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Find The Drummer Inside Of You
I'm writing this article (hopefully the first of many) having just come off of a two month tour of Europe with the Pat Metheny Group. What I encountered during that time, as far as playing situations are concerned, is a wide variety of concert settings (hockey arenas to clubs, open air stages to TV studios). Some with great acoustics, and some with such bad slap back and/or sympathetic vibrations, that you didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The one thing that remained consistent though is that "the show must go on" and that the music be performed at the level that the audience has come to expect. In other words, no excuses because of poor playing conditions, which in turn leaves it up to the musicians to play great, no matter what! That leads us to the title of this article. Let's talk about a few ways one can prepare oneself to deal with these types of situations.
1. Internalize your time.
I'm a big advocate of practicing with a metronome to develop even and consistent time. I also believe that when practicing with the metronome, the drummer should not just listen and rely on it, but he should set, and play with his own inner pulse, which hopefully will coincide with the metronome pulse. If your inner clock becomes strong, then you become self-reliant. Which really comes in handy in certain playing situations, such as when there is a big delay time from the hall, or when the PA is louder than the stage sound which makes the time seem sluggish sounding or even non-existant. If you can keep playing with your inner clock and keep the music moving the way you know it would under normal circumstances, you'll not only save the gig, but you'll also be able to take pride in the fact that you're the type of drummer that does what people hire drummers for in the first place; to keep the music and the band together!
2. Internalize your sound.
Naturally, different acoustics can play havoc with your sound, and if you're one of those drummers who needs to hear drums the way he likes to hear them in order to perform well, good luck! It's important for you to develop the ability to get your message across, no matter what the drums might sound like to you on any given night. This is accomplished when your ideas are clear, and when you're not relying on external crutches to sound good. Just play your music, and hopefully it will sound great through the PA.
3. Practice at all dynamic levels, and get used to using extreme dynamics.
Some halls project exactly what you play, while others sound mono-dynamic. In this case the burden is placed on you. By being comfortable at changing your normal overall playing level, you'll be able to compensate for each situation, yet remain in command of your instrument. And if the music you play has as many dynamics and little details as the Pat Metheny Group has, sometimes you have to over-exaggerate those dynamics in order to make it sound like there's any dynamics at all. So it's a good idea to practice this at home so that you can change certain things without affecting other things such as the time.
Basically what I've tried to point out is that as performers, circumstances can change daily, but as drummers, our responsibility remains the same. The whole band is relying on you, and you should do all you can to prepare yourself and to get in touch with the drummer inside you. So no matter what the situation, your message will come through. After all, the drums are just a vehicle for your ideas and emotions. You are the music.
P.S. As far as slanted stages are concerned, try setting up on the side of a hill, no, better yet, just wait for the experience.
Images and Information from Drum Tracks Vol. 5 #4, page 9