Unison problems plagued my drum corps for my first six years as lead drummer. In my seventh year, however, I discovered (upon much reflection) that there was a solution to my unison issues sitting right in front of me that I had been ignoring. I had a "face palm moment". In all my years playing drum kit with different bands the words "groove", "feel" and "pocket" were constantly mentioned when discussing great drummers. As a kit drummer your goal is to be described as someone with "great feel" and you constantly work towards being the grooviest pocket player you can be. It was when I started to think of these three words (and how they might apply to pipe band drumming) that the proverbial light bulb went on.
To most people "being groovy" evokes images of Woodstock or Austin Powers. To musicians, however, groove is something different. To be called "groovy" is a compliment of the highest order! So, as musicians, we need to understand what groove is and how to achieve it.
In basic terms we can begin to understand groove by imagining a piece of wood with a channel (or groove) carved into it from top to bottom. Then, imagine that piece of wood on a slight incline. If you were to place a marble into the channel and watch it roll down, it would follow the path of that groove all the way to the bottom. Then, if you placed another marble in the channel, it would follow the same path as the previous one. Every subsequent marble you placed into that groove would follow that same path.
In a musical context, the "groove" is the underlying rhythmic subdivision and feel of a particular style. In very general terms simple rock music uses an eighth note subdivision of "1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &". Funk music tends toward a subdivision of 16th notes "1 e & a 2 e & a" and blues generally uses a subdivision based on the first and last of a group of three notes "1 (trip) let 2 (trip) let" where the syllables in brackets are said but not played.
Within the groove of a particular style, "feel" is the musical element that defines how that groove is played. For pipe band drummers the feel is the degree of "pointing" or "swing" in each of the five pipe band styles. The feel with which a groove in a particular style is played depends on several factors: the style being played, the overall skill level of the player (or band) and the tempo at which a tune is played.
Style: Marches in simple time, pointed reels, marches in compound time and strathspeys all use dot/cut or cut/dot rhythms with varying degrees of pointing. Marches and pointed reels use a moderate amount of pointing and strathspeys and marches in compound time use significantly more.
Skill Level: If a band is highly skilled, players will be able to achieve extreme pointing is some styles--especially strathspeys. This extreme approach to pointing requires a great deal of technical expertise that only very experienced players will be able to achieve. In lower grade bands, pointing is more moderate (or should be) and should mirror players' technical capability.
Tempo: Tempo is often ignored when it comes to feel and this is a huge mistake! If a tune or score is being played at a faster tempo, achieving the required pointing can become very difficult, especially for players in the lower grades. Similarly, playing a tune too slowly can also affect the feel in a negative way by drawing out the pointing and falling out of the groove. Tempo and feel are partners and should always be treated as such!
If you have ever seen a concert by a rock, funk or blues band you will have caught yourself spontaneously dancing, clapping, tapping your foot or otherwise moving to the music. These reactions happen because the band is grooving hard and playing in the "pocket".
The "pocket" is achieved when each member of a band links every note they play to the underlying groove of a given musical style with the same "feel". If this precise subdivision occurs, band members move through the music not as individuals but as one cohesive unit.
In pipe band drumming we play five styles of music, each with its own groove. If we are to find the "pocket" as pipe band drummers we need to make sure everyone in our drum corps is experiencing the groove and feel of each style in the same way.
The Next Step: Playing Together
If you have ever played in a rock band it is pretty rare that the drummer and bass player break off and rehearse in one room while the keyboard, guitarist and lead singer rehearse in another. Instead, most rock bands play together as a band all the time. This is the best way to get "tight" as a band. The word "tight" is another way to describe a band that plays "in the pocket".
A pipe band drum corps is said to be "tight" if the unison is excellent. However, there is a common misconception that unison must be practiced and that it is somehow a separate skill. This is 100% false. Unison means "playing together at the same time" and that can only be improved by an understanding of groove, feel and how to achieve the pocket. If every drummer in a drum corps understands the underlying subdivision of each style (groove) and links the rhythms inherent in that style to the groove with the correct amount of pointing (feel), they will find themselves playing in the pocket! Once your drum corps gets to this point your unison issues will be a thing of the past!
How Do I Know When My Drum Corps Achieves "The Pocket"?
Since I have been a pipe band drummer I have always been told to watch the lead drummer's sticks. While this is a good idea for many reasons (tempo cues, checking stick heights etc.) it can actually handicap your drum corps when you are trying to achieve "the pocket". Sometimes watching the lead drummer can compensate for a lack of understanding of groove, feel or pocket. If your drum corps can maintain good unison without watching the lead drummer it is a great indicator that your corps' understands these three elements and is implementing them successfully.
Are There Tools Available to Improve My Sense of Groove, Feel and Pocket?
In the last year I have used "The Bare Bones: A Reading Method for the Pipe Band Drummer" in a workshop setting to improve the three elements of unison with local bands and drummers in Atlantic Canada to great results. The whole system is available for free here if you'd like to check it out. If you think I can help your band improve their rhythmic awareness please get in touch. Group classes are available for drum corps of all levels using the Zoom platform at $30.00 for a one hour session. Please send me an email if you or your drum corps are interested.