For Drummers Only – Guilty Until Proven Innocent

December 10, 2009 2:07 pm in Drumset by Mark Walker

I’ve had a fantastic run playing drums with Paquito D’Rivera since 1989.  We’ve played in all kinds of configurations: as a trio, quartet, quintet, large ensemble, big band and with orchestra.  I’ve learned to adapt to all these different situations as a musician.  No matter what style we play, I always try to listen to and blend with the entire ensemble.  When it’s time to step out, I step out.

This morning, I walked into a rehearsal with Paquito and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  I found a beautiful Yamaha maple kit waiting for me, and as I was putting up my trusted Paiste cymbals, I was horrified to see someone walking toward me with Plexiglas panels.

I immediately told the person we didn’t need them.  Someone from the orchestra administration came up and said: “These are for the musicians.”  I was speechless.  I wondered to myself, “If the baffles are for the musicians, then…what the #%@* does that make me, an animal?”

I asked her if the drums were too loud (I hadn’t played a note yet).  She didn’t answer the question, but told me the orchestra had had “sound issues” with drummers in the past. I finally convinced her – and several other people – to listen first and use the baffles only as a last resort.  But this was a textbook case of “guilty until proven innocent”.

I had reason on my side (I’m a professional drummer, dammit!), but the orchestra staff had had a hard time with loud drummers in the past.  Even though an assumption was made on their part, they did have a point.

Fellow drummers, we did this to ourselves. Every time I read an article on recording it’s always “Try this technique, unless the drummer is not cutting it/doesn’t know how to hit/etc.  In this case…” We’ve lost control of the time, the instrument and the sound.  Why is it assumed that playing with intensity means playing loud?  And why can’t we make a big, fat sound without having to put all kinds of crap on our drums to deaden them?

Now all you rock guys, I know what you’re thinking: YA GOTTA HIT THE DRUMS!!!  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating wimpy playing!  Of course you have to play with intensity on any gig, but I’m talking about acoustic music here.  How loud do you really need to play to get the tone and attack you want?  How about tuning your drums, playing them in the right spot and having your monitor balanced so you can hear everything without resorting to earplugs?

My point is that we have to rebuild our reputation as musicians and professionals.

This means being able to blend with the group, no matter what the genre; It means being able to listen to the other musicians in the band (and not just waiting for a chance to play that ‘sick lick’ you learned); It means supporting them and making them feel comfortable; It means being able to play different styles and really enhance the VIBE of each song; It means being able to read a chart without sounding mechanical.  It means being able to tune your kit and get a killer sound at ANY dynamic level.

None of these things are easy to do.  But the question is: do you want to be an average drummer, or a professional musician?

Thankfully, the Plexiglas baffles never made it to the stage.  Even the string players next to me left the earplugs on their music stands.  Hopefully, I can convince more people to trust their ears, rather than give in to their prejudices.  Let’s be musicians and make music on the drums.

Grammy Award winning drummer/composer/educator Mark Walker has performed and recorded with Paquito D’Rivera since 1989 and the group Oregon (with Ralph Towner) since 1996.  He has also worked extensively with Michel Camilo, Lyle Mays, Cesar Camargo Mariano, WDR big band and many others.  He is currently a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  His new book is entitled “World Jazz Drumming” (Berklee Press /Hal Leonard).  You can contact him for lessons at mwalker@berklee.edu.