Drivers Seat

Understanding The Basics

by Pat Rowland

Anyone who hasn’t had the thrilling experience of being in the same room with a driving eighteen-piece big band has probably missed one of the more exciting experiences in all music. The fire and excitement generated by any big band is, of course, the responsibility of the man in the drivers seat and this series of articles will deal with the varied aspects of this most unique and interesting phase of drumming. This article should be interpreted as a broad overview of the fundamentals which make up good big band drumming, more or less putting things in perspective and setting up priorities. Each of the items discussed here will be the subject of complete articles in future issues.Big band drumming can actually be broken down into four basic areas: 1) Time Conception, 2) Execution of Accents and Figures, 3) Execution of Fill-ins, and 4) Phrasing conception.

Let’s look at each one individually.

TIME CONCEPTION: A leader having set the tempo at a designated pulse, expects — and has the right to assume — that it will continue along and eventually end at the same tempo. This is the drummer’s number one responsibility, not only in big bands, but any other musical setting as well. Competent reading combined with imaginative fill-ins and colorful phrasing are all important aspects of big band drumming, however none will compensate for a poorly developed time conception. Time is of the essence so to speak, and players overlooking this very important point will leave a great deal to be desired.

EXECUTION OF ACCENTS AND FIGURES: The accurate execution of the stage band drum part puts great demands on the drummer’s innate abilities. Contrary to some peoples thinking, the drummer actually must be an above average reader since the drum chart is by nature, nothing more than a rough guide or sketch of the composition. Though degrees of detail vary from one arranger to another, the drum chart will basically contain all instructions for the important ensemble figures and section cues. It is clearly a matter of learning correct methods of interpretation. There is a great deal of study material on the market to help the drummer sharpen his reading ability in this area and to learn to correctly interpret drum charts, certainly a whole study in itself.

One of the faults of many stage band aspirants is an over concern for complex or flashy fill-ins. Though commendable to a point, it should never take precedence over accurate reading and interpretation.

It is also of the utmost importance that the time flow is in no way adversely affected by the execution of accents and figures. The time must always continue to flow smoothly, undisturbed and swinging even amidst the most complex of parts.

drivers seat art 1 copy

EXECUTION OF FILL-INS: A fill-in can be described simply as a short solo break or a rhythmic fragment whose primary purpose is to set-up the oncoming ensemble figure or section accent. A precisely executed fill-in can add tremendously to the overall impact of the figure itself. After all is said and done, it is interesting to note that the simpler fills are generally more effective than the over-extended ones which fall more into the area of short drum solos rather than fill-ins. Over-complicated fill-ins can also distract from the actual figure it is supposed to be setting up. The drummer, unless quite proficient, is also increasing his chances of misplaying the figure when he resorts to lengthy, complicated fill-ins and can substantially upset the time conception if not totally conscious of it.


drivers seat art 2 copy

PHRASING CONCEPTION: Phrasing, which is simply the articulation and duration of notes and rhythmic figures, is an oftentimes overlooked item among stage band aspirants. When applied to the drum set, phrasing becomes a long note simulated by a cymbal crash, a trombone section cue reinforced by a bass drum accent, or short, clipped brass figures accented by crisp, biting snare drum. There are really no cut and dry rules for phrasing figures, as most experienced players develop their own style and approach to this matter. It is safe to say however that good musical sense must prevail, perhaps more so in this area than any other. Natural musical instinct and taste are the key words. Careful listening to individual sections with attention to the phrasing of particular figures and passages is essential. It is through this, the drummer will assimilate the qualities of various articulations and will hopefully apply his equipment to each varied situation.

A great deal can also be gained by intelligent listening to the time and drive of big band greats like Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson; the rhythmically precise execution of Ed Shaughnessy and the classic tastefulness, balance and blend of Mel Lewis’s phrasing. Each one of these players combines all of the above-mentioned to varying degrees and can offer much to the aspiring drummer. Listen to fully appreciate the masterful drummer who can keep steady, swinging time, make all figures and accents unerringly, set-up figures with imaginative and tasteful fills, and choose colorful and musical phrasings. Most pros not only do all this, but also can do it the first time through a new chart. Perhaps it is here where clearly the thin line between the novice and the adept artist can be drawn.

Note: Two of the finest books on the subject of big band playing are Get Your Fills Together by Sonny Igoe, published by Sonny Igoe, Emerson, N. J. and Stage Band Drummers Guide by John Pickering, published by Mel Bay, Pacific, Mo. Both works should be part of the standard library of any serious big band aspirant.