Roberta Crain is a 21-year old drummer in the United States Navy Music Program. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Roberta’s training was as an orchestral drummer. After passing the rigorous Navy audition, she was assigned to the rock music program at Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois. Her group, called “Life Boat”, is a seven-musician, plus sound engineer, touring rock and soul band that plays mostly at high schools around the country. They play almost 180 days a year, sometimes three and four shows a day at different auditoriums and with no roadies to help!
RS: How often are you reminded that you are not a drummer, but a woman drummer?
RC: Every minute of the day, every place we go—not so much in the Navy, but when we go to high schools and outside gigs. People say, ‘What, you’re on drums, hah! I betcha I play better than you and I don’t even play. I say, ‘That’s fine, I bet you probably can, and walk away. I’m tired of it, I really am. but that’s the way it is every day. Today while we were setting up at Paseo High School in Kansas City, this guy asked. ‘Who’s playing drums?’ I answered, “Me.” He laughed and turned away. I said, “Wait a minute. Cut me a break.” That’s how it is every day in the high schools. Sometimes they come back after the show and say, “That was great.” The guys get freaked out. I always say, “It’s your ego problem not mine.”
RS: How did you get interested in the Navy?
RC: When you’re young you have a glorified view of the service from movies and TV. It looks pretty and heroic. I heard the Navy had a music program and that it was really hard to get into, because it’s so small. I went to my local recruiter in L.A. He said, “Oh, there’s no chance, no way. It’s so hard to get in that there’s no use auditioning, cause you’re probably not good enough.” I told him, “I ‘m going to take an audition anyhow, I don’t care what you say.”
So I went down to San Diego. That’s the closest Navy band. You have to go to a Navy band to audition. They were gassed out because I could sight read anything they put in front of me.
RS: What kind of training did you have? You seemed so confident before the audition, yet when you went to the recruiter you must have been still in your teens?
RC: I was 17 at the audition. I’d been playing for eight years. I grew up as an orchestral drummer. I was really into mallets and straight orchestral playing. If I had not been accepted in the Navy music program. I was going to go to college to major in music, so I could get into a symphony orchestra. I started playing drums when I was nine years old. I was in bed in the hospital recovering from a knee operation. I was watching What’s My Line on TV, and a lady came on and that was her line, playing drums. She got up and did a solo. It freaked me out. cause I wanted to play an instrument at that time. I didn’t know what, possibly a reed instrument. But when I saw her I said, “Drums it is!”
RS: So you began playing drums. What type of instructional program did you have?
RC: I had private lessons, played in high school and went to music camps. I started with the 26 essential rudiments. Some drummers start much later in life than I did. Some of them seem to be able to hop on a drum set without a lick of training and they’re great. That’s more the rare case. I’m not saying you have to have lessons or coaching or anything, but I had to have it. I have a good ear, but I ‘m glad I have the training. I know a lot about statistical density music as Frank Zappa would put it—black notes on a page—which a lot of musicians can’t read, but can play. The best teacher I had was a drummer who played for The Kansas City Philharmonic for 18 years: Vera Daehlin, a super mallet player. I studied tympani with a student of Vic Firth and also studied with Fred Albright in Los Angeles.
RS: With your classical training and background how did you make the transition to rock music?
RC: I got in the Navy music program because I could read music. I wasn’t accustomed to playing by ear or improvising. In the Navy band I learned to improvise and really enjoy it. I can really dig it now. It’s a lot of fun. I like to listen and use my ears. I can hear what the other musicians are doing, too. If I’m reading a chart for a drum set, it’s hard to hear what anybody else is doing. Sometimes you have to use a chart to sight read if you don’t know the tune.
RS: When I heard that a Navy band was playing at the high school. I pictured in my mind something from a 1940’s film. You know, a large marching band, playing John Philip Sousa’s marches.
RC: If the kids heard that now they’d just leave in the middle. Even with a big band. The Navy still has big bands, stage bands like the traditional big bands. They go to schools and sometimes the kids walk out on that because it’s not what they want to hear. The Navy music program has been around since the early 1900’s. The Navy started with the rock bands and the popular music recently, in the last five years or so. The rock bands are going over real well and they’re having such success with it they keep doing it. Every Navy band has a rock band within it. At Great Lakes Naval Station there is the stage band, which is also the ceremonial band with 18 to 20 pieces and two rock bands: Lifeboat and Holiday. The rock bands are on the road almost 180 days a year.
RS: Who pays for your tours?
RC: It all depends on the recruiters. That’s where we get our money for expenses. If they want a navy band they have to shell out the money. The basic rate is $35 a day per person above and beyond our pay to have them bring us here. That’s for a low cost area. Kansas City is a high cost area. That’s $41 a day. The money pays for meals, lodging and laundry.
RS: Even though the local recruiters paid for your trip to Kansas City, I never heard any sermons or advertising messages about the Navy before, during or after your performance.
RC: The main thing they want to do is leave an impression. If a kid is thinking about the service, they’ll think of the Navy first. That’s our job. We’re not going to get up there and preach or anything. We want to make the kids feel good.
RS: What happened after you joined the Navy, did you go through boot camp?
RC: I had to go to boot camp and then the School of Music for six months. The School of Music is in Norfolk, Virginia. That’s where the Navy decides where they want to put you. Whether it’s a rock band, jazz band or ceremonial unit you have no choice. I was lucky to get into a working rock band. In the whole music program there are 15 to 19 bands, that includes each naval base that has a band. Within each band it’s broken down into 3 or 4 groups totally separate from each other. So that means there are a lot of bands out. There are approximately nine rock bands.
RS: What kind of paycheck do you get for your playing?
RC: My daily norm, rain or shine, sick or well is $17. It doesn’t matter if I play 5 times in one day, I’ll make $17. Sometimes we play on base for parties. We just finished the Construction Battalion Ball. There was a big party for them, but we didn’t get any extra pay. The monetary compensation for the work we do is really, really low.
RS: I am impressed with the hard work you do. Besides playing in a number of schools each day you have to set up and tear down your own equipment. There are no roadies in the Navy.
RC: That’s the worst part of it—no roadies! We do get a lot of help from the kids. In Memphis, we had more stuff than we carry now and I’d get bruised from wobbling and tripping while carrying the equipment. We have a couple of big guys in the band and they can handle it. It’s nice when the kids help. I used to hurt my back a lot trying to carry heavy stuff, but those days are over.
RS: Tell me about the equipment you use when you tour.
RC: The Navy drums are Ludwig: 24″ bass drum all doubleheaded, regular chrome snare drum with 5″ depth, 9″ x 13″ and 10″ x 14″ mounted toms with a 16″ x 16″ floor tom and a 18″ x 16″ floor tom, one 24″ heavy ride cymbal, two crash cymbals and 15″ hi-hats. The Navy’s cymbals are Zildjians. My personal cymbals are Paiste. The Ludwig set is hard to tune, because they don’t stay in tune with themselves. I’m really into tuning the drum with itself. I know so many drummers that don’t bother to tune the heads of the drums to themselves and you hear a lousy tone come out of them.
RS: What do you mean by tuning the drum to itself?
RC: Every drum has a range where it should be. If you want a drum to sound high and its a larger drum you probably won’t get the sound you want out of it. A larger drum will “want” a lower pitch. There’s a certain place where it sounds the best. You have to find that part of the drum and pick a pitch from that range and get the heads in tune. If it isn’t exactly the same pitch, it won’t sound right. It’s hard to do on this set because after you get them in tune and play on them once or twice, they go out and I have to tune all over again. My personal set, Gretsch, stays in tune. It consists of the same size drums, but made of wood where the Ludwig set is steel. They don’t sound as good as wood, but I do the best I can with them.
RS: How are the drums tuned to each other?
RC: I tune them to fourths or starting from the lower tom-tom a major triad. It depends on what I like at the time. I know lots of drummers who are good and could be great, but they don’t bother to tune their drums and the actual drum sound stinks. I’ve already turned on a couple of good drummers to tuning.
RS: What heads do you use?
RC: We use Remo Pinstripes. They have a layer of hydraulic fluid between layers of plastic. This thin layer of oil cuts out high overtones. It gives a darker sound. I think they are great on the Navy drums, especially since the drums are steel. The front office has been convinced that Pinstripes are good because they cut down on the bad tone of the drums.
RS: Do you use a pillow in your bass drum?
RC: For the sound I want in this band, I don’t put any felt on either of the bass drum heads. I just use a thin pillow in the bottom touching both heads. I tune the front head to a relatively high pitch and the batter head to a much looser tone. This gives it a mellow yet loud, resonant studio sound, especially when it’smiked.
RS: What pedal technique do you use?
RC: I use a combination pedal technique. I was taught at the Navy School of Music the heel-off-the-ground toe method for everything. I still use that a lot, but my experience with other drummers in the Navy turned me on to other combinations. It’s not just heel-toe or all heel now.
RS: What pedal are you using?
RC: I use the Ludwig pedal.
RS: You mentioned that you like the studio sound. What have you drawn out of the studio experience?
RC: The band made a demo tape for the Navy. Our producer was Roy Capon, who produced the recordings for Cheap Trick and other groups. It taught me a lot about what you can do for the sound of the drum. The experience also turned me on to perfection, no mistakes. I wish I could work in a studio every day. Once you hear yourself you can improve from that minute. And if you can’t do that, the next best thing is to get a cassette recorder and do it that way.
RS: You sing on a number of tunes. Is it hard to sing and play at the same time?
RC: It was hard at first, because my feet wanted to do what my mouth was doing and my mouth wanted to do what my hands and feet were doing. It takes practice, over and over again before your mouth becomes independent of your hands and feet. Some disco tunes are easy because the drum part is just quarter note, eighth note…boom, boom, on the bass drum all the way.
RS: Is there any censorship from the Navy or the schools about what you can or cannot play?
RC: No, we’ve never had any censorship, but I have to wear my hair up for every gig we do for the Navy and I like it down. It doesn’t make any sense for the Navy to have a woman playing drums who looks like a man.
RS: What are your future plans?
RC: I plan to work professionally in rock music after I leave the Navy.
RS: Maybe the time will come when people are able to relate to you as a drummer who is a woman rather than as a woman drummer.
RC: That would be nice.