Photo by Scott Pickering

Monday, December 27, 2010

Session Prep Pays

Hey Mark,

What would you charge me for recording at my studio for:
A one hour session
A two hour session

A three hour session?

The question came in an email from a producer for whom I had played a couple of live events. After my reply regarding rates, we set a time for recording percussion at his studio.

Later in the week, the producer emailed a “rough recording” of the song. After downloading the tune onto my iPod, I listened to the song several times. The “rough” contained no vocals but as I listened, the form and major melodies began to become apparent to me. It was then easy to make a “skeleton chart” of the song on manuscript paper so that I could mark the measures where the major sections of the song began and ended.

The tap tempo feature on my Boss Dr. Beat DB66 metronome ( informed me that the song was recorded at a consistent bpm of 95. I set my Beatnik Rhythmic Analyzer ( ) to 95, grabbed some sticks, and began to warm up. (I wanted to ingrain that tempo and subdivisions into my brain and hands.)

Listening to the recording several more times with the “skeleton chart” and pencil at the ready, some ideas about instrument choices and parts sprang to mind and were added to the paper.

The session was scheduled for 1:00 P.M. so I left my home in time to arrive at the studio by 12:30. The producer seemed grateful that I was early and impressed that I had concocted a chart.

My chart also contained approximate times (min/sec) where major sections started. With this information handy, it was easy to tell the producer/engineer to skip ahead to certain min/sec areas as we recorded, thereby saving time for everyone.

The producer wanted to record parts for several instruments and choose segments to use later as he mixed. The time spent in preparation paid off as we recorded parts for congas, tambourine, shaker, rhythm triangle, Chinese bell tree, suspended cymbal, and more in about 1 ¾ hours.

Certainly there are studio situations when there is no recording (or chart) to study before the session. However, when such materials are available, take advantage of the opportunity to prepare thoroughly.

I think this guy might call me again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mastering The Tables Of Time

On the shuttle ride to the airport, a piece of luggage fell and struck me. (No harm done!) However, the incident started a conversation with another passenger, David Stanoch, author of Mastering The Tables Of Time. Upon departing the bus, David presented me with a copy of his amazing book. Whether beginner or pro, drumset player or percussionist, material abounds to challenge and improve your skills. You’ll find exercises with applications for playing time, coordination, polyrhythms, and soloing.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How can I play all myself ?!

With Christmas just around the corner and those cantatas and spectaculars looming, you might find yourself looking at a percussion part that was intended to be played by a section and instead…it’s just YOU ! Aside from growing an extra set of arms from your stomach, your next best choice is to figure out what to play and what to delete. You might try to ask the conductor (who is still pre-occupied with that near-mishap with the flying angel at the tech rehearsal). Asking the maestro will sometimes yield a quick, “Just try to play as much as you can.”

Make plans and mark the part before the rehearsal but stay open to any in-the-moment directions from the leader during the rehearsal.

Some parts may be doubled by other instruments.
EX. The timpani line covered by the string bass and /or tuba
EX. Glockenspiel or xylophone playing unison with woodwinds
Those percussion parts are good candidates for deletion.

Certain parts may be providing the driving rhythms.
Try to include these.

Cymbals and triangle give an ensemble sparkle and ring.Look for spots that need that effect.

Some instruments help to set the mood or establish a place.
A tambourine would take precedent over bass drum in an “Eastern European” sounding passage.
If you are playing an arrangement of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” and there is a part for chimes... Play that before anything else.
Nothing gives a military feel better than the snare drum.

To cover multiple instruments, be ready to make some sacrifices.
Play drums with hard plastic mallets so that you can move quickly to that glock lick.
Substitute suspended cymbal for crash cymbals and you can combine that with the snare drum part.
It only requires one hand to play the MOUNTED tambourine; the other is free to play another instrument.

Take care to devise a set-up that will allow you to move quickly and GRACEFULLY from one instrument to another. Sketch the set-up so that you can recreate it at the performance.