Last week I realized I’ve been playing the song “Little Drummer Boy” since I was around 11-years olds. That’s over 3 decades.
I also realized that this song was the first song I played on the drums in a church. It was a small Lutheran Church in Maryville, MO. I only had a snare drum and two drumsticks. Being an 11-year-old kid and standing in the organ loft with a (retired professional) organist who studied at the prestigious Eastman School of Music was, well, let’s just say I was a little nervous.
The organists first words to me were, “snares off Alfred, snares off.” She happened to be my piano teacher too. :)
The past 3 years, I’ve had the opportunity to play this same song for the wonderful audience at the Bechtler Jazz Series. And yes, with the snares off. haha. I digress.
In preparation for the Bechtler performance this year, I felt compelled to read the lyrics of “Little Drummer Boy” without the refraining “pa rum pum pum pum”. This really allowed me to understand what the song is about. For me, it changed the song from a cute children’s song to a poem about being asked to perform for a King; about using your gift to honor someone; about saying something with your instrument that brings joy and a smile to someone else.
This type of practicing is a performance preparation process I call “emotive practicing”: centering yourself emotionally in the context of a story or a moment in your life and then playing your instrument from that place or that disposition. Another way of describing this would be: saying something more than playing something.
During my practice times, I played this song and actively thought about what it would be like to actually play for a King. At the same time, seeking to play something that was beyond formulated ideas, habitual information or rehearsed patterns.
I mean, how do you impress a King?
DO you impress a King?
Can you impress a King?
More than that, a King who is newborn baby?
What could you play?
…to make a baby smile?
…to get the nod from the King’s mother?
…to get the animals dancing?
What would you play?
I find that emotionally connecting with the story of a song changes how I approach playing a groove or a solo. More so, its possible to set the mood or vibe for the other musicians. It helps us morph our role as drummer and/or musician to storyteller.
A quick anecdote: before the song was called “Little Drummer Boy”, it was called “Carol on the Drums”. A “carol” is an old round dance with singing; a song of joy; a popular song or ballad of religious joy.
When’s the last time you had “with joy” as a musical directive on your sheet music?
Emotion drives music differently than tempo or dynamic. When’s the last time you thought “I want my playing to bring joy to that person (or that audience)?
For me, it’s game changer. It shifts every aspect of my playing, especially my purpose.
Now, let’s check out the lyrics, (without the “pa rum pum pum pum”).
Little Drummer Boy:
Come they told me,
A new born King to see,
Our finest gifts we bring,
To lay before the King, ?
So to honor Him, When we come.
I am a poor boy too,
I have no gift to bring,
That's fit to give the King,
Shall I play for you, On my drum?
The ox and lamb kept time,
I played my drum for Him,
I played my best for Him,
Then He smiled at me, Me and my drum.
Among other things, the path of maturity for any drummer and/or musician is this: know the song and play the song.
Emotive Practicing is a way knowing a song. It’s another way of performance preparation.
These video excerpts of “Little Drummer Boy” are from Friday night’s performance at the Bechtler MOMA jazz series. More than performing for an audience, I was performing for a King - a baby King. As I put my attention on this baby King, I began to remember the organist at the Lutheran Church, my parents, my grandparents, my own family and other loved ones who have always supported me. What started as a solo for a King became more of a response to the love and joy I felt coming from this King.
Big thanks to the Bechtler MOMA for creating this space to make music in Charlotte.