Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Monday, June 24, 2013

To Drum or Not to Drum

(That is the question)

I just came off the road last week, playing drums for an up-and-coming Americana/Country artist. Thing is, I'm a professional guitar player. I'm not at all sure how the band member who asked me to do the tour even found out I played the drums, since every drumming gig I've had since the mid-80s has been either church or missions related. Nonetheless, I've been playing drums for 35 years, and I thought it would be good to get out and be responsible for keeping the dance floor full and the band happy, gig after gig. I succeeded, albeit with a renewed appreciation for what professional drummers have to do every night (especially those who don't have roadies to set up and tear down their gear for them.) I'm grateful for the experience (and the income I earned, which was more than I would have earned doing my day gig), but I have happily resumed the guitar and vocal chores with my regular band, with my little brother capably manning the drum throne.

Meanwhile, a friend texted me this morning from his church gig somewhere back East, playing electric guitar, and lamented, “Bobby Brady on drums”. For those too young to remember, there was an episode of the early 70s sitcom 'The Brady Bunch' in which little Bobby decides to take up drums , which he attacks with the abandon of Keith Moon and the talent of Rebecca Black.  This came to mind when my friend tried to describe the frustration of having a 'drummer' either incapable of or unwilling to play an appropriate musical accompaniment for the worship service. There are a number of people who would not be bothered by this, but I fancy (unless I flatter the general populace) that such people are relatively rare. There are many who know nearly nothing about music, but there are virtually none who regularly listen to music in which the drums slow down, speed up, lose the beat, play irrelevant fills and fail to provide an adequate rhythmic foundation for the song. (Except at church.)

I have long maintained that a band is only as good as its drummer, and I cite two instances that (hopefully) make my assertion axiomatic: The first involves a team of musicians I was preparing for a month-long outreach in Venezuela. The musicians I had were, shall I say, minimally competent, but in no way remarkable. We also suffered from the absence of a drummer; by the time we finally found one, we only had one week of rehearsal left. But this was no ordinary drummer. José proved not only to be the best unknown Christian drummer I'd ever worked with, he also had a personality that catalyzed the rest of the band into a living, breathing, seven-headed monster. His musicality ranged from delicate finesse to raging, in-your-face thunder, causing the rest of us to sound much better than we actually were. The outreach proved to the both the most effective and the most enjoyable I've ever been on.

Instance two: My wife and I were assembling a band for a tour of hispanic churches in the U.S., mainly in Texas. We had assembled an uncommonly good group of musicians for the tour, but again, we couldn't seem to fill the drum throne. I found an audition tape of a guy playing drums in 5/4 to a Joe Satriani tune, and convinced myself that his ability to maintain an odd time signature while playing along with a recording might translate into the ability to play drums in a touring band. Initial rehearsals, however, confirmed my worst fears, and the drummer (a young man of unusually high Christian character) offered to bow out. For whatever reason, though, I decided to make it work, and I built a contraption consisting of two boxes connected by a long cable – one box on the floor by my guitar pedals, with a green button and a red one; the other box secured to the top of the bass drum, with a green LED and a red one. If the drummer was losing the beat (more often the case), I'd step on the green button, which lit up the green LED on the bass drum. Then I had to wait for him to notice and pick up the tempo until it was right for the song. Rarely, he'd play faster than the song called for; the red LED signaled him to slow down. Still, we played some high profile gigs (including a TV show taped in Houston and broadcast over much of Latin America) in which our otherwise fine band was compromised by a subpar drummer. Fortunately for me, his patience and humility enabled him to endure much of my frustrated micromanagement – this, by the way, was an anomaly. Rare in my experience is the mediocre drummer with the ability to receive corresponding amounts of correction and criticism.

Which brings me to my original point: A band is only as good as its drummer. In most popular music, both in the West and in non-Western cultures, drums and percussion form the backbone of the vast majority of musical expression. Sure, many bands occasionally find expedient to give the drummer a break from the kit in order to express musical delicacy (i.e., the Beatles' “Yesterday”) or corporate callousness (Pink Floyd's “Welcome to the Machine”), but these exceptions have no place in this discussion. I'm after a harder truth here, one that will not sit well with everybody.

Most of us have heard many different drummers playing live – some good, many average, some bad. The problem I address is that of drums in corporate worship settings. In most such situations, the musicians are volunteers, usually unpaid. Compare this with the world of semi-pro and professional music, in which you may find a bad drummer playing in a nightclub. Although such situations are not uncommon, the other band members (and their audiences) are rarely satisfied with the situation, and as such bands become more successful (and thus better paid), the groove-challenged drummer is almost never heard from again, jettisoned in favor of one who can drive a dance floor or make a studio recording come alive. By the time a band was signed to a record label (back in the day of record labels), even a drummer who was competent often found himself spelled in the studio by the producer's favorite session cat, since the quality of the record could make or break the band. Even Ringo Starr, who went on to become one of the most influential drummers in history, was replaced on the album version of the Beatles' 'Love Me Do' by session veteran Andy White, since producer George Martin wasn't yet convinced that Ringo (who had only recently replaced the minimally competent Pete Best on drums) was ready for the big time.

Survival of the fittest, right? Well, only in the real jungle of professional music, in which there's only so much money to go around. The church is another matter.

I can only speak for myself, but I have heard from others as well, that amateurish musicianship on a worship team can be a distraction from, or even an impediment to, the flow of worship even as experienced by non-musicians. I'm terrible – every missed bass note I hear, every out-of-tune string, every wrong chord (usually suggested by a randomly downloaded chord chart), every botched drum fill, they all make me wince (or worse, laugh, earning me withering glances from my wife, who is herself a beautifully gifted musician.) But of all these foibles, the one most likely to stand out to the untrained ear is the drumming. Even an unmusical person may notice that the drummer has lost the beat and is now playing the snare on 1 and 3, even though they may not be able to articulate it in those terms. I fancy that a significant percentage of the congregation may find it distracting or even unpleasant, while a few of us would rather be in the dentist's chair than in that church, hearing this awkwardness being served up in the guise of corporate worship.

How many of us would tolerate the same incompetence on the music we listen to on the radio, on our iPods, on TV? Well, we don't have to think about it, since it doesn't APPEAR in those formats. I can think of a few instances on well-known recordings (almost all of which were made in the 1960s or early 70s) where the drum groove wavers a bit, but still makes it to the final recording, reflecting the limited time and studio budgets that were often the rule in those days. But the drummers in question (I'm thinking here of wonderfully loopy English drummers like Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon) were generally admired and imitated; their rare studio inconsistencies were mostly due to the factors listed above. If they had gotten saved and become part of your church worship team, they would have blown the roof off the joint, that is, if you could even keep up with them.

The drummers I'm chiding here are of another stripe altogether: They know just enough to be dangerous. In my experience as a drum teacher, I have taught scores of kids to play, say, a basic 4/4 beat (such as the one heard on Michael Jackson's Billie Jean' and AC/CD's 'Back In Black') – I teach this as a confidence builder, meant to motivate the student who might otherwise become discouraged if only initially allowed to play snare rudiments on a practice pad. (Some drum instructors swear by this method, which admittedly might weed out some of the dilettantes I'm about to mention.) The mechanics of this beat are so simple that I have only had a very few students fail to execute them for at least one measure during the first lesson.

This pattern, unfortunately, can be performed by many people of highly questionable musical skill, resulting in the grossly oversimplified observation, “Hey, I (you, he, she) can PLAY THE DRUMS!” No chords to learn, no scales, no strum patterns, just play that beat and a few fills (often improvised by novices who have never in their lives listened with care to a real drummer playing a real fill), and Hey, We Have A Drummer! (Actually, you don't – if the available instrumentation needs drums but an adequate drummer isn't available, better to scale back to perhaps a solo keyboard or acoustic guitar than to 'try to make it work anyway'.) Another way to describe this situation might be 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.'

Granted, this could just as easily be the way a great drummer starts out, but it just as often leads to problems. A beginner studying with a drum teacher might have just as much (or as little) musical talent as one who is self taught (as I was), but the former may have the advantage of a teacher who can provide guidance as to when and where to play, as well as what. A young drum student of mine recently played 'Twist and Shout' at a talent show with two other kids (and a grizzled music biz veteran on bass) – it was an appropriate setting for a nine-year old kid who's been playing drums for about six months. Other than the random cymbal hit at the end (“We're done now”), it was cute and harmless, enjoyed by the parents in attendance, of whom only a very few could have done as good a job on the kit.

I would not, however, send that same kid to play for a church service – not for a long time, anyway. I consider the responsibility to be too great. He's not ready. Corporate worship is not a recital. But I don't attend his church, and I'm not even usually in charge of who plays at my own. If I were, I could have avoided the following worst-case scenario:

Some years ago in Venezuela, a new drummer turned up at my church. “Francisco” was a handsome young man, with the build of a serious weightlifter. I wasn't consulted, only informed that he would be playing drums for some services. Francisco could play a rock beat on the drums, and knew a fill consisting of a close flam followed by a couple of tom hits (splat/ka-SPLUT), which always sounded somehow louder than it probably was. He had no finesse, no dynamics, and two fatal flaws that should have immediately ruled him out as a church drummer: a) He would often come out of a fill with the beat reversed, but he couldn't tell it was wrong, and he couldn't change it even if you asked him to, and b) he couldn't adjust the tempo if the song was too fast or too slow. Imagine singing “Blessed Be Your Name” at the tempo best reserved for “How Great is Our God” - with no way to get it up to speed, no matter how much you plead with the drummer – and you'll get the picture. Add to this mess my negligible interpersonal skills, which rival those of a honey badger, light fuse, get away. My attempts – during the actual worship service - to get Francisco to play the correct tempo or stop hitting the snare on 1 and 3, were interpreted by him as malice on my part, and he eventually declared he would never play with me again. I wish I could say I was saddened by this development, but the only sad thing for me (besides his drumming) was that I couldn't have achieved this in a more diplomatic fashion. (I'm also grateful that he didn't decide to beat me up, which he surely could have done far better than he played “Eres Todopoderoso”.)

This sort of thing can happen on different levels. One of the most common, which I observed in one of the best-known churches in South America, involved a young man who, shall we say, knew too much. He clearly had some talent and skill, but he was determined to make sure everybody there knew it. Time for a fill? He approached this as if he were being paid by the note. Now, I like a cool, impressive fill as much as the next guy, but at the expense of the groove? Yes. He'd lose the pulse, and force everyone else to follow him. Now, a drum fill should advance the song, like the turning of a page, or the beginning/end of a paragraph. It might ramp up the intensity, put the brakes on the same, or set us up for a totally new musical expression. It is not an interruption of the groove, it is an extension of it. (One exercise I've inflicted on many a drum student is to take a fill they'd executed poorly and make them play it eight times in succession, looped, as though it were the groove itself – after that, their execution of said fill, in context, often recouped its musicality.)

Contrast this with the world's greatest drummers – one of these, Vinnie Colaiuta, can play the most outlandish polyrhythms, the craziest solos, and the most intricate drum parts ever written. But when he plays a tune like 'Asa' (Lee Ritenour with Djavan), he throws down that basic 4/4 groove with nothing more than a couple of well-placed 16th note triplet fills to even hint at the snarling drum beast within. And when he plays for worship (Vinnie has been a Christian since 1998), he uses his stunning musicality not to call attention to himself, but to God. I believe my best moments as a church drummer are when, with Vinnie as my role model, I seek to apply all my skills – timekeeping, vocabulary, teamwork – to laying down a groove that will help to focus God's people on Him, not me. That's not to say I don't cut loose – I'm an energetic drummer, and many songs call for all the energy I can muster. If the comments of the congregation are any reflection, then a lot of people are facilitated in worship by my approach. Soli Deo gloria.

As long as the church consists of imperfect people (which I predict could be a while), worship leaders and musical directors will appoint drummers who are either unaware of, or incapable of, the drummer's responsibility to make everybody else sound good. I'm writing this in hopes that some will read it and take seriously the drummer's enormous responsibility and make wise choices, whether to keep unqualified drummers off the platform, or in the case of said drummers, to keep themselves off the platform until such a time that they are able minister on the drum kit in such a way that will edify everyone in the congregation, including oversensitive people like myself.