Playing for yourself VS playing for the music.
There are two major categories for those who play drums. Those who are solely drummers, and those who evolve into musicians. Drums are a primal and highly communicable instrument. Those who simply bang away might find a sense of release or joy; heck, possibly also excitement from the attention it draws. For an enthusiast, this is perfect. Play on and have fun! If you choose to pursue the art form further, there is plenty more onion to peel. For example, bombastic banging in a musical ensemble setting could be viewed as yelling in a library. You might be able to command the attention of a room and drive the bus, as they say, but in the end, it’s egocentric and inherently musically immature. Control of the sound you produce becomes a valuable skill to blend with an ensemble. Drummers who are musicians develop their craft by focusing on consistent attack, tone, and sound creation, beat and time manipulation, and always need big ears to best compliment the ensemble. Our instrument is the most kinetic energy-powered of them all, so volume control comes down to your physical ability to control it. Of course, microphones are a huge piece of the equation, but I’ll save that conversation for another day. Rather, let’s start with what goes to the mics… namely, the source sound. Your sound. Your choice of self-EQ for each piece of the kit begins and ends with your ears. How proficient is your hearing? Can you hear accents pop out at higher volumes? Can you hear the equidistant space between the notes?
These days, before I play one note I subconsciously ask myself…
What does this song need?
What is it trying to convey?
What enhances/highlights the musical phrasing?
Communicating these ideas and the feel to the audience is the goal. So what is the most effective way to elevate the music so it reads best out front or on the recording? This critical awareness applies to being on stage or in the studio. The problem is that we are in the creation seat and performer perspective while playing. Stepping outside of yourself to check in becomes invaluable. I find the most effective way to dial in your touch and auditory balance is to record yourself and check in with people off-stage for any volume concerns.
Drum set and percussion also have a wide array of sound characteristics to consider. All percussion instruments have a built-in limit to their dynamic range. If you overplay a drum it will choke the sound, underplay and it will not translate effectively to the audience. I explore these balances through things like feedback from my team, listening back to board tapes, and hearing other drummers live.
What does this phrase mean to you?
Know the old acronym K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid)? That’s a valid concept, but not the one I am discussing here.
From my perspective, musical maturity is a) the awareness of what impact your sonic contributions will have, and b) your ability to implement those contributions at the appropriate moments, thus enhancing the music. This is opposed to the look-at-me approach, a.k.a. overplaying (easily associated with a self-serving ego).
Sometimes what enhances and communicates the best is… S P A C E. Silence is a powerful tool, even for one count. Couple that with the appropriate dynamics and effective parts and you’re really cookin’. I feel it’s at that moment your instincts will guide you to season the song to taste. Get out of the way and let it happen. I’ve learned this through my own overplaying, hearing critical feedback, and constant listening back of recordings through the years. In my adolescence, I found I had to dial my playing back before it sounded the best. My emotions would get the best of me and I’d rip some notes around the kit trying to generate more excitement or capitalize on a moment. Other times I would have to level things out from playing too dynamically. Eventually, a healthy balance became instinctual. Of course, it’s a never-ending work in progress, so I’m always recording and tweaking. Doesn’t everyone?
Now there are rare occasions where a musical drum highlight is in the arrangement, or a piece calls for flash. I love those too and throw down accordingly with mucho gusto.
Whatever the situation or style is, choosing to voice in a sonically appropriate and mature way not only enhances the sound and feel of the song or piece but also lifts the quality of the ensemble. That’s right, playing with dynamics and at the appropriate level for the room can enhance the audience’s experience!
Here’s a thought:
How would a conversation sound if at the end of every few sentences you screamed a random thought? Like musical turrets. I vaguely recall BB King putting it something like this, “…you don’t need to yell every word.” The more you can let go of drumming turrets-type tendencies, the deeper your ensemble will communicate, people will enjoy it more, and thus you work more. What a win-win!
So, how do we do this?
Here’s a simplified recipe:
1/3 instrumentation / implementation choice
1/3 dynamic control/play for the room
1/3 mature musical playing
<And leave your ego at home!>
Now, let’s say that you are in a quieter setting and you are unable to control the song or piece at a low volume. What do you do? Get through it the best you can with the current tools you have, and treat it like a huge learning experience. You now know you need to shed at a lower volume (and bring more appropriate tools). Volume control is a crucial skill in your musical toolbox, not a deficiency. A player’s lack of low-volume control highlights a limit of musicianship and physical control over the instrument. If you find this applies to you, as it does to most of us, work on that.
On the flip side…
The band is digging in, and they keep looking at you to play harder and drive the bus. Again, do your best to get through, then get after it in the practice room. Sit on some slow full-volume grooves.
In either case, push your dynamic range down to a whisper and up till the rafters shake on everything you practice. If you are hung up on the “how” then it’s time to listen to the greats, emulate them, and focus on technique. A solid teacher can also do wonders to help you fill in the gaps and expedite the pitfalls through this process.
Never forget, everything you can play at full volume can also be played at a whisper with intensity, and vice versa. Everything. Intensity and dynamics are not the same. Exploring these is part of the pursuit, and mastery separates the layman from the craftsman. Strive to be a dedicated craftsman. Eventually, it will be more about revisiting these concepts and recalling your touch at said dynamic range just before the show.
PLAY FOR THE ROOM
Small indoor venue, reflective surfaces? Lower your volume. Mute if necessary. Drive the bus but set your headroom lower. Wide open outdoor festival? Open ‘er up and bring the energy. Confuse those two and you might not get the call next time.
Marry the appropriate playing volume for the room to the energy the crowd calls for and, not only will your session go exceedingly well but, you will find a greater camaraderie with the musicians around you. Plus the likelihood of a call back will exponentially increase. Our industry is dominantly a team effort, so strive to be a team player on and off the bandstand.
Does your playing solely highlight YOU or rather what is supposed to be happening musically? Where can you throw in that new linear fill lick you just worked up?
The more important question is, will the music benefit from the audience’s perspective? If the answer is NO, then simply don’t do it. Believe me, no one is waiting to hear a cookie-cutter over-the-bar linear fill in the middle of the ballad. Save it for the drum solo section in the appropriate tune. No drum solos in the show that night? Then leave the flashy lick in your toolbox.
Now, what if you are a bit nervous and can’t seem to keep your ego in check? Learn to clear your mind before you play. Meditation can help mitigate this.
Maybe you want to impress someone in the audience with your skills? Huge red flag. This is your ego at its most self-centered. Let. It. Go. The goal is to solely focus on communicating through the music and your instrument. An emotional response in the audience will stay with them longer than any specific note you play. Great music can have plenty of mistakes and breathe a bit so long as it communicates something. Let it be human and give your audience the emotional authenticity they deserve.
Choosing the appropriate percussive instrumentation for the room and gig is, as I’ve mentioned, 1/3 of the puzzle. Set yourself up for success by bringing the necessary sounds for the show or session (i.e. those projection crashes, the loudest snare in your arsenal, and wide open 24” kick aren’t going to help you achieve your goals in a boomy room for a low-volume session). Likewise, those jazz brushes, 18” kick, and Constantinople are not going to communicate the best at your metal gig.
What instrumentation does communicate well?
That’s up to you and the sound you are trying to create. Head choices, stick size/weight, shell types, shell depths, snare wires, beaters, muffling, cymbal tones, and microphones are all part of the tools at your disposal. Enjoy the process and find your way.
TO SUM UP, HERE ARE A FEW TIPS:
For indoor venues, my rule of thumb is:
•If the room is boomy: muffle, mute, and/or adjust tuning.
•Bring drums appropriate for and tuned to the style. (I tune at every gig as I’m setting up.)
•Dial in your physical dynamic shelf (headroom) during soundcheck and keep it there.
•Check in with your sound engineer occasionally during the breaks to get a read of drum volume for FOH.
My top DOs and DON’Ts:
•Bring the appropriate instrumentation
•Bring the appropriate sticks/mallets/bundles to implement your sound
•Adjust your tuning/muffling per venue
•Avoid “I” thoughts while performing, as these detract from being in the moment (i.e. I think this lick will sound great, or I want to impress so-and-so).
•Underplay the gig
•Overplay the room
•Throw random unmusical licks or volumes changes
•Play solely for yourself
Just my 2 cents, hope this helps. Happy drumming.
From 2004-2017 I was a resident of Tokyo. In many ways, my transition to Dallas was both swift and drawn out. Tokyo was my home