Consistency is very important in any line of work. We’ve touched on this topic before, but this month we’ll go over three points relative to developing and maintaining it.
Consistency in Execution
Many artists look down on consistency. The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” So are we to think that art should continuously change and never be constrained by boundaries or preconceived notions? That may be a noble principle for the tenacious artist, but there are some constants (timekeeping, dynamics, interaction, and tone) that need to be adhered to for effective playing and sustainable careers. There are also crucial components within performances that are needed in order to connect with a listener, like repetition. Without these things, your playing will be much less effective.
I strive to maintain a level of consistency in all aspects of my presentation (playing, personal interactions, and equipment), regardless of the environment. Even if the situation presents unexpected elements (the drums may be different sizes from what I’m used to, the monitor mix may not be great, etc.), I still aim for a high level of execution. I always tell students that my job is to get them well past the proficiency bar, under which the basics start to break down. Once you fall below that line (the time moves, the backbeat becomes inconsistent, or your dynamics start to be affected), then your performance stops sounding professional. The bottom line is that you have to play at the highest level of execution at all times, being especially focused on the basics of musicianship and drumming that form the foundation of any performance.
The Pathway to Your Voice
Being a drummer has affected the logistics of my life in many ways. Early in my career, many of my friends had small apartments, but I always had to have a house so I could practice and work. Drumming has also dictated what kind of car I could drive; I’ve had to own a truck or van for most of my life. And I’ve had to have storage space in my house or at a commercial warehouse. Finally, I’ve spent a considerable amount of money over the years upgrading my equipment.
However, the great thing about the drums is how personal they are. Oftentimes you can tell who’s playing drums just by the setup. Seeing Louie Bellson’s white marine pearl double bass kit on stage before a show was an exciting experience for me as a young drummer.
You can make a big statement with the type of drumset and configuration you use. But it’s rare that other people will request for you to add more pieces to your setup. In general, sound engineers don’t want to deal with extra mics, guitar players don’t want to share space on the stage, and nobody wants to help you carry extra stuff.
I’ve always had a main setup and a small jazz kit. The jazz setup is for gigs where those tones make the most musical sense. I can still play straight-ahead jazz on my main rig, but there are occasions when using the smaller kit is the better option. Your main setup might be a simple four-piece kit, and that’s great—as long as that setup isn’t being defined by a lack of will, energy, or desire to create an ideal sound for your current playing situation. I encourage you to think about your gear. Is there some other type of setup that could help you express yourself more honestly? Commit to it, and develop a consistency of presentation.
I spoke to studio great Simon Phillips about setups a few years ago. He said, “When I first came to Los Angeles from England, I got called to do some sessions. I showed up with my regular setup. A few times the engineer said, ‘You won’t need all of that for this, so I’m not going to mike it.’ It kind of shocked me. I thought: Since when does the engineer tell me what drums and cymbals I can use? I decided that I wasn’t going to change my perspective for every situation. I probably lost a lot of that kind of work because of that decision, but so be it.”
Having a sound and voice on the instrument is crucial. A percentage of that is the instrument itself. Simon is a great example of a player with the will and ability to maintain a recognizable sound and presentation. But he also has a unique touch, feel, and approach to playing music. I’ve heard Simon play a smaller jazz kit with an 18″ bass drum, and he still sounded like himself.
How Do I Develop My Own Voice?
Be patient—this takes a lifetime to develop. But once you’ve figured out what you do best, you must bring it to the drums every time you play. As you work toward developing your own approach to the kit, ask yourself, Is this practical and versatile enough to be applied to every situation? Not every gig is going to call for fast double bass or crazy licks. Your concept needs to be deeper and broader than that. That’s why having an individual voice derived from your time-feel, touch, and listening abilities is always effective. You don’t want to have your uniqueness defined by something non-musical, such as your setup or stage presence. Those things should be a part of your presentation but not the main focus.
Discovering, recreating, and refining a personal approach on the drumset is a lifelong quest. Some find it early, while many chase it for their entire careers. Consistency is the key—stay the course!
Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit russmiller.com.