Being a truly professional drummer involves more than just making all or part of your living playing the drums. It is an attitude that is developed through experience and self-discipline. It is a sense of responsibility to yourself, to those around you and to those in the audience who have paid for the opportunity to see and hear you.
I will never forget the time a friend of mine and I squeezed into the bar of a large nightclub to hear a famous drummer and his group. The club had a heavy cover charge just to get in. My friend and I were standing and straining to see, because to sit at a table was pretty expensive. However, we had saved up for this, and we were very excited as we anticipated some great music and some great drumming.
The group played about three songs. The drummer, who was the leader, launched into a drum solo. After about a minute, it was apparent that something was not right. The drum solo suddenly began to fall apart. At this point, the drummer jammed his sticks tips d o w n through both drumheads on the snare drum, and stopped playing. He then grabbed a mic’ and said to the audience, “You probably didn’t like that, but I feel a lot better. Good night!” He left the stage, leaving everyone in the club including his group on stage in a shocked and stunned silence. My friend said, “That’s it? Who’s kidding who? This wasn’t worth the price of admission.”
Naturally, my friend was right. In fact, that drummer and his group never worked that club again. I suppose I could say that this particular incident was the most “unprofessional” thing I had ever seen. I found out later that the drummer in question had had an argument with the leader of the group playing opposite him. It had something to do with who finished the show or whatever. At any rate, because of a personal disagreement, a lot of paying customers were not only short-changed, but were insulted as well.
The late, great Louie Armstrong was perhaps the ultimate professional. A pianist who worked with Louie told me the following story. The group was traveling by bus and got caught in a blizzard. They arrived at the concert hall, which seated around 600 people, over two hours late. However, 12 people had braved the snowstorm and had waited patiently for the great Louie Armstrong and his group. When Louie realized this, he told his manager, “Hurry up and set up the instruments and the stage. We’re doing our show.” When they were set up, Louie approached the mic’ and said to those 12 people, “If you wanted to hear me and my group enough to wait, we are going to play for you.”
Louie and the group did their regular two-hour concert in a virtually empty hall. There were almost as many people on stage as there were in the audience. Afterward, people cried as they thanked Louie and the group. My friend, the pianist, said, “Louie taught all of us a great lesson that night. He was a giant, not only as a musician, but as a human being as well. He showed everyone in the hall, including the band, what being a true professional was all about.”
I went to a drum clinic recently to hear and see a very famous drummer in person. After waiting for an hour and a half, I left. I had other commitments and couldn’t wait any longer. Later, I discovered that this was not unusual for this drummer. In fact, he was late more than he was on time.
Being on time is perhaps the first thing to learn about being a real professional. If you are doing studio work, you have to live by your watch, because each date is at a different time. You can’t sound good if you are not there. It’s true that accidents do happen such as the snowstorm I mentioned. But if they continually happen to the same person, the word gets around fast. Once you get a reputation for being undependable, it is hard to overcome.
Remember, bad news travels fast.
I went to a club to hear a famous trumpet player, now no longer living, perform with his group. The group started, and the trumpet player was soloing. However, as he played, he began, ever so slowly, to lean forward. By the end of his solo, he had leaned over so far that the trumpet was actually between his knees. As the player attempted to stand upright, he fell off the stage, landing on a table. To say that the people sitting at the table were startled would be an understatement. I later heard that this great musician died of a drug overdose at a very young age.
The late Cozy Cole was not only a great drummer and personality, but he was also a real gentleman. My first job in New York was subbing for Cozy for two weeks. Later, I worked opposite him and got to know him very well. One night we got a bit confused on a new arrangement, and our group nearly fell apart. I was really embarrassed, because Cozy and his group were on next. As I came off the stage feeling terrible Cozy put his arm around me and said, “Roy, the next time that happens, play a roll and wait for someone to do something. Never stop playing.” Then we both laughed. He really had made me feel a lot better. He put the situation in perspective: We all make mistakes. Don’t dwell on them. Just get on with it, and play better on the next set.
Being a professional means playing your best, even if you don’t feel your best. It means playing as well as you can even if you are tired from traveling, a bad cold, or lack of sleep.
Being a professional means being considerate of the musicians you work with. A positive attitude from the drummer can change a group’s performance for the better. When the drummer lets down, the entire group lets down.
Being a professional means being responsible even in difficult situations. It means not taking your personal frustrations out on your audience or those in the group.
Being a professional means being alert and flexible. If there are problems, keep cool and address them at the end of the show or at the end of the night. Don’t let problems spoil your performance on stage.
Last of all, being a professional means loving what you do. It means loving music, drumming, and performing. It means being grateful for the opportunity to do what you love to do and being paid well for it. When you think of it, few people really get that chance. I f you are one of the fortunate ones, be respectful of it. Be a professional.