Lessons From Drumming In Music Theater

I’m no music theater pro. Not even close…

I’ve done a grand total of two (Hands on a Harbody and the Seussical), but they were both such massive learning opportunities, I almost feel obligated to share some of the experiences here – and encourage you to explore it yourself.

It’s not something I even sought out, but in retrospect, I wish I would have started much earlier! As with so many other opportunities, I didn’t even see it coming.

A little backstory:

Near the end of last year, a long-time friend (and coworker) approached me about performing in a musical he was going to direct for Muskegon Civic Theater. This was something I’d never done before – never even considering doing…

I expressed my hesitance, and he assured me that it was a great opportunity to try it out – a musical rooted in rock and country-type tunes… Backbeat driven music that was likely right in my wheelhouse. Hands On A Hardbody, with music written by Trey Anastasio, seemed like the perfect chance to cut my teeth on music theater.

HOHB drum zone
HOHB drum zone

I agreed, and as the weeks after unfolded, a few of my Flexadecibel bandmates joined the pit band, a few of my friends and coworkers joined the cast, and things were shaping up to be pretty… Nonthreatening.

As far as new territory goes, it’s great to get outside of your comfort zone. Faced with such a challenge, I was glad to have a bit of a safety net with so many friends and acquaintances involved. No one was going to cuss me out for making mistakes or treat me like a fool for the things I didn’t know – of which there were plenty

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. FLXDB’s trumpet player is a band director at a local Catholic high school, and since a few of us were involved in Hardbody, he asked if we’d want to play in Seussical. The previous experience fortified my confidence. I said yes again – and as expected, it was another hefty learning experience.

Here are a few of the nuggets I mined out of both:

Help Each Other

Ensemble music is a team effort. Any group you play with requires communication. Depending the show, the pit band (or orchestra) could be huge – and you’re also working with actors/singers, a director, MD, lighting, and so on.

It’s a ton of moving pieces.

Aaaaaaand there’s sheet music. There might be weird changes, formatas, cesura, odd numbers of bars… You have to be locked into the charts too.

sheet-music
Read ’em and weep…

The final product ends up being a combination of the two: following the music as closely as possible – and interpreting/communicating/compromising as needed. The show must go on. If a song comes off the rails or someone loses track of where they are, help!

Call out bar numbers, try to bring the tempo back on track, whatever you have to do. If a singer jumps ahead or misses a cue, work as team to find the right way to get the music (and entire performance) back together… And do it quick.

This goes for learning the show too. Other members of the band might have different (and useful) information in their charts. If you’re playing drum set (like I was), you might be able to offer assistance with time, phrasing, and rhythmic elements. A horn player may offer you critical insight about a cue, mood, or ensemble figure. Everyone has their own parts to learn, and ultimately, the MD or conductor is the guiding force – but working as a unit to make the music work should always be the primary goal. Despite all the charting, compromises are bound to come up.

Learn Your Music

For both shows, I made a point to start EARLY. As soon as I got the book, I went to town. I read through them, listened to the recordings, read and listened, played along with tracks… I was intentionally overpreparing. When rehearsal time came around, I was damn glad I did.

Again, everybody needs to learn their own music, and we only have so much control over how the whole ensemble performs. From the drum throne, though, there’s some responsibility that carries over from rock, jazz, and other kit-driven styles. We tend to set the pace for certain tunes, indicate changes, and generally be the backbone… But there’s probably also a conductor (for me there was), and as mentioned above, sometimes the people on stage do weird things, and you have to catch up.

For these reasons (and plenty more), it pays to be able to take your eyes off the page. Tempos can shift, but you’ve got to be with the conductor to make it “right.” You’ve got to watch for dictated hits, holds, etc., and you can’t do that if your eyes are glued to the charts. The page is great for reference – you can and should follow along closely – but you need to be able to look away, too… And having the music as internalized as possible will allow this to happen.

You don’t have to memorize the whole thing, but if you can keep your bearings without being buried in the book… You’re better off for it.

In the dreaded moments of missed cues, a singer jumping ahead, the utter collapse of a song… The better you know the next (or current) section, the more you can help right the ship. Sometimes a big fat “ONE!” is all it takes.

Dynamics

This ain’t no rock band.

For both Seussical and HOHB we were back/sidestage – bands might be in a pit, off in the wings, anywhere… The space is going to affect the sound, and if you’re something of a “hard hitter” like I can be, you gotta tone it down.

shhh

There will likely be wide range of dynamics in the music itself, from playing under portions of dialogue to a giant, full-cast finale. Playing appropriately for each is half the battle. I had to do some very quiet cymbal work, I played a lot of non-rimshot backbeats… Other parts were relatively bombastic, but still… High energy – with the volume at least somewhat in check (I did my best, ok?).

I muffled up my snare drum, put some gaff tape on the bottom of cymbals. I used a Vater Bomber beater. I was still too loud sometimes.

Dynamics are always important (and don’t always just mean “quieter”), but both musicals were humbling reminders of playing the appropriate volume for the group, the song, and the room.

Get Your Styles Straight

It seems like a running theme in these kinds of productions is to evoke stylistic “tropes.” In HOHB, there was a trademark “Latin” type thing, a New Orleans groove type thing, country ballad, etc. In Seussical, there was a mambo, a swing tune (basically a rip off of Sing, Sing, Sing), some circus/march type stuff, and other bits that rely on the audiences general familiarity with a style.

My approach was one of approximation. I didn’t have to master the mambo, but I needed to get the feel across. I didn’t need to become Gene Krupa, but conjuring that feeling was critical.

I worried less about note for note replication, and more about the overall vibe that the audience and cast depended on. If you have time to really embed yourself in each piece, that’s great – but the first step should be finding the core elements of the style, and representing them as authentically as possible.

Have Fun

Last but certainly not least, remember to enjoy playing, to put emotion into the music you’re making. I found myself, in the early stages of rehearsal, worrying more about doing everything exactly right, keeping all of the complexities in order – and kind of forgot that it’s also supposed to be fun.

Making sure to include some personality in the music, to feel it (no matter how conducted or charted out it is) is critical to delivering a good performance… It took me a show or two to realize it, but as I relaxed, everything started to sound and feel better. It can be pretty high pressure, but if you let that get the best of you, the music will suffer – and nobody wants that.

 

Have you done any theater gigs? Done something outside your normal comfort zone that provided some valuable lessons? I’d love to hear about it!

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3 thoughts on “Lessons From Drumming In Music Theater”

  1. Really great read, Mike. I’m glad you’ve got this oppurtunity to take your musicianship into this space. Keep grinding. You’re going places, man.

  2. Very well put Mike! Glad you created this piece from your experience. This post can help other drummers going into their first theater gig. The biggest take away from this post for me was team work, and dynamics!

    Great read buddy! Keep it up!

Thoughts?