Clementine on Ten Ways to Shine as a Session Drummer
Clementine of the All-Female Led Zeppelin Tribute, Zepparella. Photo by Matt Granz.
[Editor’s Note: As we continue to shelter in place, drummers who can do virtual recording sessions can keep engaged, exercise their performance chops, and even bring in some revenue. Clementine formed Zepparella — an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute — in 2005 in San Francisco, and the band now plays shows all over the United States, and logs millions of YouTube views. Here are Clementine’s thoughts on how to transform yourself into an essential session player—whether you do virtual sessions now and later, or return to the studio to work closely with other musicians after restrictions are lifted.]
Nearly every item on this list is based on one truth: A hired musician must respect the clock, as studio time is precious. As someone hired for a session, your job is to:
Come in prepared. You should know the music as intimately as possible—even if you haven’t had a lot of time to prepare. Bring notes, have a few solid options for your approach, and be as familiar with the material as possible when you walk in the door.
Know ahead of time what the bandleader expects from you. Find out what other instruments you’ll be playing with, so you can map out who to listen to as you play. Get an idea of the feel they’re looking for.
Set up quickly. Don’t be precious about your sound. The producer or bandleader makes those decisions with the engineer. If they ask your opinion about how you think your instrument should sound, give it, but at the end of the day, step into the room with your drums ready to go, and make it as easy as possible to get sounds fired up. Step it up, set up quickly, use only the pieces you’ll need for the material, and then get out of the way and allow the engineer to work.
Know how to troubleshoot. Know about tuning. If the snare isn’t singing, have some quick tricks to get it snappy. Be flexible and open to changing things up. When dialing up headphones, get what you need to give as good a take as you can within the parameters of what you’re asked, and then let it go. Don’t fuss.
Learn to love the click track. Often, a click is essential to make editing easier. Learn to play behind, with, and on top of the beat while staying in time. Adjust as asked, and without resistance. Perfect your timekeeping.
Let go of perfection. When you’re recording in your own studio, you can do 40 takes of a two-bar measure to get it just right. On someone else’s dime, do your best, lay it down, and when they say they have it, they have it. It’s their record. It’s their time. Be honest about saying that you think you have one better in there, and if they want it, do another take. Otherwise, let it go. If you don’t get the drum take in one to three tries, take a good look at the issue and simplify.
Simplify. This is a key word in 90 percent of recording sessions. The red light comes on, and the body freezes up. It happens to many drummers—especially when there are four people on the other side of the glass standing under a clock. Simplify your parts. Choose drum fills that come from muscle memory. Come up with parts your body can play even though your mind is saying, “Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.” Play for the song, and no showboating. Unless they want it to rip. Then, let it rip.
Be positive. Don’t get wrapped up in your own ego, and don’t get dramatic. Don’t take anything personally. You think you got the take of the century, and they want something more? Listen and hear what you’re being told without getting defensive. Don’t argue or get all grumpy. You have infinite takes in you, right? You love playing your instrument, right?
You’re just a piece of the pie. Remember that the bandleader has a vision, and you are a little piece of a big picture. Don’t underestimate them. Don’t give your opinion about other instruments or recording or songwriting unless asked. “Too many cooks” is a very real saying here. An artist manages their own sensitivity when they’re creating their vision. Shut up about the way you would do it unless asked. Which you won’t be.
Get out quick. Most likely, the other musicians are lovely people, and they may be your friends, so it’ll be hard for them to kick you out. But, most likely, they want you out. They want to move on to the next item on the long list of things they’re aiming to get done. This is not the time to hang out. Pack up quickly, wish them luck, and get going.
It’s funny how, when you hear the finished product months later, the little details you were stressed out about are gone. That just goes to show you—it’s was never about you. It was about the big picture. How wonderful to be used as a piece of someone else’s vision in a snapshot in time, captured forever in one glorious recording session.