Back in April, I gave advice on ensemble playing to guitarists. A friend suggested that I wrote an entry on the same topic, only directed towards drummers. Though I’m not a drummer, I do have thoughts that all drummers should consider:
1.) Know your role. I refuse to work with drummers who think each song is a drum feature. Know how to support and accompany.
2.) Keep time. Time comes from everyone, however develop trust among the group. Personally, if I know a drummer can keep solid time without speeding up or slowing down, it allows me to create tension and resolution by playing in different parts of the time octave (ahead, center or behind).
3.) Listen to the bass player. The drummer and bassist form the foundation. If this is missing, the groove will collapse.
4.) Know the song form. Know the lyrics, vibe of the tune, harmonic structure, melodic structure, the phrasing, hits, etc. This knowledge helps drummers shape the drum part.
5.) When playing a jazz solo, know the changes. Also, re-read point 4.) If a tune’s length is 32 bars, don’t end a solo on the 17th bar. Drummers should also know the melody so they can quote it, if wanted.
6.) Play dynamics. Don’t cover up the ensemble. If dynamics are written, play them. If they aren’t written, create them. Be proactive and don’t succumb to only taking up space with time.
7.) Make each drum and cymbal hit count. Play the instrument with intent and grace; with power as well as subtly.
8.) Develop rudiments. I’m a firm believer in fundamentals. Like any instrument, musicians can only play what they hear and what their limbs are capable of playing.
9.) Play the hits. When I compose, I rarely write drum parts anymore. I’ll give the drummer a full or condensed version of the score with the hits they need to know about. This supports the song and the group.
10.) Master rhythms. A drummer specializes in time. Know how to play and hear all types of rhythms and polyrhythms. Master syncopation. Master subdivisions. Master accenting different parts of rhythms (If it’s a group of four 16th notes, be able to accent on the 1, the e, the &, and the uh).
11.) Be aware of surroundings. Be able to react in real time. If the vocalist or the leader needs more support, give it. If they need less, back down.
12.) Bring the right tools. Bring the proper brushes, mallets, sticks, cymbals and drums for each session. This impresses the band leader.
Lastly, I welcome any drummers to comment on this entry.