Being the Most Responsible Musician in the Room

One of the most oft-repeated pieces of advice professionals give to aspiring musicians is to prepare. Prepare for the audition, for the rehearsal, and for the gig. Practice your instrument daily so that you can be ready for any musical situation. But the advice usually ends there. How much preparation, exactly, is enough? How many hours should you practice? When do you know if you’re really ready for an audition or a gig? I’ve found that the answers to these questions can be hard to pinpoint. It’s sometimes difficult to predict what will be expected of you once you’re in the room with an artist or a band.

One possible answer—and the mantra I’ve tried to live by—is “be the most prepared person in the room.” I’ve found myself in many gig situations where it seems that most of the band doesn’t really know the forms, tempos, and endings. They’re “hearing” their way through songs, guessing at transitions, and listening intently for the drummer to help them through the ending.

Ironically, oftentimes the more highly skilled a musician is, the more they believe they can just rely on their ears to get them through music in rehearsal or on a gig. And that may be true in some situations, and more true for some instruments than others. Indeed, drummers often do need to be the most prepared person in the room. It’s up to us to drive the bus, so to speak—to count off songs at the right tempo, to shepherd the band through clear endings, and to dictate song structures with clear fills and groove changes.

I was once called for a gig where I met the band in the morning, ran the set once, and that night played a concert that was videotaped. My preparation had to be rock-solid—there was no room for error. Sometimes running the set once is a luxury— indeed, there are many stories of subs being called in to arena pop tours at the last minute, maybe getting a two- or three-song soundcheck, and then playing the show in front of 20,000 people that night. In touring situations like this, there just isn’t time to get the entire band and crew into a rehearsal room so that one musician can rehearse the set, especially if a tour is underway. That musician just has to show up and nail it.

So what does true preparation entail in the real world? The first thing I do with any new artist I work with is learn as much as I can about them. What’s their vibe? If you’re replacing someone, how did that person play? Did the artist like their style—or not? Who are the artist’s influences? Finding the answers to these questions will help you choose an approach to the gig. Some artists want to hear exactly what’s on the record, some artists want the band to get creative and come up with new live arrangements, and some artists fall somewhere in between. The more you can find out ahead of time, the better.

When it comes to the music itself, true preparation is knowing it inside and out. When the artist or bandleader calls a song, you should be able to sing the melody immediately without a second thought. Don’t be the one caught saying, “How does that one go again?” when a new song is called in rehearsal or on a gig. By that point, it’s too late. You’re out of the moment and in your head, thinking about how the song goes instead of just playing music.

Really knowing a song goes beyond its two or three grooves, or the four chords in the chorus and the four chords in the verse. It’s knowing the melody, the tempo, how long the sections are, if there are extra bars anywhere, if there are any special hits or breaks, which sections (if any) are open to improvisation, and how it begins and ends.

In pop situations, the beats can be extremely specific. You often need to know fills note-for-note, kick drum patterns, and hi-hat licks. I learned this the hard way, by having artists tell me to go home and review kick drum patterns that I hadn’t thought were important. By the time you’re in rehearsal, the gig might be the next day or a few days away, and you’ve used up all your shedding time. You don’t want to get home from a ten-hour rehearsal and have to stuff a bunch of kick drum patterns or fills into your head when you need to be fresh for another rehearsal the next day. It’s always best to have those things worked out beforehand. If you’re asking yourself, “Will I need to know this?” the answer is usually yes.

When rehearsing a pop show, you’re expected to remember any new information about changes to grooves, forms, and patterns—quickly. Sometimes an arrangement changes completely in rehearsal and what you were playing on the acoustic drums before becomes a bunch of extremely specific samples, or vice-versa. This happens in situations without electronics too, of course. These types of changes become extremely hard to retain if you’re unsure about basics like song structure. Good preparation frees up the mental space to execute new musical developments until they become second nature.

For me, writing charts is the best way to learn music inside and out. I write out the form, any specific grooves, and any breaks or hits. Then I’ll put the recording of the song into my DAW and loop the intro and first verse while I play them with the chart. I add sections until I’m playing the whole song with the chart. Finally, I turn the chart over and play through the song without it until I can play it without thinking about the form. This is a systematic way to make sure you’re not missing anything and that you’re not just relying on your ears to guide you.

This type of preparation has become even more paramount to me in recent years in electronic situations, where it can take many hours to make sure all the technology is in order. If I’m playing with an artist who wants to hear a lot of the sounds that are on the record sampled and played live, a lot of that work has to be done ahead of time.

Rehearsal time is precious, and technological puzzles can derail an entire day. Trying to figure out why MIDI devices aren’t communicating with each other while the artist is in the room is not a situation you want to be in! If you’re dealing with drum modules, pads, MIDI, and/or computers, iron out as many of the technological kinks as you can at home.

When you come into rehearsal and plug in all the cables, it’s best to not have to spend hours troubleshooting. Granted, problems with technology are often unavoidable, and it’s always a good idea to budget extra rehearsal time in these types of situations for any issues that may arise. Some things are just out of your control—all the more reason to take care of the things that aren’t.

In short, preparation is the mark of a true professional. It’s often the difference between getting called back and looking for a new gig, and matters just as much as (and sometimes even more than) how well you play. Doing your homework will communicate to the artist and band that you’re dedicated to executing the music at as high a level as you can and that you value their music and your place in it. Ultimately, it will result in more successful and honest art, because it will allow you to bring emotion to the music instead of staying trapped in thought about what section is coming next. When you walk out on the stage, all sorts of variables and challenges can arise that you didn’t anticipate. The music shouldn’t be one of them. If you’re nailing the songs, the rest will fall into place.

Andrew Marshall is on tour with Billie Eilish. He was featured in the September 2019 issue of Modern Drummer.