The following is an excerpt from the Modern Drummer book Mind Matters: Overcoming Common Mental Barriers in Drumming, by Bernie Schallehn.
The Drummer as Performer/Entertainer
Q: I’ve been drumming with a band for the past five months, and the bandleader recently said I wasn’t performing enough on stage. When I asked what she meant, she said my drumming was fine but I had no personality on stage. I told her that I was just concentrating, but she said my wooden appearance took away from the band’s look. I have two questions: 1. Does a drummer have to be a performer/entertainer? 2. Can you help me save my job?
A: The answer to your first question depends largely on the context of the gig. That being said, keep one thing in mind: Your audience comes to see you perform just as much as, if not more than, to hear you play. Look at the outrageous ticket prices that big-name artists are getting for their concerts. With the amount you spend to see them on stage, you could buy their entire CD catalog. And why is that? It’s because fans want the intimate experience of being in the same room as their favorite artists. There’s simply no comparison between hearing music through headphones or on a car stereo versus being a part of the real-life concert experience, where the lights, the sound, and the band’s performance come together as one.
Let’s further examine a gig’s context as being a factor in whether drummers specifically need to be performers/entertainers, using three legendary players as examples: Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, and Keith Moon.
In their heyday, the Beatles wore matching outfits and haircuts to immediately identify themselves as members of the band. In addition, each Beatle had his own persona. Ringo Starr would smile, flip his mop-top hairdo around while playing fills, and tilt his head to let his long hair flop when hitting a song-ending cymbal crash. Was his showmanship outrageous? Of course not. But Ringo’s stage appearance, when combined with his drumming, absolutely constituted showmanship.
Now let’s look at Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. When Watts plays on his no-frills four-piece kit, his expression is the quintessential poker face—one that leaves spectators wondering whether he’s deep in thought, tranquil, reserved, or perhaps even bored. He really doesn’t give much away beyond the occasional grin. Watts, however, is sharing the stage with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, two individuals who have defined the term rock star, so there’s little need for Charlie to do anything other than play his kit.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Who’s Keith Moon had an innocent choirboy look but bashed his drums like a wild man. The Who’s live show was a spectacle, and singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, and Moon all placed a high priority on showmanship. The band’s bassist, John Entwistle, was the lone holdout.
As you can see from these examples, context is key when it comes to whether or not a drummer has to be a showman. Your band and your role within it will help you determine the appropriate context.
On to your second question: Can I help you save your job? Yes! Start by asking your bandleader what specifically she wants you to do in terms of increasing your performance quotient. I’m guessing she has an image in mind of what she expects. If she does detail her specific wants, the question you then have to answer is: Am I willing to meet her expectations?
If she’s too vague in her descriptions or wants you to invent your own stage persona, here are a few places to start.
1. Facial expressions. For starters, smile! Smile at your bandmates and especially at the audience. Remember, they’ve come to the club to be entertained. Show them you’re having a good time, and they will mirror your behavior. If the music is heavier, experiment with some more intense expressions. Match what you put on your face with the feel of the song. You can also try moving your head in time to the music. (Often, a performer’s facial expressions are an involuntary response to the emotions evoked by the music. If you’re playing with an expressionless look, you may want to spend time reconnecting with the core feelings of the music and allow them to pour out of you while performing.)
2. Flash. For more extreme showmanship, learn to twirl your sticks. Perhaps this routine is a bit overdone, but it still seems to be a crowd pleaser when used in the appropriate context. There are plenty of DVDs, CDs, and books on the topic.
3. Movement. On certain songs, dramatize your movements. For example, if you kick off a song with a flam, raise your arms high over your head and make it look like the most impassioned drum part you’ve ever performed in your life. I’m not asking you to change your overall technique but rather to create a mixed bag of stage-presence ideas and then pull stuff out when appropriate. Just be sure to use them sparingly, so your moves don’t become predictable. The element of surprise can be quite effective.
4. End with a bang. Finish your songs with dramatic flair. If you usually rely on simple cymbal crashes or flams to close out a tune, prep your bandmates that you’re going to go for something different. Try long cymbal swells, or play a short solo. The point is to execute something totally unexpected (to the crowd, not to your band).
5. Image. Try changing up what you wear for your performances. A simple black T-shirt always works on stage, but it can be a bit boring if you’re trying to boost the visual impact. A slick-looking vest, a collared shirt, or a cool hat can do a lot to bump up your appearance.
There’s always the possibility that nothing you do will make your bandleader satisfied with your stage presence. It can be a bummer, but perhaps it’s time to move on, which leads to one last option: Don’t change anything. I know you want to keep this gig, but at what cost? If you’re content with the way you’re performing, there are other bands out there that I’m guessing would gladly take you just as you are—no changes required.
“The Drummer as Performer/Entertainer” originally ran in Bernie Schallen’s bimonthly Modern Drummer advice column, Mind Matters. The series was developed to offer creative advice, strategies, and solutions for mental issues that are common among aspiring musicians. A number of Bernie’s MD articles, along with exclusive, previously unpublished material, have been compiled in the book Mind Matters: Overcoming Common Mental Barriers in Drumming.