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How Whale Blubber Improved My Drumming Posture

Muktuk. You ever hear of it? Loosely translated it means “whale blubber.”  I had never heard the word let alone understood its meaning until I played in Anchorage, Alaska with a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Family Jewels (good band with a funny name).

My band mates and I flew to Anchorage to play a 6 week gig at the Gold Rush Hotel.  I remember, as we approached the Gold Rush for the first time, seeing the bright lights of the reader board: “Ballroom: Family Jewels / Lounge: Muktuk”. It was so exciting to see our band’s name “in lights.”  But who (or what) was Muktuk?  Was it a band?  Was it was some kind of Native American culture show? We couldn’t wait to find out!

We arrived late on a Sunday and didn’t have to play until Monday night. So we quickly unpacked our bags and headed to the lounge. As we approached the dark cave-like entrance, we could hear the sweet sounds of funky jazz music:  Guitar intro, bass joining in, drums adding a funky groove (did I hear a cowbell?), keyboards laying down a bed of chords.  Over the top of this funky gumbo stew was the beautiful, soaring sound of a tenor saxophone!  Funky, Jazzy, Lyrical, Haunting – all at the same time.  Muktuk was producing music I’d never heard before!

Funky, Relaxed Drummer
As I listened to the drummer I heard incredibly funky grooves with amazingly complex fills that fit the music perfectly. With this blaze of chops I expected to see a sweaty body moving to the music with arms flying in all directions.  But what I saw was just the opposite.  The drummer was relaxed, his main torso almost motionless as his limbs flowed in a magical dance around the drum set.

At the time, I was very tense when I played the drums.  My arms and legs were physically tight.  I was having trouble with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in my wrists.  I would lock my jaw and gnash my teeth.  You could hear the tenseness in my playing: fast tempos dragged and drum fills sounded stiff. Not a pretty sight or sound!

My first thought when I saw the Muktuk drummer was, “How will I ever learn to play that relaxed?”  An immediate idea came to mind, “I’ll get him to give me some drum lessons!”  But it wasn’t going to be quite that easy.

Recently I wrote a post about the challenge of relaxing while playing the drum set (Relax…It’s Just a Drum Set!).  In that article, I briefly described 5 tips to relax while playing the drum set.  The tips are so important, though, that I decided to write a detailed post for each one.  The first in the series was I’ll Practice Drums on the Weekend! (Get on a Regular Practice Schedule).  This is the second post in the series.  The tip for this post is: Sit up straight and put weight on your butt.

If there are two bands playing in one location there’s always a friendly and supportive rivalry. You always want your band to sound better than the other band but you also want to have some fun together and learn from each other.  In this case, however, there was no comparison. Muktuk sounded incredible!  They were phenomenal, world class jazz musicians and we were a bunch of punks playing rock ‘n’ roll.

The leader of Muktuk was jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper. Jim was a legend in U.S. Pacific Northwest jazz circles.  He had recorded and performed with many great international jazz musicians.  He was also a pioneer in jazz-rock fusion, combining the instrumental solo work of jazz music with the back beat of rock.  Drawing from his Native American ancestry, he had a minor hit with the song “Witchi Tai To.”

The rest of the band was made up of vocalist Jackie Virgil, and San Francisco jazz musicians David Haskell on guitar, Ratzo Harris on bass and an incredible drummer, James Zitro. Muktuk was near the end of their 4 month “sit down gig” at the Gold Rush so they were super tight and had a sixth sense about what each other was about to play.

The band I was in, The Family Jewels, played in the ballroom from 9 PM to 3 AM taking 15 minute breaks every hour.  Muktuk started a half hour later in the lounge and played a half hour longer.  The schedules of our two bands were offset so when we were on break in the ballroom, Muktuk was playing in the lounge.

Drummer James Zitro
On slow nights during the week, I’d quickly mingle my way through the ballroom crowd and head to the lounge so I could get a musical education listening to Muktuk. The more I watched James, the more I grew to appreciate his style, technique and, most of all, his musical sense.  He had incredible chops that he used to complement the other musicians. He had the abilities of 2 other Bay area drummers I’d heard: the funkiness of David Garibaldi (Tower of Power), and the technique and musical sensitivity of Mike Clark (Herbie Hancock).

Since Muktuk played later than we did, we always had the opportunity to catch the last part of their final set.  It took a week or two for me to get to know James.  I finally felt comfortable enough to ask him if he ever gave drum lessons.  He was a nice guy but his answer was a firm, “No.”  I thought, “How could such a talented guy not be giving drum lessons?”

But I continued trying.  It took a couple more weeks to get to know him even better.  I asked again and this time I offered an incentive, “Would you be interested in giving me a drum lesson? Of course I’d pay you for your time.”  James thought about it and finally agreed to give me a lesson.

Relaxation Philosophy While Playing the Drum Set
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my drum lesson with James.  After all, I had to talk him in to teaching me something.  We met in the ballroom one afternoon and sat behind my set of drums.  There was no need for concern or apprehension.  James was a wonderful, guru-like teacher who spent a couple hours explaining his drumming philosophy, asking me about my background and helping me work through some things to become a better player.

We covered a lot of different topics but the area that I remember most was our discussion about relaxation and natural energy flow.  In fact, it was so important to James that it was the first thing we discussed.  And it was the basis for all our other discussions.

I learned that James was studying the teachings of Eastern religions and philosophers, and he applied these teachings to playing the drums.  I was fascinated with his integrated approach, combining mind, body and spirit with drumming.

Here are some of the main points that I remember James covered (please keep in mind that these points are subject to my simple interpretation and recollection from many years ago):

  1. Your body and spirit have a natural energy, and it’s important to focus that energy when you play the drums.
  2. You may believe that the source of your natural energy is external (such as, from God) or internal (such as, from your own internal peace).  Regardless, recognize that you DO have a natural energy.
  3. Visualize that the base of your natural energy is your core, a place right behind your belly button.  The energy spreads to the rest of your body from this spot.
  4. Focus on your core when you play the drums.  Instead of focusing on your hands, arms, legs or feet, focus on your core.  If you feel yourself getting tense, focus on your core.
  5. Sit up straight (good posture) and place most of your weight squarely on your butt.  This allows your natural energy to flow without interruption, and your arms and legs to move freely.

My Tips from James Zitro’s Teachings
I’ve taken years of lessons from great teachers and I’ve attended drum master classes presented by some of the greatest drummers in the world. But I’ve never heard any other drummer talk about what James taught me in that 2 hour drum lesson.  What I learned that day in Anchorage continues to have a profound impact on my playing today.

That lesson changed the way I played forever.  The information that James presented was not about the latest lick or the coolest drum groove.  It was about how to fundamentally play the drum set.  It even went further than that for me.  I apply what I learned from James to everyday work life and to exercise.  When I sit at an office desk, I sit up straight and put weight on my butt.  When I exercise, I focus on relaxation and strengthening my “core.”

Here are the action items I took away from my lesson with James and that can, hopefully, help you relax when you play the drums:

  1. Buy a sturdy and comfortable drum throne. If you are going to place a lot of weight on your butt, make sure that your drum throne can support it without tipping over or slipping down.  The first thing I did after my lesson with James was purchase a new drum throne.  Today I use a Drum Workshop (DW) CP5100 Drum Throne because it has a swivel adjustment that is rock solid.
  2. Sit up straight. Avoid hunching over the drum set.  Keep your back straight: relaxed, not stiff.
  3. Put all your weight on your butt. Visualize your energy core behind your belly button and center your weight there.
  4. Move your arms and legs, not your torso. When you’re playing the drums, make sure you can easily move your arms and legs without moving your butt and torso.  It may take some time before you feel comfortable with balancing on your butt but keep trying until it feels comfortable.
  5. Breath!  Take a deep breath before you start to play.  If you feel yourself tense up, make sure you’re breathing regularly.
  6. Relax! If you get tense while you’re playing, focus on your core.

I encourage you to think about this drumming philosophy and to try these tips for playing the drum set in a relaxed way. It made a difference in my playing, and it helped me have a long and healthy musical career.

Thank You, James!
I did not have any contact with James after we met in Alaska. I see from the Internet that he still plays the drums around the San Francisco Bay area. I hope someday to thank James in-person for all he taught me during that short lesson in Anchorage.  Two hours made a big difference in my musical life!

One Response to “How Whale Blubber Improved My Drumming Posture”

  1. E. Bloom says:

    Isn’t it odd how we often have to “work at relaxing?” Every activity works better when the core muscles do their job and we don’t hamper ourselves with extra tension. Your summary captures this perfectly – great title, too!