This episode is packed with ideas. Some you may have come across before, including in past episodes of this show. But I suspect some will be new to you and you’re going to love how Michael brings it all together into a really coherent picture of what these various tools and mindset shifts can do for your music learning.
For example, we talk about:
- The value of taking a “growth mindset” to music learning
- Tools that can help you handle negative self-talk when it arises
- How a habit of reflection can help you past sticking points, improve your practice efficiency and accelerate your progress
That’s just a taste – we also discuss learning online and being your own teacher, mindfulness and bringing awareness to your practice, setting and reaching goals, and we ask Michael about the concepts behind the percussion-cello duo “New Morse Code” and the ground-breaking solo snare drum project “Unsnared Drum”.
As always, please listen with the question of “How could this apply in my own musical life?” – and we guarantee you’re going to find some really high-impact ideas in here.
This is Musicality Now, from Musical U.
Watch the episode:
Links and Resources
- Michael Compitello’s Website
- “New Morse Code”
- “Unsnared Drum”
- Matt Sharrock – Marimbist/Percussionist
- Carol S. Dweck – “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”
- Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool – “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”
- Todd Meehan – Liquidrum
- Musicality Now – Music Learning at Warp Speed, with Jason Haaheim
- Musicality Now – The Truth About Talent, with Professor Anders Ericsson
- Musicality Now – Letting the Music Play You, with Paul Wertico
- Musicality Now – About Deliberate Practice in Music
- Musicality Now – About Mindfulness for Musicians
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Michael: This is Michael Compitello, assistant professor of percussion at the University of Kansas and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Michael. Thank you for joining us today.
Michael: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
Christopher: I was saying to you before we hit record that mutual friend, Jason Haaheim pointed me to your website a little while back and I was just fascinated by the projects you’re involved with and your career as a musician and I feel like I know a fair bit about Michael Compitello now, but not a great deal about where you’ve come from as a musician. So, I’d love if we could begin with your kind of musical backstory. What did your own music education look like?
Michael: Sure. I would say that my musical education is, in the one sense, kind of typical for Americans but in another sense, kind of atypical because of how I kind of got to percussion. I started when I was pretty young. My parents were teaching at Michigan State University and Michigan State has a community music school and so they signed me up for lessons after I requested drum lessons and forcefully un-requested piano lessons. They signed me up with a graduate student there who kind of insisted that I play more than just drum set, so that I learn all of the different percussion instruments. That kind of set me on this path of taking lessons and sort of learning about percussion and so I studied all through grade school, middle school and high school, in which I started to participate in youth orchestras, marching band, all that sort of stuff.
Then, I went to college for music and history in Baltimore at the Peabody Institute and so that’s kind of a typical American thing to go to some sort of music school, be at a department of music or school of music or conservatory of music, where you kind of focus a little bit more on the role that music has in your life. Then, I went to a graduate school. I did my master’s and doctorate at the Yale School of Music and both of which are increasingly focusing experiences around not just music, but a certain type of music. Broadly speaking, classical music and even more narrow within classical music, kind of new classical music combined with a training. I guess I would say that in my college and school years, I was fortunate to work with somebody who is really interested in … classmates had was really rigorously old fashion.
We were learning the sort of classical orchestral repertoire, which at least by his reckoning and mine too is a really great way to learn how to play your instrument. So, I would say that that is pretty typical of somebody who goes to a music school. I grew up of course playing drum set like most percussionists do, but by the time you get to college, I still played for fun but it stopped becoming a part of my degree life because at most places in the states, you kind of choose between studying jazz where you play drum set and studying classical percussion where you don’t. That’s sort of the musical story, which is that I sort of randomly started playing percussion, managed somehow to stick with it long enough to get exposed to some really inspirational teachers and experiences that kind of made me think, “Oh, I should keep going with this,” and was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were really both like-minded and also inspirational from peers and teachers and other colleagues. That’s sort of the story, the general story.
Christopher: Fantastic and I want to pick up on the way you put that there, you said, “Somehow managed to keep going with it.” Give us a little picture of what those school years maybe were like. Did you find music came easily to you? You clearly had some passion for it to be doing so many activities and ensembles and that kind of thing. How did you feel about learning music?
Michael: Yeah. Well, I would say that in the broad spectrum of people in the world, music probably comes less naturally to me than to other people. I would say I’m much more on the sort of learned spectrum than on the natural talent side, which kind of explains a lot of the stuff that I do with my music making. I would say that what kept me going was having really great teachers and getting inspired by the content. So, I would say that actually music is, on the whole, one of the more challenging things personally I can do with my life, but I kind of like it that way. I’m not sure if that really answers your question, but it’s sort of what it feels like. Somehow I kept going because I found the content so interesting.
If you’re somewhat of a nerd and you’re someone who appreciates both being alone and being around other people, music is a great field because you do a lot of practicing alone, you do a lot of playing with other people, you’re sort of working with music… at least, what I do… working with music that’s both kind of new and also related to the past. So, it gives you a lot of opportunities to kind of contextualize what you’re doing and think about what you’re doing and to work with really interesting people. That’s sort of, I guess, what kept me going is that I found the music interesting and I think the music continued to be interesting even as I got better, got smarter, got more focused on what I wanted to do. That seems like a pretty good sign, I guess.
Christopher: When you think back to that teacher insisting you move into being a percussionist, not just a drummer, how did you feel about that at the time? Where you gung ho and curious and excited or where you kind of wishing you could stick with your mock beats?
Michael: Well, I’m not sure. I can’t quite really remember my thoughts at the time. I’m sure I, like any little kid, was very pissed off, but I’m fortunate that both my parents are sort of in academia and one thing that kind of runs in the family is the idea that when you want to get good at something, you find a guru and you do what the guru says. So, I don’t think I was ever in a position to say, “You know, that’s crazy. I’ll never do that.” I think I probably was super into it. I do remember though that there was this point at which he said, “You should come to our percussion ensemble concert,” and I was sort of like, “What is that?” And you go to the concert and of course it’s just this complete overwhelming onslaught of percussion playing and at that point, if you’re under the age of 10, you think that is the absolute coolest thing ever. I’m sure that I felt really excited about that, although maybe my parents would dispute that in someway.
Christopher: Sure and maybe that’s one of them that you mentioned, there were kind of inspirational experiences along the way that you feel kind of spurred you on or gave you a fresh burst of enthusiasm. Can you share any of the others?
Michael: Yeah. Okay, so I would say that was one, although I wouldn’t of counted it at the time. A few years after that, our family moved from Michigan to Arizona and I started studying with percussion with somebody who played in the symphony. One day, he asked me if I would want to audition for the youth symphony, the youth orchestra in Tucson and joining that group I think was a real turning point for me. One, because it exposed me to a community of people that were like me, you know, these are people that are choosing to … of these are the people in my fifth grade school, whether you like it or not and it exposed me to … out, orchestral music. I thought that was great and it kind of established the theme for me that it’s really important, at least for someone like me, to have a community around what you’re doing.
Even if it’s a community of like-minded people or people that sort of gunning for kind of similar things, that really helps to both push you and then also to help you define who you are, at least for me. I would say that another formative experience was when I started my undergrad school in Baltimore, I was really … for me since then and his focus with all of his students was really on what we call chamber music, so playing music with other people unaccompanied. I guess what differentiates that from a band is most of the time that we’re playing music that somebody else has written, but the principles are the same that you’re developing your communication skills, you’re developing your collaboration, you’re developing your teamwork, your individualization of large tasks.
For me, that was a huge turning point because on the one hand, I loved the music that we are playing and on the other hand, I loved that I could work with other people on something and the thing that we were making was much better than any of us could’ve done alone. That kind of lit this passion for me or it kind of ignited a passion for me in terms of what I could do with myself that might be really interesting. I bet a lot of people have experiences like that, especially playing with other people or if you play alone, playing your music for other people because in a certain sense, audiences are your collaborators as well. I think for me, just kind of realizing, “Oh, I don’t have to be completely alone all the time when I do this.” That’s really interesting to me, so that was kind of a turning point and I guess another turning point was when I started to really focus on working with composers.
I mean, I guess this sounds unusual if you are somebody who writes the music that they play, but in my field, in the last couple hundred years we have sort of a tradition of people who play and people who write music and they kind of haven’t, at least until recently, really met that closely. The schools that I attended, we’re studying the music of dead people and so it was kind of great for me to realize, “Oh my gosh. There are all these people that are writing music that I can just go talk to them,” or better yet, I can ask them a question if I’m playing a piece by them. “What did you mean?” and for me, that was a real revelation because it put me on this path, both in terms of my actions where I started to seek out experiences like that and also just in terms of my attitude that music is a lot more malleable than it is stiff and unbending.
Even the music of the past has to be really reinvented every time that you play it and for me, that was kind of a… I mean, it was kind of both a sort of a, Oh. Of course,” moment but also, “Oh. I should just do that.” So, I think those were kind of formative experiences for me, although they’re not single light bulb moments, they were more sort of like somebody says, “Well, have you tried this kind of food?” Then, you get really excited about that thing and go, “Oh, I could just eat that all the time.” Then, somebody says, “Oh, well what about this kind of food?” Then, you try that and so I think that, for me, it was formative enough that I keep trying to seek out those kind of experiences where you sort of discover something new in a way that allows you to keep doing that thing.
Christopher: That’s so interesting and we’re going to be talking shortly about a couple of your creative projects. I think people will understand, having heard all that, a lot more about how you’ve come to be the man behind those projects or at least one of the collaborators in them, because it’s not your typical percussionist project. In my intimations anyway, they’re quite distinctive and unusual. I want to talk a little bit about your mindset through all that, if we may, because you’ve described yourself as coming from an academic household and at least in retrospect, you seem to have a very thoughtful attitude towards the learning of music. You said you weren’t someone on the natural talent end of the spectrum, as it were, you were studying and working and trying things and learning as you went. Something that jumped out of me in one of your blog posts was talking about Carol Dweck’s concept of the fixed versus growth mindset and I’d love if you could share a little bit about how you relate to that concept and maybe how you view your musical journey in terms of one versus the other.
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. I would say that … at least Americans in terms of music school, which is that you get a certain distance based on how your natural skill. If you’re pretty good at the flute in high school, you get accolades for it, but then by the time you go to university, all of the sudden at a certain point, the way you have been doing things kind of runs out. There’s a certain way that people who play instruments that are not the piano or the violin where there’s really much more rigorous training for really, really young people. People who play percussion start later, generally, and I sort of discovered, “Wow, I don’t actually know how to get better at my instrument.” My teacher would assign me to learn a piece in that very generic way, “Okay, learn this piece,” and I would kind of go, “Okay, well how do I do that?” … until I know how to do it.
There’s only so many experiences doing that and just kind of going, “I have no idea,” before you start to realize, “Well, maybe I could try to figure out how to improve in a concrete way.” Not to say that I’m going to try to explain my inspiration, but try to figure out when I had those moments of inspiration, what exactly happened? What were the conditions? This idea, the fixed mindset, I only came across pretty recently through a kind of career consultant named Astrid Baumgardner who suggested this book by Carol Dweck about the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Basically, the idea is pretty basic which is that on the whole, there kind of two ways of approaching issues. You can say, “I have a fixed amount of talent, skill, time, energy and my goal is to use 100% of that and when I’m more stressed or more tired, it goes down, it goes down. Different experiences don’t really add to that.”
Then, there’s another mindset that says, “Actually, my goal is to just increase the amount of stuff that I’m good at, to turn every experience into sort of a learning experience.” That’s all really nice and it’s a very positive thing that you might put on a postcard or something, but when you get really specific about it, it’s much more interesting on the minute to minute level. If you’re a musician and let’s say you’re trying to learn something and you play it and it doesn’t come out the way you want, you could say, “Ah, that’s wrong. Therefore, I’m not good,” or you can say, “Actually in my little test here, my practice test, I’m going to see if I can improve this somehow and thereby improve my ability of doing this type of thing in other ways.”
It sounds kind of scientific but when it comes down to it, it’s really this mindset of like at the granular level when I’m working on my music making, I’m always trying to ask the question, “Well, what do I do to make this a little bit better?” I guess there’s a corollary part of it too where musicians, especially classical musicians, I’m not sure if it’s like this for non-classical musicians, we tend to conflate our sense of self worth with how we’re doing with our instrument that particular day, which is probably not a very smart thing to do. But, you kind of go, “Oh, I missed that note. Ah, I’m the worst person ever,” and that’s so totally true and I think what this growth mindset… I’m doing a really bad job of explaining it, but it’s a whole book. The idea behind it is that every situation you’re in, you can approach from the mindset or point of view of, “I’m going to take this as a opportunity to learn and to kind of expand my capabilities instead of always working on precision.”
You know, always working on, “I’m just going to get more reliable at my mediocrity,” but saying, “Oh, every time I play I’m going to try to raise the bar.” I think creative people tend to do this intuitively, but saying it out loud can really help, especially those moments where you feel like, “Oh, I’m not in the flow. I don’t know what I’m doing. This is a bad day.” It kind of saves you from tanking those hours, so I found that really helpful for myself.
Christopher: Fantastic and is that something where these, in other words, you put on what you had been doing already or was discovering this growth mindset idea a new practice perspective for you?
Michael: I think both. I think as you get good at something or as you try to get better at something, you do things that work and you don’t question why they work. You thought, “That was great,” but then at a certain point, at least in classical music, it ceases to be fun and generally for most of us, fun is a great motivator of development. At a certain point when you’re in college and you have all these assignments and maybe it’s music you’re assigned to play that you don’t really like, you start to think, “Well, how the heck am I supposed to do this?” So, I think on the one hand, it kind of described random things that I thought had worked in my life and on the other hand, it sort of allowed me to be a little bit more … from these ideas of positive psychology in practice. The idea that we all know what it feels like to be in the flow, right? Where you are demonstrate effortless mastery.
You encounter challenges but you feel like, “Oh, I can do that.” You tend to lose a sense of time and the question people always have was, “Well, how do you do that?” A lot of times it comes from taking the mental zone you’re in and reframing it. I found that it really helped me to sort of change what I physically am doing or what I mentally am thinking about, so I would say it’s kind of both. Not to say that I’ve reached any Jedi level of this, I’ve just started to notice that it’s … When a practice session doesn’t go the way you want or you get angry that like, “Wow. Why aren’t I progressing as much as I wanted to?” It kind of helps to give yourself both an explanation and then also like something to do when the flow is not there, maybe. I think it’s kind of both.
Christopher: That makes sense and yeah, you alluded in your blog post to how this had helped you a bit with negative self-talk or anxiety and I guess that’s what you’re referring to there when you say you were being annoyed that the practice session didn’t go right or tying your self worth to how you’re doing on the instrument that day. Is that right?
Michael: I would say so. Yeah. I think that, again, I really only can talk about people sort of broadly in the classical music world, but I’d say that negative energy and anxiety are kind of big issues or at least I’ve noticed this among my own students in Kansas. It’s really hard to just say, “Don’t think about that and just practice,” because that doesn’t work. It really doesn’t work, so you kind of have to find something that’s a little bit healthier, at least I hope so.
Christopher: Are there any other tools that you found useful or that you equip your students with in terms of handling that negative self talk or that inner critic?
Michael: I mean yeah, but who knows how helpful they are? I think one is that when you’re working on your art in any form, it’s helpful to be aware when you practice. This is something that we had this incredible marimba player, Matt Sharrock came to Kansas and he gave a master class kind of about learning music and he said… I actually thought that was really helpful that maybe when you standup or sit at your instrument, your muscles are feeling really great, be aware of that or maybe your brain is kind of fried, be aware of that so that you don’t get frustrated with the results when you already know what’s going on. I think that’s really helpful. The big thing was to sort of get a little bit more aggressive about sort of how do people get better at things. That kind of alludes to this burgeoning field of deliberate practice and you mentioned Jason, who’s sort of a…
He’s become sort of a real proponent of this and I admit I sort of drank the Kool-Aid and read a lot of the extent literature about it because, at least I’ve noticed in my own life and my students’ lives too, that there’s a lot of emotion and anxiety about this idea of talent. We use the talent really broadly, you know, “That person’s really talented,” but talent is one thing and especially in music, I think it matters much more sort of what trajectory you’re on and sort of the amount of work that you’ve done going the right direction. Talent might enable you to run really fast, but unless you’re running on the right track, you’re not really doing anything helpful. So, I think for me sort of discovering that idea of being pretty deliberate with your practicing really helped.
I’m not sure if it’s generational. I do find that the world now is much noisier than it was when even I was a little kid. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people 15 years younger than me, my students and so it was really helpful to find something that just tried to get me to focus a little bit more. I’m not doing a great job of explaining that, but I found that those general things really helped me and they kind of helped rekindle a little bit of joy when you play too. We all get into those ruts where you’re like, “I can’t do this. This is dumb. Why can’t I do this?” Sometimes it’s helpful to just say, “Wait a minute, you just said you were going to climb Mount Everest and then you didn’t do it the first day. Why are you upset?” You know and so that sort of helped me calm myself down a little bit in terms of, “Oh, that’s why, because in my own personal training I haven’t gotten it yet.”
I think that’s pretty helpful for musicians and at least I see a lot of my friends sort of once you get out of the structure of school, you kind of have to figure out, “Well, how am I going to plan getting better?” You know what I mean? How do you do that? “Oh, I’m just going to get better. I don’t know.” So, I think that those things have really helped me. It’s allowed me to go back in my own training to those epiphany moments and go, “Wait. What actually was so great there? Was it the content? Was it how we did it? Was it where, when, who?” and sort of think, “Oh, maybe I can try to replicate these kind of epiphanies in my own life even without a teacher that you see everyday or every week or something.” So, I found the transition to sort of like becoming your own teacher kind of a big help.
Christopher: Love it. Yeah and that’s so relevant. A lot of our listeners and viewers are in that situation of trying to construct their music education for themselves to some degree or another and we often talk on this show about how as easy as it is to go online and buy a course for learning something. The chances are that course isn’t going to start where you are and it’s not going to finish quite where you want to go and you’re going to get halfway through it and get stuck and frustrated or bored or you’re not going to be sure what’s going on. Even though there is this proliferation of online courses available, it doesn’t solve the problem that you’re talking about there and I love that you’ve got some tools and some mindset angles that can help with those sticking points or those frustrating days or those moments where you’re not sure if you’re headed in the right direction.
Michael: Yeah and I would say to everybody who watches your site, you’re probably in a stronger position than a lot of people who’ve gone through many, many years of rigorous formalized music education, because there’s a element when you’re in music school where you just sort of go, “Fix me!” The reason why you’re studying with this teacher is because you want that person’s opinion, right? But that doesn’t necessarily set you up to be your own doctor and actually that was something that Jason Haaheim mentioned. He also came to Kansas to give a class and he said something like, “Great students bring you problems to solve, not mysteries to diagnose,” and I think people who study their own, that’s a huge challenge is to sort of maintain that motivation and specificity. You want what you’re learning to be fun and you want it to be inspirational, but you also want to get better because it will be more fun, the better you get.
I think those are huge challenges, especially again with online courses. Even in person, no teacher’s ever going to start at the development of the wheel and then join you there. There’s a big part of playing music that’s individualization, that’s someone saying, “Play this note on your guitar,” and you go, “Okay, my fingers are this long. I guess I have to figure that out.” You take a task and you apply it to yourself and that’s challenges, yeah I know, but these kind of tools can really help. At least they’ve helped me because what I’m saying is that it’s not that you’re trying to eliminate inspiration and the ephemeral nature of creativity from your playing, you’re trying to buttress set with skills. You could have the greatest idea in time for a sculpture, but if you can’t sculpt marble, you can’t make it and there’s an element of… especially when you’re at that turning point of learning an instrument where you’re okay, but it’s harder to get better.
Start trying to buttress your inspiration with some sort of technical framework can be really helpful. It does seem that that part is irrespective of talent. It doesn’t matter and it’s irrespective of inspiration, it also doesn’t matter. It has a lot to do with how do you approach what you’re doing, at least I think so.
Christopher: Wonderful and that blog post I mentioned, where you talked a little bit about the growth mindset and we’ll link to it in the show notes, it was predominantly about the idea of reflection and how that factors into your learning experience. I’d love if you could talk a little bit about that because I think it’s another of these tools that a lot of us, as self-taught musicians to a large extent, are missing out on. We don’t really realize we could be making use of it.
Michael: Yeah. Again, none of these ideas are my own. I try to take what other people do and apply it to what I’m doing, which I think is really a great way because you have to steal to be creative, I think. But, this idea of reflection, I would say I encountered in school writing stupid reflective essays about things I didn’t really care about, but it really came into my life where I started to notice, “Man, I really remember my lessons or my experiences better if I like wrote down what I did afterwards,” or if I looked through the music that I played at that concert and go, “Oh, yeah. That went really well. Oh, that went really badly.” Then, I started to look around and noticed actually, a lot of people have said this and a lot of people are doing this. I sort of started to really passionately believe that the learning process isn’t really complete, unless you take your experience and you add some sort of reflection to it.
It doesn’t mean … your journal every night, “Today I ate this and then I did that,” but that there’s some element of thinking about what you did that can really help cement that experience. For someone like me, that would mean, “Okay, I’m recording my lessons with my teacher and then after the lesson, I listen back to it,” because there’s no possible that I could’ve gleamed everything I needed in the moment or written down everything that I wanted to write down. If, let’s say I’m going to go teach at a school or like a grade school or a high school or give a class, I might after the class stop and think, “Wait, what went well? What didn’t go well? If I was going to do that again, what would I do again?” I started to apply that to my students mostly out of frustration because I was starting to get so upset with them. “Why aren’t you doing what I tell you?”
I started to notice, “Oh, maybe it’s just because they are doing what I tell them to do, but it’s not sticking.” If you’re in college in the states, you have this class from 8:00 to 8:50, then you have this class from 9:00 to 9:50, then this class from 10:00 to 10:50 and then this class from 1:00 to 1:50 and so how is it that you’re supposed to memorize absolutely everything that happened to you if that was seven hours of stuff ago? So, I started to notice, “Wow. If I really force them to regurgitate what we covered, the experience somehow goes deeper,” and so for me, that idea of reflection, it really touched a nerve. Hearing Jason’s recommendation to read this book called Peak by Robert Pool and Anders Ericsson about kind of this science of practice, for lack of a better term, a lot of what they were talking about were the same kind of reflections I was writing as a history major or I was writing for more humanities-based projects.
This contextualizing, connecting to other experiences, connecting to other people’s experiences, and so I started to think maybe there’s something there that you can actually help the rewiring of your brain and the inspiration by reflecting. It doesn’t mean that you have to be super formal about it. It could even mean that at the end of a business meeting with someone, you say, “Okay, who’s going to call who again? Who’s going to write that down? Wait, what time did we say we were going to meet?” That’s a kind of reflection or that at the end of a practice session, you write down, “Okay, next time work on scales,” or I guess you should always write that but, “Next time, start at this part of the piece or here’s what I covered.” That kind of stuff really helps, not just on the organizational level, but on the mental level as well. It kind of makes you feel like you’re not going back to zero every time you touch your instrument.
I think that’s really helped me. I mean, it was total click bait for me because I love trying to think kind of contextually about everything that I do, because if you get really deep into classical music, sometimes it’s hard to answer the question of why. You know, “Why am I doing this?” If you don’t immediately have this idea of absolute personal fulfillment or absolute world changing explosions. So, I think that it’s also a kind of nice side benefit.
Christopher: I see. Yeah and people who’ve been following this show for a while will have heard me talk before about the progress journal system we use inside Musical U with our members and it’s very much that spirit of… it’s not let’s write dear diary everyday for the sake of keeping a journal, it’s really actually stopping even just once a week to be like, “What did I work on this week? How did it go? What went well? What didn’t?” It just gives you that moment to pause and reflect and really kind of double your learning and see the opportunities to problem solve or to do better next week and it kind of pays double because our team is keeping an eye on that too, so we can jump in and kind of rescue people as needed.
Michael: Yeah. Well, I found it has this interesting side benefit of you start to discover how long it’s going to take you to do something. I found that-
Michael: … in my practice… Actually, this is a big burgeoning field in percussion. There’s some people who started to print these beautiful practice journals. This guy Todd Meehan runs this website called Liquidrum, where he makes these practice journals for musicians because he also believes in this idea of keeping track of your practice, but I went through this period when I was in school where I would say to myself, “Why am I not getting any better? Why can’t I learn this piece?” I would get so frustrated and then I made this decision, “Well, why don’t I just write down everything I practice for a year?” So, I did it on a Google spreadsheet and then so I had all these kind of nerdy charts about every hour, every minute that I was practicing. What did I do. Not did I want to do, but what did I actually do and I started to discover, “Oh, the things that I’m mad at myself for not getting better at, I didn’t work on.” You know?
I made these goals for myself, but I didn’t actually do them and so I started to adjust my expectations to say, “Okay. Well, it looks like when I said I was going to learn this song, I thought it was going to take me this long but it actually ended up taking me this long. So, maybe the next time I plan learning a song, I’m going to plan this amount of time so that I don’t get pissed at myself for not doing it.” I found that to be super helpful and journaling and practicing, … and then I’ll try to warm up or work on a technical challenge or work on learning some notes and then I sort of adjust based on how it actually went. People would say, “Oh, work on this for a half hour. Work on this for an hour. Work on this for 20 minutes,” but that’s just sort of an abstract concept.
If you know that for you that’s going to take you 45 minutes, then why don’t you plan that amount of time for it instead of saying, “Well my teacher said to do this for an hour, so I’ll do it for an hour even if I finish 55 minutes early or even if I… ” You know what I mean? I found that to be super helpful and it’s something that… I will say though that it’s personality dependent. Some people really feel less cluttered in their mind when … by the pressure of having to write everything you do. I think, like you said, it’s nice to have some sort of framework. Either it’s Monday through Wednesday I work on Dark Side of the Moon or Monday 8:00 AM to 9:30 AM play this, but I do think it’s cool to incorporate with the journal sort of how it related to your goals, even if the goals are really broad.
I have found that my personal frustration goes down when my goal is achieved versus every time I play, “Ah, I can’t do it.” Every time, “Ah, I can’t do it.” Well, why don’t you set goals that you can accomplish so that you’re in this frame of mind where you actually feel like you’re accomplishing something instead of, “Okay, day one. I didn’t run a marathon. Okay, day two. I didn’t run a marathon. Okay, day three. Still haven’t done it.” After 10 days of that, you start to get kind of mad at yourself, but maybe you say, “Day one, I’m going to buy shoes,” but you know you have this larger goal of running a marathon. I totally agree that journal is super helpful and it kind of breaks down…
I think the other thing along with this deliberate practice that really helped me was another idea stolen from this woman, Astrid Baumgardner, which is the idea of the smart goal. You can have a big goal, but it’s helpful to set a goal that is… It’s an acronym like everything. Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. Let’s say you say, “I want to learn how to play the guitar.” That’s not really a goal. A good goal for yourself might be, “Okay, this week I’m going to try to learn this song,” because it’s specific, it’s measurable, you can tell like, “Can I do it? Maybe. No. I don’t know.” Is it attainable? That’s up to you, I guess. Is it realistic? I mean an unrealistic goal is, “I’m going to learn 100 songs,” and is it time-bound? Is it someday or is it oh, by next week.
I think that’s a goal that if you accomplish, you feel good about and if you don’t accomplish, you adjust, but I was finding that I was setting these goals in my life like learn physics and that’s on your to-do list next to sort of go to the dry cleaner. Those are not equivalent level goals and I totally agree that some kind of journal really helps with that too, because it actually frees your mind to be more creative when you’re doing stuff, because you’re not always looking over your shoulder or you’re not always comparing yourself against some better version of yourself, which actually doesn’t exist. But, that you’re freeing your mind to focus on actual creative stuff, so I found it to be actually kind of a paradox, which is kind of neat.
Christopher: I see. Yeah. I think it’s hard to communicate to someone just how valuable that kind of tracking and reflection is until you try it and I love some of the issues you kind of picked apart there in terms of the resistance people might have to it or the personality types that might gel with it or not. I think you’ve got to find your own method, whether it’s a meticulous Google spreadsheet or just jotting down a few sentences each week, but taking that time, taking the opportunity to look at what you’re doing and make sure that you’re not trying to climb Mount Everest on day one, as you put it.
Michael: Yeah, but it’s also helpful because if you get in the flow, don’t disturb it. If you find, “I looked up. Oh my god, it’s been 10 hours.” That’s great. Keep that, but on the days where you get really upset and you want to smash everything, you could look back and go, “Well, what was I actually doing?” I’ve actually found just as a last thing, sometimes it can be just as mild as having an accountabilibuddy. Somebody in your life that you’re communicating with about what you’re doing, it can be casual with somebody you know. “Hey, I’m going to try to do this,” and then later that person might ask you, “Hey, how’s the kitchen remodel going?” and you go, “Oh, actually I haven’t been doing that.” That kind of thing can really help you, especially if you are the only person doing what you’re doing near you, but it sounds like you have a great framework set up that people can enter at a bunch of different levels, which is really helpful.
Christopher: Well, it’s such an important aspect that people often overlook. We get buried in the nitty gritty of, “What do I learn and how,” and we forget to kind of step back and look at the trajectory of the learning and how it’s going and kind of-
Michael: Yeah. You know what’s one thing is interesting is that we’re all really good at starting stuff. … energy of being a beginner, “Oh, I’m going to learn Taekwondo or I’m going to learn how to bowl,” and the first is always amazing, right? I think to some extent, reflecting and being deliberate in setting really specific goals can help you try to recapture that feeling later. It’s not like it’s week 10 of guitar and you’re writing from the trenches of World War I or something, but you go, “Actually, today I’m still a beginner. I’m going to try to learn this new thing that’s going to help me with this other thing.” That, I’ve actually found to be really helpful for me because those little sparks of joy you get when you’re learning something like, “Wait a minute. I can’t do that.” You can recapture those years into learning an instrument if you frame it that way instead of like, “Okay, …”
“What if I try this this way?” Because then you actually also develop your skill on your instrument because you become a master of every possibility of your instrument instead of just, “I can only do it this way and I’m improving my ability of doing it this one way.” That’s super helpful.
Christopher: Got you. In one of your posts where you’re talking about all of the different method books for learning percussion, you touch on this idea of flow and you made reference to a teacher who had kind of framed learning technique in terms of repertoire rather than exercises and I’d love if we could talk a little bit about that, because I know it’s something that frustrates and confuses a lot of musicians like do I set aside 20 minutes for scales and 20 minutes for my pieces and 20 minutes for technique and then how am I going to improve fastest?
Michael: I know. Okay. Well I would say, again, everything in music is very individualistic. A lot of it has to do with where you are as a player and what kind of person you are. I have students for example that I could say, “Okay, do this for this amount of minutes, this for this amount of minutes,” and they will do it and I have other students that I’ll say that too and they say, “I literally cannot do this without a reason for doing it.” That’s sort of the caveat here. My primary percussion teacher from the time I went to university was really big on choosing a piece and then developing the skills necessary to play that piece. Then, by carefully choosing repertoire that is both representative of what you might do as a professional, but also you encounter a broad variety of types of musical situations, you actually develop your skill really quickly.
It’s kind of the idea of would you go out and buy 50,000 tools or would you have a project and say, “Well, what tools do I need to build this shelf? Let me buy those. Okay, now I’m going to build a dresser. Well, what do I need to build that? Oh, I’ll buy this other hammer.” Then, you don’t have a thousand wrenches that you’ve never used and that said though, in order to do that, you need to be also working on your technique. What my teacher did and what I think his students who now teach do is that we try to say with an analogy, “Okay, you want to be a basketball player. Well, here are the types of things you do as a basketball player, so let’s get good at those types of things.” Instead of saying, “Okay. Well, let’s just do some random exercises. Oh, let’s run and let’s do pushups! I don’t know.” So, I think it’s helpful to have a targeted approach, especially if you’re over the age of 5 or 10.
If you’re an adult, you always have to be answering the why, because otherwise if your brain is working much faster than your hands, you’re going to want to quit. If you don’t get something in two times, you’ll probably say, “Oh, geeze, I can’t do that.” So, I think this idea of repertoire has really been helpful. A good example of that is say… and this is where having a teacher or having a program or at least having inspiration can come in handy… you say, “You know, I want to learn how to play… ” For me, let’s say, “I want to learn how to play the marimba, this instrument.” Your teacher says, “Well, learn this piece because this piece is not impossible for you. You could probably technically do it, but it’s in a style that a lot of other pieces are written. So, by learning this piece, you’re going to learn a lot about how your instrument works, but also like the other kinds of music people will ask you to play.”
You start learning the piece and you sit down or you stand if you play the marimba and you say, “Okay. Well, I can’t play this bar. I can’t play this part of the piece. It’s because my hands… I can’t do this thing.” Then, you work on that thing and then you say, “Well, okay, what’s the thing? Oh, maybe it’s that I can’t open and close the mallets in my hand fast enough.” Then, you say, “Well how do I learn how to do that? Oh, let me look at this book about marimba technique. Oh, there’s section about doing that. Let me look at that section.” It’s not like you’re not working on your technique, it’s just that you’re looking at the situation that you have, the piece that you’re learning and you’re saying, “Oh, this is what I can’t do so I’m going to learn how to do that so that I can play this piece,” because it can get overwhelming.
Once you start to nerd-out about technique, you can get really overwhelmed. You could spend 10 hours a day just working on your technique, which is great but you kind of something to do with it and so if you start with an idea of, “Well, this is what my goal is. I’m going to learn this song. … to this. Oh, I can’t do that. Let me figure out how to do that.” Then, you start to discover that a lot of books and a lot of resources and a lot of videos exist for learning that one thing, but if you just start by learning that one thing, maybe you’re not that motivated to complete learning that one thing, you hope. I find that to be a really helpful approach, although it is infuriating to teach like that, because it means that every student you have, you can’t give the same assignments to every person.
Even if the assignment is the same, what the person struggles with might be really, really different. If I give three of my students the same assignment, “Be able to play this this fast.” Maybe one of them can do it immediately and maybe one of them goes, “I’ve never … Oh yeah, I kind of did that. Oh shoot, I have to improve that thing.” So, I find that having a piece at least for classical musicians or like something you’re trying to write or something that you’re trying to create gives you the inspiration to kind of weed wack the technique, because for at least most of us that have wondering minds so to speak or that think a lot about what we’re doing or overthink about what we’re doing, it’s helpful to have an answer to that question of, “Why am I doing this?” I find that something that stymieds my students, “Why do I have to do this for an hour?” That’s kind of the broad answer to it, but I’m sure there’s a million other ways of doing things.
Christopher: No, that’s tremendous and what we feel is kind of not the opposite, but the kind of mirror problem. You touched there on how your students, they won’t get motivated unless they’ve been told the why and this can help them see this is the purpose of learning this technique and practicing it. We see a lot of Musical U with our members the opposite problem, which is because we’re all responsible adults, if we go about learning something, we will find out what other technique things will I need to master, what should I do, and then every practice session becomes this burden of running through the five things I should do just because that’s what I’m told I should do. I love that this kind of tackles that problem too in terms of focusing you in on what really matters to you in your musical life.
Michael: Yeah. I know, but it’s so hard though because I would say this is the number one question I get asked as a quote unquote teacher of percussion or the question I ask myself, which is, “What the heck do you do when you practice? How do you divide the time?” Let’s say you have 20 hours, an impossibly high amount of hours, still like what do you do on a minute by minute basis? Do you warmup? How long? Do you work on your technique? When? Do you do it right away, do you do it later? Do you work on learning the notes to a piece? So, I find that having kind of like a goal can really shape your practice. You can do it in really specific ways. Let’s say you’re trying to learn this song or you’re trying to learn the notes to a piece, you can devote some of your practice time to learning those notes, which is a certain way of practicing where you start going, “Okay, what’s that? Okay, yeah. Let me figure that out.” But, let’s say that you know, based on what you did yesterday, there’s this part that’s really hard.
Well, maybe when you warm up, you warm up exclusively on that kind of technique that’s really hard so that after a couple days of doing that, maybe you can do it a little bit better so that you try to hone every part of your practicing towards this. It’s not like warmup, “Let me do my basic 10 step warmup that never changes,” but let’s say, “Well, I know that for this piece, I have to be able to play skills this fast, so maybe when I warm up I’ll try to incorporate that into my warming up,” because it increases the usefulness of everything that you do. Even from the moment you touch your instrument, it allows your goal to suffuse what you do, which I think is pretty helpful. Especially if you feel like all of these things you’re trying to learn, if you feel them as the burden, which it can feel like. “Oh crap, this is a lot.” I find that really helps.
Christopher: That’s so smart. I love that and I feel like people hearing about this probably have a good sense now of how this works. In the context of your teaching, for example, where a skilled, experienced teacher can select the repertoire, can guide the student to understand, “Okay. Bar 12 is difficult because you haven’t yet mastered such and such technique.” Do you think this is possible to someone who’s teaching themselves? If we imagine them just learning from YouTube tutorials or that kind of thing, do you think you have the perception and the knowledge to be able to say, “Okay. Bar 12 is problematic because of X, therefore I should go study Y,” or do you think this really is something that only works well if you have that guide?
Michael: I think it’s entirely possible because what the guide provides is something you can provide for yourself. What the guide really provides… I started to think what do you learn in a lesson? What you really learn is the idea of what it should … How do they tell what’s wrong with your car? Do they meticulously check every part in your car? They probably don’t, right? They probably listen to what you say, they listen to what the car does. They go, “Oh, actually most Hondas, this happens.” They have some sort of… the technical terms of mental representation of what the thing should be like. What should the flute sound like or what should this piece sound like or what should this style of music sound like? Those are things that having a guru or a teacher, they can impart to, but you don’t need one really. I mean, the world can be your teacher.
Let’s say you want to get really good at flamenco guitar, there are a ton of amazing recordings of people playing flamenco guitar where you can develop a sense of the style. You can develop a sense of the accent … does. Why not? You can totally develop that on your own, it’s just that teachers tend to be much more aggressive about telling you what’s wrong. You can totally get that with yourself if you have people you can check in with, if you have resources where you’re able to develop a sense of the style of what you’re trying to do or a sense of what might not be working for what you’re doing. I mean, I talk about style as… Style is also a technical thing, right? You can say, “Well, what does Prince do when he plays? What are the elements of his style,” so that when you say, “Oh, that’s not really like that song. What’s wrong?”
So, you can of course do that on your own, but I think the idea is that you’re trying to develop a sense of representation. This like mental and physical and aural, sonic thought about, “This is what I want it to be like,” and the world can expand your capabilities about, “Well, what are the ways it can be?” on the one hand, but also, “What might be not going the way I want it too?” on the other hand. So, I think it’s totally possible.
Christopher: Fantastic. I genuinely wasn’t sure what your answer to that was going to be, but I think that’s a very inspiring …
Michael: Well, I think that it’s very helpful in certain fields to have regular check ins with a guru. Especially fields where there is a long established tradition of how you get good at that thing, but that’s not a requirement at all and in some cases, that type of training can actually reduce your individuality. It can reduce your sense of how you learn. I think the most important thing is to just be passionate or to be inspired, to allow yourself to be inspired, to go, “Wow, that was so interesting, that video I just watched.” I would say like at the 100% of your experience of the notes you’ve heard on the guitar is yourself playing the guitar, that’s not good. That’s where the world can inspire you that way.
Christopher: I see. Well, speaking of super interesting videos you might see, I was captivated when I went to checkout your project, New Morse Code, which is a collaboration with a cello player and Hannah Collins and the music you create is just wonderful and I think-
Christopher: … I’d like to come back, if we may, for a second to just the point in your story where you went from being a drummer to being a percussionist.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Christopher: No doubt, our classical fans in the audience will totally understand the difference, but someone who’s immersed in rock or jazz may not fully appreciate just how many instruments you play as a percussionist. So, I’d love to talk about that in general and maybe what more it takes from you or requires of you as a musician than a single instrument player and maybe we can also talk in that context of New Morse Code and what you bring to the table.
Michael: Yeah. I would say that as a percussionist, there’s a connotation and a denotation there. The denotation is that I will play anything you scrape, hit, shake, which means any kind of object. There are definitely instruments you play more than others, you know, drum set, marimba, timpani, all the stuff you might see in an orchestra. But, I would say that in my experience, I have ended up playing a whole bunch of stuff. The connotation of a percussionist is that, at least in classical music, is that we will generally do the stuff that most other people won’t do. “Oh, we need somebody to bow this Styrofoam. Oh, the percussionist will do it. Oh, we need somebody to shake this thing. Oh, I bet the percussionist will do that,” because we tend to have this attitude of sure, because our instrument is not really coagulated.
Even the drum set is just made up. Just, “Oh, maybe all the people that are playing these instruments in the marching band, what if one person did it? Oh, sure. Let’s just put the bass drum on the ground. Oh, now we need to invent something that allows you to play the bass drum on the ground. Okay, cool. Well, maybe we can find a way to hang this cymbal. Oh, okay.” So, it’s a pretty recent invention and I think that’s something about percussion is that we’re trying to invent things. What that means is that it has this very basic question, which is … if you’re trying to get good at everything. We try to look for kind of basic techniques that are common to all percussion instruments. Certain types of stuff and you work on instruments and pieces or styles of music that sort of develop those.
I think that the distinction on the hand, it’s kind of an egotistical distinction that percussionist sometimes sounds better than drummer, so I consider myself a drummer. I’m probably not a great drummer, but it’s a term that totally, totally works, but I would say that percussionists, what we do is we usually try to develop mastery over a whole bunch of different instruments. It may seem super daunting, but there’s certain common things that keep them together. I mean, we’ll play instruments that have … we’ll play instruments that have keys like piano keys but that you hit and then we’ll play instruments that you have to activate other ways. If you get pretty good at the snare drum or you get pretty good at timpani, that skill kind of transfers.
The same way that if you get good at playing the flute, maybe it’s not so challenging to learn the piccolo, because a lot of stuff is similar or if you get good at driving this one kind of car, maybe you can drive this other kind of car. So, it’s not as daunting as you would say, but generally I would say that for your audience, it just means that we tend to play a whole bunch of different stuff and we tend to own larger cars.
Christopher: Oh, got you. I love that you point out how intimately it’s tied to inventiveness and that’s certainly something that comes across from your own projects, but I think it’s not something people who would instinctively associate with percussion or drumming. We recently had on the show, Paul Wertico, the jazz drummer-
Michael: Oh, yeah!
Christopher: … and I think it was helpful for the non-drummers in our audience just to talk through all of the subtlety that goes into playing even a standard rock kit. All of the orchestration possibilities that are available to you and how much the drummer’s responsible for interpreting and making decisions and I think what you just described in terms of the different instruments you can draw on and develop skills for is another little angle on… to put it bluntly, like how ridiculous it is that there’s this joke of drummers being the less intelligent member of the band. It couldn’t be more wrong. What it requires of your brain to play percussion is like fields away from… I don’t want to be rude to any one particular instruments, so I won’t finish that sentence.
Michael: Well, everything has it’s own challenges. I think one thing, it’s interesting, underrated about people who drum set is that those people are just inventing what they play. You know what I mean? They don’t have to do it that way, they could do it this way if they want. I find that so interesting. I mean, I know for example the guitar is really hard to play. There’s so many possibilities for how you can get around that instrument and I think that percussionists, maybe we’re underrated in a certain sense, but I think it’s okay. Just surprise people.
Christopher: Talk, if you would, a little bit about New Morse Code and how you came to work with Hannah and the kinds of music you create together.
Michael: Oh, yeah. Well, Hannah and I went to school together at Yale and then we both were living in Europe at the same time. I was in Germany and she was in Holland and we both moved back to the states and we started talking about just playing music together, but as you might imagine, there’s not a ton of music written for a duo of cello and percussion. Instead of playing the pieces that did exist, although we did play the… not exclusively, we started to say, “Well, maybe we can get some composers to write pieces for the two of us and sort of see where that goes,” and we felt, “Well, what if we work with our friends because our friends know us, they know our capabilities. We know these people, we know what kind of music they like, what kind of music they write.” So, that’s what we started to do. We started to ask friends who were composers, “Would you write a piece for us and maybe this piece has this instrument in it or maybe this piece is in this kind of style?”
Through that, we are developing a repertoire for ourselves and it’s become really fun. I mean, we concertize of course, we record, we make videos and audio records and then we try to use ourselves because we’re not a big group. We try to use ourselves as sort of catalysts for other projects. Maybe there are people that we can team up with on something. Maybe there’s like a partner organization that might be a really great thing for us to try to increase the impact of what we do or increase the community around what we do because I think at first, we started this group to show off the amazing talents of our friends. One thing we thought at first was, “Wow, we know all these people that are really amazing composers. It would be great if everybody knew about these people.” One great way for us to do that was to have a piece by them that we could play as many different places as we could.
So, that’s sort of the approach behind the group, which I guess is a little bit different than the sort of get famous approach. We don’t play pieces that we write, nobody would want to hear that and so we tend to play pieces that other people have written for us, arranged in some curatorial way that makes that might … Yeah, so that’s kind of the general plan and we kind of expand or contract as necessary. We just did a project with a singer that was kind of a little opera and we were the orchestra and we’ve done projects where we’ll record something that’s sort of multiple copies of us that we can play as well. Yeah, so that’s kind of the energy of the ensemble. So, when we write, we ask people to write us a piece.
We try to get involved in the creative process along the way. We try work with the composer as they’re working on the piece. When they’re done with the piece, we try to work with them a little bit on it. It’s a little bit less sort of, “Can you do this and then show it to us when you’re done?” Because we find that we’re much more interested in doing something that kind of has an element of us in it. … Well, any other two people could do that. So, I find that very helpful and very fun and very intriguing.
Christopher: Yeah and it sounds like the natural continuation of what you referred to earlier, the kind of breaking down of the wall between the composer and the performer.
Michael: That’s right, yeah. It also sort of breaks a wall a little bit between us and our audiences, because it’s a little bit less like you’re going to a concert to see the two of us totally shred and that’s the goal, but actually you’re coming to one of our concerts to hear something that might interest you or to get some context for something that maybe you’re thinking about right now. I find that much more interesting, also a little bit less nerve racking. You don’t think as much about, “Oh, everybody’s watching how fast I move my hands,” but more like, “Oh, actually everybody here is interested in… Wow, this piece is based on this? Oh, that’s cool. Let me listen to that.” I find that much more, I don’t know, inspiring I guess, for lack of a better word.
Christopher: That’s really interesting and what I’ve read about the group, the word community comes up a lot and I’m sure people can appreciate a little bit from what you’ve just described. The connections you’re making with new music composers and a different kind of connection with the audience. Are there other ways that this project builds community or other ways you think about community in the context of New Morse Code?
Michael: Yeah. I’d say on the local level and on the large level. On the local level, one thing that we think about doing is really connecting people together or connecting groups of people together. That can be pretty bounded groups. Last year we did this program with a flute player at a penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas, where we worked with the inmates on music that they were writing. A lot of them have actually been writing songs and we went in actually with a composer, with a flute player and the two of us and we worked with them on building a piece that we all kind of wrote together. In the process of that, we gave some little presentations about how do you make music without words or how do you do this or how do you do that? That’s kind of an example of just kind of connecting those inmates to one another, that’s really helpful.
On another level, the community can be around the audiences… I think that we hope that the audiences, for what we’ll do is not just one subset of people. It’s not one slice of pie, but it’s actually like a whole bunch of different people who are maybe interested in a whole bunch of different things. Finally, I think that we like to think about what we’re doing as building community among musicians. One thing, we like to play with other people, we like to work with other people on pieces, right, and we like to work with other people on performing those pieces. So, I think that those three ways are pretty helpful or it’s just how we think about what we’re doing or contextualize what we’re doing.
Christopher: Wonderful and I particularly loved hearing you talk about how it changes your mindset as a performer to think about the audience in that way. They’re not coming to hear you play Tchaikovsky with break neck speed and accuracy. They’re coming to hear a Michael and Hannah collaborative composition of some kind that probably no one’s ever heard before or has never heard in this way anyway and I can see how that invites a different kind of relationship in the moment with the audience.
Michael: Yeah. I mean I like that personally, especially because a lot of the music we play is not canonical. Most of the pieces we play at a concert, nobody has heard this piece before in the audience. It may be the 20th we’ve played it, but nobody else has heard it and that kind of has a different energy than going to a Bruce Springsteen concert so that you could hear those Bruce Springsteen songs. I do think it has a different energy. I quite like it, but it’s just different.
Christopher: Got you and you have another major project, Unsnared Drum, which is a very different kind of a thing and in a way, I guess it takes you from the broad role as a percussionist and all kinds of variety into this very narrow focus. I’d love if you could explain to the people what Unsnared Drum is and where it came from and maybe you can talk a little bit about how it’s all going.
Michael: Sure. Yeah. We were just talking about playing percussion, how you play a lot of different instruments. For most of us, the instrument we start on is … and it tends to be the pedagogical instrument, but we sort of kind of stop after those pieces. We learn those études, we learn those technical studies and we say, “Okay, now let’s do something else,” and part of me wanted to think about, “Well, I actually really like playing this instruments and it seems weird to me that so many people are not kind of working to expand their range with this instrument.”
I started to think, “Well, I wonder could it be possible to play a whole concert of music just for the snare drum and have it not stink?” I don’t know, so I thought, “Well, the best way to do this is to work with people who are not percussionists.” You know how there’s like a whole genre of guitar music written by guitarists … they work super well, but maybe that’s not the most compelling music in the history of time. It could be, but so I think there’s an element for this where I thought, “Well, if I really want interesting music for my instrument, what I have to do is find somebody who doesn’t have the biases, the history, the sort of preformed opinions about the instruments.”
So, I asked four composers, who’s music I think is really different and daring and kind of mold breaking in a certain sense, could you try to reinvent this instrument? Which is traditionally perceived as being pretty flat in expression. It’s generally dynamically pretty narrow. It doesn’t seem like it has a pitch, although it kind of does, even if you probably don’t notice and it does seem like it has a pretty narrow range. I started to think, “I wonder if I could try to explode that a little bit.” There’s another element of it too, which is that I play a lot of instruments that are quite honestly pretty big, so I thought, “Well, maybe it would be cool to play a concert with instruments that are a little bit smaller.”
I asked four composers to say, “Just do whatever you want and if you want me to, I’ll show you some technical studies. I’ll show you some pieces that we all play in school, but otherwise do whatever you want.” I asked four people, Nina young, who’s a professor at the University of Texas in Austin and former Rome Prize winner, Amy Beth Kirstin, who’s a composer in New Haven, Connecticut who writes a lot of theatrical music that kind of blurs the line between theater and music. Hannah Lash, who’s a composition professor at the Yale School of Music and also phenomenal harp player and then Tonia Ko, who just did a post doc at University of Chicago and has a Guggenheim fellowship, who’s music is a lot about investigating the sound of instruments as a starting place instead of the sort of connotation of the instrument.
The four pieces, I would say they’re more on the experimental side and they’re a little bit more adventures. Nina’s piece uses a transducer under the drum, so like a speaker so that the drum becomes a speaker and then you kind of interact with the instrument that way. Amy’s piece has to do with… It’s called Ghost in the Machine and it has to do with all the sounds that the instruments can make, but you generally kind of don’t hear because maybe you’re far away or maybe you’re not like really trying to do that thing. Hannah’s piece is actually pretty, I guess, norm-core, but it’s probably the most well thought out snare drum piece I’ve ever heard. It has a very organized structure. It’s not improvisatory, it’s not… Yeah, it has like a scope, which I find very helpful, interesting. Tonia’s piece is sort of like a little sonic adventure, like a little ritual around…
We worked on kind of messing with the tuning of the drum so that when you hit it with kind of a soft implement like a timpani mallet or something, it makes a whole range of wobbly sounds and then from there as a starting point to sort of imagine the instrument as being like a choir instead of just one thing, so that was the idea. The four of them, we’ve had different working environments. One of them just wrote the piece and two of them, we’ve been working really closely on it. “What about this? What if you try this?” But I sent them all drums and I work with this drum set company, Vic Firth, and they were nice enough to send them all mallets and sticks and so they’ve each had an instrument in their living room for the last year or so.
Two of the pieces are done, one of them’s like almost and the other one’s also kind of almost done and the next step is to record them in some way, both audio and video and then to get out there. I’d say, again, I have no idea if they’ll be good together, if they’ll be good, what they’ll be like on a concert stage, but it was just sort of a challenge for myself to see what could we do. Because, as you get into teaching, you start assigning études and technical studies to people, right, and I was finding that on snare drum, they were overwhelmingly… Well, one by men and they were overwhelmingly kind of militaristic or overt … does not seem like it’s trying to teach me something, it’s trying to tell a story and then through that, I can learn something.
So, I kind of wanted to help make pieces like that and since I have absolutely no talent in writing music, I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll try to get people to write pieces for me,” and so that’s where we are and hopefully by the end of this year, I’ll have some recordings of… Certainly, I’ll have played them all, but in terms of a studio recording, I think they’ll take a little bit longer.
Christopher: Sure. Well, I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that I’ve been immediately sucked into your website and the projects you have going on and I’ll just say for our viewers and listeners, we’ll have a link in the show notes, but go and look at the videos Michael shared from Unsnared Drum so far-
Michael: Oh, thanks. Yeah.
Christopher: and little snippets of performances and I think your mind will be a bit blown by what’s possible with a snare drum in these various compositions. It’s really, really, wonderful. Michael, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. It’s been such a pleasure on a personal level as well as a professional one to get that-
Michael: Oh, this is great. Yeah, great to talk to you.
Christopher: these projects and-
Michael: Oh, awesome.
Christopher: the place for people to go is MichaelCompitello.com to learn all that-
Michael: That’s right. Yeah, yeah, yeah and you’ll see it’s updated with the speed of somebody who works in an academic institution and from there you can find Instagram, Facebook, that kind of stuff.
Christopher: Fantastic. Wonderful. Thank you again, Michael, for joining us on the show.
Michael: Of course, yeah. Thanks so much.