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Drummers and Tempo Issues

Drummers and tempo issues…welcome to my soapbox…

The FIRST thing that you have to get him to do is to “buy into” the fact that you’re doing this for HIS good as a drummer and a developing ENSEMBLE musician.  In a pop instrumental ensemble – be it church orchestra, pit orchestra (those two ensembles function VERY similarly…sometimes but not always under the baton of a conductor) or rock ‘n’ roll band – the drummer IS the timepiece who holds it all together.  Especially if there’s not always a directed time pattern in front of him.  Here’s why:

The drummer needs to understand that the ensemble follows him as he follows the conductor.  The rest of the musicians may be looking at the conductor, but they are following what they hear coming from the drummer, in much the same way as a choir with only a pianist accompanying them will follow the tempo and style of the pianist (especially one who struggles with tempo) – even if they are watching a conductor.  So that makes the drummer the “assistant” conductor, and as such, the drummer needs to know (in advance) all of the tempi, the locations in the music and the degree of any ritard, a tempo, new tempo, fermato or any other such markings.  The drummer needs to be the FIRST (not the last) to know and express these markings musically as they occur.

Technically, the two most important things that your drummer (any drummer in church for that matter) needs to address:

  • When accompanying a singer or choir, there is a natural tendency for instrumentalists (particularly pianists, and they are usually the lead sound of a church instrumental group) to rush the accompaniment when the singers are holding a long note, or even between phrases while the singers are resting and getting ready for the next phrase.  The next time you attend a college vocal soloist or choral ensemble recital, listen and see if that is not the case.  It is sort of built into accompanists from the very beginning.  In a an ensemble setting, be it choral-instrumental or only instrumental, the drummer MUST avoid those tendencies.
  • Interestingly in rock or pop music, beat 4 (in a 4/4 time setting, obviously) is the place where most of the above offenses occur.  For some reason, there is a natural tendency to anticipate (or just plain RUSH) the downbeat of the next measure.  Again, listen to yourself or someone else play along to a click and check this out.  It happens!  The most important beat of the measure is beat 4…not beat 1.  If you get your drummer to playing beat 4 of every measure on time and not rushing into the downbeat of the next measure, you’re on your way to developing a great drummer-leader in your ensemble.

MAKE your drummer practice and perform to a click…time patterns AS WELL AS FILLS (really good drummers can play anything to a click).  And it would be good if others (either you as conductor, or your MoM/Choir Director, or someone else) hear the click too (it will make the drummer accountable).  Be prepared for the need to CONTINUALLY encourage him…and especially praise him when he gets a song right!  He may not know for sure each time until you tell him.

Years ago, I taught drum students in private lessons.  Of all the students that I remember teaching, only two have gone on to professional/semi-professional drumming careers as adults.  Both of them took the principles that I taught them as ‘The Law” from the very beginning and applied them to everything they played.  Today each one of them is a FINE, solid, and dependable Tempo Machine.  Not because I was their teacher, but because each one actually DID what he was told to do, and eventually experienced the success that I promised him from the very beginning.


Playing together…not just at the same time

I taught private drum lessons for many years.  Like any instrument, unless you plan to play by yourself and (in the case of keyboard and guitar) you intend to only play by yourself forever, it is important that you also learn to play in an ensemble setting.  Not only playing at the same time, but together.  In the beginning, so many garage bands start out sounding like an orchestrated train wreck…mostly because each of the players is concentrating more on playing all the hot licks he/she knows rather than listening and learning to be a part of a single (unified) ensemble sound.  With everyone playing all of the time, there is no clarity and the overall sound is always too loud and too busy.

As this relates to drummers, it means that your first 3 instruments are the kick drum, the snare drum, and the hi hat.  Tom-toms and cymbals are unimportant, because your first job as a drummer is to hold the band together.  Simple, basic time patterns on the drums are what hold a band together.  More toms and more cymbals don’t make you a better drummer.  Practice with a metronome (and stick with it!).  Metronomes don’t lie.  They keep a steady beat, never going faster or slower.  Practicing with a metronome will force you to learn and understand what it means to keep a steady tempo, and you’ll hear when you rush or drag because the metronome doesn’t lie!

The two most important fundamental factors that will make you a good drummer are: 1) the ability to keep a steady tempo,  and 2) the ability to draw consistently good, uniform tones from each of the instrument…that is, knowing how and where to strike each instrument in order to get the best response from that instrument every time you hit it.  Please understand that there’s a LOT more to playing drums than it looks like from a distance.  And having more drums/cymbals/other doo-dads doesn’t make you a better drummer.  That just proves you spend more money on toys.

If you want to test yourself, try removing all of the toms and all of the cymbals (or maybe all but just one 🙂 for your next practice session.  That will force you to listen to yourself and to work on getting consistent tone from the kick, snare, and hi hat (also the one optional crash cymbal).  Practice with a metronome.  Play for long periods of time ( 5-7  minutes ) at a time, to test your patience.  I promise it can only HELP your drumming.

Last thing: Remember that in the ensemble/band setting, you are the conductor and rhythmic foundation.  If you don’t have your act together, the band will always struggle rhythmically, and will probably not last long as a unit.  If you do your job, then the rest of the guys probably won’t be asking you to move on.  Also remember:  less is more – there is always room for more.


New Ideas from Friends for Ministry

Every time I talk to someone who does what I do (worship ministry in a local church), I try to remember to ask: “What are two of your favorite new songs that you’ve heard recently?” Any song from another source (although admittedly I’m not a real fan of rap music or anything else that doesn’t have a melody) can be worth at least listening to for musical content and style. Listening to all styles and genres of music deepens and broadens our musical horizons.  Otherwise, we fall in to the habit of only listening to a small range of music…only songs that work for us in our church and with our group.

The other question I ask is: “What are two ideas/suggestions that you’ve tried recently that have worked successfully for you in your ministry?” Anything.  Ideas for media, ministry, new groups, new places to sing, new ideas for programs, t-shirts, recruitment, the list has no end.  ANY new idea that you hear about and then employ in your ministry could be the greatest success you have this year.

The whole point of this is (as my Mom used to say) “keep your antennae up!” In many ways, our ministries survive by moving from success to success. Problems and failures inevitably come. Use the down times as opportunities to learn from your mistakes.  And the successful things we experience to help build and develop the ministry of praise in our worship of Almighty God.


Make a List!

Time management – how do we get it all done?  THAT is the Question of the Ages!

I remember an old episode of the television series “M*A*S*H” in which Major Charles Emerson Winchester (the THIRD) tells someone “I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on.”  That may work if you’re a hermit or if you’re the only one in your world, but for the vast majority of the rest of us, we are like the Egyptian mummy, we’re PRESSED FOR TIME (okay, I’m sorry…I couldn’t resist 🙂

I’ve long been a student of the art of time management…and I still don’t think that I have it figured out.  But I keep trying!  I have purchased (and thoroughly read) several books on the subject.  There is one recurring theme in everything that I’ve read: MAKE A LIST. Put everything (big project, little project, single task, multiple tasks that all relate to a theme, etc) and that means EVERY thing on that list.  Yes, priority and urgency are issues, but don’t waste time trying to organize everything in order of importance.  Write EVERYTHING down, as you think of it, and as you complete each task on your list, cross it off.

Each time you complete a task or project, cross it off your list and give yourself a little pat on the back.  You did it – you planned and accomplished that task.  Enjoy your moment of success.  When your list gets to the bottom of a page and you need to add one more item, start a new page.  Put that item first on your next page, then carry over everything on the previous page that you haven’t yet crossed off.

Use a dry-erase board (or a chalkboard if you’re still old-school 🙂 for your office wall, at work or at home.  Writing down a task or a goal forces you to see it each time you look at your list.  Seeing it constantly reinforces the need for you to get it done.  THEN there is the satisfaction of knowing that you have reached a goal and accomplished it.  That’s a huge boost to your self-confidence and your sense of self-achievement.

In our work, most of us are continually faced with multiple responsibilities with multiple deadlines. When you go into any meeting, knowing your own progress in your pursuit of your goals (and being able to report your progress if asked pays HUGE benefits in terms of your self-confidence and the appearance that you give to your superiors and co-workers.

Distraction is one of Satan’s most effective tools to distract us in our pursuit of God’s purpose for our life. He (Satan) uses defeatist thoughts (“I can’t do that,” or “It’s no use,” or “there’s just not enough time to do that”) to keep us from living in the victory of accomplishment…even of the very littlest things in life.

Remember:  We are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:37).  Ask God to help you order your life today.  Make a list and get started crossing things off!  Then you can tell Satan to go sit on a tack!  Have a blessed day today in Christ!


writing music parts that are easy to follow and easy to play

Players and singers can only be expected to adequately read, understand, and replicate (either in rehearsal or performance) the printed music that they are given if it is written well (musically), laid out proportionately (on the page), and has all of the information that they will need for performance.

Here are some pointers for page layout that will save you some headaches and help your your music look like you know what you’re doing as a composer/arranger:
1. In page layouts, spacing is everything. Remember, if they can’t read what you wrote, you can’t expect them to sing or play it like you want it played. Spread everything out, especially the measures that have a lot of notes or big words in them in them.

2. Try to lay out the parts with all musical sections (verse, chorus, bridge, interlude, etc.) starting at the beginning of a line…like a new paragraph.

3. Repeated sections should also open at the beginning of a line and close at the end of a line. if there are 1st and 2nd endings, they should appear at the end of the line (if they will both fit) OR the 1st ending at the end of the line and the 2nd ending beginning the next line.

4. A measure with a dal segno sign (looks like a dollar sign with a dot on each side) should appear at the beginning of a line and the D.S. al coda measure should be at the end of a line. A coda (and the coda sign – a big O with a plus sign in it) should start at the beginning of a line.

5. If possible, always show a tempo (beats per minute, or bpm), so that the player can estimate how fast the song will be played. Also include a word or two that indicates the style of the song: “driving rock,” “worshipfully,” “power ballad,” etc.

6. After you’ve written the parts, go back and look at each of them and ask yourself, “If I were the player, do I see on this part all of the information that I need?” and “Can I read it easily enough to effectively and comfortably execute the notes, rhythms, and expressions?”

Usually the mark of an experienced arranger/composer shows in his/her handiwork with their parts that the musicians have to play.


Contemporary Keyboard in Worship

Playing keys in a contemporary worship band is a paradox.  The more background (private lessons, experience playing a keyboard in a band with at least two more instruments, and playing a keyboard while you and/or someone else is singing) you have in playing acoustic piano or an electronic keyboard the better.  But once you get started playing with a group, you’ll discover that the simpler and more concise you play your part, the better you’ll sound in the group AND the easier it will be for the group to play with you.  Private lessons are a definite plus.  Lessons teach you where you put your fingers on the keyboard and how you go up and down the keys.  Otherwise you’re limited to the “hunt and peck” method, just like typing on a computer with just a couple of fingers on each hand.  If you haven’t had the blessing of private study, but you’ve already begun to experiment with playing on a keyboard, no worries, you can still benefit from some lessons with a qualified teacher.

One of the nicest things about learning any element of music on any instrument or voice is that all music is universal – if you learn the basics of music on a keyboard and then take up the guitar, everything you learned about music on the piano transfers to the guitar, or the clarinet, or voice, or percussion.  And in 4/4 time, a quarter note gets one count…no matter if you’re singing that quarter note, or playing it on the piano or the flute or the snare drum. I started with piano lessons.  Then when I began to take lessons on the snare drum, I discovered that the music fundamentals that I learned for the piano were the same basics that I needed to know for the snare drum…and the rhythmic studies that I learned on the snare drum helped me with my understanding of piano music.  THEN as began to learn how to play those “fun” chords on the guitar, I could go back to the piano, pluck one string on the guitar at a time and discover what the notes (pitches) were in…say, a C7#9#5 chord. It all works together!!

So…if you’ve had some piano lessons and you want to begin to play keys in a worship band…go for it!  Here are just a few of the beginning musical concepts that you’ll need to play contemporary keyboard:

1) When you’re playing a melody (in an introduction, interlude, or solo passage) on the keys, keep your accompaniment (left hand) SIMPLE (play fewer notes) and do NOT overplay the sustain pedal.  An electronic sustain pedal tends to run all of the notes together and, all too often, ruins the clarity of the instrument.  LISTEN with a critical ear to yourself playing with the group.  In a group, the keyboard is not the center of attention…only a part of the total sound.  If your “runny” sound begins to draw attention to itself (BECAUSE it is runny!), then you’re interfering with the total sound of the ensemble.  Go easy on the sustain pedal.  In faster tempos or more rhythmic songs, you might even experiment with playing without using the sustain pedal at all.  Scary, huh?  Then work on your keyboard chops.

2) When the keyboard part you’re playing is part of the rhythmic accompaniment (in other words, you’re playing chords), keep your rhythmic patterns SIMPLE…say, just play quarter notes in the right hand and bass notes (with a simple rhythmic pattern that either doubles or accents the electric bass part) in the left hand.  If there’s a bass player in your group, you hardly need to play your left hand at all…let the bass player cover the bass notes.

3) Learn to voice chords in all of their inversions.  What is an inversion?  The easiest way to remember inversions is this:  To begin with, most chords have 3, 4 or (sometimes) 5 notes.  A C chord is a 3-note chord, called a triad, and is made up of 1st, 3rd, and 5th tones in the scale.  In the key of C for example those notes would be C, E and G .  Those notes are also (not coincidentally) played with your 1st, 3rd, and 5th fingers. In the fundamental position, the thumb of your right hand plays C, E, and G, with the C on the bottom.  That same chord can also be played with the thumb on the E, the 2nd finger on the G, and 5th finger on the C…OR you can play it with the thumb on G, 3rd finger on C, and 5th finger on E.  The left hand plays a C bass note, regardless of the chord position played in the right hand.  There you have it.  That’s how to play a C chord on the keyboard.  Now all you have to do is to learn all of the other chords in the key of C…then move on to the key of G (one sharp) or F (one flat)!

4) Here’s a great thing to know:  you hardly ever need to use more than 3 fingers in each hand to play contemporary keys.  Most chords in the right hand can be voiced with no more than 3 fingers.  And the left hand almost always plays either one bass note, octaves, or (sometimes for power chords at the “big places” in songs) you can add the 5th in between the outer notes of the octave.

Not as hard as it sounds…remember a G chord is a G chord, no matter what key you’re playing in.  The difference lies in learning the SEQUENCES of chords (how each chord leads to the next chord) and voice leading (using the different positions of chords to smoothly flow from each chord to the next, rather than jumping from one chord in its fundamental position to the next chord in its fundamental position).

Wow…what a truckload of information in just those 3 points.  Confused?  When you actually see these points I’ve written above PLAYED on a keyboard, it makes much more sense. It’s really not as hard as it sounds. After you get used to creating chords on the keyboard, learning them in sequence, playing the bass notes in the left hand, then moving to songs in different keys, you can learn it! So many of the elements and concepts of music are just about numbers…the 7 notes in each scale, intevals (the distance – in steps or half-steps – from any lower note to the note immediately above it) and chords (three or more notes played at the same time) built on the interval from the bottom note to each note above it (ex: a triad in the fundamental position is made when you put your right thumb on the name note of the chord (thumb on a C for a C chord) and then your 3rd finger on the third note (an E) and your 5th finger on the fifth note (a G).  Then just shift your fingers and move upward to the next position of the chord (E,G,C) and so on….

Yes, it takes time and PRACTICE.  You need to get used to hearing the different voicings of the chords and feeling the way your fingers fall on the notes.  It’s worth the practice to be able to give your talent back to the Lord in a worthwhile musical setting.  And don’t overlook any opportunity to get alone with some who can teach you how to do it.  A teacher, sometimes yes, but not always:  when you hear someone play anything (a song, a musical style, a time signature-like 3/4 or 6/8 or any other non-conventional groove) ASK THEM ABOUT IT – say, “How did you play that?”  In most cases, people will tell you stuff like that.  You can learn ANYTHING, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME…AND, You’ll have so much more FUN playing music…AND you’ll become a competent contemporary keyboard player – I guarantee it!  Give your talent back to the Lord as your offering of praise.  He will bless you (and bless others through you)!

“Give to the Lord the glory He deserves.  Bring your offering and come into His courts.”  (Ps 96:8).

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