Overplaying—whether you’ve been aware of it or not, you’ve probably done it at some point in your musical journey. Some might say that overplaying is how you work out what fits and what doesn’t as you’re learning your instrument. During practice, overplaying is a healthy way to figure out how to apply things you’ve been studying within a musical context. But what about when you’re on stage, in the studio, or at an audition? That’s a whole other situation.

Fear of Being Judged

I often cringe listening to old recordings of myself because of how much I overplayed. Why was I forcing notes into spaces where they weren’t needed? One of the reasons is simple: fear.

I recall reading a piece in which the great groove player Steve Jordan was talking about drummers feeling a need to constantly prove themselves, especially when playing in a new situation. We need to let go of that desire to show other players just how good we are. It might start with a few tiny embellishments on the hi-hat, but soon we’re cluttering up the groove with ghost notes and accents that aren’t necessary. Why does this happen to us so often? In many cases, we’re doing it to impress someone, whether it’s the bass player or another musician in the room.

Fear is one of our most intense motivators. At times fear is necessary, especially when it comes to ensuring personal safety in sketchy situations. But emotional insecurity is much less beneficial, especially when it comes to making music with other people. In reality, that bass player, or whoever else you’re trying to impress, just wants you to lock into your parts. That’s what will ultimately make them sound good.

We need to drop that part of our ego that compels us to constantly up the difficulty level in our playing. If anything, the opposite is often a better approach. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to add to the music, focus on exactly what you’re being asked to do. What does the gig call for? What are the other players looking for from you?

When I started asking myself these questions, my playing became more focused and deliberate, translating into more nods of approval from my bandmates than ever before. Also, the less I allowed myself to think like a fearful drummer with something to prove, the more I got hired. I’m no longer concerned that if I walk into a room of musicians I’m going to be judged by how many notes I can execute. I’m there to serve the music and to make the other musicians sound as good as possible.

Check Me Out, Man!

Another cause of overplaying is what I call “check me out” syndrome, which refers to the inability to play more than a few measures of a groove without throwing in a fill or syncopation just to feed your ego. I suffered from this for many years as well. It manifests itself often when you learn a new lick and can’t resist throwing it out there on a gig, whether it was musically appropriate or not. Whenever you fall into this pattern of behavior, you might as well be waving to the audience and shouting, “Hey, look over here! Pay attention to me!”

A good cure for selfish overplaying is to record your gigs and rehearsals and listen with an empathetic ear. Try to listen to yourself as if you were the bass player, guitarist, or vocalist. Would you want the drums sounding like that behind your singing? Are the drums completely locking in with the bass parts?

Another good thing to do is to sit in at a local blues jam. When it’s your turn to play, focus on the groove, and really lock it in. Don’t add any extra notes or cymbal crashes. When you dig deep into the pocket, the bass player won’t be able to keep from smiling. I guarantee it.

Dave Stark is an endorsing artist for Zildjian, GMS, Vic Firth, Evans, Solomon Mics, Tru-Tuner, and Drum Muff.