This holiday season I am thinking about the role of the drummer, about the fact that people lean on him in modern music.
The drummer needs to be aware of his musical surrounding. He’s useless if he’s soloing double bass in a soft ballad. Oh, don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen. Then, at the end of the song, that particular guy threw his sticks into the crowd of grandmas and grandpas that were politely listening to the concert in their retirement home.
See! You have to be awake. You cant’ make the music you want. Every type of music is always a compromise between all the band members (hence so many fights and conflicts in bands).
I remember being in my hometown, it was right after the first year at Berklee: 1987. I came back to France with a ton of vocabulary. No, not true. It wasn’t a ton, it wasn’t even a pound. But I THOUGHT I had a ton of technique. I started doing auditions because, you know, one needs to eat and all that. I was going in there like I owned the land, like I was the best thing since slice cheese. Every chance I got, I would set off a firework. Here comes Sol-The-Great, he delivers a fast one, he delivers a complicated one, he delivers a loud one, he delivers… Yeah, well, the other musicians were not interested. I couldn’t get one gig. Not one!
I was learning the hard way, the starving way, that playing the drums is not a one man show. My instrument is and will stay, for the most part, an accompanying instrument. Besides, when you play your chops, when you dazzle and bedazzle, you send out a ton of messages, and often contradictory ones. You are not showing that you can be leaned on. What I should have been doing is keep the beat, the same beat, the same groove. Start with that. Say hello to the band, if I may say, take my time to get to know people, let them express themselves before I interject something into the conversation. What was the rush?
I went to Paris. I had to think long and hard about my role as a drummer in a band. I had to discover the secrets of what makes a groove work in a riff, how to use the colors of the drum set to support the song, how to push the dynamics and how to pull them back. I had to learn that my job was to be leaned on and that there was an art in that. The other musicians in the band, just like the crowd we were playing for, had to understand that I could be trusted. Then, the whole machine would work and push a song that feels good.
I teach that art to my students. And they are always surprised to see that, even if they don’t have as much technique as the other band members, they are the ones who have the most musicality. Because my goal is not necessarily to make another drummer on this earth. My goal is to make someone feel and play music and enjoy that with others.