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Frequently, when working with a drum student they will bring their iPod to the lesson and say something like “I want to learn to play this song.” My first question is usually “Do you really know the song?” They always respond with an emphatic “Yes!” So, I plug the iPod into my speakers and ask the student to play along to see how well they really know it. 99% of the time their performance demonstrates that they have only casually listened to it a few times.

Case in point: A student wanted to learn the drum parts for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song Dani California. This tune has a great funky groove (laid down by Chad Smith), and on first listening doesn’t really seem too complex. However, each time my student tried to play along, his fills were always coming in early or just weren’t performed confidently. So we started to investigate the bones of the song, or the form (the overall plan or structure of the music). Instead of listening ad nauseum to each section of the tune and then teaching them the drum parts by rote, which may or may not stick, I find it much better to get the kids to do rough transcriptions of the tune, focusing on the form. The first step in the process is always getting some blank paper, yes blank paper, not staff paper. (I do this myself if I am playing a new tune too – basically a cheat sheet!)

I write the title of the piece on top of the paper in big letters.

Then start taking notes on the big broad concepts, with specific attention given to the form.

Here are questions to start answering as you listen …

  • What is the meter? 4/4, 3/4, etc …
  • What is the tempo? Slow, Medium, Fast?
  • How many sections are there in this piece? Is there an Intro? Verse? Chorus? Any solos? Etc.
 

We established that Dani California was in 4/4 with a medium funk-rock groove.

  • How many measures is the intro?
 

After a few listenings… my student realized that there are only six measures of intro prior to the vocals. So we jotted that down on the paper. Intro —6 measure—

  • When does the next section begin?

When the vocals come in we started counting again …

1st Verse 8 measures

Now, here is where something really invented happened, that my student was continually missing … the 2nd Verse is 8 measures long , but has an extra measure build-up to the Chorus … so the 2nd verse is really —9 measures.

It is a very cool arrangement trick that the band employed. Most people subconsciously want the phrases to remain consistent…but with that extra measure it really adds to the tension just prior to the Chorus and prolongs the harmonic release. That being said, my student could now play this song with much more confidence and it gave him an insight into the arranger’s mind. Sometimes very simple additions and subtractions can really add to the intensity of the song. At the end of the lesson we had a paper that sort of looked like this:

Dani California

I also told him to print the lyrics to the song, memorize them, and sing along while he’s playing, and see how they correlate to the form of the song. Having the visual plus the aural cues allowed him to really know that tune within a few short days.

Give It A Shot

Another great example of needing to be familiar with the form of a song was evidence while I was charting out Bon Jovi’s rock anthem “Livin’ on a Prayer”. The first two times that they lead into the chorus they sing and play this rhythm:

After which Tico Torres plays a big fat snare drum on beat 4, which leads beautifully into the refrain.

Give It A Shot

However, the third and last time that the band leads into the refrain the meter (beats per measure) change. Instead of the above pattern in 4/4 or Common Time, they drop a beat and play the measure in 3/4 , which does the exact opposite of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song. Since this is the third time, everyone expects the big fat snare drum crack on beat four but it never happens! Beat four is gone! the refrain begins one beat sooner than expected, which really adds to the excitement of this final refrain.

Rock Song Title

Both of the above examples are related to the form of the song. Once you have a chart that looks somewhat like the one below, then your students can really begin to dissect each section, break the sections down into individual measures, individual beats, etc.

Having a tangible, hardcopy of the form of the song will allow the student to really understand the song and the drummer’s role in the performance.

If you and your students find this useful and are spending the time charting out the tunes you should start to catalogue the songs. I keep a binder in my studio of all the tunes that I have charted out in lessons with my students or for my own gigs. I went to the local office supply store and bought some of the dividers with the letters of the alphabet on them so I could reference older charts quickly. Charting out tunes and having them handy was especially usual when I played with a lot of wedding bands, the leaders would forewarn us (if possible) of some requests the bride and groom had made. I’d quickly get a recording if I wasn’t familiar with the tune, and do a chart. Having the chart on the stand with the form and lyrics allowed me to perform with much more confidence. And surprisingly some tunes that seem easy upon first listening can have some tricky spots, proving that focused and repeated listening is always useful. Usually the better the band or singer, the more deceptive and hipper the arrangement tends to be.

Next time you or your students think “Yeah, I know that tune!” think again: “Do you really know it?”


Sean Kennedy Philadelphia-area drummer, Sean J. Kennedy is equally at home on the concert stage or in the teaching studio. Due to his versatility, Kennedy has been able to record and perform with some of the world’s best musicians, including Bob Mintzer, Liberty DeVitto, Ricky Byrd, Donald Nally, Richie Cannata and the late Dr. Frederick Fennell.

In June 2009 Carl Fischer Music Publishing released “Rock Solid: Drums” a rock drumset method book co-authored by Kennedy and Liberty DeVitto. Kennedy holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in percussion performance, and endorses Zildjian Cymbals, Casio Keyboards, Vic Firth Drumsticks and Evans Drumheads exclusively. To contact Sean visit www.seanjkennedy.com.