Space. It truly is the final frontier for drummers. We love hitting as many drums/cymbals as possible as fast as possible. But what if I said there was another way? As I've been getting back into regular teaching, the concept of space (or silence) keeps crossing my mind, so let's talk about it.
Every new player hears that first memorable complex beat or flashy fill in a song and thinks, how can I do THAT? It then becomes a trek (see what I did there) to build up all the chops, all the rudiments, all the combinations backwards and forwards, and then do everything turbo speed. Well, that was me as a teenager at least, and I'm sure many others can relate.
It wasn't until decades later which included a long period of time without playing that much, that I really started to think about space, or silence. I started to think about how I could take out certain hits as apposed to adding more. It's almost like a new switch got turned on in my brain. My grooves felt much more interesting and fun to play simply because of that new element of surprise. It was also quite challenging because I'd fallen into my habits over the years, so a lot of rewiring had to happen. Utilizing space is now a regular thought in my heard when I'm working on something new...or old.
Go for it!
Learn how to harness emptiness. One thing I always remind my students is space is still a note, it still has a specific time value. That's why music notation always accounts for silence with rests symbols, unplayed notes still rhythmically add up per measure like the played ones. So count silence out loud or in your head until you intuitively feel it. I still find myself making some sorta grunt noise when there's an off beat thing on the bass drum to fill up the empty space. It's like I'm still playing the note but nothing is actually physically played.
Try messing with a groove you like playing and take away certain hits every once in a while. Maybe don't play the high hat on all of beat 3? Maybe don't play the bass drum on 1 or 3, but start on the "and" or another part of the beat? Maybe take away one of the snare drum hits if you're doing a backbeat? Maybe make your fills more spacey and have defined moments of silence? It can apply to every part of the kit, it's just a matter of trial and error. Make as many mistakes as you can because you will surprise yourself.
The real point to all this is, making playing for you, and listening for the audience more interesting all around.
Here's a quick story that demonstrates this nicely. I played drums in my high school jazz band and we had a tremendous alto sax player. Every time there was a solo section, he was first to bat. The dude would shred and fly by notes faster than you could see them coming. However, looking back on those days, I can't remember a single solo that stood out. Each one was the exact same, just a barrage of notes, a blitzkrieg of sound. I certainly loved it at the time, and there's surely a place for it, but too much of one thing can almost become numbing. You always gotta ask, is what I'm doing musical?
Here's a few famous quotes on the subject
"Music is the space between the notes."
French composer Claude Debussy
"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."
"In music, silence is more important than sound"
"The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing"
- Closing thought -
Not every note needs to be heard and there's a skill to playing silence effectively. Try experimenting with putting more space in your grooves. It doesn't have to be a lot and it doesn't have to be often, it just has to be intentional.