The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with Mark Colenburg

From his work with Common, Q-Tip, and A Tribe Called Quest, to gigs with Kenny Garret and Kurt Rosenwinkel, not to mention a Grammy win with Robert Glasper, drummer Mark Colenburg’s resume speaks to his virtuosity and innovative approach to rhythm. I’ve admired his playing for a long time, so I was very pleased to find that he is interested in rhythm cognition and was happy to share some thoughts on his mental and physical strategies as an elite musician and timing specialist. Life as a trainee scientist has been heavy (in a good way) lately, so this piece is a long time coming. Thanks for staying tuned!

ADM: I know you started out really young, but as you developed as a musician, were there any particularly difficult concepts or techniques (e.g., a feel, or maybe a specific series of movements) that come to mind? What was the breakthrough? Was there a mental strategy, a movement, or maybe something like a mnemonic that helped you to finally ‘get it’?

MC: Yes, I did start at the very young age of two. Early on in my development (which is continual), everything seemed difficult. The concept of single strokes, double strokes, and triple strokes, playing those patterns with drumsticks on a floor, was very challenging but so intriguing at the same time. Independence between my limbs, conviction, and tempo control are just a few other challenging concepts that come to mind. My strategy to overcoming some of those humps were intentional quality, effort, learned and unlearned exploring, and time. Using those strategies really helped me to establish a strong foundation mentally, physically and spiritually. 

ADM: If you’re working with polyrhythms, syncopation, or otherwise playing around with rhythmic dissonance, is there any particular sensation or impression of what that feels like, compared to a relatively straight-forward or stable groove?

MC: To me, the difference in playing straight versus syncopated really depends on my train of thought at the time. In my studies, I’ve found both concepts to come with their own interpretations. To briefly explain: when I’m only thinking of a rhythm and that’s it, that’s when I’m most congruent within myself. It’s only when the transference of the rhythmic idea to a single limb or across multiple limbs that the “rhythmic dissonance” becomes a sensation. The more I’m physically conditioned to execute those ideas, the dissonance becomes more natural or straight. So there are a lot of factors at play. The experience from the listener’s standpoint may be totally different.

ADM: Right, the listener may be experiencing something much more rhythmically “dissonant” because they may not have access to this full-body congruence you describe. So it could sound like unrelated patterns playing out simultaneously to them, whereas for you it’s a holistic percept. Are there any genre or traditions that you find (or found) particularly challenging or difficult to grasp, even just as a listener?

MC: Yes, absolutely. When I was starting music, every form was difficult and foreign to my ears. Gospel, jazz, and classical were all challenging to me as both a player and listener. When I wanted to learn something I would listen, emulate, and creatively execute. It would only start to feel natural when applying what I practiced in real life situations over and over again. Once I’m very familiar and it’s automatic, it feels like when you’ve driven the same route in a car for a while. You don’t have to focus on how to get there, you just go there, which create freedom for other explorations.

It’s about vocabulary and having extensive experience in making decisions on how or when to apply it. There are lots of techniques to aid in learning various rhythm concepts. One is to listen to a wide range of music. Two is to spend time emulating what is heard on the desired instrument. Three is to work with and without a time keeping device or technological source.

ADM: Sounds a lot like learning any other language. Learn, copy, alter or recombine what you copied, learn and copy some more, et cetera. But teaching various aspects of rhythm seems to challenge educators in a way that other categories of musical expertise don’t. I’ve heard life-long pedagogues claim that a good swing feel, for example, just can’t be taught.

MC: That’s basically it, learning a language. Add some exploration with creativity and you’ve got it. I’ve also heard it said that “certain points of music can’t be taught” as well. I think when someone says that, they are referring more to the system being used to teach it, instead of the actual process of learning it. I believe that’s just the best way they know how to communicate it.

You’re right that there are not enough educated or experienced rhythmic speakers in institutions that teach this accurately. I strongly believe that it’s to do with rhythm overall being treated as a low form of communication, within most curriculums and even amongst a lot of musicians (which is another soap box, lol). The way I try to help students or mentees is to fully immerse them in the study of the language of rhythm, which overall will help their understanding and execution of rhythm.

ADM: I think rhythm is treated as low (or dispensable) form of communication in language, too! Maybe we really do need a soap box. So, what makes good rhythm – what does it for you?

MC: Well, there are at least four parts to this for me. You have good feel, good timing, intellectuality and then strong personality. Good feel goes along with how well the language of the music being expressed cause rhythmic harmony and comes across to the listener. Good time has to deal with being more precise with the intended tempo of the performance. Intellectuality to me is the why, when, and how rhythm is constructed and executed. Strong personality, to me, is the uniqueness of an individual that translates through good rhythm, which also can sometimes transcend the prior three. Any one of these four can inspire me in various ways—intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually (especially if a player combines all four aspects).

Mark has a new instructional set out focusing on the genius of J Dilla, particularly the late, great producer’s contribution to modern rhythmic vocabulary – his influence to contemporary jazz cannot be overstated. Check it out.