“My playing technique goes in cycles,” says Mangini, “and when it plateaus, it doesn’t really plateau. It’s only the perception of a plateau, meaning that it’s increasing in such small increments that you can’t tell. And practicing is so boring, so tedious, so awful to dredge through, because you want to see a result and you don’t see it.”
But practice you must, he says, or else … “Proton decay is real. If you’re not getting better, then you’re getting worse. You’re not staying the same. You’re either progressing or you’re regressing, and there’s no in-between.” Mangini has modified his own practice routine over the years, in part because decades of meniscus tears and frays from playing sports led to a double meniscoptomy in 2009. The surgery forced him to go back to basics practice wise, and that included slowing the hell down – but not too much.
“I’ve been practicing extra slowly since I auditioned for Dream Theater, and so my velocities are stronger and my hits are cleaner,” he says. “It’s a balance, though. To play at a faster rate uses different muscle groups and techniques, so essentially it’s not the same as practicing slowly. You have to do both.”
Mangini believes that the practicing he did before he hit 21 formed the foundation for the chops he has today, so that when he digs in to practice, he can achieve his goals fairly quickly. “I incorporate the spirit, mind, and body,” he says. “The first thing I address is one of feeling – my spirit and my purpose. I ask myself, Do I want to get better today or do I want to just have fun? Once I decide that, yes, I want to improve today, then I isolate what it is I want to improve on, choose a series of exercises, and repeat them throughout a phase of specifically worked-out environments, stickings, and rhythmic landscapes.”
He also finds it beneficial to practice the music at half-speed or lower tempos; interestingly, his use of a metronome for practice comes after he is sure that he can physically do what he wants to do. “You can’t iron the wrinkles out of a shirt if you don’t have the shirt,” he says. “So I want to make the shirt first: I want my limbs and my brain to work such that I can physically do what it is that I need to do. Once I have wired it in, a metronome comes in when I want to perfect it, when I want to experience what it’s like to play it at an even velocity or even timing.”
Onstage and in the studio, Mangini’s massive custom Pearl drum kit is one and the same (“for muscle memory purposes,” he says), though he does most of his practicing on a small Pearl ePro kit, primarily working on the connections between his voice, mind, hands, and feet. “That’s my primary function when I’m trying to improve my hitting velocity, my accuracy, and my musicality as well.”
Mangini’s equipment is currently undergoing a reconfiguration for both live and recording work. His 26" and 18" bass drums have been replaced with Pearl ePro two-track pads, for the wide variety of sounds they offer, and because they take up less room. In his home studio he’s using ePro tom toms with the two-track pads; he’s ordered ePro bass drum pads for all his kits, so that the bass drum pedals can attach to a hoop and the bass drum itself is a stand-alone unit that won’t vibrate as much if it’s attached to the rack.
And for the first time since his Speed King pedal days in 1975, Mangini has switched to hard felt beaters on his two 22" kicks, twisting his Pearl quad beater to the hard felt side because, he claims, he’s hitting the drum harder these days and pushing more air through the drum. As for that crucial “slap” effect, he’s going with recording software DSPs to get that sound for him.
A potential downside with felt beaters is that there’s less of a dynamic change once you hit a certain decibel level, and when Mangini kicks his 22" bass drums, there are no dynamics. He has a system in place to address that situation in a typical recording session or live performance.
“I’m not allowed dynamics, because my hits will not go through the gates,” he says. “Now, I am a classically trained musician, and I’m sorry but the music isn’t fulfilling unless it has dynamics in it. So the way I kept the dynamics was by having multiple kick drum sounds; having the 18" allows me to play very softly, but it also allows me to get a lot of boom; with the 26" I’m getting a lot more air blasting through.”
To further expand his kick drum arsenal’s sonic variety, Mangini has replaced his two outer kick drums with ePro kick drum pads, where with just the turn of a dial he can get any bass drum sound he wants; he also uses these for foot percussion effects, further freeing up space by eliminating extra pedals.
To hear him tell it, Mangini has had approximately one million thrillingly heart-warming – and brain-fulfilling – experiences in his musical life, and, better yet, he’s just getting started. He wants you all to know that he’s very, very thankful.
“I can’t help but smile with gratitude to all those people who have allowed me to have the opportunity to learn more and work more. I have had support from family and friends, just enough to keep me fighting. And that includes the Dream Theater camp. I’m looking around me thinking, ’These guys want me to be as good as I can.’
“And I think about the moment that I meet my maker. You know, ’I have given you talent. What have you done with it?’ I want to show up having done something.”