There’s a famous, but anonymous, quote I remember my high school baseball coach liked to tell players: Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong. And this doesn’t start/end during rehearsal. It always begins with you alone, “in the woodshed, working on your chops,” until the instrument and the song are as natural as breathing. It’s the foundation for a player truly being free to worship, as opposed to staring at a lead sheet, overthinking the next drum fill, which often leads to missing Point #2…
- TRANSITIONS ARE DOORS THAT LEAD TO LIFE OR DEATH
Transitions are both within songs (i.e. intros, outros, chorus/verse turns, entrance/exit of the bridge, etc.) and between songs (i.e. going from a fast song to a slow song or vice versa). These are doorways that can make or break – even train wreck a worship set. Unless you’re playing to tracks, there’s a good chance tempos (Point #3), song arrangements, and transitions may fluctuate a bit from leader to leader and from team to team. This is what band rehearsals are for. When everyone in the band knows it’s “all in” at the top of a song, or “down 1st time” at the top of the bridge, and collectively they do these with authority, it genuinely brings a confidence to the song/set that can be felt from the congregation. Blowing those intros/transitions can bring a pain so great, you’ll want to climb into the kick drum and hide.
- THE METRONOME IS YOUR BEST FRIEND
Play to it when you practice. Play to it when you rehearse. Turn it on when you’re listening to music (using the “Tap Tempo” feature), especially when it’s the songs you’re preparing to play on Sunday. If you have an iPhone/iPad, the best app I’ve found is called Tempo. One of it’s best features for church drummers is that it allows you to share saved tempo markings/set lists via email, which is great if your church has more than one drummer. You’ll be surprised how much rehearsal time it saves if each drummer arrives already having tempos mapped out for the set. I highly recommend you also notify whoever keeps tabs on songs from week to week so they can mark that on all charts, just like the key of a song.
- FOCUS ON THE LEADER
Keep a very sharp eye on the worship leader during rehearsal and also during the set – during rehearsal as he walks the band through each song, and during the set in case he wants to repeat a section or, in many cases, when he feels the need to vamp or “soak” in a particular moment. It’s easy for a drummer to zone out at rehearsal while the leader is working the background vocalists, but don’t let it happen to you. Stay dialed in. At a moment, he may be ready to pick it back up from the 2nd chorus leading into the bridge. You need to stay on the ready to arm the metronome – or “click” – and count everyone back in. I once heard a well-known touring/recording worship drummer say, “The drummer drives the bus, but the worship leader owns the bus.” Make sure you lead the way with confidence, but remember the leader is in charge.
- ANTICIPATE, ANTICIPATE, ANTICIPATE
No doubt your leader has subtle and/or conspicuous cues – body language, subtle nods or even vocal pick ups – that give you a heads up where he’s headed. Learn them intimately… learn to anticipate those cues. Again, unless you’re playing to tracks, even following a chart/lead sheet hopefully leaves a little bit of room for the leader to truly lead the set as the Holy Spirit leads him. The better you are at focusing on what he’s doing before he does it, the better the time of worship will be. If you’re starting/stopping the click between songs so the leader can exhort the congregation, learn to anticipate when you can start it back up before the intro of the next song. Or if you’re coming to the end of a song, pay attention to how quickly he may want the click turned off so he can vamp softly, maybe with just acoustic guitar or pads at the end of a slow song. Our primary worship leader likes to stomp his right foot if he wants the band to stay in strong rather than drop out. This often depends on how engaged the audience is. But all that to say: stay focused and anticipate
- DYNAMICS SEPARATE MEN FROM BOYS
Sure, you can play the song in your sleep now and can read the worship leader’s mind, but playing with dynamics is what separates the men from the boys. Think of it as using a box of 8 crayons versus a box of 64 crayons. Blue doesn’t necessarily mean just blue. For example, your velocity building up from a down bridge to an “all in” bridge the 2nd time through could display a dozen “shades of blue” within the phrase. Worship songs have a natural arc to them, like a good film. Make use of that arc with solid dynamics. The best drummers in the world live in what’s called the “pocket.” What is the “pocket” you ask? Here’s a great blog post on “Pocket Philosophy”: Make your home there. Mastering this with great tempo will get you invited to play again and again.
- IT IS A SONG SO TREAT IT THAT WAY
Just because you may not need to know if the chorus starts on C Major versus A Minor, you do need to know the “story” of the song. Pay attention to the lyrics – both the actual words and their rhythm in phrase. Does your kick pattern complement it? What about your cymbal “coloring” while the leader is quietly strumming on guitar at the end of a song? You’re not just laying down a groove. You’re telling a story. Think of the journey of the song GREAT I AM (YouTube: https://youtu.be/J5CWGi82N7k). Is what you’re playing reflecting the imagery of “The mountains shake before you; the demons run and flee” in the bridge? And reflecting back on Point #6, are your dynamics also helping to reflect that imagery through the end of the bridge?
- BE A STUDENT OF THE GAME
Study other drummers. Watch YouTube videos. Go back and listen to your board mixes if they’re recorded. Share what works or what doesn’t work with the other drummers at church. Read blogs like the one on “Pocket Philosophy.” Then play until you find your own natural pocket. Whatever it takes… be a student of the game – one who refuses to plateau but keeps pressing on to get better and better and better. Our church streams each Sunday service in full, including the worship set. I go back and watch the set, usually on Monday mornings, and critique myself from beginning to end. It’s kind of like an NFL quarterback watching game film. I know I will have played many of those songs multiple times before – at the same tempo and on the same road map – but there are always subtle things I’ll find, where I can improve on my game the next time I play those same songs.
- KEEP YOUR KIT TUNED, WELL-MAINTAINED, AND UPGRADED
You’d think this is a no-brainer. But sadly it isn’t. Change your heads every 4-6 months, be careful not to “gorilla tighten” stands/tom arms (which make it difficult for the next drummer to make adjustments without destroying the gear), leave the area cleaner than you found it, and, if you lay off the $4 cup of pre-gig coffee long enough, you may find you’ve saved up more than you need for that cymbal or snare you’ve been drooling over. By the way, put down that roll of duct tape. It never, ever belongs on a drum kit. But that’s another conversation for another day… In the meantime, try Moongel if you must.
- YOUR MIX IS JUST THAT – YOUR MIX
Assuming you’ve been assigned your own monitor mix (using headphones, in-ears or an old school monitor), make sure your mix is just right for you. Building from Point #4 and being able to focus on the leader, make sure you have what you need in your mix and remove or at least drop the rest. Just because there are background vocalists on stage doesn’t mean you need them all in your mix (unless one of them steps out to lead a song of course). Just because there’s a second acoustic guitar on stage while the leader is also playing one doesn’t mean you need both of them in your mix. And, you may also need a little more click than the rest of the band. Take time to get that stuff right during rehearsal. Fixing your mix during the set is distracting, even if you have the ability to make your own tweaks on the fly. My personal preference is plenty of click, plenty of lead vocal, plenty of kick, and then fill in the rest accordingly.
Have fun, engage in worship, burn some calories and, for goodness sake, live in the pocket!
Mike is the Creative Director for Integrity Music overseeing the company’s Publishing/Song Development Division. Murray is a 22-year veteran of the Christian music business. He has worked with the artist and songwriting community in various capacities, including road management for 4Him and Geoff Moore & the Distance, production assistance for Dogwood Recording Studios, music publishing and distribution with EMI CMG Distribution and Music Publishing. Murray is a graduate of the University Of Mobile. He is also an accomplished musician and worship leader, playing often at his home church and with local Nashville musicians. You can follow him on Twitter at @MurraySongs.