Dafnis Prieto's New Book Of Unbound Rhythmic Possibilities

Photo by Henry LopezThe title of drummer Dafnis Prieto‘s new book is “A World of Rhythmic Possibilities.”
Prieto—who is a marvelous drummer, inventive bandleader, indispensable sideman to many and a composer of rare grace and subtlety—means this primer as instruction, but not in his technique or any one given approach. Rather, it is a key to unlock that world of possibilities.
When the MacArthur Foundation named Prieto as a Fellow in 2011 (the so-called “genius grant”), the announcement correctly credited Prieto’s “rhythmically adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies” and noted that he “transposes elements from his Afro-Cuban musical heritage onto a jazz drum kit.”
When I first wrote about him in The Wall Street Journal, Prieto described his initial impression of New York City, his adopted hometown since 1999, “To be honest, it wasn’t really my cup of tea.” New York was different from Barcelona, where he’d spent the previous year, and a far cry from Havana, where he attended the National School of Music. It seemed a world away from Santa Clara, his hometown—”a small Cuban city, very colonial and musical,” he called it—where he first picked up a guitar, and then bongos, before moving on to the trap set with which he’s earned distinction. “Especially in New York, the world keeps getting smaller,” he said. “So my music keeps getting bigger.”
And yet Prieto’s expansive world—the one represented in part by his wonderful 2015 release, “Triangles and Circles” and by his innovative Proverb Trio—and the ones he hopes to awaken in his readers speak not just of crossing geographic borders but also of deepening inner truths.
Prieto’s primer is not only for musicians. Hence his subtitle: “An Analytical and Instructional Book For Drummers, Percussionists and Lovers of Rhythm.”
It’s philosophical as much as practical.
For me, the pull-quote to this sample passage, “Playing What We Want to Hear,” comes at the end:

Playing what we want to hear is much more than hitting the Drums in an arbitrary way. Hence, it is fundamentally related to a deep understanding of sound that is gained through a meticulous process of listening for the sounds both inside and outside of ourselves.

Playing What We Want to Hear
When I ask myself the question: What is it that I am really looking for while playing? The clearest answer that comes to me is… I would like to play what I want to hear.
This answer seems very simple at first, but truly playing what we want to hear is not as simple as it seems. Besides the considerable number of hours practicing to perform that specific sound we want to hear, this also implies the most profound and sublime experience of joy, collectively and individually.
Certainly, most of the time we are trying to play that sound we would like to hear “consciously or unconsciously.” The closer we are to playing that sound the greater our sense of joy and satisfaction. It is important to mention that we are talking about an intended sound, and this sound is only achievable through our capacity to hear “inside ourselves” that sound we would like to play.
It is a “two-way street”– playing what we want to hear, but also hearing what we want to play.
Let’s assume that we are all interested in feeling comfortable with the sounds we play on the Drums. Similarly, that we are also interested in feeling a genuine inner satisfaction about the way we sound while playing.
Let’s assume too that the act of listening is the most sublime experience we can have between sound and ourselves.
But, how do we feel satisfied and comfortable with the sounds we play on the Drums? This is not only a difficult task, but also a great goal for any drummer.
Many drummers spend their lives trying to make the connection between the sounds they want to play and the sounds they are actually playing. In fact, many of us are looking for this connection within both our inner world of sound and our outer world of sound as we experience music – whether consciously or unconsciously.
It is important to understand that we are not talking about any specific rhythmic pattern, but about the literal sound we project. More profoundly, we can also say that we are discussing an intended meaning behind the sounds we produce on the Drums, including “consciousness” of what that sound is, either while playing alone or with others.
Let’s start with a few simple examples of how to become more conscious of our individual sound on the Drum set.
               Our Individual Sound
     The sound we want to hear on the Drums     
How do we reach for the sound we want – that specific sound we want to hear while playing alone?
Two Exercises for Developing the Inner Sound
Every drummer has a very unique and individual internal sound. This is one of the purest and most sincere sounds we are able to experience while playing – the sound we carry within.
Exercise #1
I believe that if we are able to sing it, we should be able to play it or at the very least, we should be able to better reproduce that sound we want to hear on the Drums. Drummers have the most intimate relationship with their instrument, and this presents an opportunity to experience their distinctive and personal voice by singing and emulating those sounds they want to hear on their Drums.
I always recommend to my students that they sing (out loud) what they want to hear on their actual instrument. It is through this approach of “singing” that I have found a way to access this internal sound. This approach has also helped many past students who lacked the inner connection with those sounds they wanted to hear in their playing.
This singing exercise can include any desired rhythmic structure, whether that would be a more rhythmic or melodic approach to playing, or both. This is indeed a step forward in the development of the intrinsic relationship between sounds and us, or sounds in us. To some, this approach of singing might seem primitive, but it certainly helps one gain more consciousness of the sounds we would like to hear on our instrument.
Singing a rhythm with an intended and sonic meaning is not an option but almost mandatory by many great teachers of rhythm in the world. It becomes “a rhythmic prayer,” a rhythmic consciousness-call. If you have not experienced this in your own practice yet, I would suggest that you try it for yourself.
Exercise #2
An imaginary Drum set
Another exercise to further develop the inner connection with our instrument and with what we want to hear is to close our eyes and visualize a Drum set in front us as if we are playing it – but only in our mind. Then, start imagining a rhythmic structure, as you want it to sound on the actual Drums.
During this exercise, we are not only reaching for “the sounds inside ourselves,” but also focusing our attention to how accurately we can orchestrate those sounds through this imaginary Drum set. The effectiveness of this particular exercise is that it will help the drummer gain awareness of an intended sound, and will also improve one’s technical ability to play those sounds while concentrating on the movement and physical disposition of our limbs in order to play what we want to hear.
After practicing this imaginary exercise a few times, go to the Drum set and play the same ideas on the actual instrument.
It is surprising to hear the differences in the sound coming from the Drums after practicing this exercise. After a while, one should start hearing a greater clarity not only in the sounds of the Drums, but also in the organization and the composition of ideas.
I strongly recommend these exercises to drummers interested in finding a more sincere and personal sound in their playing, whether through singing or the use of an imaginary Drum set, or better yet through a combination of the two.
By now, it should be obvious that a big part of drumming is not only about what kind of sounds the Drums can give us but also, and most importantly about which sounds we intentionally bring to the Drums. This might help explain why when listening to several drummers playing the same Drum set, they will often sound very different from one another.
It is indeed a magnificent experience when we start feeling a deeper connection with our inner and intended sound, making the sound speak clearly and with confidence.
A Collective Sound
As important as it is to feel comfortable with “our individual sound,” it is also essential to be conscious of our sound in relationship to the sounds played by the other musicians in an ensemble.
Being aware of our sound within the whole ensemble is significantly important, because we will not only enjoy what we are playing, but also what others are playing simultaneously, thereby creating a more balanced and functional ensemble sound.
Sometimes, when we hear a recording we have just made, we might think: Why is there a discrepancy between what I played in the recording and what I now think would sound more appropriate in those sections as a whole?
Well… most likely it is because we were experiencing completely different feelings while playing than when listening to the recording. It could also be that we were so concerned about what we were playing technically that we were not conscious of what we really sounded like as a whole. Possibly we were so isolated in our own personal world of sound that we forgot to listen to the overall sound as if in the audience, contemplating and enjoying the sound as a whole.
Certainly, listening and focusing our attention on only our personal projection puts the overall sound quality and musical balance at risk. Moreover, this might affect the rhythmic synchronization of the whole ensemble among other things, which usually results in a chaotic rhythmic experience.
Both playing and listening are inseparable and intrinsically attached to one another. That is why it is so important while playing to be as good a listener as it is to be a good player. That is true in both cases – when playing by ourselves (individually) and when playing with others in an ensemble (a collective sound).
It is also important to consider the specific acoustics of a room to help balance the dynamics more efficiently, as each particular room has a very specific set of acoustic characteristics that allow us to play one way or another. Master drummers call this “playing the room.”
Yes… drummers can be the greatest sound-shapers in any ensemble configuration, the creators of very powerful and unpredictable textures and dynamics. However, drummers also risk achieving just the opposite effect if they are not aware of sonic discrepancies.
Playing what we want to hear is much more than hitting the Drums in an arbitrary way. Hence, it is fundamentally related to a deep understanding of sound that is gained through a meticulous process of listening for the sounds both inside and outside of ourselves.

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