Starting Over

by Neil Peart

Modern Drummer, November 1995

During the recording sessions for Burning For Buddy, it was a pleasure to work with so many great drummers, most of whom I hadn't met before. As many of us have long suspected, the drumming community is indeed a special one, with bonds of shared understanding, and nearly all of these great drummers were also great human beings. Some of them I will feel close to all my life, even if we never see each other again.

It was equally wonderful to work with the drummers I did already know, like Rod Morgenstein and Steve Smith. Rod and the sensational Steve Morse band had been the opening act on a Rush tour around '86 and we became good friends and have kept in touch. Steve Smith and I had worked together on a Jeff Berlin record eight or nine years before, then met again for the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship concert back in 1991.

This time, though, I noticed something different about Steve's playing. He had always been a fine drummer, but suddenly it seemed he had become a master. My eyes and ears were amazed and delighted by the overall excellence in his playing, not only technically, but musically. His drumming was simply beautiful.

So I had his arms broken.

No, really, I asked him, "What's your secret?" and Steve replied, "Freddie."

In the days to follow I was able to meet "Freddie," the legendary teacher Freddie Gruber, and over dinner one night he and I had a wonderful conversation about drums, music, and life. Freddie is sixty-eight years young, and has lived a life worthy of an epic novel. A native New Yorker, he began playing the "after-hours joints" around the city in the late '40s and early '50s - a time when New York was uniquely the vortex of contemporary art, the cutting edge of modem painting, sculpture, theater, and, of course, American jazz.

During those tumultuous years, it seemed as if Freddie had crossed paths with everybody, from the most beloved drummers of the time, like Papa Jo Jones and the enigmatic Dave Tough, to the poet Allen Ginsberg, the abstract-expressionist painter Larry Rivers, and a cast of walkons that ranged from Gil Evans to a young Miles Davis.

For Freddie himself, a highlight of this time was working with an up-and-coming band that included Charlie Parker, Red Rodney, and Zoot Sims. Unfortunately, the "up-and-coming" went "down-and-gone": The project never got beyond the rehearsal room, and only photographs survive.

Freddie was also a close friend to Buddy Rich for most of his life, and like anyone who knew that complex, driven man, Freddie has a great fund of 'Buddy stories', too. Basically, Freddie's got stories, period, and he loves to tell them. (He wouldn't let me repeat the really good ones!)

Circumstances took Freddie to the "left coast' and led him into teaching, and after thirty-five years the list of people he has worked with is a veritable Who's Who of great drummers: Jim Keltner, Peter Erskine, Dave Weckl, Anton Fig, John Guerin, Mitch Mitchell, Steve Smith, Ian Wallace, Jeff Hamilton, Clayton Cameron, Richie Garcia, Mike Baird, Adam Nussbaum, Kenny Aronoff, John Riley, and many more.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Freddie dropped into the Power Station once again while I was recording my own tracks, and when I mentioned to him later that I was fighting the "War Of The Grips" in that style of music - unable to get the power I wanted from traditional grip, or the finesse I wanted from matched Freddie said: "Yeah, I noticed that. I could fix that in half an hour."

During the summer months, all of those things stayed in my mind, and before I knew it, they coalesced into one of those decisions that seem to "make themselves" in the subconscious mind - the kind of thing Carl Jung wrote about. Anyway, suddenly I just "knew" what I had to do, and I gave Freddie a call. We arranged to spend a week working together in New York City.

For myself, I figured it was worth the shot. After working in my own "idiom" for so long, I had begun to feel that I had pushed my envelope about as far as I could. I knew I needed "something" I just didn't know what. There was no way of knowing if Freddie was that "something," but it seemed better to find out than to wonder about it.

A lesson with Freddie Gruber is not about notes beats, or "chops." It's about the fingers, the wrists, the ankles, the feet - about the way the body moves naturally. In the same way, there is no Freddie Gruber "method" - he changes his approach to suit each individual, adapting his knowledge and experience to help accentuate your strengths and correct the weaknesses. Freddie's only goal, in his own words, is "to make the best possible you."

John Riley described Freddie to me as a "conceptual teacher," but that seems too dry for a character like Freddie, or for the roller coaster ride of studying with him. Whenever Freddie got excited about what he was trying to impart, he became a ball of pure energy - intensely earnest and physically animated - and my own energy level had to keep up with his. It wasn't easy.

To demonstrate the point he was making, Freddie did a little music hall dance for me, and I realized what he was showing me: It isn't about the steps, for most of the "dance" takes place in the air. He gave other examples: a piano player's fingering!, a cellist's bowing motion, a boxer' s stance. and - he took a deep breath - "playing the drums."

And then I saw it clearly for the first time - when we strike a drum with a stick or pedal-beater, the result is a note being sounded. But if you think about it, almost the whole motion is "non-note"-which is to say, it is the movement that accomplishes that note. So Freddie's unspoken method says, why not concentrate a little on the "non-note," since that is the major part of what we do?

Freddie drew another vivid analogy between hitting a drum and playing with one of those paddles attached to a rubber ball with an elastic string. He mimed the motion of it, and said, "If you just try to hit the ball, it won't work, will it? Your motion in the air has to be circular, fluid, and responsive, or else the 'thing' won't happen. Am I right?" I had to admit he was, and it was a revelation to me.

Freddie started me off with a list of simple exercises to take home with me, some of them to be done at the drumkit, others with just a stick and a couple of fingers. "These are just options," he stressed. "Keep playing the way you do, and work on these things separately."

Though I was inspired by all this, secretly I was a little worried-would I find the discipline to work on these exercises, to get into a practice routine once again? I hadn't practiced every day since I was in my teens, and I sure wasn't a teenager anymore! My life had become much fuller and more complicated, with an awful lot of distractions-both willing and otherwise.

But I needn't have worried. I was possessed by the spirit of "starting over," and I approached it that way. Every day I found at least an hour to spend at the drums (four drums, two cymbals, and hi-hat), and at night I found myself reading or watching TV with the sticks in my hands, doing the little exercises. If my wife and daughter weren't around to be annoyed by it, I would often have the practice pad out, too. (A drummer's curse-all your life no one wants to hear you practice!)

After six months of this, I was starting to "get somewhere," and I felt it was time for another session with Freddie. This time he came to my house in Toronto, and we spent another few days together. He left me with another list of exercises to work on, to "take this thing a little further."

Sensibly, he had begun with the foundation-the left hand and the right foot along with some broader exercises, which would help to make my approach more fluid, more circular. Now be began to move those things up a level, as well as to introduce some new approaches for the right hand. (As proof of Freddie's "one limb-at-a-time" approach, as of this writing we still haven't started on my left foot!)

So once again, I'm back to practicing every day and sitting around at night with a pair of sticks and a practice pad-starting over. My bandmates have been setting a little restless to start on a new Rush project, but since I'm in the process of "reinventing" myself, I want to aide it a bit more time. It's hard for me to explain, and the band meetings have been a bit awkward: "When will you be ready, then?"

"I'm not sure-maybe after a year."

"A year?"

And even then, I'm not entirely sure that I'll end up playing Rush music all that differently. Over the past twenty years my style of playing has evolved to suit me and our music-and vice versa-and that chemistry may not be changed so easily. But still, I ask you, as fellow drummers, is it worth it or not?

You know it.