What exactly does a drummer/percussionist do?
The quick answer would be ... we drum. We keep a beat for the band to play to!
In fact, that's the answer I get most often, except from the more accomplished performers with whom I've played, recorded or encountered.
How would someone with more insight answer my original question?
Real-life example #1
At one time, I'd been co-leader of a group that had an upcoming performance, with very limited rehearsal time. I was responsible for the music's quality, instrumentation and, on some of the pieces, the song's arrangement (its length, style, verse and chorus order, chord/key changes, and the creation of the medley of songs).
When musicians play the mallet instruments, timpani, hand percussion, drum set and most other toys in the percussion family, they are considered percussionists. As such, I have a background that also includes music theory. So, I'm able to have conversations with any other instrumentalist regarding notation, chordal structure, interpretation, feel, and other topics outside the realm of someone without this experience. Folks that only pursue drum set typically will not have this background.
In this particular group, I happened to be its drum set player. I've heard that it's rare for a drummer to be able to lead a group from behind the set, while on the band stand performing, or at rehearsals. I was told that was the exact reason why I was put in the co-leader position of this group.
Percussionists don't just drum; we can also be band leaders and music directors.
Don't believe me? Check out the Buddy Rich Big Band. While Buddy was still with us, he pushed his band unrelentingly -- live or during rehearsal.
Real-life example #2
I was having a conversation recently that involved blues music. I mentioned that I enjoy playing it, but I'd been playing it too much as of late.
This same individual had heard snippets of music from an original recording project I'm currently involved with. He mentioned that the parts he listened to, to him, sounded like a cross between Allan Holdsworth and Rush.
High praise, because both of those artists have incredible musicianship and amazing drummers.
I didn't quite know what to say. The comparison caught me a bit off guard (in a good way)!
Further into the convo, he mentioned that blues drumming is typically much simpler than the progressive rock genre I was currently laying down tracks for, and he thought that I'd get bored playing in a blues band with "all of the talent that I have."
Our chat happened to be interrupted at that very spot.
Had our exchange continued, I would have replied that I don't think I would be bored. I'd simply been playing too much blues lately.
Playing the blues requires fine musicianship, and an ability to improvise. A drummer must play complementary rhythms with any soloist. Blues notoriously can and will take off in many unrehearsed directions during live performances, and sometimes while recording!
Because many blues compositions contain solos, a drummer must possess a strong sense of time, and must support the soloist tastefully. Certainly, plenty of "canvass" upon which a drummer can create interesting ideas.
Again, except for the most versed musicians I've been associated with, an underlying current states that a drummer's job is simple: Play a beat. Drummers are "time keepers."
How does that old joke go? "Drummers aren't musicians; we're just folks who play with musicians."
Funny how often that joke is actually reality for many circumstances I've witnessed as a bystander, and have been a part of myself.
Percussionists don't just drum; we're as sensitive to music as any other instrumentalist -- just in ways our musician "brethren" are usually unaware of.
Yes, we drummers have the power to make those soloists sound ... goooooood!
Real-life example #3
I joined an existing band a few months back. This ensemble is not a "super-group." Most outfits aren't. However, it is comprised of good musicians who desire to improve along the way. This is how most bands operate.
Unless you're a super-group named Asia, that is.
At the time of my joining Rock Berlin, they'd just started to pursue original music. Several songs were either started, partially finished, finished (kind of), and maybe a guitar riff or two.
While both my music theory and arranging skills came in handy once again, I also threw on my "composer's hat" and wrote drum parts for the songs, and offered some melody and chord suggestions. I'm currently in the midi-recording phase of this new music.
Recently, our guitarist moved out of state to pursue a job in the medical field. During our going-away dinner, he revealed some interesting thoughts he'd kept about each of us. He is a neuro-psychologist and an incredibly astute dude, so I was a tad worried about what he might say when he got to me!
He said, "With your discipline and pedigree as a musician, the band is much more focused than in the past. That's what you brought to the band, Jim."
This was nice to hear, because I had no way of knowing how these guys operated before my arrival. The others offered they also enjoy the band's direction and practice environment much better now.
I know this, because I specifically asked if this was the case. I had unknowingly changed this group's approach. According to them, this was a huge positive. I'm glad it worked out this way.
Percussionists don't just drum; we can be composers. We approach our craft in as focused a manner as any other instrumentalist would. We simply have different responsibilities to the music.
In many ways, we are the ultimate team players!
What are YOUR thoughts of what drummers/percussionists do? I look forward to reading the comments you post below!
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