Yoda Eyenstein’s “Nuggets of Wisdom for the Working Drummer”
You might recognize Shawn Pelton as the drummer with the Saturday Night Live band. Regardless of whether you’ve heard of him or not, he’s held down the SNL gig since 1992, so he knows a thing or two about how to make it as a professional drummer.
I attended the Modern Drummer Festival in 2010 and enjoyed seeing his band, House of Diablo, but I thoroughly enjoyed when Shawn stepped out from behind his kit to give some advice to the drummers in attendance. He did just that in an entertaining, creative way (much like his drumming). Shawn at MD Fest 2010
What follows is his list of 12 points/questions/topics/Zen koans (and my thoughts) on how to “get a gig, keep a gig, and get called back for more gigs.”
Are you a pain in the a**?
We drummers have a reputation for often being “less than professional.” Showing up on time, wearing appropriate attire, and with a positive attitude will go a long way to stop propagating any negative stereotypes associated with drummers.
Can you take direction?
Being able to execute drum parts suggested by people that aren’t drummers can sometimes be especially challenging, either because the part might be impractical to pull off or because it goes against all of your training. Whatever the case might be, when a 12-year-old artist gives you her drum beat to the song she’s paying you to record, do it with conviction and enthusiasm!
Do you have ideas (for drum parts)?
Focused listening to lots of music is the best way to build your personal library of groove ideas. The classics, as well as modern songs, are a great source of inspiration for not only grabbing specific ideas, but also to rethink/interpret a groove and put a new spin on it. Have something to offer that is the result of your creativity. “Come Together” is a perfect example of an “out of the box” drum part that could have been more straightforward. Brilliant, huh?!
Do you know when to shut up?
Shawn quoted a musician friend of his saying, “I hate somebody with a good idea.” What he meant was that often a musician will be so enthusiastic to share a great idea of theirs that he/she doesn’t allow the artist to express his/her idea. Listen and pay attention FIRST. As a matter of fact, developing a sense for when to speak up and when to be quiet is one of the best attributes of any well-liked musician.
Actively develop YOUR approach to the drums. Be aware that you are projecting it every time you play. Own it and be proud of it.
Transparency (it’s not always about the drums)
As much as drums add energy and groove to songs, sometimes the best goal for a drum track can be to make it as unnoticeable as possible. Supporting a song often means not drawing any attention away from the melody. Notice this approach in some of the music you listen to, as well as some of the biggest hits of all time.
Are you flexible? Can you hang?
You’ll be put in many pressure-filled situations, some directly related to you, some not. How you handle those situations will determine your reputation as much as any of your preparation. Observe these challenges and be honest with yourself about your performance.
THERE ARE NO RULES.
Just like Neo in “The Matrix,” the enlightened drummer discovers that all bets are off when determining how best to use your abilities to fulfill your destiny. While there are guidelines for how to be useful to other artists, sometimes those guidelines are too restrictive or don’t apply at all. There is no spoon!
RULE #1: TIME/FEEL/GROOVE
Take care of business when it comes to this non-negotiable aspect of playing drums. NOTHING ELSE MATTERS AS MUCH.
Shawn referred to “that tradition of drummers that can sit on something simple and just make the walls sweat.” There are numerous approaches to playing the drums, all with their advantages in various situations, but the most timeless and useful approach is what occurs when your singular goal is to get to the center of the groove you’re playing and dig deeper. That method all but guarantees satisfied fellow musicians, as well as producers/engineers.
Develop the ability to put yourself on the other side of the glass.
Don’t be the drummer that goes into a situation where time is limited and insist on getting sounds from several snare drums, etc. Shaw calls it “wiping your own butt.” In other words, put yourself in the producer’s/artist’s shoes and make some useful decisions that propel the session/situation forward.
PLAY FROM YOUR HEART
Give 100% of yourself to any session for which you’re hired. Your reputation or connections got you the gig. Add to your rep by giving the session your unbridled participation. People will sense if you have a “soulful trip about where you’re coming from.”
That about covers it.