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Learning By Watching With Stanton Moore

Stanton Moore

There are myriad ways we drummers can improve upon our craft — we analyze recordings, we study instructional videos, we take lessons and then practice, practice, practice. But perhaps no exercise is as invaluable — and inspiring — as having our faces melted by a killer drummer in a live setting.

The great ones get our blood pumping and our hearts pounding. They make our heads bob, our feet stomp, and our hands and arms flail involuntarily. And most importantly, they galvanize our resolve to get on our kits and get better.

While Stanton Moore has been one of the world’s elite skin-smackers for years, it wasn’t so long ago that he was sitting on the side of the stage, voraciously absorbing the grooves of New Orleans’ finest timekeepers. In fact, this road dog insists he still learns new tricks by observing his fellow drummers’ varying approaches to live playing. So if Moore thinks it’s a good idea, keep your eyes peeled and your ears open, and get ready to learn.

Did you learn a lot by watching drummers when you were growing up?
“Oh, yeah. I would go out every night starting senior year of high school. Before I could even get into bars, I would stand outside certain clubs in New Orleans where the drummer’s back would be up against a glass window. I quickly realized that this was a great perspective to learn from. You can see their feet, and you’re looking at what it is that they’re actually doing with the right hand and the left hand. You don’t have to reverse it in your mind or think of it as a mirror image.”

What are some of the things you’re looking for when watching other drummers?
“I watch for body motion. I observe their vibe. Like the first time I saw Russell Batiste, I was so impressed with his power and aggression. His playing was super funky, but he had this, like, punk-rock attitude as well that I just loved.

“I learned how to hit harder by watching how my friend Jimmy Bower — from the band Down — would set up and how he would hit. I learned to sit a little bit lower and set up my drums a little bit higher. This helps you hit the drums at the apex of your stroke, with the fullest velocity.

“And just the opposite of that — take a jazz guy like Brian Blade. I observed that he would sit higher and set the drums up lower. Then the sticks are pointing down at the drums as opposed to being parallel. This way you’re hitting the drumhead with less stick and with less velocity. It makes for a lighter touch, which you want if you’re playing in a jazz context. I learned these things from watching cats — you’re not going to pick that stuff up by just listening to records.”

As you’re watching, are you instantly breaking down things like rudiments and sticking?
“In a lot of instances, yeah, I can usually process it and know what’s happening. But you can’t always make out what certain drummers are doing because they blur the lines — which I dig. Bill Stewart, Brian Blade, Russell Batiste — they’ll play something and you’ll go, ‘What was that?’

“Don’t be afraid to approach other drummers and ask questions. Try to become friends and take lessons from them. I did this with Johnny Vidacovich. I’d go see him in the club, and then the next day at my lesson I’d say, ‘Man, what was that beat you played on ‘Caravan’ last night?’

“Most of the guys that I’ve approached over the years have all been cool. And then you might develop a relationship with them and it becomes a wealth of information. That’s what’s so great about New Orleans. You can go see guys — like Shannon Powell, for instance — and on their break offer to buy them a beer and then ask them a bunch of questions. You can basically get a mini-lesson right there at the club.”

Do you try to appropriate other drummers’ licks into your own playing?
“Yeah, I’ll usually try to grasp it a little bit with my fingertips as I’m watching and then shed it when I get to a kit.

“A great bass player from New Orleans, James Singleton, once said ‘Your goal on your instrument — no matter what instrument you play — should be to play anything that you come across that you like.’ What he means is, you’re not going to be able to play everything in the world, but if it’s something that you dig and want to bring into your playing, then you should be able to figure it out in a relatively quick manner.

“If I like something, I’m going to play it. But I’m going to play it in my own way. I think that’s the most important thing — try to modify what you observe and make it your own.”

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