Show And Studio

A Conductor-Arranger Talks to Drummers

by Laura Deni

“It sure as hell would help if drummers would listen to the entire orchestra, rather than just concern themselves with their own immediate surroundings.”

The man speaking is Nick Perito, conductor/arranger for Perry Como, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, Ferrante & Teicher, Shirley Bassey, Bobby Vinton, Shirley MacLaine and countless others. “Drummers don’t listen to the rest of the orchestra,” he charged.

Is that the major mistake that drummers make?

“Yes,” answered Perito without hesitating.

“Drummers have to be aware of everything that’s going on,” continued the Juilliard graduate. “I’m talking about a stage band drummer. In a symphony orchestra there isn’t that much room to stretch out. What you’re going to do is pre-determined. So you don’t get the freedom of expression that a contemporary orchestra would allow a drummer. In a contemporary orchestra the area of stretch-out is really unlimited.”

How can a drummer be creative without getting fired?

“Oh, a leader would kiss a creative drummer on the lips,” exclaimed Perito. “Of course the leader is the boss. But I know for myself, often times I will write a part and say to the drummer, ‘Insert some of yourself, a lot of yourself.’

“The drummer is the most intrinsic part of any group,” continued Perito. “The drummer is the hub upon which the whole orchestra rotates, either smoothly or with a bump. The drummer is the central force—the energy.

“A drummer can make a band swing, or not swing. A friend of mine in California says one of the primary requisites of a drummer is to have a killer instinct. That does bear some semblance of truth, because a drummer really has to have an aggressive kind of attitude, or some aggressive qualities.

“There are times when he must be beautifully subtle, but there are times when he must be totally aggressive, forthright, because when he hits that cymbal he can’t call it back. He must really be able to put his statement on the line.

“I knew a drummer who had a great influence on my life,” recalled Perito. “His name was Terry Snyder. Many years ago he made an album called Persuasive Percussion during the beginning of hi-fi. He made the album with the Enoch Light Orchestra and it made the charts.

“Terry Snyder was the drummer on the Perry Como TV show. He was a left handed drummer, of all things. I was just beginning in New York at the time and I saw Terry on dates turn an ordinary arrangement into something very exciting.

The man had an innovative way of playing. He had a creativity in interpretating what a tempo should really be, what a jazz piece should really be, even a waltz. Whatever we were playing he would add something of himself to it.

“If the drummer can add something of his own it helps,” reiterated Perito. “Some little innovativeness, an extra kick, a little thing here and there. By listening to the whole orchestra, the drummer can hear a motif develop. He can bring a fresh, new idea to it that maybe the arranger didn’t think of.”

Where are the jobs for drummers today?

“Las Vegas, places where they use live music,” he answered. “There are centers like New York and Los Angeles where you have films and records. You’ve got commercials. Chicago and Nashville are good. Studio musicians are generally the same little clique that do all the dates.”

Is it possible to break into that clique?

“Sure, but it’s rough,” admitted Perito. “Learn how to play every style of music. The drummer particularly should be schooled in jazz and classical, as well as contemporary music.”

Do they need an agent?

“No,” came the quick reply. “I don’t know exactly how it happens, but it happens. Your playing speaks louder for you than any agent can ever speak. Musicians are a closely knit group. They talk about the new exciting guy in town, and you develop a reputation.”

Should a good drummer stick to his playing or attempt to understand the emotional make-up of who he is working for?

“Drummers need a broad personal spectrum. They must have an incredible sense of rhythm and timing. But they also need a good sense of humor which comes across in their playing. They have to be both compassionate and aggressive. Their palette has to be filled with all of the colors. Any good musician is like that, but particularly a drummer.”