December 11, 2010

Mike Alba's Muscle Memory Workout Program (Module 1)

From L-R: Anthony Dio, Lawrence Nolan, Dr. Jigs Asinas, Paulo Garganta, Dom Banguis, & Sir Michael Alba.

The last six weeks have been very significant in my drumming and musical life.  I enrolled at Module 1 of Muscle Memory Workout Program of Michael Alba, one of the best drummers in the Philippines.  I just finished the program last Tuesday, and I have to say, this is among the best investments I've ever made for my drumming.  Everything I learned here, I will be carrying with me all throughout my drumming life and my professional career as a working musician.

Prior to enrolling in this program, my need for improving my drumming has grown greatly & I've been yearning for some musical inspiration.  I always see myself as an endless apprentice to the art of drumming, and I always wanted to grow and develop as an artist & take my craft to the next level.  And specifically, I also needed to improve my technique.  Just when I was searching for some education and inspiration, Mike Alba and his Muscle Memory Workout Program came in.  It was a blessing & a matter of right timing.

Batch 2.
What is the Muscle Memory Workout Program?  It is a 10-session drum curriculum designed by Mike Alba.  One session is two and a half hours long.  The workshop consists of five students per batch (five, because it's the most number of drummers Sir Mike can accommodate in his home studio in Quezon City).  The main topics covered in this drum workshop include endurance exercises, workout exercises on groove and rudiments, applied sight reading, music dictation, and developing drum charts and musical roadmaps.

I don't want to give away too much information regarding what was covered throughout Mike Alba's program (for the sake of Sir Mike's future students).  But here's what I can share.  Everything I learned in Mike Alba's program is totally practical and useful to me as a working pro.  Though I still need to continuously practice the exercises and sharpen my technique and note-reading, I instantly felt a huge difference in my playing.  In fact, just after Day 1 of the 10-day program, I can already feel and hear the difference.  And it's cool that my bandmates even noticed it.  On one gig, they were like, "Hey, there's something new here!", and "I can hear those sixteenth notes much better now!"  I'm still a work in progress, but I sure owe it to Sir Mike.

Mike Alba's modified Virgil Donati workout indeed does wonders to a drummer's hands.  Like Sir Mike, this has already become part of my pre-performance or pre-practice warm-up routine.  Sir Mike recommends that we do it at least once a day.  We can do it twice a day, and we'll get much better.   And we can do it three times a day, and we'll become invincible!  As long as this becomes part of our daily drumming routine, the results are guaranteed.  It's a great muscle memory workout for the fingers, hands, wrists, and arms, and it's a great help for our endurance, control, technique, dynamics, and articulation.

I'm already quite familiar with some of the most commonly used rudiments, such as singles, doubles, and paradiddles.  But when Sir Mike presented us his workout on rudiments, it was an added dimension for me.  First, since the rudiments were on paper, it was also a sight reading exercise, so it's a muscle memory workout for the eye.  And second, Sir Mike focused on some of the rudiments which are commonly applied on the drumkit, and he also shared some interesting ideas on how we can integrate it with our grooves and fills.  With practice and patience, these rudiments can serve as additional vocabulary in our drumming arsenal.

Admittedly, I'm a slow sight reader, and the last time I actually sight-read drum charts on a regular basis was way back during my college days with the DLSU Pops OrchestraSir Mike's applied sight reading exercises are a huge help.  For me, it was like a review and a rediscovery.  This also serves as a coordination workout between the eyes and the limbs.  The sight reading pieces were written by Sir Mike, and in the program, it is played on the snare drum or practice pad.  One cool thing about this is he used some of the most commonly used figures on session work, such as eighth, sixteenth and triplet note combinations.  So this serves as another muscle memory workout for the eyes.  Sir Mike also encourages us to be melodic by trying to sing these figures & play it around the drumkit instead of just on the snare drum or pad.  Again, these can be used as additional tools in our drumming vocabulary.  Plus, Sir Mike helped me in becoming more confident with my reading skills.

My favorite part of the class is what I like to call the groove session.  This is where we listen to songs (for the program, Sir Mike has selected a repertoire of actual recordings coming from different styles and eras), then develop musical roadmaps, write drum charts, and play along to those recordings on the drumkit.  For me, this is the most musical part of the class.  Though it's my favorite part, it can be the most grueling.  Our assignments of charting the songs, learning it, and playing along with it is not as simple as it sounds.  Several songs may seem simple to play, but it's not as easy as it sounds.  Sir Mike wants to make sure that we nail it right, for these are valuable skills required for session work.  For me, these exercises also serve as training tools for our listening skills, our attention to detail, our musicality, and our discipline.  As a pro, I've been covering songs for years.  But now, Sir Mike's methods help me enhance these skills, which are essential for pro drummers who do session work or in pop/mainstream settings.  The groove sessions also taught us and reminded us of the value of respecting the music, plus we get to further appreciate the great drummers who played on the recordings.

Every class ends with a Drumometer session, where each of us plays on a pad with a gadget that records the number of single strokes we play in one minute.  At first, I wasn't really interested in developing my speed to extreme levels.  But what I appreciate about the Drumometer is it's a great practice tool that can monitor our progress.  And it's not only about speed.  It also puts a great deal on control, endurance, and technique, which are factors in developing greater speed.  And hence, the Drumometer can be tool that can help our hands become much better.

Other than the specific activities and lessons I mentioned, there are plenty more things that we have learned from Sir Mike.  Finally, I learned how to play the brushes effectively (which is one of the favorite things I've learned from Sir Mike, since brushes have been a long mystery and frustration of mine).  I also learned a few new tricks and licks around the drumkit.  It's also cool that Sir Mike is very observant of our playing, whether on the drumkit or on a practice pad.  Sir Mike is a patient and a very motivating mentor.  He also makes it a point to correct our bad habits, and he does it in a professional and constructive manner.  In my case, I've already adjusted some of my bad habits, and I'm still in the process of strengthening my left hand and my technique.  Even if the program's over, it's still a continuous learning process.  Mike Alba's program sure makes us spend more quality time on the woodshed.

I admit, it can be quite intimidating to play along to a track in the presence of one of the best drummers in the Philippines observing you nearby.  But he's a really cool teacher, and he's very easy to get along with.  There were moments too when Sir Mike gets to share his stories, such as his experiences as a pro, as a student at the Los Angeles Music Academy, and some of the famous drummers he met.  Even all these talks and his sharing of knowledge and wisdom are inspiring.

One factor that I appreciate regarding Sir Mike's program is the fact that he is very particular with quality.  We may have all the technique in the world.  But if it doesn't sound musical and if it doesn't feel great, it won't matter at all.  Sir Mike is like a quality control guy.  He wants to make sure that we're not just technically solid, but we'll also be sounding and feeling great too.  And quality means a lot on session work, which I realized and learned later on.  It seems that Sir Mike's program is highly geared towards drummers who are in the session scene or in a mainstream setting.  Hence, his program is highly recommended for drummers who aspire to have a fruitful career towards that direction.  Though it's not limited to that; anybody who simply wants to improve or enhance their skills will greatly benefit with Sir Mike's program.

Another thing I appreciate so much in Mike Alba's program is the fact that we are a class of five students.  Most drum lessons (or any other musical instrument) are traditionally one-on-one sessions.  What's great about having classmates is first, it's great to meet new friends and extend the drumming camaraderie.  Second, I get to appreciate my classmates' drumming.  We may have similarities and differences in regards to musical backgrounds, preferences & tastes, among many things.  We have our strengths and weaknesses as well.  But it's cool that we are all on the same boat.  Each of us still wants to push on and improve with our craft, which is why we're studying with Mike Alba.  It's also understood that being in a class is not about competition, which takes us to my next point.  Third, we get to gauge each other in terms of improvement.  It's like for example, when I notice my classmates already improving on their rudiments or sight reading or their Donati workout routine, I tell myself, "I better catch up!"  It's like a subconscious way of encouraging myself.  And on the other end, if some classmates are catching up or having some difficulty, the rest of us would express our encouragement.  It's not about outdoing each other.  To be in Mike Alba's classes is a brotherhood, where my respect and admiration for each of my classmates have grown as the sessions passed.

The apprentice & the master.
Our graduation day last Tuesday, December 7, was the icing on the cake.  At the final day of the program, we played our individual applied sight-reading pieces, grooved along to our special graduation day play-along track, and had a final music dictation test.  It's also cool that after all that, Sir Mike handed each of us a special Certificate of Completion.  We had a pot luck feast afterwards, and I even got to blow a candle on a chocolate cake, since it was my birthday a couple of days earlier.  And of course, during our merienda, it was more drum and music talk & sharing.  Ah, the drumming community!

Thank you very much, Sir Mike Alba.  You're a blessing to all of us.  Just when I needed improvement and inspiration, you came along like an answered prayer.  You're an awesome world-class musician and an inspiring mentor, and I'll always cherish the times spent & all the lessons I learned from you.  Continue to be an inspiration to me and to everyone.  And to my Batch 2 classmates --- Lawrence Nolan (my seatmate & our Drumometer king), Paulo Garganta (all the way from Batangas; thanks again for the coffee & all the talk on the road), Dom Banguis ("speak softly; carry a BIG stick" --- wow those are HUGE warm-up drumsticks!), and Dr. Jigs Asinas (the heavy metal guy & the most "well-compensated" among us; one of the most humble and down-to-earth dudes I've ever met) --- it's my pleasure to meet you and be classmates with you guys.  I admire and respect all of you, and studying & learning is a blast when it's spent with good people like you.  Great drumming!  Cheers to Sir Mike!  Cheers to all of us!

And so, that's all for Module 1.  Module 2, which will be set sometime next year, is in the works.  And the work in progress goes on...

*Photos courtesy of Sir Mike Alba & Dr. Jigs Asinas.