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  • Tuesday Tips: Slimming the Margins by Josh Gottry

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jan 10, 2023

    As an audition or performance approaches, it is not difficult for any of us to envision the worst. It seems that despite any level of success, our brains find it easiest to focus on failure, or the potential for it, when performing on our instrument. There are multitudes of strategies and techniques to combat this tendency and volumes of books and articles addressing the subject of performance anxiety, but one tip I’ll offer here, as we head into audition and recital season, is the idea of “Slimming the Margins.”

    Rarely, if ever, do we play our best performance when the lights are the brightest. On the flip side, rarely, if ever, do we truly crash and burn in performing at our worst in these high-intensity moments. Most often, we perform somewhere comfortably in the middle. But what if that middle was pretty near excellent?

    Rather than focusing on how close to perfect you can be at your best, consider how close to excellent you can be at your worst. During your practice sessions, draw your attention to strategies and approaches that minimize mistakes and encourage comfortable consistency, such that your worst possible performance and your best possible performance are strikingly similar. If you have the potential to give a performance you’d rate as a 10 out of 10 at your best, but at your worst, you’re looking at an 8 or 8.5, there is little reason for concern and every reason for confidence as you approach the concert stage or audition room.

    Slow things down, do a few more reps, take a closer look at your precise mallet placement, play the dynamics correctly from day one, and bring in a friend to listen. Do all the things you would normally do to prepare, but all the time, focus your attention on ensuring the strongest worst possible performance and slim the margins between potential and perfection.

  • Tuesday Tips: The Poker Chip Challenge by Michael Huestis

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Dec 13, 2022

    Dr. Christopher Deane said on multiple occasions, “Nothing in music is hard, just time-consuming.” The is a lovely and pointed way of reframing the negative into a positive. Virtually any solo, ensemble part, excerpt, or etude can be mastered as long as you have a plan for the time-consuming work and trust that plan. Young students who learn to take things slowly and break them down will see a challenge as something that simply takes an investment of time. 

    There are many systems for breaking down musical passages (aka woodshedding), but as old fashioned as it is, the Poker Chip Challenge is a sure-fire process for tackling difficult sections of music. Take a difficult four-measure phrase of music and play the first measure only, very slowly and accurately. Once you have it perfectly and comfortably in your hands, play it five times in a row correctly, moving a poker chip from a stack on one side of the music stand to the other with each successful repetition. If a mistake is made during the process, the stack of chips goes back to the original position and we start again from the beginning. Once you’ve got one measure done, work through the first two measure and perform those together until you’ve moved all your chips over successfully again. Continue the process until the four-measure phrase is learned. 

    This process can seem slow to most students, but it actually can be accomplished relatively quickly. Playing a single measure only takes a second or two, even when performed very slowly. And the process reinforces good muscle memory in note accuracy and stroke types. The student will not have to go back and relearn any of the material learned using the poker chip process. It’s also a simple game that can be easily replicated and put to use in more challenging musical situations in the future.

    Michael HeustisMichael Huestis teaches at Prosper High School in the North Dallas area. He serves as the assistant director of the Music for All, Sandy Feldstein National Percussion Festival, is currently serving his first term as the PAS Texas Chapter President, and is the founder of the Percussion Solutions for Band Directors social media group. His ensembles have performed at PASIC, Music for All National Percussion Festival, MENC Biennial Conference, Bands of America Grand National Championships, President Bush’s inaugural parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Drum Corps International World Championships.

  • Tuesday Tips: Learning New Grooves by Karl Latham

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Nov 15, 2022

    No matter what our playing level is, we all encounter playing situations that require us to learn a specific groove or fill for which the coordination required may be outside of our typical comfort zone. I have encountered this often when subbing for great drummers who may perform a groove or fill in a different way than I would typically execute the same idea. Their method of executing a figure may produce a totally different musical outcome than my default method. The practice method that I employ to “acquire” their coordination and resulting sound is the same as I often recommend to students, from beginners to working professionals, to learn new ideas of their own.

    I first look at the length of the figure or groove. Is it a one-bar pattern, two- or four-bar phrase, or something else? I then identify a “ruler” to base the coordination around. That “ruler” could be eighth notes, sixteenth-note triplets, etc. If there is an ostinato such as a straight eighth- or sixteenth-note hi-hat part, I’ll start with that as my ruler and repeat it as a loop for the full length of whatever pattern or phrase length I’m working with. At this point, I will choose to either add any other anchor points in the groove, like a backbeat on 2 and 4 or other constant figures, then begin adding bass drum notes and other snare notes one at a time within the measure or measures, until I have added all the notes of the groove.

    Alternatively, I will treat the whole groove akin to adding “events” to a sequencer, one at a time. If the first “event” is a bass drum on beat 1, I’ll start with that (and nothing else) until that one note is easy to execute and grooving. Then I will add the next “event” such as a snare on 2 and groove the first two events in a loop with my hi-hat constant. This process continues, adding each single “event” (bass drum note, snare hit, etc.) one at a time, gradually working my way across the measure(s), only adding the next note in the groove when executing the preceding notes is relaxed and grooving.

    I use the same methods above for multiple-limb independence grooves, such as we often encounter when playing grooves on drum set that were originally performed by multiple percussionists in a section. This also works for grooves with ostinatos between hands or feet with additional coordination on top of the ostinato.

    I use a similar method for learning challenging fills. I work on them playing at first in “slow motion” so that I can fully understand how to execute each note. I will loop the duration of the fill — one beat, two beats, or even multiple measures — adding one note of the fill at a time, making sure that I understand and can play everything preceding in a relaxed and grooving manner.

    I find these methods work well for beginner students and advanced students learning new types of beats. If the beat is based on an eighth-note hi-hat groove, you can line up the notes with that hi-hat ruler. If there are sixteenth-note figures between the eighths, students can “see” one at a time if the note comes before, with, or after the hi-hat constant. Some students like to start with the hi-hat and snare parts together; others find it easier to add one note at a time in the bass drum.

    These processes can work for any type of coordination challenge, playing snare drum or bass drum notes with shuffle or swing ride patterns, or adding parts to clave, tumbao, cascara, or bell parts, etc. The possibilities are endless!

    Karl LathamKarl Latham has performed and recorded with Grammy Award winning artists, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, and many acclaimed performers including The Shirelles; Johnny Winter; Bernie Worrell; Mark Egan Unit1; John Lee Quartet with Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Cyrus Chestnut, and Jon Faddis; Ali Ryerson with Pete Levin; Jerry Vivino; The Fantasy Band; Howard Paul with Laurence Hobgood, Anat Cohen and Tom Scott; The Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Group; Andy Snitzer; Vic Juris; Mitch Stein; and Rachel Z. Karl has performed in Europe for decades in the groups of vibraphonist Wolfgang Lackerschmid and pianist Johannes Mossinger. Latham co-led the 2016 BMW World Jazz Award nominated “Constellations” with Mark Egan and Ryan Carniaux and co-leads Don Braden/Karl Latham Big Fun(K). Karl has subbed on the Broadway productions of Bring It On, Hamilton, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Ain’t Too Proud. Karl is an adjunct instructor at Drew University, County College of Morris, and PCCC. More information available at

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