“If someone earns money playing the drums, whether part-time
or full-time, he or she is a professional drummer.”
Sometimes how often a drummer works has less to do with his or her musical abilities than with how those abilities are applied. The following tips will help the young drummer get a perspective on what it takes to be a professional working drummer. They can also be helpful to the older, more experienced drummer-because we can all lose our perspective at times. I am sure everyone will find something on this list he or she has been guilty of neglecting, and will welcome the reminder.
1) Warm up before the gig. This is one of the best pieces of advice I can give. Naturally, if you have practiced during the day you should still be loose enough by evening. But if you did not practice (or if it is a morning or early afternoon gig), a short ten-or twenty-minute warm-up will definitely give your playing an edge.
Some musicians feel that warming up is unnecessary -even amateurish-but that is totally wrong. In the first place, musical instruments (especially drums) are very physical, and a certain looseness and flexibility are required to perform on them at optimum efficiency. Why have to wait until the second set to be totally in command of your instrument? Besides, you never know who might be in the audience listening to just the first set-a reviewer, a record producer, other musicians-and that will be all they might have to judge your playing capabilities by. In addition, it’s really a great feeling to play smoothly and relaxed during that first set. Sometimes you can save a train wreck up there, and you can be sure it will be noticed by all involved.
2) Keep good time. This is the most important thing a drummer can do. Most musicians and singers rely on their drummers to keep time for them, but even when performing with players who have great time themselves, the drummer’s time needs to be excellent so as not to break the groove.
3) Be on time for the gig. Set up the drums earlier in the day if possible. It is always better to walk in on the gig with just your sticks and cymbals in hand than to have to lug equipment in, set up, adjust positions, tune, etc, –and then play the job (and even more so if you have to war a tuxedo).
4) Be a good sideman. This includes all the previous rules up to this point. Play what the leader asks, and don’t complain about times, tempos, styles, or anything that might give the leader any additional problems. The leader has to book the job, hire the musicians, negotiate money, please the club owner (or whoever hires him), satisfy the public, call the tunes…Good side musicians are really noticed and appreciated because they help make the job go smoothly. Become a leader one time, and I guarantee you will improve your attitude as a sideman.
5) Play in context. Play a dance job like a dance job and a rock gig like a rock gig. Trying to play avant-garde jazz licks on a wedding job won’t make it-and won’t get you rehired. Also, keep in mind the abilities of the other musicians. You may be light-years ahead of them in experience, knowledge, and technique, but if your playing becomes too complex for them to comprehend, you will just lose them-and the gig. Always try to make the band as a whole sound good while playing to the highest level possible in context with the music and the other musicians.
6) Control your ego. At times this can be the most difficult rule to follow. Ego is definitely healthy and necessary, but it must be kept under control.
Sometimes we can take it personally when asked to do things like turn the volume down or keep the tempo steady. But the problem could be someone other than you. Maybe the guitar is too loud or the bass player is dragging and you are simply being asked to keep them in check. Very seldom will a drummer be called for a gig to do solos under a spotlight. You are hired to do a job, so just do it and don’t let your ego get in the way.
7) Act professionally at all time. If you act professionally, chances are you will be treated in a professional manner. Treat your job like a job-not a big party. Dress cleanly and properly. Stay sober, and be reserved, not loud and boisterous, on the breaks. This is not to say you can’t enjoy yourself on the gig. If we didn’t enjoy our work, why have music for a career? However, keep things in perspective, and take care of business first. You will find that the better you do your job, the more you will enjoy your work-and the more respect you will garner.
8) Have the right equipment for the gig. It just does not make sense to bring a bebop set on a rock or funk gig, and vice-versa. The sound of your drums definitely affects the way you play-as wee as the sound of the band. Also, bring a good assortment of sticks, brushes, mallets, and the like to be prepared for any occasion. And be sure your equipment is in good shape. Equipment breakdowns in the middle of a set are unnecessary and can ruin a great groove.
9) Practice at home, not on the job. This gig is not the place to try out some new sticking or technique. Besides, the tendency, when trying something new, is to force it into a spot where it doesn’t necessarily fit. After a technique has been perfected at home, then by all means bring it on the gig. Just be sure to use it in context.
10) Play as if your reputation depends on it. It just might. As stated earlier, you never know who could be in the audience. Just play the gig in context and as perfectly as possible, and everyone will be more than satisfied-the leader and other side musicians, the customers, the club owner or concert promoter, and you.
11) Play yourself. Add something special to the music. This is what makes you different from other drummers: your own personal approach to music and drumming.
12) Play music! This is the ultimate goal. Whenever you sit down to practice or play, think musically. Relate everything-from your warm-up exercises and rudiments to advanced sticking and rhythms-to music. I have heard drummers with less technique than others sound better because they were playing musically. Study music and musical form, including some melody and harmony. Spend time reading different drum books and charts. It will definitely improve your playing