Author Archives: michaelcairns

About michaelcairns

drummer, teacher, programmer, composer, arranger.

Saves the day at Electric Ballroom

The opening act are like saves the day got beaten up by in utero era nirvana, without any of the charm or cleverness! Good solid groove though, and spot-on if unpleasant harmonies.
I’m feeling pleasantly youngish. I used to feel old at Saves gigs but it seems their audience is growing up with them! The Electric ballroom sounds fantastic as well, not many venues this size left in London, and even less that sound as good.
Saves the Day take the stage with little bombast and blast through 3 classics, one each from their first 3 albums.  A huge smile is plastered across Chris’s face as the crowd sing along to every line. Last time they were here he seemed a bit bored but tonight he and the rest of the band seem to be having a fantastic time. 
      They play a perfect mix of old and new, blasting out 4 tunes from their new album which make me very excited about it coming out later this year.  The new ones show a return to the glorious pop melodies of the earlier stuff with the edge of more recent offerings. The band also play plenty of oldies, including an awesome rendition of Shoulder to the Wheel. Plenty of recent material also gets a showing and the band ably demonstrate their knack for noise making as well as their musicianship. The sound is impeccable, the balance perfect and Chris’ voice is as strong as ever. They finish with a couple of more obscure numbers from their acoustic ep and a b-side before finishing with a huge version of Rocks Tonic Juice Magic. 
      Final praise has to go to the length of the set. Too many bands seem happy to play for an hour whereas Saves the Day go through about 25 songs in an hour and a half.
       An excellent gig, well worth the wait. Roll on the new album!  


The power of the open mind (why kids learn better)

I having been thinking recently about the different learning styles of people, and the way in which we receive and accept information. I have over the last week taught students ranging in age from 9 to 18, from various walks of life and backgrounds.

The 9 year olds came in with a willingness to do whatever was asked and an eagerness to achieve. They were open with their lack of understanding and happy to ask for help. They tried different things and weren’t put off if they couldn’t do them.

The 18 year olds were fairly similar. Also happy to ask for help, they seemed to feel no shame in not knowing and had a definite need to understand. They constantly asked for clarification and were open in their wishes to do as well as possible.

The 14 years old were a far more mixed bag. They veered between a similar approach to those above and almost the exact opposite. Many of them were not keen to ask for help or admit a lack of understanding and, more pertinently, a number of them had no apparent interest in their achievement. This I believe however has far more to do with what else is happening within them at that particular age than a specific attitude towards education.

This blog is not intended as an attack on the learning styles of mid teenagers. Whilst the paragraph above may seem a little harsh, it is not intended in any way as a derogatory judgement. I will be blogging very soon on what I see as the massive flaws in our education system and will talk about age then.

Rather, what I wanted to talk briefly about was the state that these children came to learn in. By which I mean the attitude and mental approach they had towards the learning. Let me list again what I felt were the important factors.

  • They were unafraid to admit ignorance.
  • They were keen to increase their knowledge, ability and skills.
  • They didn’t see a need to do this as any judgement upon themselves.
  • They were happy and eager to ask for help.
  • They were happy to try stuff, regardless of getting it wrong or right.
  • They were keen to achieve.

Now I know many people will be sitting reading this thinking that it doesn’t reflect how they felt when they were that age. In defence, aside from my direct experiences I would also ask you to think about how mixed together your entire education probably is in your memories. For myself, my over riding memory of education was a dislike of it and a lack of motivation and interest. However, if I really pick it apart I realise that between the ages of 4 and 13, I loved it. I also loved it even more at college and university. I didn’t have the best time at GCSE and A level, but as I suggested above, there was a lot more going on then than just learning!

I feel very lucky in how my education has turned out. Having left school feeling thoroughly demotivated, I re-entered education 2 years later with a passion for drums which meant that I fell in love with the process all over again. However, something that took me much longer was to regain the traits I have listed above. We, as learners and people seem to have a massive issue with admitting ignorance, asking for help, simply trying stuff and constantly striving for improvement. So many people that I meet seem to have reached a glass ceiling with their learning. Inset days are ‘a waste of time, patronising, dull, worthless etc.’ Outside training is never taken up because ‘it just isn’t worth time’. These peoples’ subject knowledge is exactly what it was when they finished learning however many years ago. And the people I describe here are mostly teachers of one sort or another!

If we can change education so that it teaches people to keep an open mind, avoid fear of ignorance and instead instil a need to challenge that ignorance and learn and ask questions, then we can create an education system that lasts a lifetime and not just the first part of our lives.

Make a list of everything you’ve learned this week. Then try going back and making a list of everything you’ve learned so far this year. Think about how many questions you’ve asked. Try to remember the last time you told someone you didn’t understand and would they please explain it. Then make the honest judgement of yourself of whether you have anything left to learn. If the answer is yes, then what are you waiting for?

Ani Difranco at Shepherds Bush Empire

My wife and I were lucky enough to see Ani play recently at the Empire. To avoid the many cliches of gig review writing, I thought I’d try to simply describe why I enjoyed it so much.

I’ve seen Ani a number of times over the last 10 or so years and the thing that always stand out is how natural it is when she plays. Something certain musicians seem to share is that when they are playing it feels like second nature, as natural as breathing. Ani has this. She will have a chat to the audience, the sound man, or laugh to herself about something, all whilst playing something inherently groovy and often quite complex. It isn’t something she has to think about, she just does it.

This might not seem like something worth shouting about but it always strikes me. I think that this is due to the direct contrast there is between this and the passion and energy that she’s had every time I’ve seen her play. There is never a time that she seems less than completely involved in what she is saying and playing, regardless of how easy she may be finding it. This ability to completely give herself to her music makes her endlessly compelling to watch, even though I know the songs backwards!

As far as the actual gig, it was her usual brand of brilliant! A couple of unexpected oldies were fantastic and the large number of new songs have made me very excited to hear her upcoming album. I also feel like she is becoming more and more relaxed on stage. She spends longer talking to the audience than previously, which is great because she’s really funny! Her dry and self-deprecating wit creates a warm and familial atmosphere and puts her often very serious songs in a new, though no less affecting light. Sorry, I’ve begun to slip into reviewer speak!

Needless to say, it was fantastic gig. I will continue to see Ani every chance I get and strongly recommend any one who hasn’t seen her to do so. Whether or not you know her music, she is a truly inspiring performer and remains, for me, one of the greatest I have ever seen.

paradiddles in 24th notes part 2

This is a quick follow on to the 24th note paradiddles I’ve been having fun with.

Once you’ve really got a good feeling for the odd groupings in 24th notes, you can mess around with them in many ways. The 2 I’ve been focusing on are:

Combinations: I’m working on sticking different groupings together. My current fave is:

double paradiddle, 4 single paradiddles and then a double on the end. Written as a sticking with right hand lead this would be:


The options are endless! It is, as always about what sounds good. I do find that a lot of the combinations with the odd groupings sound kinda cool but are fairly unusable unless you’re playing in Dream Theatre or The Locust. The real challenge is to throw in a fill that complements the song whilst using the odd groupings.

Once I find a combination that I think might work, I move onto

Sound Sources:

First I go through all the classics, such as accents on toms with the rest on the snare, or accents on cymbals with the rest on the snare.

Then I move onto accents on cymbals with the rest on the toms, or playing this as a groove between the hi-hat and snare.

Most recently I’ve put the sticking above together to enable me to show off some rather silly cross sticking and quick cymbal work.

I’m playing the double paradiddle with the accents on 2 different cymbals and the rest on the snare. Then the 4 paradiddles are played with an accent on a different tom each time, starting with the left hand on the high tom then working around down to the lowest. This means that your left hand has cross over to hit the 3rd tom, which looks kinda cool! Finally a loud double on the snare to finish off.

I hope this makes sense, I’ll try to get some video up as soon as I can to demonstrate it.

Have Fun!

The Supportive Drummer

As a drummer we have many advantages when it comes to supporting and helping the rest of the band. This isn’t to say that the other members can’t do the same, but as a drummer we are perhaps uniquely suited to this role.

In my experience it’s not uncommon to hear musicians moan about a drummer they’ve recently played with. You can often predict what they’re going to say, and for those of us who consider ourselves part of the ‘drummer family’, it can often be both frustrating and embarrasing. To cover the obvious ones:

‘Too loud’ (strange that it’s never ‘too quiet!)

‘Doesn’t know the songs’

‘Plays too much’

‘Speeds up/slows down’

‘Oblivious to what the rest of the band are doing’

and so on…


There are a few things that a drummer can and should be aware of that can help them be supportive and avoid the comments above.

The first thing is structure:

As a drummer we can give a huge amount of support to the rest of the band and the song, playing ‘signposts’ and being musical with our playing. First things first, it’s essential that you really learn the beats and the fills. Even in the simplest pop song there will be variations in the groove between verse and chorus and it’s important that you play these. Give every song it’s due. Never listen to the first 15 seconds and make assumptions about the rest of it!

Secondly, try to get a feel for the whole song. Think about the dynamic range, not just from verse to chorus but of the song as a whole. The comment ‘the drummer’s too loud’ is not only bad because it shows that they aren’t using their ears, but it also suggests that there is no variation in dynamics across the song. In the digital age of compression, live music has even more power to create magic through expression and sensitive playing.


This brings me nicely along to Emotion:

It’s essential as a musician that one is clued in to what the song is about. Whether you’re playing Jazz, pop or metal, there will be a meaning behind the music. Just because we don’t have a solo or a voice, we can still add value to the music and support the rest of the band. Always take the time to find out what the song is about and keep it in mind when you are playing.


The next and perhaps most important is Communication:

Of all the musicans, drummers are the ones most often accused of not listening. Our ears are and always will the most important part of our performance. As a supportive drummer you want to be listening and looking at everyone in the band, all of the time! Once again, this is where a drummer has a bit of an advantage, sitting as they are at the back, or occasionally to one side. You can still make contact with the audience, but you can see the rest of the band at the same time. This helps you pick up on, and respond to, the little cues the rest of the group make, be they deliberate or just an in-the-moment response to the music.

You can also pass communication on, helping the rest of the band to stay in touch. Within the regularity and repetition of a drum beat, a well placed and musical comment can be really effective in expressing a thought or feeling within the music. It can also help to bring awareness from the entire band to something one member is doing and trying to share with them.

With the sound sources of the drum kit that sit apart from the rest of the group in terms of frequency and timbre, it’s much easier for a drummer to play something extra without disrupting the song. This might be to bring attention to an accent, support a rhythmic phrase from another instrument or give emphasis to a particular line. I find that a singer is normally really grateful when they realise that the drummer is directly responding to what they are singing and saying. The audience will pick up on it as well and it creates a real sense of the band being together.


As a drummer you are a musician first and foremost, not the just the guy that hangs out with them. (that’s the first drummer joke so far. Stay tuned for many more :). Most importantly, remember that the audience are there because they love the songs. The more you can do to communicate and express those songs, beyond simply playing them well, the more you will give to the audience and the greater their (and your) experience will be.




The power of positive thinking.

I have spent the last 2 weeks looking at the power of positive thinking with my year 11s at school.

The last lesson finished with an interesting chat with a couple of them who had not completely engaged with the material. They had chosen not to as they didn’t feel that it would help them. They both had excellent reasons and could defend their thinking, which made for a good debate.

This variation in the way people approach life as a whole got me thinking about the musicians approach to going on stage. Everyone has heard fantastic stories about pre-gig warm ups, from full aerobic sessions, to the classic intake of vast quantities of alcohol, to my fave, Slipknot’s pre-gig vomit. It’s clear that there are a hundred ways to prepare yourself to rock!

I have the distinct honour of being married to a guru of positive, conscious thinking. She has taught me a ridiculous amount about both myself and others in the many years that I’ve known her and I try to apply some of her stuff when I’m going on stage.

I’m going to describe a few techniques and approaches that I have used in the past in the hope that they may be in some way useful to you.


This is a classic and especially good if you suffer from nerves.

When we are properly grounded we are less likely to be knocked off kilter if something doesn’t go according to plan. Being grounded gives us a sturdy, solid presence on stage that is tangible to our audience, it’s the first step of really dynamic stage presence. It also means that we can be fully in the moment, which is not only better for our audience, as we can genuinely connect with them, but means we get to feel the full force of enjoying our craft!

Find a quiet out-of-the-way place, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Lift your shoulders up around your ears and then let them drop down. Do this a few times until they feel really relaxed. Now focus your attention on your breathing. Locate your heart and feel it beat, it can help to put a hand there. Slowly move your focus down your body, pausing in each area to really get a sense of how it’s feeling. The aim is to get out of our heads and fully into our bodies, accessing all the latent intelligence within. If you locate any tension, stay there and breath slowly into that area until you feel it ease. Once you reach your feet, feel the point of contact between you and the ground. You are now going to imagine that your feet are your roots. They are sinking slowly into the ground, keeping you anchored and secure. This feeling will enable you to really access the best bits of your musical self and help keep the nerves at bay. Once you feel really secure which may take up to a few minutes, (and before you attract too many funny looks back stage) bring your awareness gradually back to the room, allowing your eyes to open, take a good deep breath in and out and take a purposeful step on stage!

Find your “Happy Place”:

This can be paired with grounding, or done on it’s own.

It’s pretty much self explanatory. The aim is to have a memory, thought, image, person or anything else that makes you feel instantly happy. It could be the memory of a fantastic holiday, a picture of your child, the smell of cooking bread, and so on.

Simply access this thing before you step on stage and spend up to a minute really revelling in the feeling. The positive feelings that you create will release endorphins, which will help you relax and make you more able to play and perform at your peak.

Choosing your state on stage: “the Haka approach”

Another way to get yourself hyped and ready to play is to use what can be called a ‘power phrase’. I find that wording a bit cheesy, but the idea is sound. The New Zealand rugby team begin every game with a chant called the Haka. It’s seen as a way to intimidate the other team, but in reality it is just as effective for getting the team into the right mind set. The people doing it have to focus their concentration on it and therefore clear their thinking of anything else that might get in the way of effective performance. By the time the game starts they are focused in on the game at hand.

This same thing can work before a gig. Find a sentence, phrase, chant, mantra, anything really. Repeat it over and over. You can do this at any volume. You might find shouting it helps, but whispering it might be just as powerful. Try to empty your mind of anything else and really focus on the meaning of what you are saying. Once you feel centered and ready, step on stage.

This can be really powerful if done by the whole group. Call and response also works well. For an example of this think of “show me the money” from Jerry Maguire or “What Team” from High School Musical. Yep I’m afraid I did just quote from HSM. I never claimed I was perfect 🙂

Post Gig visualisation:

This one may be familiar for anyone involved in sports. The aim is to picture yourself at the end of a really successful gig. Think about all the fills/riffs/high notes that sounded just right. Think about the tough bit in the 3rd song that you nailed. Try to add as much detail as you can to the picture to make it seem as real as possible. Then allow yourself to just enjoy the moment. Really drink in the feeling of success and that amazing buzz you get after a great gig.

Feeling good? Great, now step on stage.

This is a few ideas, of which at least one will hopefully be useful to you. Please give them a try and I’d really appreciate any feedback you can give me once you have, or if you have any of your own.

Drum fills

Following on from a very nice comment, I started to explore drum fills. It’s not something I’ve thought about in terms of philosophy and approach. They’ve always been something that’s just flowed.

I have of course spent many hours ‘wood-shedding’ certain chops that I like, but rarely plan fills for specific songs in advance. I am more of the opinion that you want to get as much stuff in your toolbox as possible, then let it come out as and when it wants.

However, following the comment I thought I’d have a think and see what came out…

My initial thoughts are something like this.

The type of fill is entirely dependent upon the style of music. It should be at least roughly appropriate and it MUST be musical.

You can think of it in the same way as soloing in jazz. A soloist will often base their improvisation upon the melody of the piece or the chords, stuff that’s already there. Not only does this help the soloist out, but it also ensures that there is a sense of context to the solo, that it fits.

Similarly, use what you already have to create the fill, so focus on the style of music, the beat before and after the fill, the dynamics and feel and make sure that it blends.

Here’s a few basic examples:

  • 8th note rock groove, use 8th note fills! Nothing flashy that will diminish what follows it.
  • 16th note funk groove, go for the 16th notes. Also, blend your sound sources, so if it’s a Jamiroquai style hi-hat thing, base the fill around the hi hat and snare.
  • If you’ve got a latin feel going on, again think about the groove and sounds. I would go for a syncopated thing, probably using a rhythm from within the groove and using the sound sources that are sympathetic, cowbells, cymbals, high toms etc.

Focusing again on making sure that your fill is musical, I often find that the simpler the fill, the more effective it is. The fill is always there to support the music, so be conscious of why you are doing it. Are you lifting the songs into a chorus? Are you helping to reduce the dynamics, or perhaps change the feel? Simply put, a fill should have a purpose.

One last comment, which isn’t entirely original, but does bear repeating. Unless you’re playing fusion, or a clinic, a fill is almost certainly not an opportunity for you to show off your latest, fastest most crazy chops. However great the urge may be (and it often is for me) the audience aren’t going to shower you with praise if you drown out the singer with some badass 32nd note double kick/cymbal mayhem just as the song reaches it’s most gentle moment! I refer you to my first blog about being a drummer. If you really need that kind of attention, start singing! (or get into politics…)

This is just a start really, but I hope it gives you some insight into how I would approach fills.