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When the Pen Hits the Page

Article by Sean Mitchell // June 02 2009
When the Pen Hits the Page

As woodshedders, we bear the burden of many jobs on stage: the meter keeper, the groove master, the protector of the pocket and the click track caddy. My pedantic friend and guitarist extraordinaire “The Chad” once said to me, “Guitarists are much like drummers, just without all the social problems.” While this may be a common misconception, I can explain why The Chad hath been led into such non compos mentis hypothesis. Admittedly we are much like our distant cousin the goalie (who favors standing in front of pieces of rubber travelling in excess of 100 mph): neither breed is too tightly wound and apt to some eccentric behavior. It is with good reason that we drummers tend to favor the more abstract walks of life. After all, you don’t end up of sound mind after two hours of ta ta ti ti ta over and over again. Come to think of it, isn’t there a form of torture similar to that?

Which brings me torpidly to my point and the reason for this month’s ramblings. Every month around this time I fire up ye old laptop and ponder a subject with which to asseverate my inner voice upon these eco-friendly pages. I spend most of my time shedding wood in my little corner of the living room running rudiment after rudiment as Jill (my girlfriend and partner in crime) sits and tries so valiantly to understand why exactly I must repetitively hammer out the most incommodious sounds on a small piece of rubber pad. As the tempos increase, and my dexterity proves that my hands do in fact have a breaking point, I am always given the same goofy grin from my sweet and loving future wife.

I know most people have no clue why we do this, why we tap our way into oblivion day after day. Only drummers have their own secret language, invented for the sole purpose of talking amongst ourselves. This is the beauty of being a drummer—knowing how to speak that language of paradiddles, flams and ramatacues. Some mere mortals may have had a look down the rabbit hole to grasp a few phrases, but in reality until you have sat and ran rudiments until your hands are numb and the hoop sweat has soaked through your jeans, none can say they speak “drummer”.

Hopefully by this point in the article I have given you enough ostentatious words for you to ascertain that I either have access to an incredible thesaurus or somehow gained a Masters degree in English in the past month. Yes, folks, the theme of my contribution to this month’s Black Page is much ado about the literary arts.

Like our distant relative the goalie, as much as we are often the sole representative of our craft on any given stage, we are still very much a part of the game. While our own drummer dialect is a beautiful thing in its own right, one of the keys to the kingdom of musical success and prosperity lies in the lyrics and melody. The last time I checked, you cannot collect royalties on the intro to “Wipeout”. The savvy players are the ones who know that when it comes to royalties, the pen is mightier than the stick.

Writing songs isn’t about rhyming or sitting down to specifically write an epic a la “Hotel California.” Most songwriters will tell you that their best work didn’t come from sitting down to pen a ditty; rather, a song will often write itself, so long as the musician can see clearly and put pen to paper. What they don’t often talk about is the years of writing that preceded said masterpiece. In drummer lingo, Dennis Chambers doesn’t have the chops and technique he does because he sat around waiting for inspiration to play. But you can bet that when inspiration hits him, it is a thing of beauty.

“I keep a legal pad on the bedside table beside my bed. I try to keep them all over the house, I’ll start three or four different songs on the same pad and write things on different pages. That’s why it takes me so long to make an album. It’s not writing the songs, it’s sorting out.” -Don Henley

Just as it is so important for us to keep our chops up by hammering out rudiments, so too is the skill of writing. Does this mean you must sit and ponder the complexities of rhyming with orange or why violets may be blue? No way. It is as simple as keeping a journal handy to write in everyday. Nothing in particular to start other than the thoughts in your head, for they are the fodder for the musical masterpieces of many a genius.

“I don’t have to say I’m going to make a song. A song is always there. I just have to open my mouth and a song comes out.” - Peter Tosh

One great exercise is to call upon a friend whom you feel you could write with. Have them write out ten really random sentences about whatever they want and you do the same, numbering each sentence. Don’t let the other see what each is writing. When you are done, have your friend read their number one, then you read your number one, then on to number two etc. The trick is to try and connect the sentences to create lyrics for a tune. You will find that even though two people are living two distinctly different lives, your streams of consciousness will have some commonalities.

While this exercise is really meant to induce creativity, trust and non-linear thinking, along the way you never know what gems lay within the potentiality of the whole randomness of it all. Being that I am ham-fisted on any melodic instrument, I keep a small voice recorder by me at all times. I may not be able to play piano or guitar well, but my subconscious doesn’t care. I am inundated with melodies all the time. As Lauren Bacall might say, “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”

Melody is melody, just getting it into the recorder and out of my head is half the battle. Hum, sing, whistle…doesn’t matter. I’ll get it in my little recorder and I can find someone who can do something brilliant with it later. That is my process. But the importance lies in the action. Saying that you would like to play more precise triplets doesn’t get the job done; you have to spend some time and work that muscle. Songwriting is no different, many songwriters who say they write strictly by inspiration are also writing years of poetry or journaling on the side. Sometimes it is not so important to know what steps to take as much as taking the steps at all. Inspiration comes only to the active participant.

“Music breeds its own inspiration. You can only do it by doing it. You may not feel like it, but you push yourself. It’s a work process. Or just improvise. Something will come.” - Burt Bacharach

Music is simply expression and communication. Whether that expression is a voice, drum, guitar or sitar, it is meant to convey the pieces of feelings that live in the consciousness of the artist. If the work has been done, the artist becomes vaguely aware of how those pieces fit together and how to mold them into intellectual property. In the end you don’t have to know how to write a great song, you just have to know when to let the pen hit the page.



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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