Young drummers often ask the question, “How did you get your big break?” In my own case, it started when I met Louie Bellson in Kansas City. Louie was visiting the drum studio where I was taking lessons. He played for us, answered questions, and then listened to each student play the drums.
Later that day, Louie gave me the following advice: “You are as good as you are ever going to be if you stay in Kansas. Go to New York or Los Angeles, and study.” I was only 17 at the time, but I took the advice to heart, and when I was 19, I did indeed go to New York.
When I arrived in New York, I contacted Jim Chapin and began studying with him. Jim helped me get my first jobs, which gave me some experience and helped me to survive. After about a year and a half, I auditioned for Woody Herman’s band and got the job. Later the same year, I auditioned for Benny Goodman’s band. I stayed with Benny for about three years. It was through Benny’s band that I met many musicians who also did a lot of studio work. These contacts were a great help to me in the years after I left Benny’s band, when I started to do free-lance studio work.
When I look back, I suppose the job with Benny was my “big break.” I received a lot of attention, met a lot of musicians, and learned much about the music business. However, this “big break” was preceded by hours of practice, years of lessons, playing jobs of all kinds, and a good deal of sacrifice.
Even though “big breaks” are the ones that are talked about in interviews and such, they are usually preceded by a number of smaller breaks. In my case, meeting Louie Bellson was a real turning point. Studying with Jim Chapin was also a key. All the playing jobs, situations, and people that I met were part of a chain that launched my career as a professional drummer.
Today, the business is very different. For one thing, there are fewer places to play. Live music is more difficult to find than it was at one time. Nightclubs today often play records instead of hiring bands. (The last five years of economic recession have added to this problem.) Yet drummers today are better than ever before. They are expected to have a lot of quality equipment and to be very versatile, because there are so many styles of drumming. In other words, the standards are high, and unfortunately, there are fewer jobs.
If you want to be a professional drummer, you must prepare yourself to take advantage of any “breaks” that come along. For example, learn to read music. Even if you do not intend to become a studio drummer, reading will help you to understand rhythms. It will help your understanding of music and speed up your progress. I can remember getting many jobs because I could read. A lot of talented young players miss out, because they never learned this skill.
Take drum lessons, and develop some control with your hands and feet. Learn the rudiments, even if you do not intend to join a high school or college marching band. Rudiments are part of the history of drumming. They are based on some very practical sticking patterns that are used in virtually every style of playing, so they can help you to become more flexible.
Listen to different styles of music. You never know what may come up at an audition. You could be asked to play reggae or a samba. If you can’t play what is needed, the producer, manager, or bandleader will find someone who can. Prepare yourself to play whatever is needed, even if it isn’t your favorite style of music.
If you are fortunate enough to be working in a traveling group, you will most likely work clubs for several weeks at a time. Find out who some of the local teachers and players are. Take some lessons in each city you travel to. If there are no top drumset teachers available, contact the local symphony (if there is one), and try to schedule a lesson with one of the percussionists. At the very least, you will spend a very interesting hour or two with a professional drummer. I have found conversations with a person such as this to be worth the price of a lesson. This will also help you to understand that, in music, there is always more to learn and there are many ways to play.
Attend drum clinics. This is an opportunity to see and hear some top pros close up. It is also an opportunity to ask questions. Sometimes it is possible to meet the artist after the clinic, and receive advice or an answer to a personal question. It is also a chance to learn about new equipment, such as electronic drums, or cymbals, or the latest in drum hardware. Most clinics are free and most will contain some valuable information, even if you are an experienced drummer.
If you are in college studying music, take a few business courses. At some point in your career, you may be asked to sign a contract. An understanding of business might help you to make a better decision. Business courses can also teach you to organize your time more effectively. They can help you to realize that, although music is an art, it is also a business. This applies more today than ever before.
Seek advice from experienced people. Henry Adler helped me to negotiate my contract with Benny Goodman. His business experience helped me to arrive at a contract that was fair to both sides. I was happy and Benny was happy. Later on, Henry helped me to avoid signing some contracts with other artists that could have been unwise. His advice prevented me from making a couple of youthful mistakes. Ask advice from more than one per- son before making a decision. This will help you develop a broader view of the situation before deciding upon a course of action.
Sit down with a pen and paper, and write out your goals. Make a list of things you would like to accomplish in music. Next, make a list of the things you feel you will have to do in order to achieve your goals. Then, make a list of the things that you can do—starting today—that will put you on the way to developing the skills and attitudes necessary for success.
Read! Read interviews with famous musicians of all types. Learn some of the things that helped them in their careers. Learn about what they like and expect in a drummer. Discover how their “breaks” came along and how they made the most of them. Read articles and interviews with record company executives to understand their view of the music business. Subscribe to several music publications as well as Modern Drummer. There is much that can be learned by reading about the successful people in our business.
Prepare yourself for success. The ideas in this article are just some of the things you might consider. Breaks come in all shapes and sizes, and at unexpected moments. Your first “big break” might come today or tomorrow. Be ready to make the most of it. It is up to you.