I recently got slapped by a few realizations…
About my own ego, the role drummers play (from an audience’s perspective), self-control, and being in charge of your own mood…
All stemming from some catastrophic gear failure.
First, a little background:
I played a Sunday gig the other night, a benefit for a the food pantry Flexadecibel‘s trombonist works for, and at the outset, everything seemed like it was going to be a great night…
The two other acts on the bill, Eric Engblade and Hannah Rose & The GravesTones, are friends who make lovely music I enjoy… At a West Michigan brewery I’d never been too… For a good cause that directly helps people in my area AND my good friend’s organization…
Eric and company are generally an acoustically driven outfit. No drummer. This particular night, Hannah and the GravesTones were playing as a low-key trio. Also no drummer.
Since I was the only one playing a kit at the gig, I set up early, backlining my drums so I could hop up and be ready when the time came. At the end of Hannah’s set, she asked if I’d jam on their last tune with them – which I certainly did. Everything is still fine at this point.
After a short break and the rest of my Flexadecibel bros getting their gear bits in order, our set began. We kicked things off with a cover of a cover – Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” as performed by John Legend and The Roots.
Right about the last chorus, my kick pedal stopped moving. Dead, beater against the head. No action.
I played through the rest of the tune kickless, and immediately began to investigate. I quickly discovered that the spring keeping the cam under tension had broken, right at the loop that connects to the bottom part of the mechanism. This was not good.
While I informed my bandmates of the predicament, we stalled for time. Rob and Marshall played a vocal/guitar duet (or a couple, I was only paying attention to the pedal). Then Marshall took the guitar and played a tune or two on his own while Rob helped me brainstorm solutions…
No give to pull extra slack from the coiled spring. Duct tape wouldn’t hold the little nub in place. Again, NO OTHER DRUMMERS on the bill, and the place is kind of out in the country. No friends to call, no emergency backup.
…So there I am, one “real” song into the set, staring down the prospect of funk without a bass drum – and no relief in sight.
I wasn’t happy.
That’s an understatement. For a few moments, I was downright pissed off. No kick? What would that mean for every groove I intended to play? Was it going to ruin the set? Did this mishap just wreck an evening of music for my whole band? For the whole crowd?
But then I started thinking a little more rationally…
The night, for me at least, had gone from good to shit in a hurry, but in those frustrating moments – and now in hindsight – the experience offered a few extremely valuable lessons:
1. The Show Must Go On… With Gusto
As I just described, I was basically backed into a corner. It’s not like I was going to NOT play.
Despite not having a functioning kick drum, I went ahead and played my parts, stomping my foot on the floor where the pedal should be. I wasn’t exactly silent about my discontent, but I tried my best to press on, to at least have a little fun aside from being reminded – measure after measure – that there was no boom in my boombap.
A stale attitude leads to stale playing, and nobody wants that.
I remembered the gig horror stories I’ve heard, other times I’ve faced onstage adversity…
And I realized that I basically had two options: not play any drums and effectively ruin the evening (as I was so worried about), or play what I had in front of me – that is, a full kit sans working kick pedal, and do my best in a sticky situation. I chose the latter.
As the set went on, I got more used to it (I guess), but at least I loosened up. Shrugged my shoulders and leaned into it… Plenty of worse things to be doing than playing most of a drum set.
People danced, the crowd enjoyed it, and after, the musicians from the other bands gave me an important bit of insight…
2. It’s Less Important Than I Thought
Let’s get out of our own heads for a second. When you play a kit by yourself, the whole frequency range comes from you. The highs and lows (snares and kicks) seem integral. In that context, they are.
But what about on stage? In a room like I was playing, medium sized with a small PA and no mic on the kick? Bass guitar is doing most of the low end work, and most of our tunes are pretty bassline driven…
Out front, the backbeat was still there, time was maintained, and the spots where I would have bass drum hits when there isn’t bass guitar playing?
For the average listener, beer in hand and grooving to the whole tune at once?
They don’t even notice the kicks aren’t there.
Sure it changes the texture of the groove. Yes, I still want them to be there when I play. There are situations galore where kicks might be more integral to the music as a whole. But for me, right then, there wasn’t really much to worry about.
3. Murphy’s Law
Stuff breaks. Electronics malfunction. People are late. Shows go terribly awry.
In the moment, the best you can do is look for solutions and roll with the punches. Improvise.
4. Stay Positive
There was absolutely nothing to be done but press on with the show, and if that’s the case, why not do it with smile? A sarcastic one, maybe, but a smile nonetheless.
It occurred to me as I was stressing out, getting mad at myself and my gear, stewing over how the rest of the night was going to go…
That I was being silly.
I thought about professionalism – and even more, simple maturity. Would throwing a tantrum accomplish anything? Would being pissed improve the situation in any way? Of course not.
We ultimately control our own moods, and while there are situations worth getting worked up about, this was not one of them. I had in that moment (and have, in every moment) the opportunity to decide how I wanted to react, to exercise some self-control for my overall wellbeing.
In times like these, we can huff and puff, making irrational, emotionally-driven decisions that will likely cause us to say things we regret, behave in ways we don’t approve of in retrospect, and come off to everyone else (the crowd) like the pouty children!
The more “professional” approach, however (and the one that’s going to have a more positive long-term effect on our happiness, confidence, etc.) is to just suck it up and deal with the imperfect scenario.
After all, when the gig is behind us and the stressful moments have faded into memory, which would you rather look back on: that time you lost control and embarrassed the band, or that time you persevered and made the best of adversity?
I’ll choose the latter every time (if I can).
What are some of your gig horror stories? Have you had gear fall apart on stage? How did you react? Let’s unpack this stuff together – learning from each other’s rotten experiences will only help us prepare to encounter our own…