8 reasons why all drummers should own "It's About Time"

My well-used copy of the book

My well-used copy of the book

It's About Time by Fred Dinkins is one of the most important books I own. I have practiced and taught material from it extensively for about 10 years and it has tremendously influenced the way I approach timekeeping and ensemble playing. In the foreword, studio drumming legend Harvey Mason writes that the book "is a guaranteed solution to time problems," and likewise I'm convinced that the concepts and exercises presented by Dinkins will produce excellent results for anyone who practices them consistently. Included are two CDs containing exercises, demos, and play-along tracks. Although the book is designed for drumset players, I think it's equally valid for every kind drummer. I have applied many of the ideas and tools in teaching taiko lessons, workshops, and instructional videos. Here are my top eight reasons why all drummers should own It's About Time.

1. Emphasis on using your voice – Dinkins designed exercises to make us aware of different parts of the subdivision by learning how to sing it while playing a basic beat. It's challenging at first but very rewarding.

2. Excellent CD tracks – there are many practice pieces included, and they serve as useful tests. When my students are able to play the charts comfortably with the recorded music, they pass that lesson and move on to the next. I appreciate the real-world notion of 'either you can do it, or not.'

3. A section covering count offs – counting off a tune might seem like a minor issue, but it's something I take very seriously and emphasize with my students. The exercises in the book help to make your count off tempo consistent with your playing that follows immediately.

4. The 2 & 4 pocket – many styles of music have a backbeat (emphasis on 2 & 4) and working to "bury" the backbeats on the play-along track will help your sense of groove and consistent note placement.

5. Feeling the beat – talking about how the beat can feel on top, in the middle, or behind can be a frustratingly nebulous topic. Dinkins provides clarity by delivering a play-along track where the feel shifts in each new section, requiring the player to adjust slightly but noticeably.

6. Fills workout – another useful tool in the book is a chart where fills are required at the end of every four measures. Each fill must be the length specified, and the play-along track goes silent during these fills. Because fills are a common area of tempo insecurity, this exercise is very useful in improving steadiness and boosting confidence.

7. Hits workout – emphasizing certain accents is another area where the tempo can change, and the play-along track does a great job of addressing this problem. There is also attention on setting up these hits with lead-in fills.

8. The final exam – the very last thing in the book is a chart called "Time Maze" where all of the concepts presented in the book appear in one play-along track. A very welcome bonus: you can hear versions played by Dinkins, Harvey Mason, Ricky Lawson, Dennis Chambers, and several other celebrated drummers. Studying their vastly different approaches to the same piece of music is very eye opening.

Video: soloing concepts by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez

Have you seen the movie Birdman?  Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez wrote the film's score and most of the soundtrack is solo drumset.  He has also been Pat Metheny's drummer for the past 15 years.  I recently watched his instructional feature called Creative Soloing & Freedom presented by Drumeo and was impressed by the clarity with which he explained and demonstrated his concepts.  While I think it's well worth watching the video, I'll list the most important points here.

Sanchez says that he tries to tell a story when playing a solo.  This means stopping yourself from operating on autopilot.  Instead of just letting your hands play your usual licks, you start with a motive (idea) and then develop it using techniques such as:

1. Giving yourself space to think.  The space could be silence or going into a holding pattern such as a groove.  "Give space...be patient...be friends of silence."

2. Using repetition to establish the motive in our memory and the audience's memory.  Ending a solo with the same motive from the beginning is a very effective way to structure it.

3. Creating an answer to your motive's call.  As an example, Sanchez sings the opening 2 bars of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Allegro) to see if his interviewer could sing the response (he did easily).  Another example was the melody of 'shave and a haircut - two bits.'

4. Using the full dynamic (volume) range of the instrument.  "I cannot stress enough how important soloing dynamics are."

5. Creating contrast through rhythm, sound, dynamics, etc. to interplay with the motive.

6. Developing your vocabulary by copying others, then making the material your own by exploring new ways to play them.  Emulating great players in the genre you're studying is crucial to learning that specific language.  It's important to understand the historical context of the style.

7. "Practicing with a metronome is extremely important...allows you to get your ideas in to the grid that is time.  You have to be very certain of what subdivisions you're playing all the time."

8. Making sense.  "People start following you if you make sense...saying something meaningful."  An example of NOT making sense would be the statement "I love scrambled eggs, but the movie was terrible."  Those two things are not directly related.

Sanchez says that this kind of approach in which you are truly improvising is more challenging as it has more risk involved.  But "going into the unknown" is the way to explore fresh ideas and play differently each time.  Because the possibilities are endless, it can be intimidating to start with this "blank sheet of paper."  Sanchez says that these ideas can be applied at any level since you don't need a lot of technique to start practicing this way. 

To me, everything presented in the video is spot on.  Soloing and improvisation is a topic I'm often asked to teach in workshops and private lessons, and it was good to hear new ways of thinking about the topic from one of the most in-demand drummers working today.  I would encourage everyone to check out this video and then share your most memorable take-away points.