I had the pleasure of playing a jazz trio gig last night – piano, upright bass and me (drums). There’s a fun thing that can happen when playing music, and that’s when the players show up and just have some fun! We tried a few new tunes (for us) and also played many with which we were very comfortable. Either way, the trio seemed to be able to relax and enjoy it all. The newer tunes weren’t perfect, and that was OK. I wasn’t perfect, but I still was able to swing and enjoy the gig. I had had a stressful day and was hoping that I could leave that stress behind me for a while. It helped that I was around friends and playing fun music, but I think that my goal will be to try to achieve this at every gig! What do I have to lose?
OK – So, learning tunes is a great idea and all. However, there are plenty of times when I simply do not have the extra time to go through charts for an upcoming gig. There are also times when I don’t see the music until right before the performance. I want to stress how important it is to be able to read music – meaning sight reading. I am able to look at a piece of music and read it down the first time through. This is a skill that is essential if the goal is to freelance and play with high level players. I like learning tunes the old school way – listening to recordings and making cheat sheets (or road maps). But, being able to read and read well cannot be stressed enough. I will give my thoughts later on how to achieve this, but please know that it’s so important and has helped me many times!
I’m working on learning some tunes today. Over the next few days, I have three very different gigs. I get to play some jazz, some blues & rock, and then play with a 10-piece big band playing just about everything!
There are charts for the jazz gig, including one that’s in 7/8 switching to 9/8 for a few bars and then to 3/4. This chart is well written, so I’m confident that it will be just fine. I am practicing it anyway!
I’m subbing in a blues/rock group, and they don’t have charts, but they dropped off a CD with their tunes. In this situation, I find it really useful to make my own charts. Sometimes, it’s just a “road map” indicating the basic groove and the number of bars in each section. Other times, I find it useful to write out more detailed charts. My goal is to go to the gig and sound good – hopefully as good as the drummer that I’m subbing for and/or the drummer on the recording. I want the leader to be as comfortable as possible, especially given the fact that there’s no rehearsal.
The 10-piece big band has some hard stuff. I’ve played most of it before, and I was able to bring the drum book home after a rehearsal the other day. I’ll make sure to go through the tunes on my own. Again, if I’m as comfortable as I can be, then the band should be able to play well. The drummer in this band is “driving the bus” as they say. It’s actually true of most bands. The drummer drives the band. Even if I have never played with a certain group, I want to sound like I have. I want all the musicians on stage to be able to rely on me AND have lots of fun!
After hearing a group with a drummer who is on fire, there have been times when I have felt like selling my gear! In the past, I tended to focus on the things that that drummer could do that I couldn’t do. I would come away from that performance feeling less than adequate as a drummer, let alone as a musician. I usually did this without taking the time to consider my own skills.
I have learned to be accepting of my perceived shortcomings and to realize that we all have something to offer – all of us. I have also come to realize that it has never been healthy to compare myself in this way. It’s not a competition to me.
Don’t get me wrong – there is something to be learned from other musicians. I come away from these performances now with a sense of inspiration – hey, if he/she can do it, then why not me too? With access to books, CDs, DVDs, videos on the internet (free), etc., there’s no reason I can’t find out more about certain styles and techniques. There is so much information out there and, to me, that’s a good thing. I can learn from it all, and, in the process, I can add to my bag of tricks. A good mentor/teacher can be extremely beneficial, as well. I believe that we all have something to learn – still!
I have to thank all of those musicians who have inspired me to grow – thank you all.
My previous post talked about music jams, but I feel I left out something pretty important – knowing styles.
Whatever jam you end up at, it’s really helpful if you are somewhat familiar and comfortable with that style. Blues jams require a drummer to know how to play a shuffle, 12/8, and a rhumba (at the least). FYI – a blues rhumba is not quite the same as a Latin rhumba. Even better than simply knowing a few beats, it’s great if you know some songs that may be played. There are some “standard” songs that seem to get played at jams. Try and learn those songs – the form, the groove, the lyrics, etc.
Jazz jams – It’s best to do your homework here. In my experience, the most important thing to know are the tunes. However, if a tune gets called that you don’t know – ask a few questions:
What is the form? AABA (32 bar form), blues (12 bar form), 3/4?
What is the style? Are the A sections done in a Latin feel and then the B section swings, e.g.?
Are there any hits/stops? Is someone willing to cue you?
Use your ears and your eyes. Please communicate by keeping your head up and looking at the players that you’re up on stage with. Cues will be given in most cases, but if you’re not attentive, then it doesn’t do much good.
When you hear a tune you don’t know, write down the name of it and try to locate a version of it later. It may be helpful to ask the person who called the tune. There are many versions of the same song, but there may be one in particular that most people refer to when talking about it and learning it.
For those who don’t know, a jam session is a fairly informal night of music. The jam is usually organized around a specific style of music – jazz, blues, country, etc. There’s a host band which will open up the night by playing some tunes. They bring their own equipment that the “jammers’ are allowed play on. If you play a wind instrument, bring your own – sax, trumpet, harmonica (harp), etc.
Most jam sessions have some sort of sign up list – write down your name, instrument and whether you sing or not. If there’s no list, make a point of going up to one of players and introduce yourself. You may have to ask a fellow jammer who you should talk to. Even if there is a list, it’s a great idea to talk to the person organizing everything. I also find it helpful to simply say hi to the host drummer and make sure that he/she knows I’m there.
The social aspect of the jam can be fun, but for some people it can be stressful regardless of your skill level on your instrument. You may be comfortable practicing on your own and/or with your buddies in your basement, but may feel overwhelmed when you’re around lots of other musicians whom you don’t know. It’s been my experience that when I’m feeling this way, it’s best just to remember that everyone is there to have fun and make music. You don’t have to play the first time you show up. You could simply hang out and get a feel for how it goes. Different places have different feels. When I lived in New York City, the jams were pretty serious.
After you get called to play (“sitting in”), try to be ready as quickly as possible. Introduce yourself to the players that you’ll be playing with and see if everyone can agree on some tunes that you can play together. Sometimes, one person may really want to play a certain tune, but if others don’t know it, then there could be problems. If you’re the drummer sitting in on someone else’s drum set, please be respectful. I try not to change anything and just accept the fact that it’s not my kit and just deal with that – that’s part of sitting in. Have your own sticks, brushes, etc. and try not to play as if you don’t care about this person’s equipment. On the contrary, play as if this gear deserves your respect – it does. If you do adjust the angles of anything (cymbal stands, e.g.), please loosen things before making any adjustments, so that you’re not stressing out someone else’s hardware.
All-in-all, I like going to jam sessions and have met some great musicians and great people. You never know who you’ll be playing with up there – sometimes it’s nice and musical and other times, not as much. That happens. My goal is to try and have fun and be supportive to the music being played. There have been many times when I have not gotten a drum solo. For me, that’s fine. I’m up there to make music. If a solo is not called for, then that’s fine with me.
If you have an off night, then you could reassess your skills (the next day) and try again. I find that it’s always been beneficial to me when I play with musicians who are better players than I – I get a chance to grow, and I like that!