By Dendy Jarrett | June 19, 2014
When you're a somewhat active drummer in Nashville, it inevitably happens — "Can you play a writer's showcase this Thursday? And by the way … there's no rehearsal."
Many times, it's all original music and you may get a rough-cut mp3. Typically, these are 20-45 minute sets with eight or so songs.
You don't have to be from Nashville for this to happen. It can be a local pub band or the like. So, what can you do to help avoid a drumming train wreck?
First, be prepared. Check out my Gig Essentials For Drummers- Don't Forget article which covers the things that you don't leave home without! It's stressful enough to walk into a gig without the benefit of rehearsal. The last thing you need is to realize you don't have a hi-hat clutch or sticks!
I have several ways to prep for a gig like this, starting with listening (and listening and listening) to the music. I create a playlist of the songs in my smartphone, within the title, I'll include the tempo (e.g. Song: Unpredictable_GeneCook_72). Sometimes if the songs are somewhat more complicated or if two or more are similar, I'll even sleep with my inner ear monitors as the list cycles in my sleep. (Hey, it works for me!)
I'll also request a Nashville Numbers chart of the music. This is a music shortcut roadmap where the chords are mapped out with indicators for breaks and dynamics. If one isn't available, I'll create my own version (I can read Nashville Numbers, but I can't write out a complete NN chord chart, so I will create my own variation). On either chart, I may notate specific fills or make notes about how the song starts.
During this time, I'll communicate with the artist/songwriter to ensure there aren't specific deviations from the recorded version for our live set. Because of studio arrangements, the song may have a different beginning or end in a live setting -- I need to know this in advance. I also check that the live tempo is going to be the same as that of the recording. Finally, I'll check to see if I (as the drummer) am establishing the tempo or if the artist/songwriter is kicking off the songs. While in most settings the drummer will establish tempo, in Nashville many songwriters are pretty adamant about counting off the song.
Depending on how much time I have and how close the live version will be to the recorded version, I may simply stop at the playlist I've built and reference it during the gig by mounting my iPhone and using my ear buds for a quick reference. Even though sometimes I panic thinking that things aren't moving quickly enough during a live set, I find that songwriters want to tell a story, sp there's typically plenty of time to check a songs first few bars and establish a tempo. If not, there's a very useful app on my iPhone called Tempo Advance (by FrozenApe; I'll cover this app in depth in the future). This app has the most diverse number of tempo configurations so you can establish not only tempo but also the groove. It also has a gig set list builder and a "gig mode" setting, which allows only this app to run while during a gig — no phone calls or texts will disturb the performance! This app allows fast referencing when time is tight between songs.
One of the key lessons I've learned (especially as a player in Nashville) is the importance of being flexible as exemplified in the situation described in my article Drummers Be Flexible. I was called to do a showcase where the stage space was minimal and was asked to do the showcase with no bass drum or hi-hat. I improvised a self-made cocktail kit using my floor tom and an x-hat. Pretty crazy!
But you must be flexible. Remember, the groove is important, NOT the gear on which you are playing.
Another key factor is being musical. In The Musical Drummer, I walk through the fundamentals and application of being a musical drummer. It is important that you are playing for the music. While it's important in any gig environment to play for the music, this is accentuated in a singer/songwriter showcase, where the song can make the difference between being signed or not being signed.
And, finally, don't let them see you sweat. Sure, you're "winging" it — but don't show that. Play with confidence. If you use eye contact, listen and always look like you know what you're doing, the gig will go much better. If you make a mistake, make it with authority and own it. You can make a mistake seem like it was part of the song if you're musical about it. Remember, the audience doesn't know the material … this is their first listen.
It doesn't matter if you're a semi-pro drummer (weekend warrior) or a professional drummer; at some point in your career you'll be called upon to do a gig with no rehearsal. Sure, you can decline the gig; but in our neck of the woods, if you decline a couple of gigs the phone stops ringing.
Just as if you were taking a journey, make sure you have all your gear, be prepared with a road map (of the material), communicate, listen, be flexible, be musical, and finally, play it like you own it!
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Dendy Jarrett is the Publisher and Director of Harmony Central. He has been heavily involved at the executive level in many aspects of the drum and percussion industry for over 25 years and has been a professional player since he was 16. His articles and product reviews have been featured in InTune Monthly, Gig Magazine, DRUM! and Modern Drummer Magazines.
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