Wednesday, February 27, 2019

While it's still winter, I drum. A lot.

So with the late winter weather gracing the Portland area this month, it is SO cold out my knees can't handle a bicycle ride. I may hop a bus to the drum store later to just hang out and breathe the rareified are, but otherwise I feel no guilt staying put.

Now that I'm home from my songwriter touring for awhile, I need to prepare for the Passover holiday (you would not believe how much stuff has to be done in advance, and how crazy I and my fellow MOTs can get this time of year as a result). But today, I had extended time for drumitation.
Today's pad was my late 40's Slingerland Radio King (you may drool now) the sound and feel of which always make me smile.

The feel of this pad is wonderful, the rubber still has plenty of bounce after all these years and it sounds great. If you come across a similar pad, I suggest you stick with slightly smaller sticks. I'm playing here with some Jeff Queen sticks, which are smaller than the typical modern marching stick and very comfortable in my hands. I also like Firth's IMS-10 indoor stick, which is no longer made but can be found online for cheap ($4.50 plus postage on eBay right now and he's got a few pairs. If you can live with nylon tips they're a bargain at the price).  Makes a nice stick on older vintage pads, or a heavier concert band march stick for Sousa or similar. I'm tempted to get myself a second pair...

So I kept trying to get a clean video of this but kept forgetting a repeat on one of the camps. Finally, I put this one together, and since it was the cleanest playing I called it good.  (Recommend you check out Donka Drums, for an enlightening video on the difference between diddles in duple meter and triplet meter. It will open up your playing beautifully.)

Next week: Some new arrivals in the vintage sticks department. Stay tuned and happy drumming!

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Studio: a work in progress

When we first moved into our house the back room was used to hold Sweetie's piano, a Steinway baby grand from her grandparents.
Several years later, between jobs and hard up for money, she decided that she wasn't playing it enough to keep, so she sold it. The room became mostly a dumping ground for extra stuff.

Last year, tired of sharing the front room "office" with Sweetie (who works from home), I announced that I'd like to turn the back room into my music studio for teaching and composing.
Sweetie was relieved to get her office back, and I got some much-needed quiet space for myself.

Today the studio serves as both a teaching space and a creative space. It also allows me to display my vintage practice pads and sticks in a pleasing way that gets everything up off the floor.

I recently came into a collection of vintage sticks that required some re-pairing and cleaning. Once done, I donated the oddballs to a friend and created storage space for the remaining paired sticks.

I'm pleased with how it's shaping up.

The stick displays are available on Etsy, and I like them because they allow the entire stick to be seen easily. The only drawback is that oversized sticks (think 4S or bigger) won't fit in the holes.
I'm looking for a very small, adjustable height student desk, like the kind you'd find in a school.
I'd also like to find a way to store the guitars in their cases, to get them up off the floor -- if they fit in a closet, I might stow a couple of them in there.

Coming soon -- more research on some recent arrivals.
Happy drumming!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Future vintage: Prentice Practice Pad

This is one of those pads that I seem to have found just in time.
Prentice is a relatively new company, beginning widescale manufacture of practice pads less than ten years ago. Their adjustable tilt design was patented in 2009, and while you might look at it and think, "well, gee, that's so obvious," the fact is that no one had thought to simpilfy and patent the idea until Georgia Prentice did so a decade ago. Illustrations from the patent application show how the idea worked.

Georgia Prentice Cottingham was a clarinettist and percussionist as a youth and continued to play drums through much of her adult life as a sideline to her career as a pediatric neurologist.
She passed away just last month at the age of 78.
Her obituary can be found here.

Georgia Prentice was competitive in the rudimental drumming contest circuit. She continued to drum throughout her life, playing in orchestras and dance bands.

In 2009, she finalized the design for a practice pad that would allow for multiple angles of playing, to suit everyone from matched-grip rock drummers to traditional grip rudimental and pipe band drummers. With assistance from renown drum tech Colin Hilborne, she was able to get the design patented and brought to market by 2010. In 2012, Prentice Pads made a noticable splash at several drum shows, and by 2015 they were endorsed by a number of major rock and jazz artists.

Below: Georgia demos her pad at the NAMM show, 2015.

I purchased my Prentice Pad from a private party who was downsizing his studio and had a few to sell. He offered me a discount if I took the pink pad. So I now own a pink practice pad, which is fine with me.

The pad is built around sturdy wood panels and heavily coated with paint, finished with a 1/8" thick gum rubber surface that is glued into a partially-recessed platform. This makes for a pad you won't want to practice rim shots on; the design encourages accuracy with the tips of the sticks and is best used for warming up and more traditional chopping out.

The pad is divided into two sections, an upper section with the playing surface and a lower section with hard rubber feet on the bottom.

At the center divide of each section are two wall-like "legs", each trimmed at the edge with very stout Velcro strips. These strips are strong enough to keep the top of the assembly from "creeping" at all during playing.

They also allow the pad to be taken apart and rotated for multiple angle choices, depending on your style of playing and your practice needs.

In the video below, I demonstrate the pad at each of three available angles, taking it apart and reassembling it in between drumming.

I think you'll hear a difference in tone, as I did while playing. The rebound feels natural and the gum rubber is thin enough to make me have to do a little of the work in pulling a good sound from the strokes.

I like the pad and use it periodically as something to switch off from my standard go-to pads (Real Feel and Offworld Invader). The sound in flat/fully open position makes it satisfying to use.
The most recent entries from one of the Prentice artists stated that the pads would continue to be sold on Amazon. A search of Amazon showed nothing when I typed in "Prentice Drum Pad" or "Prentice Practice Pad". I did find an independent web site for online sales of the pad, but there seems to be no further information on an address, manufacturer or distributor for the pad at present. Without more information I'd feel somewhat hesitant to just go ahead and order a pad online -- there's no contact info, not even an email address; but the site shows a variety of colors and offers the pad at $40 retail, a price that's certainly in line with other gum-rubber pads available on the market right now.

Since the inventor died so recently, it's possible that the company is in the process of being transferred elsewhere, which would make sense with the number of artists endorsed by Prentice Pads.
Another possibility is that, without Georgia's presence, the company may eventually fold.

If anyone reading this can provide me with additional information on the future of Prentice Practice Pads, I'd be grateful. I like my pad. Its a good product and I would love to see other drummers give it a try.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

vintage sticks: ludwig and slingerland

Last year, I expanded my interest in vintage drum pads to include the occasional pair of vintage sticks. I had an opportunity to buy an old pair of Slingerland 3S marching sticks that dated from the early 1960s (meaning they're as old as I am. Go ahead, I don't mind). They were in great shape, so I bit.

That began the side-interest of looking for sticks from the years when I began drumming, and if anything older than that turned up, well, that was fine with me as well.

Last month, I found another pair of vintage marching sticks. They cost a fair amount for me -- over twenty bucks plus shipping, which is rather rich for my budget -- but I love Ludwig stuff and had to buy these as well.

Both pairs are really fat, and feel substantial without being too heavy.

Below: Ludwig "Burns Moore" 3S Model, ca. 1950s (top) and Slingerland "Marching" 3S model (bottom).

Slingerland's marching sticks, though labeled "3S", feel thicker than a standard 3S stick. In fact, these sticks won't fit through the holes in my wall-mounted stick display. (Note to self: get busy and make that second display unit, and drill larger holes.)
The challenge with vintage sticks is that years of exposure to the elements -- temperature and humidity changes -- plus the impact of years of playing can lead to warping. (Sticks made in this era could also come warped from the factory due to less stringent quality control and treating, so finding straight sticks from this time period can sometimes be hard.)
Finally, sticks in this era weren't pitch-matched consistently, the way many companies do today; so even if the sticks came straight out of the factory, it could be hard finding a pair that matched in pitch. This is why, when I was a kid, the way we looked for sticks at the music store was to empty the entire slot of one make and size from the stick display, lay the sticks on the glass counter, roll them to find the straightest ones, then tap them gently on the glass to match up a pair by pitch to take home.
Eventually, companies began pitch-matching at the factory, I suppose because retailers were tired of cleaning up after slobs who didn't always put the unwanted sticks back in the slot.

This pair of Slingerland sticks is neither truly straight, nor pitch-matched. Still, for five bucks it was a good bargain.

The Ludwig sticks came in much nicer condition, and are more closely matched in pitch. One of the sticks is beginning to show a tiny bit of warping but they've hardly been played.

This model is named for (and possibly designed in conjunction with) the great champion drummer and drum instructor J. Burns Moore, one of the original founding members of NARD (National Association of Rudimental Drummers, founded in 1933, folded in 1977 and reactivated in 2008).

(Below: J. Burns Moore, in a WFL advertisement. WFL eventually became Ludwig Drum Company.)

I'm guessing that the Ludwig stucks date from the early to mid 1950s, perhaps as a tribute to Moore who had died in 1951. I don't know how long his name would have carried cache in the drumming scene after his death, so it's hard to know when or why these sticks would bear his name. If they're older than 1950, they're in beautiful shape for their age.

I'm going to do some more research and see what I can find out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

no need to reinvent the wheel, or go with what you know

I came of drumming age, as it were, in the days when marching drums came with Mylar heads, same as concert drums.
Around the time I had graduated high school, some drum lines were experimenting with a head made of woven Kevlar (the same stuff found in bulletproof vests). Kevlar was the new miracle material; drums heads made from it could be tuned higher and tighter than any Mylar head. As a result, kids in the 1980s began putting Kevlar heads on their regular drums, cranking down the lug bolts, and playing hard enough to break lugs and drum shells.
Of course, this led to the development of high-tension drums, with a free-floating shell and a tubular lug that could withstand the forces of cranked-down Kevlar heads. Eventually it even led to drum tuning wrenches that could handle the torque required to tune a high-tension drum. (I have one of these and I only use it on the aforementioned drums. It's complete overkill for anything else.)

The result changed marching percussion forever. Modern drum corps and marching bands now use Kevlar or Kevlar-Carbon hybrid heads almost exclusively. Today's kids are learning to play on these heads from middle school onward, with the result that it's ruining their concert technique (because we still use Mylar heads in orchestral playing and they require a very different touch) and it's ruining their hands and wrists in the long run (because the tension is so high there's no real "give" and all the shock goes into the hands and wrists, causing fatigue and a high potential for tendon and joint injury in younger players).

I had just missed the Kevlar boat when my marching days ended; The one season I marched in college band the school was broke and still had older drums with Mylar heads. When I began coaching high school drum lines, nearly every one was equipped with high-tension drums and Kevlar heads. I had to adjust my playing approach, and my hands became fatigued early on. Eventually, I learned to play examples on a pad and let the snare players figure out on their drums. (I didn't yet know that high-tension drums could cause long-term issues; I just figured it was because I wasn't used to it.)

When I joined the UBB last year, I scored a used Dynasty Wedge snare and carrier to march with. The drum's sound was tight and crisp -- and completely out of p[lace for the second-line style of playing I was being asked to do. But it weighed far less than a regular high-tension drum, so I hung with it until I came across this Ludwig marching snare drum from the 1970s, around the time I played in high school band. After some fussing and cleaning and little help from the fellas at Revival Drum Shop, The drum has become a serious player. And I love it so much I've put my Wedge drum up for sale.


You'll notice that, with Mylar heads, you really have to draw the sound out of the drum more; you can't just let the sticks bounce happily away, because Mylar heads will require you to do a little of the work, controlling the strokes with your hands and wrists. (This i why, back when I marched, we practiced at night on our pillows before going to sleep in the gym on tour. The pillow made us do ALL the work, and we built up our chops as a result. Today, I'm sure wouldn't be able to pull of half of what I'm doing with my arthritic hands, if I had not worked out this way as a kid.)

You'll also notice a fuller, deeper sound with a lot more space in it. That's because of both the shape of the drum and the lower tension required for Mylar heads, both of which lend more depth and color to the snare drum's sound. (My drum is a 14" x 10" model -- try this in a 15" or 16" snare drum from the 50's and you'll be amazed at the depth and darkness of the tone.)

I've put the wedge and carrier up for sale on Facebook's Marching Percussion Marketplace, at what I think is a very good price for each.

Because you know what the other benefit of going back is? With a sling and leg rest, this drum weighs far less than my high-tension setup, and my whole body is happier.

Sometimes going retro is the right thing to do.
I'll never play Kevlar heads again. Because I don't need to.

Happy drumming!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

evidence of drumming: a life in rhythm

I wish I had more photographic evidence of my time spent devoted to drumming.
But all I have are these photos. Hopefully, they tell most of the story.

1. 1973: Why I chose drumming.

(Above: Karen and David Carpenter, 1969. Check that traditional grip.)

I'd already been playing beats on anything I could find. When I was seven, my best friend owned two Hoppity Hops (remember those?) and when we'd watch The Partridge Family at her house, I'd turn them into my drum kit while she grabbed a giant Magic Marker and made it a microphone. The year I turned nine we moved to California. My Dad bought me a cheap set of bongos at the souvenir booth at Frontier Village, a third-tier theme park in San Jose. I played along with records and the radio until the heads broke. Then my Mom patched them up with duct tape and I played them some more.

 In the summer of 1973, we moved from Walnut Creek to Concord, California. In fifth grade I was old enough to take a music class at the new school. My parents, both trained singers, hoped I'd sign up for choir. Being terrified of singing solo in front of people, I chose instrumental music.
The teacher, a fine cellist in the local community orchestra, invited me to consider taking up the cello. I loved the sound, but it wouldn't fit in my bicycle basket and we only had one car. So I asked for something more portable. I was given the option of violin (nope), clarinet (definitely not) and drums, which at the time required me to own only a practice pad and sticks.
I was warned I'd be the only girl in the drum section, but that didn't bother me since I was already the only girl interested in lots of "boy" things (like skateboarding and BMX).

I suddenly remembered that Karen Carpenter played drums and she was awesome.
That last reason pretty much decided it for me.

2. Gresham High School, Homecoming parade, fall 1977.

I moved with my family to Gresham, Oregon in 1975. After living in or very close to much larger cities, I thought Portland (and by extension, Gresham to the east) was a hick town with provincial, almost tribal loyalties that made little room for new kids like me. Still, once we landed in Oregon we weren't moving again, so I made the best of it.

In my freshman year of high school, I joined the marching band and played a traditional single tenor drum. (I'm marching in front of the guy with the light blue saxophone strap, my face partly obscured by the saxophonist marching in front of me.) If it rained, we marched. If it blew hard from the east, we marched. A parent would bring hot baked potatoes to the drumline at every home football game so we could stuff them inside our sleeves to keep our hands warm. After we played at halftime, we'd eat them, still warm, while the infamous East Wind would come screaming out of the Columbia Gorge and almost rip my face off.
I loved those old-school uniforms; the white wool overlay could be removed to reveal a tuxedo jacket underneath which was worn for concert band. (Women wore blue vests and skirts and white blouses, all of which had to be sewn from an approved pattern. I sold my vest and skirt back to the school when I graduated.) And those spats! So cool.
Sadly, these uniforms were replaced the following year by ugly, "modern" zip-up jackets, black pants and new shakos that were glittery and over the top.
Today, my alma mater's band program has NO real uniforms. Concert attire is black pants or skirt and a white dress shirt; and the marching band plays in sweatshirts and jeans.


(Vintage content: We played Ludwig drums that dated from the 1960s. Today my tenor drum would be a collector's item, selling on eBay for upwards of $100 in good condition. In my senior year, I could choose to play snare drum, or the brand-new marching Roto-Toms that we ordered to approximate "corps-style" drum lines. I chose the Roto-Toms and had a blast. I recently acquired NOS tenor mallets with wooden heads, exactly like the ones I used in that final year, still in the packaging. I may actually play with them at some point.)

Later that summer, I marched for three months with the Spartans Drum & Bugle Corps of Vancouver, WA. Two months of rehearsals in the spring, followed by First Tour, a three-week barnstorming tour through the Pacific Northwest. Drum Corps was really hard on me physically, for reasons which would only become clear in adulthood; but I still loved it and was looking forward to going on the national Second Tour, which would culminate in a performance at the DCI World Championships.

It all ended when my mother met the bus at the corps hall on the last day of first tour, bundled me into our car, and on the way home told me I wouldn't be marching with the corps anymore. My father had lost his job -- a nightclub he'd been playing piano bar in for almost a year suddenly closed on him without warning. The next night they re-opened with a DJ; it was the height of the disco era and lots of clubs found it cheaper to hire a DJ than to pay a live band. When he complained to his union local, they told him he was on his own. My dad tore up his union card at that meeting and was immediately blacklisted.

I had to find work -- mowing lawns, babysitting, delivering the paper, or whatever else a fifteen-year-old could do for money. I spent some of my free time scavenging garbage bins and back alleys for pop and beer bottles; thanks to Oregon's landmark Bottle Bill,  I could take the empties back for change, and that was my allowance each week. With the money from my part-time "regular" jobs, I helped my parents pay the utility bills all summer. (My sister was old enough to work as a waitress, and she was outgoing and really pretty so she got a lot of tips.)
We ate a lot of tuna casserole and my Dad didn't find steady work again for several months. I never marched in corps again, a regret that lingers today.

(Below: rumor has it I'm somewhere in this photo, though I barely remember the parade. We marched a LOT of parades during First Tour. I'll assume this was late in that tour, after I was switched from timps to bells, which would put me in front of the timps and out of photo range.)

3. Western Oregon State College, 1983.

I'm playing with our college stage band at the Oregon Collegiate Jazz Festival, somewhere in Salem if memory serves.  We weren't half bad. Our kit drummer was a great player (though like most twenty-year-old guys he was a little full of himself).
Our brass section was to die for. I played Latin percussion and occasionally vibes. That is my old HS concert blouse, the only dressy white shirt I owned at the time, with black slacks and a vest I scored at Goodwill.
(Vintage content: Those congas are vintage Gon-Bops from the 60s. They were a thing of beauty and a joy to play. I really hope they're still being played somewhere.)

In the late 1980s I played with a band called Pure Imagination, a vocal quartet backed by a combo. We did charts made famous by the Four Freshman, the Modernaires, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and the Swingle Singers -- all the vocal jazz groups whose music I'd been weaned on in school. At the time I was also making money playing in pit orchestras for musicals and operettas (please don't ask me how I feel about Gilbert & Sullivan. Thank you.), and had a beautiful Ludwig four-piece Ringo Starr model kit with white marine pearl finish. I was so stoked to buy this kit that I held a "christening" party for it in my tiny apartment, and invited the cast and crew of the show I was playing in to celebrate with me. To my great surprise, a lot of them did.

Sadly, there are no pictures of me with that kit. In 1997, my right hand was seriously injured in a bicycle-car collision. After two surgeries and a year of PT, I was told that my playing would likely never be the same. So I sold most of my percussion instruments, including that kit.

This was the beginning of a ten-year break from playing drums and percussion, and the beginning of my career as a singer-songwriter.

4. Northwest Folklife Festival, Seattle, 2010, with Jack Falk. 

Along with rudimental drumming, I'd learned to accompany singers -- my parents first, and then school jazz choirs -- on brushes. I loved playing brushes for singers because it taught me how to phrase and breathe with them. I maintain that singing, and working with singers, made me a better drummer.

In the early 2000's, I got married, bought a house, and longed to play drums again. So I started with just a snare drum and brushes, and practiced rudiments on a little Remo practice pad like the one from my childhood. Eventually, friends got wind of my return to drumming and invited me to sit in with them now and then. Jack Falk, a good friend of ours, had retired from his European touring to return to school and finish a Masters degree, and invited me to play out with him now and then.

Here, I'm playing for the amazing klezmer artist Jack Falk at Northwest Folklife, one of the largest and oldest folk festivals in the USA. I went up to Seattle in a Prius packed with luggage and other instruments -- I was also playing a solo set on the songwriter's stage -- so I could only bring a snare and hi-hat. Jack assured me that would be enough, and it was. In fact, he was so thrilled with how it came out that he asked me to stay onstage and play for a set by UW's student klezmer band,  the Disciples of Goldenshteyn. It was a gloriously fat, messy set filled with laughing trombones and crying clarinets, and I had a helluva good time.

4. Kit drumming, 2010-12.

When I began to play again I assembled a drum kit from spare parts, obtained mostly at thrift shops, online and yard sales. The kit included a sweet vintage Royce snare drum that, for having only six lugs, sounded amazing. I converted a floor tom into a really small kick drum and rebuilt it with wooden hoops and bass drum heads. The idea was to use it to accompany soloists and small ensembles, so I never bothered to get a rack tom for it. By this time, though,  didn't really have anywhere to play it, and because I was still working full-time as a bike mechanic I didn't have time to pursue it. I eventually sold the kit to a friend for twice what it had cost me to cobble it together.

5. Shalshelet Jewish Music Festival, 2013, Miami. 

In all the time I'd stopped drumming with sticks, I was still making sounds on anything I could get my hands on, including doumbek, tar (African frame drum), maracas, and tambourines.
In 2013, one of my compositions was accepted for inclusion at a Jewish music festival taking place in Miami. At the same time, I was also forging ahead with a full-time Jewish music career, having left the bike shop for good in 2012. I played a fundraiser show to cover my airfare, and went down to Miami, where it was immediately clear that I was a Jewish singer-songwriter who could also drum. I made myself available to other festival artists and wound up spending a fair amount of time onstage at the gala concert.

I continued to tour as a Jewish artist and educator-in-residence, and added percussion to my educational kit, accompanying multiple artists and even ending up on a couple of their recordings.
Today, I am as often found behind a drum as I am singing out front at Jewish festivals and music conferences.

6. Tziona Achishena, Portland concert 2018.

Jack Falk called me last August. "The Sephardic shul [synagogue] is hosting an Israeli artist, she's awesome and needs a drummer. However, because it's an orthodox shul, no men are allowed at the concert [The orthodox have a rule about men not hearing womens' voices in public spaces]. You're the only woman drummer I know who could learn her tunes quickly enough. The concert's in two days and she says she'll pay a hundred and fifty bucks. Want the gig?"

I brought my percussive love to an audience of mostly orthodox Jewish women from around the Portland area, accompanying a talented and gracious artist named Tziona Achishena. It was a whirlwind evening, I hung on for dear life to the charts, Tziona was a brilliant singer and composer, the whole roomful of women and girls got up and danced through the aisles, and everyone had a joyous time. (Video, below: I'm accompanying Tziona on a five-gallon water bottle with an amazing sound.)

7. Today. Still at it.

I'm playing drums every morning, chopping out on a practice pad as part of my meditative practice and a way to help manage the depression I was diagnosed with five years ago.
Along the way, I've re-discovered the joy of rudimental drumming for its own sake, joined a community band and am slowly working my way to true drum happiness.
I make and sell little travel cajons from recycled wooden cigar boxes and repurposed snare hardware.
I've joined a couple of online forums dedicated to rudimental drumming and vintage drums, and I feel like I've reconnected with a piece of my childhood that was especially happy and today is a source of comfort and joy.

Anything can be a drum. Anything. Happy playing!