Every practicing drummer wants to get better. But the wealth of information at our immediate disposal is extensive, to say the least, as we are inundated with videos, photos, tips, tools, routines, product recommendations, and expert opinions by professional drummers from around the world. Our challenge is to sift through everything, digest it, and determine what we need to improve our own playing.
I was asked in an interview a while ago what I felt were the keys to being a successful session musician. I concocted an answer, but it wasn’t until a few days later that I took some time to think about the question more deeply. I started putting together a list of words that eventually evolved into the acronym TAPAS. The dictionary definition of the word “tapas” is “a wide variety of plates to create a complete cuisine.” When applying that to how one can be a successful session musician, the definition becomes “a wide variety of characteristics and skills that create a complete player.”
T = Thorough: Paying close attention to every detail, being methodical and meticulous
A = Adaptable: Being able to adjust to all situations, whether on stage, in the studio, or on the road
P = Professional: Meeting the highest standards and exceeding expectations in all areas of the work
A = Attentive: Paying close attention, staying alert, and being an active listener
S = Skilled: Having the knowledge and ability to perform at a high level in all genres
Now let’s return to the topic of “getting better.” That can mean completely different things depending on who you ask, so trying to pigeonhole everyone into the same lesson plans or practice routines may not be a great idea. That being said, I believe all drummers should have an understanding of rudiments and should routinely work on their hand mechanics and technique. They’re the foundation you’ll continue to build on throughout your career. It’s when you start applying technique to different musical situations that you’ll begin to delve into areas that specifically apply to you.
As a session drummer, I spend the majority of my time focusing on getting better and more confident in these areas:
1. Working with a click track and feeling comfortable playing in front of it, on top of it, and behind it.
2. Becoming fluent in numerous genres of music.
3. Refining my sound. I’m often hired because my playing style and sound is appealing for a project, so I’m constantly practicing to ensure that everything I do remains as consistent as possible. When working on projects I want to be sure that I’m utilizing my skill set and knowledge in ways that support the sound and feel that the artists envision.
While it would be ideal if I had unlimited time to watch every drum video and master a full gamut of styles, that’s simply unrealistic. So I catalog the areas of improvement that most directly impact my career path, and I focus my attention there. To remain busy, the most important thing for me is to maintain being a well-rounded drummer, so it’s essential that I have a wide range of styles under control. That way I can walk into every situation with confidence.
Again, what’s important to me isn’t necessarily relatable to you. The desire to get better at your craft, and the decisions regarding the specific areas you should focus on, are personal choices. You ultimately have full control of your destiny. If you want to master every Metallica song, every jazz standard, and every Motown hit, or if you just want to be able to play the epic drum fill in Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” nothing should stand in your way. As you work on those things, you’ll inadvertently improve your general technical and musical abilities, which can then be applied to future playing situations and practice objectives.
Jonathan Ulman is a session drummer and percussionist from Boston. He was the 2016 and 2017 Boston Music Awards’Session Musician of the Yearwinner. For more information, visit jonathanulman.com.