I thought I would use this month’s column to elaborate on the details of developing your product. Last month we discussed balancing artistry and commerce. We broke that down into the four parts of these vital components. First, make a great product (be a great musician). Second, make a product that will be in demand (be a versatile, current, and effective musician). Third, market your product (get out and gig, have cards, be unique, and be professional). Finally, always give them more than they expect.
Those four points come together to create a great product, which is you and your playing services. There are many pieces to this. The most important aspect includes the overall level of your playing. Being a high-level player has many attributes: versatility, consistency, speed of execution, great-sounding gear, preparation, professionalism, and much more.
The Benjamin Franklin quote I’ve included sums up this month’s focus perfectly. Preparation is a key element in any professional situation. I’ve seen many players struggle on gigs and sessions because they lacked preparation. There are two kinds of preparation: long-term, such as being able to play a style effectively or read music well, and defined/short-term, which can be anything from listening to a gig’s music beforehand to bringing the right gear to a session. Let’s take a look at both.
The more difficult of the two concepts is long-term preparation. This can be a guessing game. It’s very time consuming and cannot be thrown together just before the gig. There are long-term attributes every professional drummer will need, including great time, good-sounding drums and cymbals, reading ability, and solid independence. Those are the givens, but many more skills are equally time intensive, and you’ll have to consider whether or not they’re essential to your long-term development. Will you need to know how to play Afro-Cuban music effectively? How about a 16th-note double kick pattern at 250 bpm?
It’s impossible to be a master of all the skills you’ll need throughout your entire career. This is why it’s so important to continue taking lessons, have a coach, research new or foreign playing styles, and stay relevant. I’m sure you’ve heard players say that the study of music is never ending. That’s why it’s ideal to prepare the key long-term elements of great drumming during your formative years. You can’t just magically acquire them for the gig by the weekend.
I’ve taken lessons since I was eight years old. Having an outside perspective is helpful to guide you through what you need to work on to be an effective musician. You have to keep pushing and developing. Make a list of the major attributes that you notice in high-level drummers. Here’s my own list.
General drumming: hand and foot technique, timekeeping, creating pulse and feel, reading music.
Topic specific: rudiments, soloing, brushes, fills, double bass, shuffles in different styles, reading charts.
Styles: rock, funk, swing, blues, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, country, Caribbean, African, common casual-gig beats.
This is far from a complete list. Yet some of the categories take many years to master. Get prepared before you’re asked to deal with these things on a gig. If you feel you don’t have a handle on something from your long-term list, start working on it now. You can’t just throw these skills together after you get the call. For most players it’s a battle of which ones to work on and in what order. This is where a coach can help you. Work through the compound learning of drumming, adding and stacking information in order to make the process easier for you.
Short-term preparation is equally important as long-term prep. I’ve watched great musicians struggle on a gig or session because they didn’t prepare properly. One of the things I often do is write my own charts for the music I’m asked to play. Even if I know charts will be provided, I still write my own. This forces me to get intimate with the material. Also, I can make more detailed notes than what might be on the provided charts (exact grooves, important fills, patch names if I’m using electronics, vocal cues, and even ideas for what gear to use).
I know several other artists who do this as well, like session great Kenny Aronoff. We’ve sent each other pictures of shelves full of chart books in our studios. Having these books is an invaluable resource for my clients. I’ve had artists that I worked with many years ago call me at the last minute to see if I could cover a show without a rehearsal. The detailed chart books make it possible. I can go in and read the songs down like I did the first time I played them.
Short-term preparation shows the bandleader how much you care about the job. He or she knows you’ve practiced the long-term stuff. It’s having a handle on the details for the current gig that shows your level of preparation and willingness to give more than expected. One example is having the right gear for the job. Sometimes it’s obvious. Don’t bring a small bebop kit with an 18″ bass drum to a rock session just because you don’t feel like carrying a 22″ kick. You have to remember that every time you show up to a gig, you’re displaying your product to the people hiring you, to the audience, and even to prospective clients that you might not even know are there. It’s very important to brand your product. Nike doesn’t change its logo on every shoe it makes. Keep your presentation consistent and effective, and always provide more than what was asked of you.
I recently got called to do a soundtrack session for 20th Century Fox. The producer said it was a big band session and that we would be covering a few different eras. I thought it would be best to make sure I could reproduce the various trademark sonics of different types of big band music. I planned to bring my standard big band setup, which includes a Mapex kit with 12″ and 15″ toms and a 20″ kick. But I also expected that I would need more vintage sounds, plus the possibility of more hi-fi tones, so I brought three kits and a snare case containing ’30s and ’40s vintage drums and some modern models (shown below). The preparation of putting together this inventory of gear came into play during the session. It also showed my willingness to give them more than they expected. I ended up needing all the gear I brought, and the producer was very happy. Even the movie’s music supervisor commented on how authentic the tracks sounded.
The overall theme of this column is to urge you to get a firm handle on the various skills you need to succeed as soon as possible, so that you don’t lag behind. Being a great player is a given once you travel in certain circles, so you need to have the essentials locked down. The trick is continuing to build your long-term skills while focusing on the specific short-term preparations required for different gigs as they arise. Prepare yourself!
Russ Miller has played on recordings with combined sales of more than 26 million copies. His versatility has led him to work with a wide range of artists, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Nelly Furtado, and Andrea Bocelli. For more info, visit russmiller.com.