MAKING A PROFESSIONAL DRUMMER - TEN TIPS TO GET YOU STARTED
There comes a time when every drummer has to make a decision; just how seriously do I want to take this thing? You’ve put in some hard yards with your practice, perhaps you're playing in a band or two and would like to begin to establish yourself as a professional. I think it’s important to expand on the terms amateur and professional at this juncture - let’s define ‘professional' as being paid regularly for playing the drums. Bear in mind, there will always be exceptions to the rule!
It’s worth pointing out, you may be lucky enough to be playing professionally for an original music act or artist, either as a founding member or a session player - please note that while I would definitely consider the former a professional, for the purposes of this article I’m more closely talking about the latter (a session player) as it’s a little more common.
First, let’s look at a loose general breakdown of an Amateur vs a Professional drummer (again, this is at the risk of overgeneralising - I'm sure we all know someone who fits outside of both of these boxes but they're considered professional!)
THE AMATEUR DRUMMER:
Plays occasionally, usually unpaid gigs
Has a non music-related job
Does not have any gear endorsements
Does not teach drums
Owns limited gear suitable for minimal musical situations.
Does minimal practice e.g. once a week
Is not a fluent reader (of music notation)
THE PROFESSIONAL DRUMMER:
Gigs or records regularly (ie at least twice a month)
Owns a wide range of gear to suit myriad musical situations/styles
Practices regularly (at least three times a week)
Teaches with a competitive rate
May have a gear endorsement (this is very much down to the nature of the work)
Has a flat fee for studio work/tour days
Reads music well
Has a regularly updated professional online profile
If you see yourself as fitting into the Amateur category - congratulations. Being able to express yourself through drumming and music is a wonderful thing, and you're proactively enriching your life outside of work, so well done!! However, if you've decided you'd like to try and push for the next level in your playing and career, hopefully the below points can give you an idea of where to start.
So here we are; ten tips for helping you become a professional drumset player. It’s by no means exhaustive, but they're things I consider pretty fundamental in a great professional player.
NUMBER 1 - BE GOOD
Self explanatory really, if you’re unsure then find a highly regarded musician or teacher and ask them for honest feedback - remember that you should also try to get insights from a non-drummer who is prolific in the industry, they can sometimes have constructive feedback you mightn’t find elsewhere.
NUMBER 2 - BE COOL
Be approachable, take feedback with grace and try to keep a good sense of humour and a professional attitude. An easy-going personality and positive disposition is a massive part of the job. If you read about the session greats like Steve Gadd, Gregg Bissonette, Kenny Aronoff, Josh Freese and Vinnie Colaiuta, the consistent theme is that they’re generally awesome people to work with and a pleasure to have in the studio. While on tour, don’t be that guy who goes off looking for trouble at the end of the night after the show! It’s hard enough to manage a whole band and stagecrew, and you want the manager to think of you as someone who makes their job easier rather than harder.
NUMBER 3 - BE RELIABLE
In my opinion, after being a capable player this is the single biggest quality you should aim for. Always be on time or earlier (to account for setup), and always learn your parts well. While on tour, make sure you are easy to get hold of and always pick up the phone or reply to calls. Also—very importantly—if you cant meet a deadline, make sure you give people ample warning rather than assuming it's ok for other people to find out after the fact.
NUMBER 4 - MAKE YOUR PROFESSIONAL EXPECTATIONS CLEAR FROM THE START
When approached about a recording, touring or resident position, make sure that you ask for a contract and read it thoroughly. If you take issue with anything stipulated there, the time to take it up is before the gig - not after. If you’re prompt with your communication, technical requirements and invoicing, the artist or their manager/promoter will assume that you’re a responsible professional and will hopefully treat you with the same level of professionalism by paying your fee by the agreed date and keeping you well in the loop with any concerns you may have. Obviously, you’ll be expected to keep your end of the bargain!
NUMBER 5 - LEARN TO TAKE DIRECTION FROM PEOPLE AROUND YOU
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I’ve learned more about musicianship on the drums from non-drummers than any drum teacher I ever had. This is because they generally think of drums in the context of the song—not the part. It's something all drummers learn with experience, but the ability to quickly and efficiently interpret what the artist or producer want you to play is something that gets drummers hired time after time. It’s great working with an experienced artist, however if you’re working with a less-experienced person it’s a good idea to start by asking about songs they don’t like, that will give you a good idea about what not to play at least!
NUMBER 6 - MAINTAIN YOUR GEAR
Whether it’s on a record or being blasted through a big PA at a live gig the same thing applies - first impressions last, and if your drumskins are tired and dirty and your cymbals are cracked it’s going to look and sound bad. Yes, re-skinning your kit is a large expense, but this should be taken into consideration with your fee. Remember, aim to consistently deliver quality and your fee won’t come into question.
NUMBER 7 - BUILD UP A TOOLKIT/GIG CASE
Every situation has different gear requirements, but you should buy a sturdy road briefcase you can keep on hand and access quickly when you need it. Here are some ideas for things to keep in it:
- Drum tools (dkey, cymbals felts/nuts etc)
- In-ear monitors (molded to your own ears are best)
- Pad and pen, for writing out cheat sheets and notes during rehearsal
- A permanent marker
- Moon gel, or other dampening product
- A phone charger
- A memory stick
- Tape (duct, electric)
The contents will build up over time, but that’s a good start!
NUMBER 8 - USE GOOD ADMIN ETIQUETTE
Be courteous and considerate with your emailing and phone calls - avoid using colloquial language in emails to people you don’t know so well and text to ask if it’s a good time to call. Is you’re the one trying to book venues or sort a backline. try to find out the name of the person you’re after rather than writing ‘to whom it may concern’ etc. This will give a better impression.
NUMER 9 - NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK
This usually means getting out and going to gigs yourself. It’s a great way to meet people who share musical interests with you, and could lead to more people coming to see you play. There’s a many a story of a drummer being plucked from a life of obscurity to performing on a global stage! It’s great to support your local scene, and getting a good idea of who sounds good and which bands are similar to yours will give you some options if you’d like to headline some shows with your band and need some support acts.
NUMBER 10 - LASTLY, TRY TO GET SOME STUDENTS
Not only does this increase your earning potential, but it means that you’ll be exercising valuable skills like reading and writing notation, teaching rudiments and analysing what you play. It’s a good idea to teach beginners as well as intermediate players if you can - both can be rewarding in different ways. You’ll find out pretty quickly that teaching youngsters isn’t as easy as you first thought! If you think about it, teaching goes hand-in-hand with music performance, and you’ll find that most good players have taught at different stages.
How do YOU feel about these tips and way I've defined 'amateur and professional' in the article? Comment below with your thoughts!
Tom Pierard has been playing and teaching drumset professionally for 15 years, and specialises in a range of modern styles