A young friend of mine from Massachusetts recently told me the following story. He was working in a club with the group he usually plays with. A man came up to him and asked if he could sit in. My friend said, “Well, I don’t know. We usually don’t have people sit in.” The man persisted, saying, “Look, I’m a professional drummer and I’ve been teaching for years. I don’t play that hard. I would just like to sit in and play a few tunes. What’s the harm?” My friend relented and said, “I guess it would be okay, since you are a professional.”
The first tune was alright. The man became accustomed to my friend’s drumkit. During the second tune, however, the guy sort of went off on his own— no tempo, no rhythm, just a lot of fast bashing of drums and cymbals. The rest of the group stopped playing—they couldn’t continue—and watched to see what this new drummer was going to do next. He thrashed away at the drumset for the better part of 25 minutes and finally stopped. He had wrecked a new pair of sticks (purchased that day), and broken the snare drum head. My friend couldn’t believe what had happened. Not only had the guy disrupted the group and the mood in the club, but he had also destroyed some equipment. My friend asked for some money (at least partial payment) to make up for the broken head and chewed-up sticks. The man responded, “No way, those things just happen. The head was about to break anyway!”
My friend actually felt relieved that no cymbals had been cracked. As he put it, “At least I had a spare snare drum head with me. I don’t know what I would have done if the bass drum head had broken.”
Sometimes a drummer will walk up to you and say, “I am the drummer with so- and-so. Can I sit in?” When the drummer drops a big name, the drummer in the band might assume, “Wow, this person must be great.” In most cases, the individual is actually not with a name group at all.
Parents can also go overboard. Louie Bellson told me an interesting story some years ago. Louie was working in Las Vegas with his own eight-piece group. Between sets, an older gentleman kept asking Louie if his son could sit in. Louie said, “Well, it might be difficult. Some of our charts might be a little tricky for your son.” But the father would not give up. After each set, he would again explain to Louie that his son was really great. His teachers thought the boy was incredible. He had won contests, played with a local band in his hometown, and was very advanced for his age. The boy was around 15. Finally, it was time for the last set of the night, and Louie gave in just to be nice. Louie is without a doubt one of the kindest people in our business. “What the heck, the club is emptying out now, and we only have one short set left.” Louie picked out an easy, medium-tempo chart which didn’t require any reading. In this way, he intended to put the youngster at ease.
To make a long story short, the kid was terrible. He could not read, he could not play the drums, and worst of all, he could not keep time. Louie went back to the stage and salvaged the end of the set. He then motioned to the anxious father to come backstage without his son. In a very kindly way, Louie explained to the father, “Look, you are not helping your son. These guys in my band are experienced pros. Your son is not ready to play at this level. You are pushing him too hard and too fast. Now he has had a bad experience because of you. And I might add, the guys in my band are upset with me for letting it happen. Your son needs more training and more experience. Give him the time and the help to learn before you push him so hard that he becomes discouraged.” That was very good advice for overly enthusiastic parents.
When I had my own group in New York a number of years ago, we had a band meeting. The subject of the meeting was whether or not to let other people sit in. After much talking, we mutually decided that we would allow no one to sit in. The exception would be a close friend, late in the evening, such as during the last set. A few people did get upset when we told them, “Our policy is simple. We don’t let anyone sit in, especially people we don’t know. No offense, but we have had too many problems in the past. Please don’t take it personally.”
The following ideas may help you if you find yourself in the position that my friend did.
1. Never let anyone sit in unless you know the individual. Everyone says, “I don’t play that hard,” but many people who say this play extremely hard, and they will often damage expensive equipment.
2. Drummers who truly are with a big-name group will very rarely say, “Let me sit in. I play with so-and-so.” Most real pros would never talk or act that way.
3. Don’t feel badly when you tell a stranger, “Sorry, our policy is no sitting in.” If the person who wants to sit in should accuse you of being afraid that he or she will show you up, just say, “No, I’m not afraid. I have a job playing music, and I do the best I can. If you are so great, why aren’t you working?” Remember, it’s your drumset and your job, and it is your right to protect them.
When it comes to sitting in yourself, it’s my feeling that you should never ask to sit in. If you don’t know anyone in the group and no one knows you, it most likely will not work out too well. It’s also like inviting yourself to dinner at a stranger’s house.
If you are invited to sit in, try to observe the following guidelines:
1. Move or change as little as possible in the drummer’s kit. Don’t reposition the entire set. Change the angle of the snare or the height of the seat, but don’t do any more than that. Also, ask if it is okay to move those two items slightly before adjusting them.
2. Play with some restraint and consideration. Play a little easier than you do on your own drums. The drummer who owns the set will appreciate it.
3. Try to fit in with what the group is doing. Be flexible so that you don’t take them completely away from the style that they normally play. Listen to them and play with them.
4. If you do solo, be considerate of the group. A short solo when sitting in is more than enough. Twenty-minute solos when sitting in are out of place. Remember, it’s their group—and their job—not yours.
5. If you do accidentally damage something, be prepared to pay for it. Insist on making things right. If you break a stick or a drumhead, you should buy replacements even if the drummer says you don’t have to.
Remember, when you are sitting in, you are a guest in someone else’s band and on someone else’s drums. Act like a considerate guest.