Show And Studio

Backing Singers

by Danny Pucillo

Danny Pucillo is a west coast based drummer with a wealth of performing experience. He has hacked numerous leading vocalists including Peggy Lee. Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Goulet, Joe Williams and Tony Bennett, and has played the TV shows of Andy Williams, Sonny and Cher, and Pearl Bailey. A most versatile performer, Danny presently divides his time between L.A. studio work, and his own jazz-rock group.

Singers (particularly those with longstanding reputations) are very important to every practical musician in that they have the power to provide jobs for us. And the jobs can be plentiful and pleasant if we take the time to understand our role as instrumentalists and the unwritten rules defining the relationship between voice and drums.

The first thing we must all concede is that most professional singers know precisely what they want from the boys in the band, so let us respect them for it and do our best to satisfy them. It is true they are unable to suggest Debussy-like harmonies as likely substitutes for an already effective piano part — as many arrangers love to do; or to hash out a problem in accent distribution with an obedient drummer; or point an accusing finger at the third fiddle player who may have goofed a cue; or in the midst of a full tutti passage single out the villain who forgot to make a change of notation in his part. But, they have an idea of what the chart is supposed to sound like, and when something isn’t right, they know it.

They also know that a sure sense of time is indispensable to an effective performance of those expensive arrangements they proudly pass among the boys at first rehearsal. For this reason, they’ve come to appreciate the value of a solid, harmonious rhythm section. And the sometimes elaborate, sometimes insipid tempo changes and dynamic effects that highlight their performance have taught them to cherish the presence of a well-seasoned drummer who is tactful enough to play for them and not for prosperity. In short, a drummer who acquires the skill of playing for singers is a drummer much in demand. It seems that most drummers acquire this skill over many long years of trial and error and at the expense of many disappointed singers. This unfortunate fact is justification enough for the space devoted to this article.

Although no two singers are exactly alike with regard to their particular talents, they are alike in that they share common problems with us. They too must know their instrument, understand the accompaniment provided for them by their arranger, and struggle to achieve a good performance. Their success or failure depends largely on our success or failure to meet the requirements of the musical problems involved. My experience (and I think most drummers actively working with singers will testify to this) tends to focus attention on a few rules of thumb which, if observed, will greatly simplify the problems facing the young drummer wishing to acquire this skill. I’d like to touch lightly upon the most obvious of these principles in the next few paragraphs.

The first point is so universally true that it is hardly worth mentioning. But it must not be taken for granted, so just for the record, here it is: YOU MUST HAVE A COMPLETE MASTERY OF BASIC PERCUSSION TECHNIQUE. There is The single stroke roll has always presented some interesting points for discussion. The most common method for teaching and practicing this rudiment has basically been alternating sticking, starting slowly and gradually accelerating to top speed, with no inherent regard for tempo. This is a poor method for a number of reasons: First, it encourages the player to rush, or at least feel the sensation of rushing. Second, it does not teach a value for meter concepts, and thirdly, our notational system does not have a true means of presenting the way in which most drummers practice the rudiment.

The method presented below incorporates the elements of 1) a constant tempo throughout 2) notational interpretation 3) a polymetrical concept 4) The rudiment retains its character as an excellent exercise for the development of speed and endurance. The following rules are suggested: 1) Set your metronome at a comfortable setting 2) Practice each exercise in series (one into another) 3) Gradually increase the metronome speed by a beat or two, per substitute for this fundamental requirement.

The second point is this: YOU MUST ACQUIRE SKILL IN THE ART OF MEMORIZING MUSIC. This is basically a problem of grasping and retaining what you read. For a drummer with no faculty for memory, every reading is a first reading. Obviously, you can’t watch the singer or conductor for direction if your eyes are glued to the page any more than an ostrich can count the stars with his head buried underground. In addition, you can only put the life element into a piece of music you understand. And you can’t get familiar with a piece you’re sight-reading for the tenth time. Familiarization is a product of memory. Read, grasp, and retain! That’s the secret. Work at it daily! That’s the method.

You’ll probably think I’m being facetious when I call your attention to point number three: A CONDUCTOR IS NOT A TRAFFIC COP. Frequently the piano player will serve in the capacity of conductor as well. Because of his familiarity with the music and the artist, (he’s usually a steady man) the question of tempos and interpretation are made easier. If you work with him on these matters, you’ll satisfy the singer. Unlike the standup conductor, the pianist-conductor can usually employ but one hand at a time. Frequently, when he is involved at the piano, he will resort to head movements to emphasize downbeats. At this point the tempo is set by you more often than not. Have a clear mental picture of the tempo and once you lay it down, keep it there. Facial expressions are also a part of the pianist-conductor’s technique.

Point number four: DYNAMIC MARKS ARE FOR THE AUDIENCE TOO. Most stages will permit you to set up in the back with the brass section. This occasionally isolates you from the singer and might create a problem of communication. If there are any monitors on stage, try to get as close to one as the situation allows. Another constant problem is the room itself. Try to adjust to the acoustical climate if you don’t want the performance to sound like a drum solo with vocal accompaniment. Tact coupled with a sensitive ear is most needed in this war against acoustical conditions.

The human element is the reason for point number five. SINGERS ARE NOT METRONOMES. From night to night, or from date to date they may vary their tempos. You must listen closely for such discrepancies and acknowledge them with a display of good musicianship, keeping a free feeling and a good pulse. Singers — like any soloist — can perform at their best when the background is good, time-wise. Certainly, you can add color through the use of fill-ins, dynamic shading, etc., when called for, but the real element is time.

Point number six: YOU MUST BECOME AN OLD RELIABLE. Most established singers carry a steady rhythm section with them on the road. These one-nighters are an experience apart from all others. The rest of the band will consist of local boys. The house band will usually contain a nucleus of good musicians although you should be prepared for unfortunate exceptions. This is where you really play for the singer even if it should require a healthy disregard for your fellow bandsmen. Insist upon the proper tempos, listen for the tempo-changes. Keep the time against all odds. Be like the Rock of Gibraltar on this point. You must play with a strong will but never over play in volume. Time and dynamics are not the same thing. This requires great control but you can do it if you have observed rule number one. Mentally, it’s like shutting off the sound of the band, keeping your ears open only for the sound of the singer braving it up front. He (or she) will not let this display of reliability go unnoticed. This is your security.

Point number seven: SINGERS HAVE CONFIDENCE IN CONFIDENCE. When the chart calls for solos or important fill-ins, sound it out. When rehearsing the band, any help you can give them will give them confidence in you. The ever-present problem of tempo changes, dynamics etc., will be greatly minimized if the boys respect you enough to listen and look to you at show time. The music will come off better, the singer will do top quality work and you’ll be rewarded with repeated job offers. Word of mouth is the best advertisement. One more point about confidence; there’s only one way to get it, and that comes from competence! Anything short of this is vanity.