Knowing how to play drums does not necessarily make you the right musician for the gig. Some drummers have amazing chops and great time, but once the band starts playing and the drummer is “facing the music,” it’s a different story.
Unfortunately, it is not enough for drummers to be able to read the chart and play “ink” like a horn player does in a horn section. Often, we have to guess what the composer wanted but failed to include in the chart.
This can be a blessing, and it can be a pain…
You may be backing up a singer or an instrumentalist who can’t understand that even though everyone has a chart, there may still be questions as to how the song is supposed to go. They may know exactly what they want but they may not be able to convey this in musical terms. Most don’t know what they want to begin with. Best-case scenario is when they know exactly what they want and know how to communicate this effectively to the drummer, and the band. (Trust me when I say that this happens only very rarely).
Why? Why is it that everyone else seems to have a good chart and can just play it down and go home, while us drummers have to figure out whether this chart is supposed to be played literally or not, whether we are supposed to add our own input, or whether we’re supposed to make up a new chart on the fly?
I believe it is a combination of a lot of variables. I believe that inadequate budgets often lead entertainers to hire mediocre arrangers. Some entertainers are simply unable to communicate to the arranger what they want the song to sound like to begin with. Most entertainers have had the same charts for 25 years that show a multitude of pencil markings of last-minute changes. In this case, not only are the pencil markings making it harder to read the chart down, but the arrangement itself often suffers in the process.
Also, arrangers that are not drummers may have difficulties writing for drummers.
So what are some of the ambiguities that we face?
Some are more technical than others. For example, arrangers often indicate a “feel” on the top left hand corner on the chart, without actually writing out a groove. It may say “Samba.” Now, does that mean they want a more traditional samba, which we may play on the snare drum and toms, or do they want a more jazzy type of samba where you play syncopated samba patterns on the bell of the ride, or do they mean a sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern with a backbeat like they often did in the ‘70s?
To us drummers, this problem could be easily avoided, right? But many entertainers and/or arrangers have difficulties wit this. They may have a good idea about what the music should sound like because they’ve heard the original, but may not be able to write it out properly or explain it to the drummer simply because they don’t know the drummer’s language.
Nowadays, you come across a lot of charts that were printed using a music notation software. This can often lead to a chart that doesn’t make any sense to drummers. Some of these charts even fail to put the notes corresponding to hihat, snare and bass drum in the right places. This, combined with a missing indication of musical styles completely leaves us in the dark.
Some of the problems we can encounter can be less obvious. In many cases it is hard to figure out whether the entertainer wants a chart played with a lot of energy or whether he/she wants it softer. Sometimes charts are written so badly that one can’t figure out where the climax is supposed to be, which is so important for us drummers. A band will naturally follow the drummer if he/she picks up the energy or drops it. It is thus important for us to have clear instructions on what the song structure is.
I could go on listing numerous little problems that we drummers have to deal with that stem from missing information on the chart, discussing all problems is beyond the scope of this article, however.
So does this mean we are doomed to play badly? The answer is no!
I believe that if you play most of your gigs in a specific musical setting — musical theatre, for example — you’ll find that a lot of the same problems keep coming up. This gives you a chance to learn from them and remember what you learned for the next time.
Nevertheless, here are a few things that you can do in order to prepare as best you can:
1. Try to get the charts ahead of time, preferably with a live recording of a previous performance of the show. This will allow you to sit down and clarify the following things:
- Name of the song (I’ve often started a song not knowing at all what to expect yet after the first couple of bars I realized that I had played this before. I never bothered reading the title)
- Style of music (compare what the previous drummer played to what’s written on the chart)
- Tempo (pay attention to tempo changes as well as ‘colla voce’ sections and fermatas)
- Road Map (including eventual changes to the arrangement)
If there are sections where you don’t play, try to find out ahead of time who does, and whether there are tempo or style changes in that section.
- Erase any unnecessary pencil markings that only lead to confusion. Make sure to leave the important ones in there.
- Try to get a hold of your bandmates’ charts, especially piano and bass, maybe even lead trumpet, in order to familiarize yourself with their parts.
2. Once you’ve prepared the chart on your own and you are unsure about something, approach your musical director or the entertainer about this before the first rehearsal.
3. When you play the chart for the first time, keeping your ears and your eyes wide open is imperative. By that I mean you should listen to how your playing fits in, relative to the entertainer, and relative to all the other instruments in the band. If you always know what’s going on around you, you will hear what needs to be changed before the next run-through. I guess this is really one of the keys of being a ‘musical’ musician, knowing what’s going on around you at any moment. If you do this, you will almost always know what needs to be changed before the entertainer gets a chance to address you.
By ‘keeping your eyes wide open’ I mean keep an eye on your musical director and another on the entertainer. One can learn volumes by watching an entertainer. I believe that most entertainers communicate best with musicians through their body language. You can tell immediately whether someone wants you to pick up the tempo or to slow it down if you just look at them. Make sure though that the musical director has given you the authority to do so otherwise you’ll end up in a struggle for authority on the bandstand, which is always bad.
4. Unfortunately, all the preparation and all the experience in the world won’t keep you from running into a problem once in a while. If you do, there are a couple of important things to do:
Listen! (I’ve taken a course on inter-communication skills and it has worked wonders on the bandstand). The worst thing to do on a bandstand is to let egos get in the way of things. Even when an entertainer can’t convey to you in musical terms what he/she want, he/she may still be communicating the right thing, just in his/her own language. With experience you’ll figure out what these things are. If you’ve observed the entertainer and the musical director during the previous run-through, chances are that you already know exactly what they want. In that case, let them explain it to you anyway and get on with it.
If things are still unclear, ask precise questions without accusing anyone of anything. Here’s an example: During your first run-through, you realize that the entertainer is often ahead of you but not consistently. After your first run-through, approach the musical director and the entertainer and say: “From letter “B” all the way trough “E” I felt like you (the singer) were ahead of me. Does this mean you’d like me to push the tempo a bit or would you prefer for me to keep it where it is.” Notice how I didn’t accuse anyone of rushing the tempo, I just merely stated what I noticed and asked how they want me to deal with it.
Your bandmates are often a good resource. Some of them may have already played the show before and may be able to give excellent input. Changes to an arrangement usually affect everyone in the band so if there’s a cut, chances are that it is the same for a trumpet player than it is for you.
If you are unsure about the groove you’re supposed to play and neither the MD nor the entertainer can shed light on this problem, walk over to the bass player and consult his chart. Try to base your groove around his figure, which often seems to solve problems.
After the rehearsal, stay behind for a couple of minutes and go over the charts mentally and sing difficult parts a couple of times to familiarize yourself a little more with them. Immediately after the rehearsal, things that have been said are still fresh so now is the time to go over your charts to make sure you are clear on everything.
Sitting down at my drumset 15 minutes before the first show has become my ritual, which I don’t like to miss. I go over every chart while focusing on difficult parts. I make sure that my music is placed on the music stand in the right order, and I make sure that my metronome is set to the right tempo. I check that I have all my gear that I need (sticks, brushes, towel, stand light, music, play-on and play-off, monitor settings…)
Treat your first show just like a rehearsal, meaning keep your eyes and ears open and mentally mark any parts that need some fixing. Ask for feedback from the entertainer and the musical director and see if there is anything you can improve.
Consider that there is only so much you can do. Some charts are terrible and lots of entertainers don’t know how to get the band to make the right changes. In the end, if you’ve prepared thoroughly, you’ve taken in the advice of your musical director and the headliner, and you’ve played to the best of your ability, there isn’t much else you can do to improve the outcome.