So... You Want to Be a Lead Drummer?

After reading an article recently by Pipes|Drums called "The Drummer's Dilemma" I got to thinking about the issue of lead drummers passing on their skills to younger players. This is a difficult and complex issue but it begins with defining the role of a lead drummer in a band. Obviously, lead drummers in higher grade bands are responsible for less as the players in their corps are capable of providing more help. In lower grade bands, however, the lead drummer can be responsible for virtually everything having to do with the drum corps including teaching, tuning, composing music, motivating, running rehearsals etc. It can be a daunting task--especially when zero pay and sometimes a lack of appreciation are involved. Thankless? Sometimes. Rewarding? Sometimes. Very hard work? Always!

When I was asked to take over the Dartmouth and District drumming program in 2013 I didn’t know much about being a lead drummer. For me, it has been a humbling journey and a slow process of accumulating skills as I endeavour to become a better leader, a more organized administrator and an improved snare drummer. When I first started I tried my best but soon realized it was necessary to both seek out advice from more experienced drummers and to work harder on my own to learn, understand and then implement these new skills for the benefit of my corps. The following skills/concepts/lessons I’ve worked to achieve over the last six years are listed below. My hope is that if your goal is to lead a drum corps someday you can use this list as a starting point on your journey. If you’re already playing lead, look at this list and see if you are missing any of these skills; if so, then work to add them. If I’ve missed anything important, please let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts. 

Be a musician first: To be a lead drummer you need many skills above and beyond raw technical ability on the snare drum. These skills include: good time keeping, an above average feel for the music and an understanding of pipe music and how to correctly interpret it/support it using both snare line and bass section. You should also have a basic understanding of music theory and basic harmony necessary for writing tenor and bass scores. If you are a solid, well-rounded musician, your drummers will play good music. 

Egos are stupid: If you want your corps to learn from you, you must also be open to learning new things, taking criticism and making appropriate changes to "what you normally do" when appropriate. If you are humble and open to personal growth, your drum corps will automatically follow suit. 

Know how to read and write music: In my opinion, reading and writing music is a must for any lead drummer. As a lead drummer, you will know the strengths and weaknesses of your own corps very well so if you can read and write you can compose appropriate drum scores for your corps better than anyone else. Most importantly, having the ability to read and write allows a you to teach these skills to your corps members! 

Understand rehearsal technique: The ability to lead an effective rehearsal requires preparation, organization, and reflection. What are your goals for the rehearsal? How much time do you have? Are your rehearsal goals too lofty or too easily attainable? How much of the rehearsal should be spent on technique or rudiments? How many parts of a score will be learned? A lot of these questions can be answered will a little forethought. During the rehearsal, the emphasis should be on hard work, focus and limiting unnecessary conversation. If you need a break, take one! But, when rehearsal is in progress keep it all business. After the rehearsal, reflect on what worked and what didn’t and make appropriate changes if needed. 

Fill the gaps. Obviously, when you practice, you work on the aspects of drumming that you can’t do well. Take the same approach with your lead drummer skills. If your corps can’t play quietly, hire a clinician to come in and help. If you are having problems dealing with a corps member, seek out a leader you respect (not necessarily in the band) and ask them what their approach might be. If you have peronal weaknesses as a drummer that are hurting your corps, take some lessons and fix the issue. Taking criticism is hard but absolutely necessary to grow as both a player and a leader. 

Enjoy the challenge of dealing with people: If you want to be a lead drummer you should embrace the challenges of dealing with people. Pipe bands are notoriously filled with colourful and eccentric characters. Keeping everyone motivated, enthusiastic, working hard and having fun is a big part of the lead drummer gig. Keep in touch with corps members, answer their questions, and always ask them what you can do to help them succeed (and then do it). 

Learn to use music notation software: In this day and age, with so much new technology available, there should be no excuse for failing to use music notation software for score writing and distribution. The days of hand written scores with passages scratched out and arrows pointing every which way are over. If you are new to digital score writing, take some time to evaluate some of the many programs available and choose the one you like best. So much of a drum corps’ ability to read hinges on having legible drum scores. Get rid of your hand-written scores, or better yet enter them into your new notation program. Your drum corps will thank you! 

Be organized and communicate effectively: At the beginning of your season make sure your competition music is written by early October. Make sure everything is learned by Christmas. Make sure it's performance ready by April and you should be fine. If your corps needs help with a certain rudiment or musical passage, identify it and make up some exercise sheets to help. Plot out a long-term plan for learning your scores so nothing gets omitted or left until the last minute. Keep all members in the loop about changes to the music or upcoming band engagements. It is also important to keep all your written music in one place (Dropbox or Google Drive) that all corps members can access at any time. However, the most important aspect of organization is for you to lay out a set of standards/goals/expectations for your drummers at the beginning of the year (including consequences if those standards/goals/expectations are not met). I can’t understate the importance of having every corps member know where they stand. 

Know your personnel: If you have one grade 2 drummer in your corps and four grade 4 drummers, don't play grade 2 level scores! Choose/write scores that are appropriate for the majority of your players and everyone will have much more fun. If your higher-grade drummer needs more of a challenge, use her/him as a mentor/resource for your less experienced players—the added benefit being their development as a future teacher! 

Don’t be a bully: Yelling never helps. Neither does picking on one drum corps member consistently. Be calm, fun, energetic and encouraging. Nobody likes being yelled at or singled out constantly for aggressive criticism. Often, a corps member will make a mistake because of something you forgot to tell her/him or because of something that was never dealt with or missed in rehearsal (the lead drummer’s fault... and that’s you). Keep a cool head and a positive attitude and people will love playing for you. 

Collaborate with your pipe major: As often as you can, try to meet with your pipe major to play through tunes, ask questions about piping and try your best to be a good musical partner. Drummers possess the ability to play dynamics and pipers do not. Ask your pipe major for help in identifying spots in the music that you can highlight with accents and crescendos/decrescendos. Ask their opinion about your drum scores. If your pipe major cares about the welfare, sound and musicality of the band she/he will be more than happy to work with you--plus you'll learn something about piping in the process!   

Lead by example: As a lead drummer, your drum should always sound good. Your uniform should always look good. Your work ethic should be exemplary. You should always be the first to learn and memorize your music. Your drill should be sharp and your approach in rehearsal and on competition days should be professional. Drummer see drummer do. 

Embrace the challenge: Full disclosure: being a lead drummer is a ton of work. However, if you embrace the challenge, own the responsibilities and truly put your best effort out there you will reap the rewards--and it is very rewarding.

If I have missed anything or you would like to continue the conversation, please do so in the comments below.

Until next time,

Happy Drumming!

Leave a comment