GEORG BECK’S NEW BOOK IS SOUND ADVICE FOR DRUMMERS
PLAY AS YOU ARE: A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS – PICKING A DRUMMER’S MIND
When John Bonham collected containers and coffee tins to make his first drum kit at the age of five, it isn’t likely that he was much of an imitation of his idols, Max Roach, Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich. That young, musical expression is a feeling, not a thought process. Finding the proper outlet for such artistic expression may lead to multi-instrumental experimentation before the muse becomes apparent. In Bonham’s case, he found his instrument early, but it would take 15 years for him to find the right opportunity to hone his skills and craft his sound. Led Zeppelin’s music was the muse, his drum kit, the tool through which he served the music and stamped his sound identity on it. Had he gotten on stage and played to not fuck up, rather than to interpret the music as only he could, he would not be the idol he is to so many drummers, and his death would not have caused one of the greatest rock bands of all time to call it quits. For a drummer, that is the benchmark for the ideal, Play As You Are.
Georg Beck is an Austrian-born drummer who now makes his home in Philadelphia. His background in music, and the struggles and frustrations he’s faced as a working musician, are much the same as you hear from so many these days. As music is universal, so is the struggle to earn a living playing an instrument. Georg was born in the countryside of Austria, had formal lessons on both piano and drums, and joined his first band as a teenager. Knowing what he wanted to do with his life was never a question; he said he’d always wanted to be a drummer. After high school, he jumped right into the life of a working musician, even sending his dad to pick up his high school diploma because he had a sound check. The reaction to his wanting to play drums for a living was met with incredulity. In the Austrian countryside, being a professional musician was unheard of. To pursue his dream, he had to relocate to Austria’s largest city. He moved to Vienna in 1999 to attend the Conservatory of Vienna, graduating with honors in 2003.
The next ten years of Georg’s life would be spent chasing his dream in an endless pursuit of the musical elixir that would pay the bills and support an average lifestyle. The platforms for such opportunities that exist in this country aren’t as readily available in Europe. Where language and cultural differences don’t come into play here, taking a gig even three hours from home by plane or car can mean playing in vastly different circumstances. The European continent would seem ripe with opportunities to play music for a living. However, every border crossing presents another hurdle to be jumped in the race to Play As You Are. Georg said he’s always enjoyed all kinds of music, but found his preference to lie somewhere between rock and funk, citing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer, Chad Smith, as a major influence. To find a rock gig with any kind of serious potential on the continent and abroad, Germany was the place to be. In Georg’s case, he spoke the language, but relocation was a major ordeal, not like moving from Dallas to Nashville for the chance at a better gig.
As with anyone who wishes to pursue music as a career, playing is the ultimate expression of that passion. Georg took gigs whenever possible, and supplemented with session work and teaching private lessons. While sessions and teaching can be a very fulfilling part of the job, the grind of playing gigs and the hustling to get them can turn to burnout very quickly. Finding himself exactly in that state, Georg said he nearly quit playing drums in 2012. He was overwhelmed with professional self-doubt, the drag of comparative thinking, and feeling boxed in with no room to grow as a player. Reluctantly, he stuck with it, and an encounter in his personal life led to new opportunities in his career. A social media connection turned into a real one when a woman he’d met online came to visit him in Austria. One thing led to another, and as he’d followed his heart in the desire to play drums, this heartfelt reaction led him to Philadelphia in 2013.
Now married and a full-time resident of Philly, Georg is focusing on teaching, both studio and Skype lessons, and doing session work. For now, gigging is on the back burner. He said he enjoys the curiosity and inspiration he finds in teaching and it keeps him going from day to day. His latest project, Play As You Are: A Collection of Essays – Picking A Drummer’s Mind, was not something he set out to write. When he found himself in situations with time to kill, he started writing essays on his phone. The topics were born out of the thoughts he was having about his playing, teaching, frustrations he’d encountered in his career, and struggles he’d gone through or witnessed in other drummers. Working through a particular subject, he found writing therapeutic. It gave him clarity in his work, his playing, and in setting goals for the future. What he found at the heart of his questioning was a lost connection to the art, a loss of communication between player and instrument. The book is an invitation to reconnect with the art and the player you are.
In the book’s opening, Georg tells his story of being a young, enthusiastic player, suddenly fearful and distracted after being compared to a more skilled student. Playing was no longer something he felt and reacted to freely. The mental commentary running through his head was drowning out the sound of his playing, taking the enjoyment and growth potential out of his practice. To find himself behind the kit again, he took a break from playing and came back with a different approach to the process. With a selection of mixtapes and a set of headphones, he said, “I became the drummer of the band I was playing along to.” The joy he’d once felt in playing returned when he listened only to the sound of his playing, and kicked the deafening thoughts of a wandering, fearful mind out of his head. A heightened sense of awareness led him to the connection between how he felt and how he played. An instrument as sensitive as a drum will pick up every nuance in the hit, absorbing and interpreting the energy of the player. The resonating sound isn’t just a charted note or rhythmic sequence. It either adds passion or reveals disconnection, out of disinterest or fear, to what’s being played.
To help train the mind and body in a feel good rhythm, Georg finds running a natural metronome that mimics the rhythm found in drumming. He says that disappearing in that feeling shifts your focus from where you want to be to where you are. He likens the “runner’s high” to being in the “Drummer’s Zone.” The exercise he suggests, to test your level of connection and ability to play for a length of time in the “Zone,” is a mere 15 minutes of continuous, thoughtful play of a well-known piece. Sounds easy enough until you try it. The tendency of the mind is to disengage from the process very quickly. You may stop listening to yourself and invite a string of random thoughts into your head, or you may envision an assembled jury of your peers critiquing your every note. The constant need of approval is the next topic Georg covers, and one he likens to an addiction.
Not being a drummer myself, but having interviewed and had conversations with many, what Georg calls “The Approval Trap” is what I see many have fallen into. He offers a challenge in this section to stand up to your own “mental chatter.” You can acknowledge it as a pattern, but not be led by it. He says constant approval seeking is a drain of energy that only leads to disappointment and stress. Making mistakes doesn’t have to be a strike against your abilities. They become a liability only when you hold onto them as a devaluation of your playing stock when compared to another’s. The focus should be on the physical sensations inherent in drumming, not the mental interruptions that trip you up or cause you to question your own rhythm. The flip side of this, however, can be just as detrimental to your playing. Georg recounts an early session he had as a young drummer when overconfidence exceeded his playing chops. He walked into the studio thinking he was on par with an accomplished session player and soon became the engineer of a train wreck. Hearing his performance played back he said, “I couldn’t believe it was me playing because I sounded like shit, not ‘THE shit.’” He suggests recording yourself while playing and listening to the playback carefully to avoid disproving the notion that “boys don’t cry.”
Georg’s recounting of that embarrassing experience in his first studio session was the perfect segue into his advice on the topic of “Attitude.” He could have walked into that session with the professional chops of a veteran player, but if he was unpleasant to work with, good luck getting a call back. What no artist or band wants on stage, on the bus, or in the studio is a player with a bad attitude. He offers similar advice on “Keeping Cool” in the studio when differences of opinion arise or you run into an artist who is less than ideal to work with. The reputation you have as a player and a person will often arrive at a place before you do. Georg paints an honest picture of what “Breaking Into The Local Scene” is like in any location and notes from experience the one word you can never have enough of…..patience. Having recently moved from Europe to the United States to begin the next chapter of his career, he speaks from the trenches of finding work in a new place. He believes that “being available and eager to contribute to the community” is essential to establishing yourself locally. Make friends and always present a positive and professional attitude. He says things tend to happen organically if you plant the right seeds and take the right steps. From there, all you can do is be the player you are. The trouble starts when you compromise that and try to become the player you think someone is looking for.
Whether you’re a drummer who’s just starting out or one who’s been at it a long time, Georg suggests you question yourself on what you love about playing drums. He poses a number of questions about the music you prefer, your favorite bands and players, the career you’d like to have, and how you enjoy playing most when you’re alone. How you answer those questions should motivate the goals you set for yourself. He cautions, however, about losing the artistic approach to music by getting too caught up in checking things off a practice list. When learning something new, he feels the best way to learn is to experience it first. Listen with your ears, not your mind. The message he conveys, that resonates throughout the book, is that music is an art form best expressed through the process of open-minded experience. When it becomes a task, you’ve lost the artistic expression that makes you a unique player. In order to keep yourself engaged as an artist, he lists helpful reminders for practicing and for learning songs.
On the subject of practice, Georg quotes the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” but he isn’t using it as a declarative sentence. Instead, he puts a question mark behind it, challenging the validity of that idea. Saying that “perfection implies a stopping point,” he discredits the notion that many players aspire to – practicing x amount of hours per day = the perfect drummer. Practice can either be a drag or an inspiration, depending on how you approach it. He suggests you ask yourself two questions before you begin a practice session: “What am I going to practice?” and “Why am I going to practice it?” Your answers should reveal whether playing has become a rote activity that’s just part of the job, or whether you see practice time as your personal creative space, to learn and experience without restriction. Georg offers his own practice process if you feel you need a fresh approach. When learning feels as fun and uninhibited as throwing paint at a canvas, you can fine tune the picture and frame it to your liking with signature technique.
Georg’s thoughts “On Technique” get at the heart of a player, where the beat emanates. What’s been learned goes from the mind to a physical expression that may or may not accurately represent the player. His opinion states that “having good drumming technique means being able to express yourself on the drums, using the minimum amount of physical effort, and not injuring yourself or suffering from strain.” If you do injure yourself frequently, he suggests you ask yourself why you play like that. Wanting to impress with powerful, flashy play, doesn’t necessarily serve the music or the artist, and it could shorten your career due to habitual injury. Georg cited Alex Van Halen as an example of a drummer who changed his technique later in his career to avoid such debilitating injury. There are a myriad of ways to use technique to express what you want to say artistically. He notes that sometimes it can be expressed with just a few tools in the box, while other times it may require an elaborate combination of those tools to build the sound you want to hear. A private lesson he once had with Jojo Mayer taught him that body movements, posture, and the way you set up the drums can have an enormous affect on your technique. How you feel behind the kit is as important in the translation of the music as the music itself. It can undermine or define your signature sound.
As he learned such an important lesson from Jojo Mayer, Georg hopes to impart such knowledge to his own students. Teaching is a rewarding experience, he says, but it does come with a responsibility to tailor your teaching on an individual basis. He begins by identifying the student’s motivation for taking lessons. From there, his job is to figure out how the student learns best. There isn’t a universal method that works for every player. In the section of the book, “On Teaching,” he outlines his preferred teaching methods and adds this point to his strategy: “While I teach specific techniques and ways to play the drums, my main focus is to help each student develop certain sensitivities and skills, so they can, at one point, help themselves.” The one element he looks for in every student is the hunger they have to learn and to play. Admittedly, he says that is the one thing no teacher can give a student. You either have it or you don’t, and what you do with that hunger will determine the player you become.
In the final topic of the book, Georg covers “The Power of Improvisation.” This is where a player has the power to march to his own drum. No rehearsal. No preconceived sequence running through his head. The player becomes composer on the spot. “No rules, no boundaries.” It’s the keys to the Bugatti, an open road, and no fear of blue lights in the rear view. Georg describes the opportunity as this: “If you allow yourself to fully improvise, you will notice a shift from the technical and analytical aspect of drumming to the emotional one. You’ll drop from your head into your heart.” Improv is an invitation to enter uncharted territory, offering the freedom to “just play.” His closing thoughts in the book leave you with inspiration and suggestions on how to get the most out of your improvisational playtime. With the roar of an imaginary crowd and the exuberance of a garage drummer with the gig of his dreams, he challenges you to Play As You Are.
Georg Beck didn’t write this book thinking he had all the answers and the golden ticket to becoming a wealthy drummer with the perfect gig. He wrote it because he had more questions than answers, and through his writing, he saw more clearly the path to finding the fearless, authentic player inside. His hope is that the book may help players who have lost their purpose or motivation for playing to rekindle the passion that made them want to become a drummer. He knows all too well how years of gigging can tarnish the authenticity a player once had. You forget how to Play As You Are and start obsessing over how to become what a particular band wants. You sacrifice the player to fit the role, putting on a mask if you have to in order to get or keep a gig. The book is a reminder that if you always want to be somebody else, it kills what you set out to do, which was express yourself on an instrument, YOUR way. Play As You Are is a motivational mantra meant to give you the courage to be yourself behind the kit and play the gig without fear of losing it. If you play to be a whitewash that goes with anything, you make yourself replaceable. The extraordinary is found in the unpredictable.
The drum is a physical instrument. You likely chose it because it was a physical instrument and it suited your preference to express yourself musically in a physical way. The sound advice Georg Beck gives in Play As You Are is to be aware of the relationship between how you’re feeling and how the drum will absorb and transmit that feeling into style and sound. The mind cannot control what the drum will say, but it has the power to prevent you from becoming the player you want to be by letting fear dictate your playing. John Bonham was an unpredictable, physically passionate player. He is thought by many to be the greatest drummer who ever lived, not because he was flawless, but because he was fearless. If your goal is to become John Bonham, don’t bother reading the book and quit playing. You are not, nor will you ever be, John Bonham. If your desire is to achieve the free-spirited play of John Bonham, in a style that is uniquely yours, read the book and just Play As You Are.
Play As You Are is available in Kindle edition through Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B015HPNUDG
Play As You Are is available in Amazon Audible: http://www.amazon.com/Play-You-Are-Collection-Drummers/dp/B016NE53DA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1444953600&sr=8-2&keywords=play+as+you+are+audiobook
Play As You Are is available in Audiobooks through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/audiobook/play-as-you-are-collection/id1049981990
Follow Georg Beck:
Georg is currently working with singer, Katie Barbato: https://www.facebook.com/KatieBarbatoMusic?fref=ts
Georg is a member of the Philly Drum Project. “Philly Drum Project is a Percussive Collective dedicated to making drumming more accessible in the Philadelphia area by helping drummers in our region share Gear, Lessons, and Beats.” For more information on the work they do, please visit their website:
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