Ed Soph: Playing Drums is No Different Than Opening a Door (1985)

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SKF NOTE: Here’s the back story on this Ed Soph interview circa 1985. And here, for the historical record, is Mr. Soph describing his drum clinics in the mid-1980s. Readers should remember this exchange took place more than 30-years ago. Soph may have evolved his thinking since, but maybe not. Either way, please take this exchange as representing one moment in time.

Scott K Fish: I’ve never been to an Ed Soph [drum] clinic. What’s it like?

Ed Soph: I come out and play a short solo. A solo, hopefully, with some content, not just a bash, bang.

Then I say, “I just tried to play a musical solo. I was actually playing on the form of a tune. How many of you could hear any repetitive figures, recurring figures, etc.?”

Invariably, some hands go up and I think, “Thank God.”

And I start out with brushes because that’s the quickest way to get people’s attention: with brushes. What’s the great cliche of the day?

SKF: Brushes are a dying art.

ES: Yeah. What a bunch of bullshit.

Next, I ask, “What are some musical elements that a drummer must use in order to make music? Think like a musician, not like a drummer.”

I’ll see blank stares for a minute. I say, “Let me give you a hint. What are some of the things that I used in my solo to catch your attention?”

A guy will go, “You used dynamics.” Someone else will say, “It had form.” Another guy will say, “You used different accent patterns.”

The thing that they never say, and it’s the last thing that any of us think about, is the use of space: what you don’t play. Space is mentioned eventually, and I say, “Okay, what’s the equivalent of space on the drumset? What, mechanically, is equivalent to space? [The answer is] strokes.”

Then I get into a whole motion thing about how the only rule, as far as I’m concerned — on the instrument — is that you sound the way you move. If you move jerkily and out-of-time, you sound jerky, and you play out-of-time. If you move with big motions you make big sounds. Small motions make small sounds.

All of a sudden, literally, you see lights go on, because you, me, and everyone else has been conditioned for years to deal with only one aspect of the instrument — and that’s the sound. And if something’s out-of-time you don’t think about the stroke, or the silence, the space that’s producing the sound. You try to rectify it from the sound standpoint.

Then I go into a whole rap about basic coordination. Not between the hands and the feet, but coordinating the whole arm. Just like you coordinate your whole leg when you walk. You’ve got three joints: ankle, knee, and hip. You’ve got: wrist, elbow, and shoulder. You don’t walk stiff legged, but when some people sit down at the [drum]set, [they] play like they were walking on wooden legs.

Playing drums is no different than opening a door or anything else.

I also burst some balloons that have cropped up because of military influence on the instrument. The idea that control means tightening up rather than relaxing.

Another opening question I ask is, “What’s a drummer’s most important asset?”

The answers I get will be “keeping time,” and “speed,” and then someone — usually an older cat, will say, “His ability to listen.” And then you see some more lights go on.

Then [I] get into a little rap on improvisation, explaining how that’s just like holding a conversation with somebody.

In a nutshell, what I try to do in a clinic is to break down some very common physical barriers which every player goes through unless they’re extremely fortunate to be a natural on the instrument: [Those very common physical barriers are] developing natural hand grips, posture behind the drumset, and set-up.

And then some very basic, but very difficult — because they require a great deal of concentration — some very basic coordination exercises dealing with quarter notes.

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