not played at all. Each row of the table represented a drum/limb. In the example above, the right hand is playing a cymbal, the left is on the snare and the feet are on a double bass drum pedal. The numbers at the top show you where the beat is, in other words, where the metronome clicks would be if you were using one.

I really liked this notation for a while, as it was pretty much the sequencer chart style I used to draw on paper when I came up with patterns to practice. The problem was that it only accommodated a note structure divisible by two. I had no way of representing triplets (fitting three notes into the space of two), such as in this example, for which I had to dig out a piece of lovely old manuscript paper and a fountain pen...

And here's the sound of me clattering four of those around the drum kit at about 114 bpm last week...

In this one, the left foot counts the beat on the hi-hat, while the triplets make up a block lasting 3/4 of a beat. I started trotting around these kinds of patterns like a pig in shit when I moved drum practice out of the house and into air-conditioned soundproof boxes, in totally the wrong clothes, at 10 pounds per hour. And it is basically why I stopped logging my practice patterns from then on, not because I lost interest, but because my notation could not represent triplets.

I had deliberately used a grid version for my Pulse Engine page instead of a stave format. For the HTML, all I had to do was enter a few numbers into my database. I had some JScript to generate the grid for me. No need to draw anything. Instead, my HTML version is basically a sequencer chart, which I guessed drummers would be familiar with. I expected that drummers would often not be able to read stave music. Also I had no quick or easy way of creating a stave version. I had sequencing software that could make them, but to do that you need a MIDI file. You can create this either by recording a MIDI kit, or by programming the notes directly into a sequencer grid. I would basically be doing that directly with my HTML. Then you have to generate the stave score and export the image for the web page. There probably were, and are, stave scoring software packages that do all this without the sequencer steps. Either way, you end up with a score that looks fine for genuine musical notation, eg for a piano part.

Trouble is, I still think that stave notation is a bit of a hack as applied to kit drum patterns.

A stave is supposed to represent notes, EGBDF on the lines and FACE in the spaces, bottom to top. But kit drums do not play notes. So, as well as writing out the dots, you also have to specify what each line means. You would have to do this in grid too, but at least you're not reinterpreting a standard.

Note length
In a few cases in kit drum playing, note length is significant, such as a buzz roll on the snare, the fizz of an open hi-hat before choking it with the left foot, or crashing a cymbal with one hand and then choking it with the other hand half a beat later. Usually though, for sticks striking drums, note length is pretty much irrelevant. To have to represent it because of the rules of stave notation when you have four limbs to represent on a single stave just adds clutter, to me.

The other annoying facet of having to specify note lengths is that when no drum is sounding, stave music requires you specify the silence with a rest of appropriate length. More clutter. In a grid, you just put nothing. And if one stave has to notate four limb parts, it can be ambiguous which rests belong to which line, or whether one rest belongs to all four.

Dynamics are all-important in drumming. Yet if you have four lines on a single stave, and there is a hi-hat and a snare playing at the same time, and you want to accent only one, you cannot. A grid does not necessarily help with this either, although I found using different colours for dynamics worked OK.

Hand to hand sticking
Because the stave notation describes primarily what the listener will hear, more than what the kit player has to do to make the sound, it does not specify which hand does what. For example, how should I play this...?

All with one hand? Alternating L and R? L L R R? L L L R? The answer is, for the purposes of a notating a practice pattern, I have to specify with little letters above each note. More clutter.

All of which, in fact, I can live with right now. I've created a new drum practice page over on, and to begin with, I'm using stave notation. The clincher is the triplet issue, because I have a few of those patterns in the queue. I'm not massively happy about writing them out onto manuscript paper and scanning them into jpgs, but I'm a lot happier than I was in 2003. Back then, I did not have a phone with an excellent digital camera on it. Now I do.

I've got the basic page up, as you can see. Other developments might be...

It seems like a very late stage to start, but after 24 years of playing, it will be nice to build up an audio catalogue of the stuff I used to work on, and sometimes continue to practice.

Finally, you might be wandering why I don't just use the electronic kit for this. Record the audio and get the mp3, and at the same time record the MIDI and get a screenshot of the sequencer chart and the stave score. I ask myself the same question. One reason I don't want to is because I seldom have the electronic kit set up at home. Secondly, there's enough recording of my electronic drumming on the downloads page already. Thirdly, and this is pure vanity, if you're hearing an acoustic drum version, you know at least that it was played, and that I didn't just program the pattern. One day I might progress to video for further proof that it was actually me playing, but it takes up a lot more bandwidth and doesn't tell much. Except how funny I look when I'm playing.

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