Many drummers who aren’t exceptional readers can still sight-read arrangements with a fair amount of ease and authority. Their secret—if there is one—could be that they recognize their own limitations and understand which ensemble figures may be omitted without impacting the overall sound of the band or arrangement. Inexperienced drummers often try to play everything that’s notated, regardless of their reading ability. This can lead to disaster for a band.
Plenty of drum charts are written by arrangers whose primary instrument isn’t percussion. As such, the arrangers may not be aware of logistical challenges inherent in playing drums, and they might write figures that are awkward to execute. In addition, some parts that were originally written for a big band may have to be played with as few as three or four musicians. Many of the rhythmic figures that appear on these big band arrangements could sound out of place if there were no brass instruments to play the same phrases. And it’s not unusual for an arrangement to be played at a tempo that’s different from the original one, making certain figures inappropriate for the speed of the performance.
One of our main jobs is to keep time. The rhythmic figures that appear on drum charts are usually meant to reinforce a horn section’s parts. If a drummer merely maintains time instead of playing some of the rhythmic figures on the chart while sight-reading, most of the time the result won’t be tragic. The brass might not pack the same wallop, but the overall sound of the band won’t be affected. But when drummers attempt to play figures that are unclear or awkward, they risk losing their place, playing a phrase incorrectly, dropping a beat, or changing the tempo. These outcomes are far worse than whatever would be lost if they simply maintained time through the passage.
Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow when you’re sight-reading: when in doubt, leave it out. This in no way means that all written figures on a chart should be omitted. However, it does suggest that if a drummer omits some of the written figures on a chart, the band can still sound good.
The four things that every drummer must catch on a drum part when sight-reading are dynamics, tempo changes, time signature changes, and any musical pauses or cutoffs. All other figures, while notable, could be considered secondary to those basics. If you’re fortunate enough to play a certain arrangement more than once, your ear and familiarity with the music will aid you in playing more of what’s notated on the chart.
The following example demonstrates a simplified arrangement, which we will analyze with the goal of giving you concrete examples of what you should concentrate on when sight-reading. Each rhythmic figure, tempo, time signature change, and musical cutoff throughout the arrangement is bracketed and marked as either “primary” or “secondary.” When sight-reading, secondary phrases are less of a concern and don’t necessarily need to be played. Primary phrases must be played so that the band sounds tight.
In measure 3, the rhythmic figure most likely reinforces the horn section, and playing it will give the phrase more punch. But omitting it and simply playing time on your first read-through might not affect the sound of the band to a great degree. On the other hand, the quarter-note cutoff in measure 4 is very important. If weak readers falter on the phrase in bar 3, they might miss the break in the next bar—a serious mistake that affects the entire performance.
In bar 7 we see another offbeat rhythmic figure. If it weren’t played, it wouldn’t greatly alter the band’s sound. The same holds true for the labeled phrase in measure 11. But in bar 12, the time signature changes from 4/4 to 3/4. The drummer must be aware of this shift for the band to sound tight. If you try to play the rhythmic figure in bar 11 and fail, you might lose the count and have difficulty playing the time change. If sight-reading isn’t your strength, it would be wiser to omit the rhythmic figure in bar 11 and play time to make a strong and smooth transition to 3/4.
Bar 15 contains a simple figure that could be considered secondary. What is important, however, is the cutoff in measure 19. Once again, in attempting to play the figure in bar 15, weak readers might lose their place in the music and miss the important cutoff at bar 19.
Measures 22 and 25 contain secondary rhythmic figures. If you doubt your ability to play these phrases on the first attempt, simply omit them and substitute straight time in order to avoid rushing or dragging the tempo, dropping a beat, or losing your place. If you get lost, chances are that the important change from 3/4 to cut time could be missed in measure 28. By the same token, the rhythmic figures in bars 34 and 35 are relatively unimportant compared to the major cutoff for four bars at measure 41 and the transition back to 4/4 in measure 45.
In bar 47, the rhythmic figure is of relatively minor importance compared to the final cutoff in measure 48. The offbeat figures in bar 47 might prove difficult for a weak reader, especially if the tempo is fast. It would be logical to play time through bar 47 and catch the cutoff on the second beat in the final bar so that the band ends together.
This lesson isn’t meant to suggest that you should avoid playing ensemble figures when sight-reading. My suggestions simply point out which figures are of primary or secondary importance when reading. Ultimately what’s most important is that you become as good a reader as possible, so that when you’re called to read a drum chart on short notice, you’re prepared.
Joel Rothman is the author of nearly one hundred drum and percussion books, which sell worldwide through his company, JR Publications. For more information, visit joelrothman.com.