One of the most frustrating things for a young drummer to hear is, “Kid, you have talent. Get some experience, and come back and see me,” or the equally discouraging, “You play well, but you lack experience.” I have seen ads that say, “Keyboard player and guitarist looking for experienced rock drummer to form new group.” There is that word “experience” again.
Most young drummers would probably play for little or no money just to get some experience. Unfortunately, there are fewer places to play these days where young players can gain experience without being subjected to undue pressure. The music business has never been an easy one, and this is particularly true for drummers. The reason for this is that there are more drummers than there are jobs. Naturally, the better drummers usually get the jobs, which makes getting experience an even tougher task for young players. Where to play? What to do? Where to start?
1. Learn your instrument. This statement does not mean that you need incredible technique to get a job. What you need is the ability to play what is called for in a musical way, and enough technique to play in a relaxed manner. You need control over your instrument in order to develop enough confidence to play well with other musicians.
2. Learn to read music. When you are young, it’s a shame to miss a good job because of limited reading ability. Early in my own career, Lionel Hampton asked me to join his band to play Las Vegas for six weeks. I explained to Hamp that to be away from New York for six weeks would cost me a lot of studio work. After some negotiation, Hamp made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
At the first rehearsal, I understood why Hamp wanted me in Las Vegas. His band had to play for a singer, a dancer, and a comedian, plus Hamp’s own book of arrangements. As it turned out, the singer only sang three songs, the dancer canceled out, and the comedian needed very little music. If the regular drummer had been able to read just a little, he would have stayed on Hamp’s band.
3. Develop your ear. Learning to read helps you to visualize rhythms as you hear them. Also, listen to a variety of drummers. It’s fine to have a favorite, but listening to the way other drummers play rhythms, phrases, and accents will help you to develop a better understanding of drumming and rhythms.
4. Stay in shape. When you are young, you never know when a break will come. My first record date came as a result of another drummer not being able to make it. He was doing a TV show that went overtime. He had to finish the show, so he called the contractor to inform him that he couldn’t make the date. I got a call during dinner. I frantically took a cab and played on my first commercial studio session.
Very often, early experiences occur when someone else has a last-minute problem. The band needs a drummer now! When things are desperate, bandleaders are more likely to give a young person a chance. After all, they have to have a drummer. So be ready, mentally and physically. Practice each day—especially when you aren’t working. In this way, you have a better chance of “being ready” when a break comes.
5. Play free rehearsals. Top singers, bands, and groups pay musicians for rehearsal time. After all, rehearsing is part of the job, and pros deserve to be paid. However, there are other types of rehearsals. They may take place in someone’s garage. Some musicians may just want to jam. Volunteer! Play any rehearsal you can. Meet other musicians, and get your name around.
In most big cities, there is a “rehearsal” big band. Musicians get together to read through some charts. Attend these rehearsals, and if you can read, you may get a chance to sit in. This is valuable experience if you have any ambition to be a studio drummer. It is also a great experience to play with 18 or 20 people at once.
6. Go to jam sessions. Many large cities have nightclubs where musicians can sit in and play. Often, this is a regular one- or two-night policy. For example, Sunday afternoons or Monday evenings are typical for jam sessions.
You may get to sit in, and you may also hear other good players. If you do sit in and play well, other musicians will want your phone number. These contacts can lead to future jobs.
7. Play for demos. Many singers and groups want to record a demo tape to sell the group (or perhaps the songs). Aspiring songwriters usually have little or no money. Offer to play for free to help them out. If they sell the songs, maybe they’ll hire you to be in the band. Whether they do in fact hire you later on is not the point. Get into the recording studio, and get that experience. Then, when you get your next opportunity to record, you will have a better idea of what to do. This will help you to be more at ease, which, in turn, will help your playing.
8. Be willing to take any job in music. When I first got to New York, I played all sorts of jobs, just to keep from starving. I played society parties, Jewish and Italian weddings, college dances, and industrial and fashion shows. A few years later, I started playing the Merv Griffin TV show. It was at this time that I began to develop an appreciation for experience. On a commercial TV talk show, you get all kinds of guests, ranging from artists like the late Count Basie to a group of’ “singing dogs.” As a result of playing all kinds of music earlier, I was able to play what was needed on the show.
There is no substitute for experience.
You can’t get it by reading a book or a magazine. You can’t get it by imitating your favorite drummer. You can’t get it by practicing. You can’t get it from your drum teacher. Gaining experience is something you have to do by yourself. Each person’s situation is unique. This is one of the problems encountered when advising young drummers on how to get experience. No two people have the same experiences. However, you can be prepared. Be ready, as much as possible, for the opportunity or “break” that will start you on the road to your own experience.
I took a drum lesson from Sonny Igoe many years ago. Sonny watched me play at the lesson and said, “I’m not going to charge you for this lesson. You don’t need more lessons at this point. You need to play.” My question for Sonny was, “How will I find out the things I need to know?” He said, “Just play, and then play some more.” Shortly after this encounter, Sonny recommended me for Woody Herman’s band. I auditioned and got the job, and that was the beginning of my professional experience. After six months on the band, I began to understand. In order to play well, you have to play. Play anything, anywhere, anytime. If you are prepared, you have a good chance not only to get experience, but also to get a real break in drumming. Just remember that everyone starts out with no experience. We all start even. Hang in there and keep trying. This, too, is part of experience.