The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae

This interview is the first in a series I’m calling “The Metacognition of Drumming”. Getting musicians to speak in concrete language about performance and other forms of musicking is notoriously difficult, but it’s crucial that artists, scientists, and amphibians dissolve our hard disciplinary edges. To this end, I will share my conversations with drummers (and maybe a lucky few non-percussionists) in an attempt to articulate these very non-wordy things we do when we play music together.
James McRae is a Vancouver Island institution, a fabulous musician, and a stalwart friend. I’m sad we don’t jam so often since I moved to England, but I’m grateful we could exchange some thoughts on the types of cognitive/active strategies drummers use here. If any readers have a perspective they’d like to share, drop me an email! And stay tuned for the next edition, featuring Robert Glasper Experiment drummer, Yamaha-sponsored artist, and Grammy Award-winner Mark Colenburg.

ADM: What is your approach to groove, both as a drummer and as a teacher?
JM: All music has to feel good. If it doesn’t feel good, people are going to turn away! How much of this is based on groove? A lot, probably. The feel changes based on the tempo. Steady tempos are great, but having metronomic time seems more artificial than natural.

ADM: “Feel” is sometimes used as an exclusively musical term, but it seems to have a double meaning here, such as the manner in which one carries his or herself generally.
JM: If someone is relaxed, I think it shows in the time feel. If someone is excited, it can sometimes influence the tempo by speeding up. if someone is depressed, it might slow down. One might be able to get a read on someone based on their time feel.
ADM: So if the way you play is a manifestation of your overall body feel, how do you teach swing?
JM: People sometimes say it can’t be taught. I am mixed on this viewpoint. I mostly think of music as an expression of the individual: I am not going to sound like Elvin Jones or Max Roach—and I don’t want to sound like them, either. Trying to sound the same as someone (by transcribing their performance) is a good exercise and takes discipline, but re-creating the feel is a different thing. Why not get into your own feel? This is what makes those players so great: you can hear that they feel the music a particular way. A swing rhythm can be taught, but can the teacher teach a student how to feel it? I don’t think so. It has to come from within. So, this is why I am mixed on this idea that the swing rhythm can’t be taught. It’s the feel that can’t be taught.
Where it gets interesting is when the feel is not quite straight 8ths, nor triplets. This happens in the case of New Orleans music, where musicians sometimes talk of ”playing in the cracks”.
ADM: What about other aspects of rhythmic sophistication, such as rhythmic dissonance, that is, when the basic pulse is destabilized or ambiguous, like in a polyrhythm?
JM: I get a sense of freedom from the ability to impose a different emphasis on the music. It is the idea of being able to see music from a few different angles, as opposed to only one. In a quarter note (4/4) against 6/8 (triple) context, there is the main pulse going on, but it is felt more in two and three, as opposed to four, for example.
ADM: Do certain motions or areas of your body perform the pulse in different ways, especially if you’re expressing a polyrhythm like the one you mention?
JM: As a drummer, one has to teach themselves to be able to play one body part off the other. For example, I will play the quarter note on the ride cymbal with my right hand, and the six 8th-note triplets on my left hand. Then you teach yourself to reverse this. And then you teach your feet to do the same. You can teach your feet to follow your hands, or rather to do something in contrast to your hands. I don’t know that one can do four independent things in all four limbs, but I worked through a book called 4-Way Coordination by Marvin Dahlgren and Elliot Fine. The exercises involve 8ths, 16ths and triplets. It is a very challenging book and I don’t know that many drummers would be able to do all of the exercises! Thank god it is mostly in 2/4 or 4/4!
I find it easier to start with my left foot than my right, if I am doing a roll between the feet. I don’t know what this means, other than that a person might have an automatic orientation towards playing something a certain way. Recognizing these limitations and overcoming them shows a level of devotion that not all drummers feel the need for. But you are always limited by your technical level and vocabulary and how far you have taken it.
ADM: So, assuming they have the means of technical skill and vocabulary, a good rhythmic feel can’t be separated from other elements of an individual’s persona?
Ultimately, music is about feeling good and having an uplifting feel to me. If it is missing that, I am less interested! In terms of rhythmic feel, I wonder how much technology is imposing itself on music. Some people think that it makes it more sterile and non-feeling. So much polishing in the studio tends to produce music that looks good on the surface, but seems to be missing an organic feel that I associate with people playing music, as opposed to machines. Machines correct human flaws, or hiccups in the music, but I prefer the hiccups from time to time, the fluctuations. I associate that with human feel.

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Alexis Deighton MacIntyre

PhD student in cognitive neuroscience, jazz guitarist, Vancouver Islander living in the UK. Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge; Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London.