The late Ginger Baker is renowned for his highly innovative approach to the drum kit, one which he expressed through the force of his own indomitable spirit. His prodigious technique, combined with musical sensibilities rooted in jazz and indigenous African rhythms, provided the tool kit for his iconic explorations of the instrument. And while none of us are the same, there is much we can learn from his musical legacy to channel our ‘inner Ginger’ and encourage higher levels of creativity and innovation in our own playing. Let’s take a look a few ways that we might do this.
When looking for new ideas or inspiration, the benefits of listening to music cannot be overstated. But are we really listening? We have the enormous privilege these days of having access to a seemingly endless amount of music across a myriad of different platforms, but there’s a danger that this can become akin to background noise. Listening takes place on different levels, and to truly absorb what we are listening to we need to set aside time and to focus our attention in a singular way. While there may be benefits to listening to music peripherally, more long-lasting (and inspirational) outcomes from listening occur when we approach it with intentionality.
When we develop a mindset that treats listening seriously, we then can also decide with more clarity what it is we should actually listen to. Whether it is music that we closely identify with or less familiar artists and genres, making a conscious decision to fully focus our attention when listening can bring profound changes to our musical universe.
How many times have we acquired a new piece of gear (e.g. a ride cymbal) and we immediately feel inspired? As drummers, we have virtually limitless options regarding what instruments we use and how we set them up. And while adding another tom, percussion instrument or electronics can affect our musical choices, another equally valid way of refreshing our perspective is reduction. Regardless of the size of your current kit, the act of removing some of the things that you are so familiar with and rely so heavily on can be daunting but also very liberating. Each instrument on the drum kit has a huge range of sounds and dynamics, and by reducing them you will be forced to explore more of the options on the remaining components. Additionally, you may want to experiment with your sticks (e.g. the size, shape, composition) or other objects like mallets or brushes to immediately change the sound of your musical ideas.
It’s also helpful to observe what other great drummers have done with their set-ups and learn from this. Bill Bruford is an iconic drummer who has been fearlessly innovative in his choice of drum kits and additional instruments and is widely known for his unique approach and sound. In his must-read autobiography, Bill says this about his obsession with exploring different sounds in his set-up: “…this natural inquisitiveness as to what might be possible on a drum kit was leading me to fruitful avenues for research and was ultimately to be much of what I was about. Could it play tunes as well? What if you got rid of all the toms and substituted oil barrels instead? What if you put a baking tray in the bass drum and put chains all over the toms: could you prepare a drum kit in the same way as Cage and Nancarrow and Cowell had ‘prepared’ the piano with thumbtacks and other paraphernalia?...In the area of timbre – the quality of sounds - it seemed that I’d found a small space from which I might contribute.”
Change your environment
A change in your environment can also open you up to a whole new universe of sights, sounds and influences. For example, if you’re used to working in a quiet, controlled setting it may be beneficial to experience the bustling environment found in the heart of any urban city.
This idea is eloquently explained in the book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. He has a number of interesting things to say on the subject of creativity, and in one of the chapters he posits that the ‘urban friction’ found in a large city can be a catalyst for creative ideas. It may not always be pleasant, but crowded spaces force us to interact with others and not become isolationist. And it’s this type of interaction that can inspire ideas and innovation that would not have happened otherwise.
One of Lehrer’s main proponents for the urban life and its creative benefits is David Byrne of the Talking Heads. Byrne tells how the mixture of ethnic sounds in his New York city lifestyle profoundly shaped his music – everything from funky Latin beats to jangly Nigerian bass lines to CBGBs style punk. About his music, he says: “The city definitely made it possible. A lot of what’s in the music is stuff that I first heard because it was playing down the street. Those are the accidents that have always been so important for creativity. And they just happen naturally in the right place…In a vibrant city, you can get just as much from going to the barbershop, or walking down a crowded street, as you can from going to a museum. It’s about letting all that stuff in, so that the city can change you.”
Another subject covered in Imagine is the paradox that, as we mature, we become inhibited; we become overly self-conscious of what we say, how we sound or of making a mistake. As we develop skills and knowledge, we also develop filters; and while these are necessary and useful, our creative output can suffer as a result. The legendary artist Picasso put it like this: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” To contextualise this from a musical standpoint, the virtuoso cellist Yo Yo Ma says the following: “When people ask me how they should approach performance, I always tell them that the professional musician should aspire to the state of the beginner…one needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning to play the cello…he is playing because making this sound, expressing this melody, makes him happy. This is still the only good reason to play.”
While focus and concentration are essential elements of a successful performance, being too fixated on the minutiae of your technique might make the overall quality of the music suffer. Sometimes in music or sport you hear an outstanding performance described as someone playing ‘out of their mind’. In other words, there were aspects of the performance that went beyond thought; the activity itself became one that flowed intuitively and was not limited by excessive cognition.
While attending one of his masterclasses years ago, I heard renowned UK bassist Shez Raja give the seemingly counterintuitive advice to ‘pray for mistakes’. To understand what he meant by this, you need to know that Shez is an incredible bassist who plays music at the highest level. He therefore plays ‘without mistakes’ for most of the time and does not intentionally play badly. What he means by ‘praying for mistakes’ is to allow yourself the child-like freedom to play music in such a way that you can turn unintended mistakes into a creative advantage; i.e. something that you wouldn’t have thought of playing intentionally, but can actually have positive effect on the music if embraced and repurposed.
If, in a moment creative inspiration, you choose to allow something non-conventional to emerge in your playing, be aware: it may attract comments. Furthermore, these comments may not all be positive – in fact, none of them might be! It’s at this point that you will need to self-evaluate and decide where the truth lies – i.e. what is good and right for the music and what is actually resonating with your soul. Hopefully these two objectives will not be mutually exclusive, or at least without some options for compromise. Not every innovative artist (e.g. David Bowie) was immediately successful with their endeavours. Truly iconic artists have often had to stand by the strength of their convictions in the face of criticism and maintain a firm self-belief in what they are doing. Remember that context is vital in making innovative musical choices; the tension between sticking with existing conventions and doing something unusual is one that all artists must learn to navigate.
In a world where artists face continual judgement and criticism, expressing creativity, whatever the risk, is the very thing that feeds the soul and often allows true innovation to occur. There are many musical situations that requires adherence to clear conventions, whether it be playing in a specific manner or producing a particular type of sound. And while these expectations will always exist, there is usually at least a small amount of wiggle room with regards to how you fulfil them; this is where our creativity can shine, even if it’s in an understated manner. Equally, the so-called rule book sometimes needs to be thrown away (Ginger-style) to foster the fresh winds of innovation, and it’s up to each one of to decide when that moment is. As a final piece of advice, keep being a listener – in addition to stimulating creative ideas, it also will help you to be discerning as you endeavour to find the correct balance between musical maturity and the child-like creative spirit within you.