On June 27th, 2016 I had the honor of interviewing my own teacher—jazz drummer and educator Alan Hall. The interview is filled with deep insights and practical advice for any musician, artist or aspiring professional. Alan is an amazing drummer, masterful educator and quality human being. The years I spent studying with him changed my life. I know you will enjoy hearing what he has to say.
We discuss his experience studying with Alan Dawson, teaching at Berklee College of Music, performing in New York at Madison Square Garden with Cirque Du Soleil, Percussive Arts Society competitions, the connection between music and visual art and advice on maintaining integrity, developing your own voice and dealing with competitive pressures.
A Brief Biography
Alan Hall has performed and/or recorded with many jazz greats including:
Paul McCandless, Russell Ferrante, Taylor Eigsti, Art Lande, Geoff Keezer, Jimmy Haslip, Kai Eckhardt, and vocalists Kenny Washington and Rebecca Parris. He’s worked with Cirque Du Soleil in NYC and Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco. Alan taught drum set and ensembles at Berklee College of Music for seven years and he currently teaches drum set and ensembles at California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley and Cal State University East Bay in Hayward. He is the author of several articles and a drum book titled: “Internalization”- A non-reading intensive approach to mastery of the jazz drumming language. He is a proud endorser of Brooks Drums, Zildjian Cymbals, Aquarian Accessories and Vic Firth Sticks.
Alan: How ya doing man?
Niels: Good how are you?
Alan: Alright! Goodness gracious.
Niels: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I appreciate it.
Alan: Oh sure, sure man. Happy to talk with you.
Niels: So, I have some scripted questions but whatever you want to talk about, I’d love to hear it.
Alan: So tell me about this—how long have you had this blog now? I’ve seen your stuff on YouTube. I know you were doing that for a while and you started a blog as an extension of that?
Niels: Exactly. Or a deepening of that. A lot of the stuff I have on YouTube is very elementary so it casts a broad net. It’s cool in the sense that it reaches people from all over the world. The blog is more directed towards what I actually do and exploring writing.
Niels: So, can I ask you some questions?
Alan: Fire away baby!
Niels: What about musical beginnings? In grade school, did you have school music programs?
Alan: Yes. I actually started before school. I was just playing with my sister. We’d put the radio on and “play along” and put on “concerts” for the neighborhood kids. I formally started in 5th grade taking drum lessons. From then on I was always in school bands or stage bands—throughout college. Before all that, my mother was a pianist. She sang and taught piano. My grandparents were Spanish dancers on the vaudeville circuit and apparently my father’s father was a pop song-writer. It’s been in the family one way or another for some time.
Niels: Were there teachers that inspired you?
Alan: Well, the first teacher I had was sort of an alcoholic bum. My second teacher… well let me back up here and think about this. My 5th grade band teacher, actually. Chuck Heller. He was a bassoonist. He was very encouraging to me. He really made me feel like I had a talent. That was key. I had various band teachers. Then when I moved into a different part of San Jose, I started at this other school with a guy named Tony Nigro—my 9th grade teacher. He actually started hiring me for professional gigs and featuring me on concerts. The day he gave me Cute to play in a concert… [Singing] a big drum solo feature. That was a pretty big moment for me.
Niels: Cool. I love it. So you were out here in the Bay Area before you went to the East Coast?
Alan: Yeah I was raised in San Jose basically.
Niels: Out of high school what happened? When did you start studying with Alan Dawson?
Alan: Well, before I moved to Boston I did a lot of Percussive Arts Society competitions. I had a private drum teacher at that point in high school. His name was Dick Carlo and he encouraged me to do PAS competitions. So I would do those and place second and eventually I placed first in my division. I was competing against people like Chad Wackerman, Greg Hall, Scott Page—some really bad-ass drummers. I finally won my drum set division when I was a senior in high school. That was very cool.
Niels: Were you playing jazz for those competitions? What was the material?
Alan: We had to play a bunch of different grooves and an unaccompanied five minute drum solo. I think the judge when I won was Carmen Appice.
Niels: That’s amazing.
Alan: I worked on it, but that’s what you do. You create an interesting solo. I was surprised that such a heavy rock drummer allowed me to win that competition. He mentioned the musicality and that it was refreshing, so that was a big moment.
Studying With Alan Dawson
Niels: Yeah, wow. So where did you go from there?
Alan: After high school I went to Berklee College of Music. I actually thought Alan Dawson would be teaching there but he was already gone by the time I arrived. So I just went through the standard Berklee faculty thing for about 2 1/2 years. I studied with Bill Norine on drums, Ed Saindon and Ted Wolff on Vibes briefly. I didn’t study with Alan Dawson until I left Berklee. I studied with him for two years.
Niels: Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like?
Alan: [Deep breath] That was amazing. That was an amazing experience. He was great. He had a really extensive program he would plug you into. You know about the Ritual, we did that. He also had me really work on my wrists because I was using my fingers a lot. He had me really develop my wrists. So we would work on the Ritual. You’d get a couple of new rudiments every two weeks and eventually you’d get them all memorized. Over two years, by the time I was done with the Ritual it would become a 20 or 25 minute warm-up. Memorized top to bottom.
Niels: What tempo did he have you play it at?
Alan: Samba tempo, you know. [singing Samba feet at about 180bpm] Maybe not quite that fast and of course there were some people who could play it faster but some of those things were really, really… you really had to cram it in there. Yeah so we’d do that, we’d do the Syncopation stuff I worked on with you—we’d do that whole program. The thing that was really cool was we would work on tunes so he would play vibes and I would play drums and he’d have me solo the form. He’d pick these tunes with weird forms. We’d trade… I think for him it was just a chance to get on vibes because he wanted to play vibes and also it was a way for him to check out my memory of form and talk to me about how to keep that in place. It was really great working with him. I always felt like when I went to him I was in very good hands.
Niels: I can imagine. What was he like as a person? Aside from the teaching. What was his personality like?
Alan: He was kind of formal about it, but he was always encouraging. You know, if you’d screw up he’d let you know it. He’s not going to let shit fly by but he was never mean. He was kind of a little like “Get it right, that’s right, do it again.” I always felt from him that he really did respect my playing. He was always encouraging but not flattering. He was a formal and supportive teacher.
Niels: OK, cool. Did you feel like there were any life lessons you got from him other than the musical lessons?
Alan: Well actually yeah. I mean, so… He was really a model for me actually—for my life. He was a model for the kind of life I wanted to live, which was that he taught at his home so he had no boss. He was an in demand teacher AND he would go out, you know, to Japan and play with Hank Jones for a couple of weeks. He’d go out and do some killer gigs around the world for a while and come back. I always felt like he had a really good thing dialed in with his life. Now whether or not he felt that way… I’m not sure if I know the answer to that question or not. But he had a nice house and he… and the thing about him that everyone always marveled at was he was so good but he was not really that known. You know, he wasn’t like a Buddy Rich guy but he could play that Buddy Rich type of chops shit. But he never really… I imagine that’s because he was a teaching working father, I suppose. He had a family… or maybe… I don’t really know his personal life. I don’t really know all the details. I do remember thinking that’s not a bad situation to have. His rates for lessons were deservedly high, and when he wasn’t at home teaching, he was on the road doing national and international gigs with great players. That seemed pretty cool to me. And the other thing about him that got me was the seriousness of the craft. You can tell that he spent a lot of time developing these exercises and skills and he spent time for a reason. He had developed his own thing around these ideas. His project was refining his craft to the highest level. That standard of excellence had a very strong impression on me.
Niels: Likewise you had the same on me, so thank you for that.
Alan: Glad to hear. [laughs]
Niels: So you said he was teaching at home. That was after he left Berklee in 1975?
Alan: Oh yeah. I went to Berklee in ’79 or ’80. I started studying with him in ’83. I started teaching at Berklee in ’86 and I had already finished his program.
Niels: When you say you had finished his program does that mean you had mastered the Ritual and all of the eleven ways?
Alan: I was ready for something new. I didn’t study with anyone else at that point. I started working on other things. So when I started teaching at Berklee, I became my own project. That’s when I really dug into linear drumming, Afro-Cuban rhythms, things I wanted. He didn’t have anything for linear drumming. I guess maybe my stylistic desires had moved on from learning what he had to show me.
Teaching at Berklee
Niels: And so that’s the next stage. You were teaching at Berklee?
Alan: I taught there from ’86 to ’93.
Niels: What was that like?
Alan: Oh, it was terrifying at first. Terrifying. When I was teaching at Berklee I ran into students who could do things that I could not do. That was the first time I was confronted with that. And I hadn’t done that much high level teaching until I came to Berklee. College level, international students who were serious about drums. But I eventually got a foothold and realized that even though certain students could do certain things very well there were always holes somewhere. My job as a teacher was to find the holes and to help them fill them. The requirements at Berklee sort of guided that as well. So you might have a drummer who could do some killer fast whatever—fusion fills, but couldn’t keep a form or couldn’t play jazz at all. And jazz was a big part of the program. That, I could do.
Niels: Did you teach a lot of Alan Dawson’s method at Berklee?
Alan: I did. I did go through a lot of that. But then I started realizing, because I had been doing it so much, that even though I went through that method, a lot of students did not get the language. They didn’t really take it into their body. They could read through the pages and they could spit it out. But then when I’d close the page and say “improvise the stuff you just read,” they couldn’t do it. So that’s when I started developing my own book to help them get it more inside of them.
Niels: Your book is called Internalization? And is that a book you came out with while you were teaching at Berklee or are those the concepts you developed while you were teaching at Berklee?
Alan: No, I didn’t complete it until 2005, so it had been a while but, you know… I could never figure out why these guys couldn’t get this even though they went through the program. It always bothered me and I started figuring out other ways of getting it into their body—this language. I think those were the nascent steps of that book, when I started noticing that at Berklee. So you know, I taught there from ’86 to ’93. Towards the end I had started developing some concepts of my own to work on and those concepts kept growing until I realized they could be a whole book of material.
Niels: And is that like the Elvin Jones, Morello and Armenta exercises you had me do? The ways of interpreting Stick Control?
Alan: Kind of like that yeah. It got much more extensive. The A/B and A/B/C patterns. Did we walk through that stuff?
Niels: Yeah we did A/B patterns. I don’t know if we did A/B/C patterns though.
Alan: Yeah, so the A/B patterns were sort of structured off of Stick Control but in an order that made more sense in terms of pedagogy. And then when I got into the book and delved into it I started realizing I could come up with A/B/C patterns and help them extend that way.
Niels: Now I’ve got to get this book!
Alan: Yeah I’ve got to get it reprinted. My first printing is out. I’m working on a second edition now. I do a lot of teaching out of it because it just really seems to work. It’s not good for everybody and for every skill set, but it is good for certain things.
Niels: Those exercises were hugely helpful to me. It was just such a fast track to being able to play those ideas in that way, freely.
Alan: You know I always tell students about how you insisted on playing everything as lefty. That to me was amazing. That said a lot about your dedication. I was really impressed with that. I still remember that to this day.
Niels: Yeah, I think I was just struggling to be different. Plus wrist problems and posture. Gotta keep the body moving. So… then you left Berklee. Do you want to talk about why?
Alan: I had been there for seven years. I guess I got tired of the regularity of the school year. Plus they started hiring bigger name guys, you know Casey Sherell. So when you get that dynamic going on, of course, the other guys start suffering in terms of their student loads. Although I always felt respected and appreciated by my director. I just felt like I needed to move on. I’ve moved on to so many different things and so many more new experiences. I have to say that I sometimes miss the steady pay I had there but creatively I had to do other stuff.
Niels: Well you’ve got good things going on out here too right?
Alan: Yeah I definitely feel like I’ve got a whole new life here for sure. Things have moved on in a lot of ways.
Playing with Cirque Du Soleil, Other Memorable Gigs and New Projects
Niels: I wonder if before we talk about what’s happening out here and that move… I wonder if you want to talk about some memorable gigs. Whether it be with Cirque Du Soleil or some other, life changing gigs?
Alan: Well, there have been lots of gigs and associations. The Cirque gig was a memorable gig. It was the first long term internationally known, internationally respected show that I was involved in. So it was really a step up for me. I was really terrified of it at a certain level. I never had to play the same show in and out for three months in a row. But that was great. So you know, you go to Montreal, you learn the show, you’re in a different country, you’re meeting new people. The Cirque headquarters is an amazing place to hang out and learn. The food is great, of course. And then once you get launched… so our show was running at Maddison Square Garden three months in a row roughly. So… then I’m in New York for two to three months playing twelve shows a week but being able to hang out in New York and see all sorts of great stuff. That was a very cool thing. And also know that I was providing for my family in a good way. Even though it was a fairly short term deal… but on some levels knowing I could leave it after three months was also refreshing. I wasn’t locked into a two or three year contract.
Niels: When you said you didn’t know if you could do it, did you mean physically or emotionally or how so?
Alan: All of it. I didn’t know if I could physically maintain that consistency, emotionally be away from my family and also… you know, you’re dealing with a whole population of international artists. It’s a whole other life of associations. I never had that much contact with so many different people in such an intense environment before. You don’t know how things are going to turn out, how you’re going to make alliances. Are you going to make friends? Are you going to be uncomfortable with certain people? I found my way through it. My roommates were always the musicians. I was with an Italian pianist and a Québécois guitarist for the first year. And then eventually the last year I had my own place in New York City and that’s when my family stayed with me for about a month. So that was all. I made some good friends. I really liked my musical director. He was really a good guy in the end. He made me very comfortable. And I made friends with this percussionist Roger Squitero out of New York. I made a good friend there. Yeah, it was all a good thing. You know, I mean it’s work. It takes a toll on the family sometimes. I’d be away and shit would be going south at home and I really couldn’t do anything about it. So that part was hard. Yeah.
Niels: It sounds like an incredible experience. And like you said, it sounds like hard work. But you’ve got that under your belt.
Alan: I’ve got it under my belt and I think that definitely helps. It’s good for the resume.
Niels: What about other memorable gigs? You’ve played with so many heavy players. Are there any other gigs that stand out—that made an impact, that were life changing?
Alan: Well… oh God there are a lot of those. One of the key figures in my musical life has been Art Lande. I met him at Jazz Camp West ten or twelve years ago. Art Lande is the closest thing to a musical father I’ve ever had. Every gig I’ve done with him has been memorable. And why has it been memorable? It’s because of the way he approaches every gig—which is, anything can happen at any time.
Alan: We’re learning these tunes. We’re playing at a high level. We’re listening crazy deeply to each other… and if you want to stop playing you can stop. If you want to dissolve you can dissolve, if you want to go beat it up for 20 clicks because you’re feeling it, do it. I’ll either go with you or ignore you or whatever, you know, it’s like… it’s all a very immediate way and a very live way of playing. In other words, Art would tell me: “I don’t want you to play some role you think you should play, I want you to paint” It’s a whole different thing and it has really opened up a lot for me. So we’ve had some great gigs. Peter Barshay and I went to Boulder, Colorado where Art lived and did some work with him there. There were goofy gigs too. We did a Halloween gig in Point Reyes… he goes with theatrics a lot of the time. You know, there’s humor involved. I think we all had to wear halloween masks at some point. [laughs] He really pointed out the idea of humor. Humor is OK in music. You know, actually there was a gig I did with him at Jazz Camp West. One of the final concerts… the way he arranged this huge band. There were 15 musicians—horns, percussion… each sort of cell of musicians would get an assignment, or maybe a little lick or maybe make sounds like a bird or now everyone play this shape [sings a siren] over two measures… all these alternative ways of making music. He would cue you in and out of your various points and then the ending would be some really cool thing. At the end of the concert he thanked us with Hershey candy bars. It was just kind of funny loose weirdness. Very cool.
Niels: That’s authentic and sincere to be able to allow humor in like that.
Alan: Yeah. So then in terms of other memorable gigs… I’ve worked with Ed Simon. Ed Simon is an amazing Venezuelan pianist. We did a mini-tour around here. We did Sebastopol and Fort Bragg. It was memorable in terms of the level of playing that he can get to. Mostly that’s what it is you know. Playing with really high level musicians and experiencing that. I remember recording with Geoffrey Keezer. That was a memorable experience. Michael Oneil, Kenny Washington we did an album and they brought Geoffrey Keezer in to play piano. So, you know, we’re about to record. Dan Feiszli and I are running through some things with Geoffrey Keezer and we started running through this tune and… [stutters] It was this experience… when he started playing… the level of intensity. I mean Dan Feiszli and I just looked at each other like “Holy shit. We better hang on here man. This is not… this experience…” This high level—it’s all about that. These people with such mastery of their instrument. The whole level just goes up through the roof. Then you have a choice to freak out or try and keep it cool and ride the wave. And that’s the thing. Ride the wave and hang in.
Niels: I think I saw a little bit of that musicianship when I saw you playing with Jeff Denson and the guy who was playing the electric… was it an electric bassoon?
Alan: Yeah, that’s another thing. I have a trio with bassist Jeff Denson and bassoonist Paul Hanson. That group is called Electreo. My own band came out of that band. I was writing for Electreo with these very harsh limitations compositionally. I liked the challenge but I also wanted to write for a bigger group. That got me to form my own band, Ratatet, with those guys and a few other additional guys.
Niels: Cool. I’ll be looking forward to seeing you guys play at Doc’s Lab in SF.
Alan: So back to a memorable gig… I did a tour in Europe back in October last year. It was the Jeff Denson Trio plus Lee Konitz. My first tour of Europe. It was amazing, oh man… have you ever played… Have you played in Europe yet?
Niels: When I was an exchange student I played over there. I’ve never gone on a tour over there.
Alan: Yeah man it’s a whole different thing. They appreciate music on a whole different level. They really appreciate American Jazz. Being treated so well and respected… and having a respectful audience.
Niels: Yeah, I was in Copenhagen and Stockholm last year and I saw that. We went to The Jazz House in Copenhagen. The Danish players were amazing. It was just your local Copenhagen guys. They were great. People were really respectful. The listening environment was just so warm and attentive and like you said, the respect was amazing.
Alan: Yeah they have a culture of respecting live performers. A long history of it.
Niels: Does the group with Jeff Denson and Paul Hanson—Electreo have an album?
Alan: Not yet. We started one. That’s our goal. We’re hoping to get something next year.
Niels: I picked up the Ratatet album and it’s amazing. What is it the third or fourth track… the drum intro is just killer.
Alan: Yeah, The Marriage of Arnolfini. Thank you.
Niels: Yeah I tell my wife… frequently I think that was the best gig I’ve ever seen. There was just something I can’t explain about that music.
Alan: Yeah… we need to do more.
Getting Established in The San Francisco Bay Area
Niels: Let’s backtrack and talk about coming West. You left the teaching at Berklee and the East coast and you came back out here to the Bay Area. What was that experience like… did you already know you had the gig teaching at the Jazz School?
Alan: No. I had nothing. I delivered cookies for a year.
Niels: Really!? Wow. Man you’re brave to leave a job teaching at Berklee College of Music and start fresh again like that.
Alan: Yeah, eventually word got out… one of the things that started happening when I came back… was people. I made some calls. Dave Eshelman was my college big band teacher at San Jose City College. At the time he had a professional big band called the Jazz Garden. He heard I got back. I was playing big band with him. He had a big band with two or three gigs a year but it was the top players in the area. So I joined and then hooked up with the late Smith Dobson—the great Smith Dobson down in San Jose and he started hiring me to do stuff. He was the musical director at a place called Garden City down in San Jose. So I started working with Smith and, you know, once you start working with guys on that level the word gets out and you start getting calls from other folks. So luckily I started gigging on a pretty high level fairly soon after I got here. We came out here to start a family. So there was that whole thing going on at the same time. It was a little rough at first but we found our way. I started getting in a bunch of different things and recording sessions started happening again for me and then I got… oh yeah, Drumworld… we met at Drumworld right?
Niels: That’s where I started taking lessons from you, yeah. Rick Lotter told me about you. I was commuting from San Francisco to Sacramento to study with him and he was like “You know, you don’t have to drive all the way down here. There’s this guy in San Francisco named Alan Hall who just moved out.”
Alan: Yeah, so I heard about this drum store opening and said “I got to get in there.” And so I brought my stuff and he let me set up. Then I kind of hustled my way into the Jazz School—Susan Mosceralla’s place. She had a smaller place at the time.
Niels: Yeah I remember studying with you there. That was such a cool little place.
Alan: I used to go practice there and she loved how I played. I eventually started teaching there and I’ve been there ever since.
Niels: That’s a great place to be.
Alan: That’s my home. Yeah, that’s my home base. Pretty much.
Niels: Well, they are lucky to have you.
Alan: [laughs] Thank you.
Niels: So now you’re teaching at The Jazz School and Cal State East Bay?
Alan: I’m the jazz set teacher at Cal State East Bay and at the California Jazz Conservatory (now renamed from The Jazz School). The CJC is two things, an accredited University where you can get a degree in Jazz and also a community music school. So I teach for both parts of that organization at various times and various configurations. I’m kind of doing a little bit of both and you know it changes from semester to semester. And I teach all my own private students there and I also have conservatory private students that I teach there. So it’s a healthy symbiotic relationship.
Niels: Yeah, that’s great. So I know that you’re a visual artist as well. I’m wondering if you could maybe say something about how that relates to music or satisfies another part of you. What does that mean in your life?
Alan: It came on late. I’d say in my 30s maybe. It came on as a surprise to me. All of a sudden this amazing… I saw this Calder exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. In the room where they have all the mobiles up on the ceiling. I was just in there and I had this “oh my God” moment where I realized that those mobiles created a whole… Well first of all they were very playful and they changed the nature of the environment in the building. They changed the whole nature of that whole room in a fun, beautiful and artistic way. Something popped and I just had to do it. I had to start doing my own thing and try to get some of that happening. It was kind of a weird surprise and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m trying to figure out the relationship to my music. I’m trying to merge the two. I haven’t figured that out yet. I do know that it seems that if I’m deep into a painting or a mixed media I get pretty obsessed with it and that’s what I do. That’s all there’s room for. Then when I get deep into writing a song, that’s all I have room for. It kind of goes one way or the other.
Niels: It seems like they would refresh one-another.
Alan: I guess they do. It’s an interesting dynamic. I think of the artists that I love, and I see all of these connections between the artists and the art that I respect, and types of music. You can look at an approach to art making, whether it’s music or visual arts—you can see the analogy. So, for instance, someone like Agnes Martin. She’s very minimalist. You see her painting standing from a distance. It looks like a white square with some lines on it. You come closer and you see these amazing perfectly stated grids. Then you look closer and beneath the surface, the stuff is vibrating like mad. You really have to take it in. There’s this minimalist thing going on that requires you to be quiet, to stand for a minute and let it… You have to give yourself over a little bit before you get anything back. It doesn’t hit you in the face. You can see analogies in certain types of music. They’re not going to hit you in the face with their beauty. You have to go in there and live with it and take it in slowly. But it is equally powerful. So the thing that hits me on both the visual and the musical side is that certain art, certain music—there’s a resonation that happens inside of me that’s hitting me in the gut somehow. I don’t fully understand what’s going on. I just know that I’m hit. Almost to tears at certain points. It’s so powerful. So it’s just about trying to create that on my own. Trying to find those kind of moments of ecstasy in either form of art. And another thing I realize is that there’s a certain sort of… in both art forms… a loop… [searching for words] sort of a feedback-loop. You create it and you listen to it or you look at it and it feeds you again. It’s a reflection… sort of a self reflecting loop that somehow completes something in you. When you… I don’t know exactly. Completion. An ever evolving completion that you always want more of. It’s so deeply satisfying to make something that you really cherish.
Niels: That’s great.
Alan: So what I want to do is eventually get to this point where I can include more of my art during live performance. Some sort of video thing going on behind the stage. I was talking to an artist at Jazz Camp West who works with video. An animator, film maker. He was sometimes writing music to the videos so it ties in exactly with the visual. There are some times when his group will improvise to parts of the visuals that are on stage. I want to explore it further and understand ways of creating it.
Advice for Musicians, Artists and Aspiring Professionals
Niels: That’s very cool. I’ll look forward to checking that out. Maybe we could move from there into advice for musicians. I have some specific questions but if you have a burning thing that you wish you could share with musicians…
Alan: Yeah. The one thing I tell all my students now… honestly because it’s a reflection of my own experience and missteps I’ve made. One of the things I would tell all musicians is that it’s important to learn—If you want to be a working musician, if that is a real deep desire, there are certain things you need to learn to do and you need to learn to do them well. You need to understand the history, how to apply this to that and that to this. But the thing is you also have to keep track, always, of the stuff that turns you on that has nothing to do with your working life. You can not forget that creative stuff that gets you super excited. And you need to always have room in your practice and in your musical life for that stuff that no-one is telling you to do. That just you want to do on your own. You want to always be developing your own voice and if you give over too much of that time to just other stuff, it delays your own development. And that is a shame for the world, for these young people to not be developing their own strong voice. Now some people have a strong voice from the get-go and they’re not going to do that. In many ways they’re very lucky. However that also means there are certain playing situations they may not be asked to be in because their thing does not fit that box. But it is a viable way to go if you really go deep into it. You can make it happen either way. I was one of the guys who did all different styles and a bunch of different things and did pretty well and then started developing my own voice later. I often wonder, what if I had started developing my own voice earlier in life? Where would I be now?
Niels: Yeah, you’re touching on all of the questions that I have about that stuff. The first question I wanted to ask you was about art vs. money. Maintaining integrity. Do you take every gig or do you take just those high-art gigs?
Alan: There are the necessities of life that we can’t escape. You know, you can’t do this business unless you really love it. You have to play drums. You have to have that kind of relation to it to really stay in it. There are a lot of advantages to giving over to learning the skills to have a working life. There are benefits to these things. There are musical benefits to it. Not to say that it’s all bad. It is good and it helps with a lot of things. Just on the very basic level if you have a regular gig or you’re gigging a lot your chops are going to stay sharp. The thing is that you understand it’s a trade off right? You need to be aware of these trade-offs. There are always going to be trade-offs. You just want to be conscious of the trade-offs you’re making. And don’t let things get too out of balance. I guess that’s the main point.
Niels: Yeah so there is a limit to the motto of the aspiring freelancer “Take everything.”
Alan: There is. Yeah. I think there is.
Niels: Ok. What about professionalism and getting gigs? What about young guys that want to be musicians. They’re artists… and you know… Do you have any advice?
Alan: Yeah. [sounds serious] Yeah I do. I can tell you an experience right now. I teach at the conservatory, I have a student who’s name will remain unknown, who is f*cking up. He’s a really good drummer. But he’s f*cking up at school. And his class mates kind of know he’s a little bit of a f*ck up. His classmates are going to be his entree into the professional world when he gets out of school. So, you know, if you’re going to be a professional, you have to start acting like a professional early on. And understand that you’re behaviors, the minute you are at least in college, are going to effect your reputation.
Niels: Especially when everything you do is on Facebook.
Alan: There you go. So here’s the thing—you show up late for a gig, or let’s say you’ve missed this test. You’ve flunked this class. The ensemble you’re in in college had to cancel their show because you flaked on the last concert. Now all those musicians and all their friends are going to know about how you screwed that up. It generates this negative barrier that you’ve created yourself if you don’t get this important point. You have to start being reliable, professional and trustworthy early on if you want to get out there. You and I both know of musicians who maybe can do certain things better than we can do. But people are not going to call them because they’re not reliable or they’re jerks to be around or whatever. So professional means dependability. And sometimes that’s more important than a massive skill set you know? Can you show up? Can you keep a good attitude even though you’re playing background music for people who are not listening? Or are you going to get sour and dark? I won’t hire people that are too dark to be around. It’s so miserable.
Niels: Yeah. It’s a big theme. I think some of that stems from the struggle of art vs. money. You can tell if someone doesn’t want to be there or they can’t put themselves aside and be humble enough to serve the music.
Alan: I agree. I agree. So I’ve been in that situation for many many years. I’m on a gig. I’m feeling like this gig is not the music I want to play. However, I’m trying to find something valuable in the moment. So, OK, I’m playing and no-one is listening but I’m playing a groove. Now, as a musician who’s trying to perfect his craft, I want to hold that groove solid. If it’s a really simple groove, maybe I switch my lead hand to turn it into a challenging exercise. You take a different attitude and turn it into a learning experience. Make it something positive. Or at least not totally negative.
Niels: Yeah, that’s it. That’s exactly what I was thinking about. Touching back to professionalism—there’s a culture for musicians, and in college of drugs and alcohol. There’s a stereotype of all these famous musicians who were addicts of one sort or another. Is there anything you could say to younger musicians that like to party but who are looking to start a career in music. Anything specific to drugs and alcohol?
Alan: I’ve seen a fair amount of doped up kids. Well, I can tell you they’re terrible students. They’re not showing up, they’re flaking out. I think that it can tend to rob you of ambition and focus if you do too much of that stuff. Drinking can actually harm you physically right? And really f*ck you up, so. And let’s face it, being a drummer is a physically demanding job. It takes a lot of energy and it asks a lot of your body. So you want to be in the best shape possible. I can’t pass judgement, but there are certainly many musicians who are pretty solid pot-heads. My guess is that they tend to be limited to a certain clique of gigs and fellow pot-heads. It can be a self limiting thing that happens. But there’s also the reverse. Because of those cliques, if you’re not one of those guys who goes out between the break and smokes a joint, then you’re not going to be hired for the gig because you’re not “one of us.”
Niels: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Alan: It works both ways. I don’t think it’s impossible to have a professional career… it’s not impossible obviously. I think there can be some downsides that you should be aware of.
Niels: I’m wondering if you can say something about this… something I wish I could express to students and I’m just figuring out myself. There’s a lot of pressure on a musician. Especially a young musician coming up. I know I’ve felt a lot of pressure. I don’t know if you’re just immune to it.
Niels: There’s a lot of pressure, fear, competition and now with social media. People are brutal online if you’re a kid and you post a video of yourself playing, or on Facebook. You know, you’ve got people who want to tear you down. Musicians are really competitive. Maybe the success of your fellow drummer might rely on your failure. There’s a lot of this pressure, fear, competitiveness. Maybe this ties back into finding your own voice and who you are. I’m wondering if you could speak on that?
Alan: Well.. the pressure I’m familiar with I guess stems from competition for gigs. It sounds like you’re talking about social things that happen online? That I’m not that aware of?
Niels: I think it’s related. If you could speak about the pressure of competition for gigs that would be great.
Alan: So there are a couple of things about that. I’ve been in this business so long. When you’ve been in a business for a while you start getting labeled or boxed into these categories. He’s the guy for this, he’s the guy for that… right? And it’s sort of natural that that happens. I’ve always been sort of resentful of that in a certain way and other drummers I’ve talked to hate that. But the truth of the matter is there’s something about that that’s reflecting reality. There’s something about that that says the reason they’re calling this person for that gig is really because they might really be better at that than you are. It might not be. But it might very well be that. So the question… what I’ve come to as I get older is to understand and appreciate and acknowledge and accept that there are certain things I’m good at. Very good. And then certain things I’m really not as good as other people. So I had this sort of crisis in my 40s about this whole thing. And what I realized was that, if you are relying on other people for your own self-esteem, you are doomed. You are doomed. You are doomed. Because you have zero control over that. So it’s just, it’s a foolish place to invest your energy. So you have… I think there’s a healthy acknowledgement—try to step back and ask yourself, in terms of competition, who’s winning, who’s losing in this particular realm that I’m working in at this moment. Ask yourself, OK, well, is there an actual musical reason that might be true? Is there a social reason why that may be true? Is there some personal reason? There may be numerous reasons that you’re not getting that call you want to get. And you may not really know it. So, because you’ll never know, probably, you’ll never really know all the sides of the story. Once again, it’s a waste of energy to invest in that kind of speculation. Because there’s no answer to it. Now you may be able to objectively say, well I actually realize that guy has done that style, he’s delved into that style much deeper than I have. He totally loves that style. He’s been doing it for 20 years, I’ve just dabbled at it for 15 or 10 or whatever. You can look at it objectively, and that will help me understand. But I think the thing is, once again, keep track of your own goals. Keep engaged in what you want to do. The drummer you want to be. And understand that on all levels of business there is always going to be someone better than you at certain things and you will always be better than others at certain things and there is never a shortage of things to work on, ever, for anybody.
Niels: Yeah, there are so many great players.
Alan: Many great players, and I’ll tell you what. Probably most of them don’t think they’re so great or there’s sh*t they can’t do that they want to do. But that’s the beauty of it right? You’ll never be bored because there’s always something you could do better. That’s the best way to look at it. It hurts sometimes and you know the ego gets in the way and it’s a little uncomfortable, but… and this brings me back to this thing that I always experience if I am nervous to go on performing in a particular situation. Maybe there are certain people in the audience I want to impress, or I don’t want to **** up or whatever I’m nervous about. People are looking at me. So the question for me is why am I doing this? Why am I on this stage right now? And the most important reason is to make music with these individuals in the best way that I can. It has nothing to do with the audience. Nothing. It’s all about what’s happening on that bandstand. And you’ve experienced this. I’ve experienced it. But those are some of the most amazing sort of earth shattering experiences one can have on the bandstand with certain musicians. You just get into another place if you really give over to it. And the music takes over… takes all of you to another place. That’s why we’re doing it and that’s what we look for. And you just want to honor it and hope to get there.
Niels: Yeah. That’s it.
Alan: That always helps. Easier said that done admittedly.
Niels: Deep lessons Alan. You’ve got deep lessons. That’s probably the right thing to close on. Because that’s it right?
Alan: I think that’s it my friend. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that. Are you technically able to do the things you want to do? Let that be your guide. Nothing else.
Niels: Right. OK.
Alan: Not because that guy did it, or not even because the teacher tells me to do it necessarily. I mean when you’re a student you do have to be humble on a certain level. You have to go there and just take it in. But also as we get older and start defining our voices, it’s all about what is it that I want to do? What is it that I want to create on my own?
Niels: I can see why that is so important because there are so many guys that can do anything now. That it’s gotta be, not about the words, but the story you want to tell right?
Alan: I agree. Yeah. It’s about your voice. What’s your voice? What is truly and fully authentically yours. That’s the goal in music and art. Find your own voice.
Niels: Well, Alan. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Alan: My pleasure Niels. Great work. I’m really thrilled that you are doing so well and creating such great content and just you know really pushing things forward. I’m very proud of you my friend.
Niels: Thanks a lot man.
Alan: I’m glad I had some part of it.
Niels: [laughs] Oh you had a big part of it!
2 thoughts on “Interview With Jazz Drummer Alan Hall”
I met Mr. Hall in Berkeley via his other student who i would play with in the jazz studios. Truely came across as such a master of his craft. As this article would suggest. Highly respected and loved by professionals who dreamed of continuing further under his wing to chase a master’s level of accomplished skill knowing Mr. Hall’s direction was key .
Great interview! Really informative and relevant.