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Drummer

Date: August 19, 2021
Reads: 756

Career Overview

A Drummer is a musician who provides rhythmic accompaniment in an ensemble or band using percussion instruments like drums, cymbals, and drumsticks.

Alternate Titles

Percussionist

Salary Range

$0 to $100,000+

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Career Description

Most bands playing contemporary music styles such as jazz, rock, pop, R&B, country, blues, reggae, and Latin have a Drummer to keep the time, provide the rhythmic underpinning of the music, and shape the overall sound of the group. Drummers have a strong influence on determining the tempo, dynamics, and timbre (tone) of the music being played by a group.

In western musical styles, Drummers play a drum set or drum kit–a collection of drums, cymbals, accessories (such as a cowbell or tambourine) with stands to hold up various parts of the set, and pedals, all played by a single player. The drum kit used by most Drummers today includes a bass drum (or sometimes two) played using a beater mounted on a foot-pedal, floor toms, snare drum, rack-mounted toms, hi-hat, ride and crash cymbals, played with drumsticks. Some Drummers also use percussive instruments like bongos, gongs, shakers, triangles, cowbells, or wood blocks in their performances and may use brushes or mallets instead of sticks as beaters.

Drummers set the tempo and provide the pulse of the music, accompany the harmony and melody players, and support the Singer or Vocalists when present. Drummers playing traditional music in many cultures use individual drums that are sometimes played using bare hands.

Drums are also used in marching bands and military groups, usually played by groups of Drummers playing synchronized or interlocking parts. Throughout history, military drum ensembles were used to coordinate marching and to instill fear in the heart of the enemy. Drums have also been used since ancient times for communicating across distances.

Drummers play a hugely important role in maintaining the rhythm and sound of an ensemble. They have an impressive knowledge of rudiments such as the single stroke roll, double stroke roll, and flam stroke; these are the short percussive patterns that serve as the foundation for more elaborate drumming sequences. Drummers also help to delineate the form of a song or composition, especially by making changes to the groove or playing improvised fills on the drum set to mark the beginning or end of sections in the music. Drummers sometimes play solos or might play on their own during a musical section featuring rhythm only.

To learn what it’s like to be a working Drummer and build a career in performance, we talked to:

  • Chris Beck (Soloist, Cyrus Chestnut, Rufus Reid)
  • Terri Lyne Carrington (Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding)
  • Ray “Quasi” Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

What is the role of a Drummer in a band?

Terri Lyne Carrington (Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding)

Every person in a band is responsible for some of the same things. People like to think that Drummers are responsible for rhythm and groove, but everybody’s responsible for rhythm, groove, and time. Drummers also need to know and understand melodies, lyrics, and harmony. They need to know the same things about music that the other musicians know, because I play differently when I know lyrics, when I know the chords, where it’s going, and when I can sing the melody, you know? I can’t really play unless I know the melody and can sing it.

We’re all responsible for everything, but in essence, a Drummer can very much help control the direction a song goes in, the mood, and the dynamics of a piece of music. We can demand that everybody play softer or everybody play louder. So that part, dynamics, rests a little more on the Drummer sometimes. But they have to be in tune with what everybody else is doing.

Chris Beck (Soloist, Cyrus Chestnut, Rufus Reid)

First, you’re preparing through method books and things like that to gain knowledge of rudiments. You gotta have some sort of knowledge of the instrument in order to play the instrument.

Secondly, I would say in terms of the business aspect, you just have to be a team player. Most of the time, when you see a Drummer, they’re in the context of a full band. So, unless you’re playing drums by yourself, your job is to support the other musicians, whether it’s a Sax Player, or Guitar Player, or Vocalist, whatever–your role is to support them.

For me personally, that’s a huge thing. Any opportunity I get to play, I have to keep in mind that my overall job is to support and make the other musicians feel good and feel warm, and able to bring out their ideas.

Ray "Quasi" Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

I don’t want to sound cliché, but in the movie Drumline they say: The drums are the heartbeat of the band. It’s the pulse. Genuinely, we are the foundation. Across any genre, we’re responsible for keeping the time, holding the band together, and being that foundation, that base where everybody can lock in.

Everyone can kind of do what they want in their own musical sense, but the Drummer has to be the more consistent one. That speaks across all genres from jazz to pop to rock and Latin. Drums are that foundation.

Salary

With the wide range of roles Drummers can fill, it’s tricky to get a handle on exact financial figures. Entry-level Drummers will make less per gig than more experienced, well-known Drummers, who will usually be first in line when a lucrative touring gig opens up. A Session Drummer who’s at a high level in their career could make around $100,000 annually. There are some who make much more, depending on the style of music. There’s generally more money paid to Drummers playing in popular styles with famous groups than in jazz, blues, or less popular styles.

Of course, this isn’t a salaried career and most Drummers piece together gigs through different means, whether that’s teaching private lessons while holding down a residency at their local jazz club or being placed on retainer to tour with a superstar band. There’s also a diversity in pay structure, which means some Drummers may set an hourly rate for studio work while many others will be paid per week when they’re on the road with a band.

How much does a professional, touring Drummer make?

Ray "Quasi" Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

It varies. In the music industry, everybody’s story is different. For me, I had to diversify my portfolio throughout my journey. It wasn’t just financially. Me being an entrepreneur and business person, I always wanted to come outside of just being music-centered. Because I grew up in a musician family, I knew that no matter how good it can get, it varies. And there are a lot of variations.

In music, it levels to some guys in rock bands who make over $100,000 a year. One thing I will say as a musician, in the rock community, those bands get paid very well. From my knowledge, they take care and make sure everyone is accounted for with tours. I don’t know if it’s still the same way, but in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, rock bands were treated very well.

I don’t want to say I ventured out of jazz because I still play a lot of jazz but I knew there was a cap to that. Especially with playing with such a prestigious and legendary band like the Count Basie Orchestra and where the jazz scene is at now, I knew there was a cap. In the jazz world, you make more money when you’re the lead person. Numbers can be anywhere from $1,000 a gig.

Stepping into the more pop, R&B side of things … more mainstream if you will … it can be contingent upon the artist; you’re still with a high-profile artist, but your work is contingent upon the artist, unless you’re on retainer. When you’re playing with somebody like Michael Bublé and you’re on retainer, you’re getting paid even when you’re not working, which is essentially a salary. You can bring in $60,000–$100,000 just by being on retainer. But those gigs are very few and far between. When the cats are on those gigs, most of the time, they’re not leaving.

For an entry-level touring musician with a decent budget, you can make anywhere from $800–$1,000 a week on the low end. That’s just speaking touring. There are levels to it. Then you can get your residency. If you have a residency every Tuesday night, that’s your income. If you play at church, that’s your income. There’s a bunch of different ways you can be a musician. If you’re in a union, you make even more money. It’s about being knowledgeable about your resources and not being closed-minded. Don’t think you’re going to do just one thing. Be versatile.

I always think it’s best to diversify your portfolio. The more you can bring to the table, the more rooms you can be in. I got into production. I run a non-profit that’s geared towards music. It’s a non-profit so we don’t make money, but again, because I’m the Executive Director, there’s room for a salary in that realm once we get to that level. We’ve been in existence for six years and it’s been a journey. We’ve only been a non-profit for the last two years.

Long story short, I think it’s about being versatile and about being aware and knowledgeable. Knowing what the gig pays. Knowing what other cats in the same arena are getting paid. Making sure you’re somewhere in that range and not getting the lower end of the stick.

Terri Lyne Carrington (Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding)

Generally, it takes a hustle in other areas besides just touring, because if you rely on just touring and then a pandemic happens, you’re really in trouble, right? Often, it does take other areas like teaching or composing. Some people got grants during the pandemic for composing. There are online opportunities now. It still revolves around teaching, but it could be just speaking on a subject. It goes back to having knowledge that you can use in your favor.

But it really varies. Some people make $100 or $200 a gig, and some people make $1,000 or $2,000 a gig touring with other people. It really varies with the level of the band you’re working with. That level generally reflects the level of your playing. Sometimes it doesn’t.

It goes back to those other skills about knowing how to market yourself–being the type of person that people want to hire. Some people would rather hire someone who’s a lesser player, but who’s somebody they can depend on, somebody that adds value to the room, somebody that they like to be around. All of that goes a long way. That person will get hired before the person that plays a little better than them but who’s a drag to be around or is undependable, doesn’t show up on time. All those things become factors.

But all things being equal, you generally gravitate to the level that you’re at. There’s like, an energy that connects you to where you’re supposed to be. I think the universe unfolds as it should. I always say that. If you’re attuned, the path that you take is generally supported. You know what I mean? People find their way.

So, as far as income, it’s just gonna vary with all those things. If people are touring clubs, they’re not gonna make as much money as people touring theaters. If people are touring stadiums, they’re gonna make more money than people touring theaters, in general.

Chris Beck (Soloist, Cyrus Chestnut, Rufus Reid)

That’s a really open-ended, deep question. You have different perspectives. You have Drummers that are super-super-wealthy, and then you have Drummers that are just holding on or trying to make it to the next gig. What I’ve been told and what seems to work for me is, if you truly take care of the music, the music will take care of you. Whatever that means. Everybody’s level is different in terms of that.

When I first moved to New York, I was doing $50 gigs. That was then. Now if someone called me to do a $50 gig–I mean, if it was one of my friends, I may still do that gig–if it’s not someone I know, I may not be available for that just because it may cost me more money to actually be involved.

There are different levels to this thing. But what I initially said still stands. If one is truly taking care of the music, it will take care of you. It will take you all over the world like it’s done for me. Now in terms of actual numbers, there are some Drummers that are multi-millionaires, billionaires, but they’re involved in many different things. It’s different for everybody.

I can just say in my own life, there have been times where I make a lot of money one year and then the next year may not be so great. Of course, I have to get paid when I play, but for me, it’s like when I’m playing, I’m making history. So it’s a different thing. It’s not just, “Oh, I need to get money, money, money.”

There are different things that go into it. Like, what am I gonna learn from this work? Because sometimes you can have a really good gig that doesn’t pay, but you learn so much about the music, about yourself. You learn so much spiritually. But it may not pay the amount of money that you think it should pay. Then it’ll be those gigs that pay super well, but the music sucks.

It’s really different for every person. I’ll say it again: if one takes care of the music, the music will take care of you. I’m a living witness because I’ve been all over the world, and it’s been the drums that have taken me there. And when I go, I don’t have to pay for my stuff to go. I just bring my drums, and I make sure, of course, that I’m clean. I like to dress; I’m into dressing. So I pack my suitcase, I have my drums, make sure my drums are prepared, I got my clothes, and I’m ready to hit the stage. Music is great. It’s awesome, but it’s not for everyone.

Sometimes when you’re playing, you may not be making the amount of money that you think you ought to make. And if you need to do other things to supplement that, then that’s fine. The best musicians have done that. It’s all about your passion, staying focused and clear, and knowing what you wanna do.

Now, I can fully, honestly say I’m supporting myself off of music. I do teach a couple of times during the week, but for the most part, for the last seven years, it’s been music. So I’m grateful for that. I used to work at Home Depot, and I used to work at the post office, so it’s like, I’m never too proud. If I need to go back, I’ll be ready to go. But I’m doing my best to take care of the music, so it’s been taking care of me quite well.

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Career Outlook

Like most artistic careers, building a career as a professional Drummer will take time, hard work, tenacity, and some luck. Although there are a limited number of high-paying gigs available, there is a strong community of musicians, and individuals and groups are always on the lookout to hire a good Drummer. Since most Drummers find work through the relationships they build with other actively performing musicians, developing and maintaining a strong personal and professional network are key to becoming employed.

Some Drummers choose to specialize in a single style and may become well-known in musical circles for playing that style. A Drummer who excels in a certain style will have opportunities to play with groups playing that style and may secure a good position that way.

Alternatively, many Session Drummers are competent in playing many different styles and may get lots of calls to play because they are so versatile stylistically. From playing local gigs to international tours, performing at festivals, with marching bands, or in a theater orchestra pit, offering private lessons for students, to being a Band Director or Music Teacher at a school, there are many opportunities for young Drummers to build a thriving career.

How long does it take to become a pro-level Drummer?

Terri Lyne Carrington (Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding)

That’s a tough one. It’s different for everybody. Some people are very quick. There are people that started playing one instrument and changed instruments in college and became whizzes, and they have amazing careers. Then there are people who have been playing since childhood–since single digits. So it really depends.

I do know that hard work is generally involved. There are some people that are just naturals … they have an aptitude for certain things a little more than others. But either way, it involves hard work, because if you have an aptitude for something and you don’t work hard, chances are you won’t go real far. Sometimes your aptitude may not be as strong as someone else’s, but you work harder and you go further. It’s a combination of both things.

As far as the time it takes, I was always taught that it’s really not about the fast race. It’s about the slow and steady race. As long as you’re getting better every day, every week, every year, then that’s really all you should be focused on. Somebody once told me the only competition is yourself.

Chris Beck (Soloist, Cyrus Chestnut, Rufus Reid)

That’s a pretty heavy question. I would say it depends on the person. What I consider being a pro is being paid to play. Now, everyone has to negotiate their fee or whatever, but if you can sustain yourself by playing the music, then I would consider you a pro. But to answer your question, I would say that depends on the person.

Ray "Quasi" Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

As an artist, you never see yourself as becoming proficient. There’s always this level of greatness we’re chasing. My parents did a really good job of putting me in these programs and talent shows and allowing me to perform. I was like eight-years-old playing these shows and by the time I’m ten-years-old, I think I’m killing it. Then you get to YouTube and you see all these other Drummers that are really killing it!

As you progress, you never really get to that level of satisfaction with your art. There are levels to it. You get to the point where you’re comfortable. I would say proficiency is where you put in the work, put in the hours, walk away for a couple of weeks or months, and when you sit down you can get back into it and it doesn’t take too long. You did your due diligence.

In terms of developing a career, I think that’s a twofold thing … where preparation meets opportunity. I always credit a lot of my success to the relationships I’ve built over the years; that I’ve been able to maintain a good rapport with people who can help me or work in collaboration. You don’t even know what that relationship may lead to at the time.

Being proficient, being a good person on the gig, hanging out. Being on time. Being prepared. A lot of these things play a role in allowing you to maintain those relationships so that people want to call you to work. Set yourself up for that, whether that be going to a college you feel is going to provide some opportunities, or going to a concert with live music and bumping shoulders with people who can lead to some other doors.

Create that kind of network that can eventually lead to you getting those calls. That’s the reality of it. A lot of people think you can go audition and get this gig. Sometimes that works, but a lot of times it’s phone calls and referrals. “Hey, I got this gig–I can’t do it, but you should call Quasi.”

Be a good person. Be professional. Carry yourself a certain way. Prepare for the opportunities.

Career Path

While there isn’t one career path that everyone takes, most professional musicians start playing at a young age, and fall in love with playing drums at some point. This leads to the decision to play drums for a career, usually in high school. Most Drummers develop their love and commitment to self-improvement through long hours of practice. Most study with a Private Teacher to give them direction and focus in their practicing.

The next step is to join or form a band, to gain experience and build connections for future gig opportunities. Being surrounded by career-minded musicians and playing in more advanced settings is a good way to prepare for the opportunities which will come later. Attending music school is another path many future professional Drummers take, to form more relationships and contacts, and to learn musical skills. Most Drummers learn to read music, as this is generally required for Session Drummers. At all stages of a musician’s career, it’s important to be constantly learning.

After school, they may continue to study privately with a Teacher. The focus then becomes on finding work. Having an electronic promo kit (EPK) or website with music videos, a music resume, an artist bio, list of recordings and gigs, press releases, and photos is important for Drummers to aid in getting gigs.

Word of mouth is equally important. Most Drummers get hired because someone recommended them. Showing up on time and being prepared goes a long way in getting referrals and call-backs for gigs and sessions. Drummers who reach the top of their craft are highly respected and will have strong demand for their services.

How do you become a professional Drummer?

Terri Lyne Carrington (Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding)

My steps were different from most people’s because I started very young and I had access to a lot of great Jazz Musicians through my father. They gave me a chance, so I was playing professionally by age ten.

But my path’s not the normal path. The normal path is people show interest at a young age, they go through some school programs hopefully, maybe starting in middle school, and by the time they get to high school, there’s something there. They’re trying to join a high school band, or go to a summer camp, or whatever they do in high school that is preparing them for college.

Then most people go to college and major in something related to music. It doesn’t have to be performance but it could be related to music. (Often people do that to have something to fall back on as opposed to just majoring in performance.) There are people that get Master’s degrees in Performance. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be able to leave the Master’s program and then go perform on some higher level. It doesn’t correlate with your degree.

The point of getting a degree, to me, is to be able to teach or to have something to fall back on, but it’s also to get more knowledge. That’s really the point of going to school, to have the knowledge.

And you want to be a well-rounded person. That comes out in your music. The more well-rounded you are, the more opportunities you have in life in general, and the more opportunities you have in the music industry. I can make a living in the music industry without playing the drums, and that’s because I’m well-rounded. For me, even during the pandemic, that’s pretty much been the path.

Chris Beck (Soloist, Cyrus Chestnut, Rufus Reid)

Honestly, it’s a community. It’s a community of people who gather together, and by word-of-mouth, your name can get to some Bandleader’s desk, and then they give you an opportunity. Most of the time, it’s just word-of-mouth. It’s just simple things like showing up on time.

I know now we’re in a different age, but when I came up, my Teachers told me, “Hey man, when you start to play, when you go to jam sessions, have your business card.” I know that’s not a popular thing now because we’re in this technology age and everything is on social media. But I still have business cards. I would say have a business card, especially if you’re migrating to an area where you don’t know people and people don’t know you, and you go to jam sessions and you meet people. You give out your card, or you say, “Hey, check out this CD,” or, “What’s your name?”

It’s communicating. Being a people person. Being a person that can sit down and have a basic conversation like, “How’s your day? How’s your family?” Just basic things. And like I said, being able to show up on time and be ready for the job.

They [the musical community] will decide if they think you’re good. If they think you’re good, maybe they’ll give you an opportunity. Maybe they’ll call you and say, “Hey, you wanna get together and have a session?” Usually, a session is like an unpaid rehearsal. People get together and they’ll jam. Some people will bring original music. Maybe some people will just have an arrangement of an old standard. But generally, if someone asks you to come by and do a session, that’s a hint that they like your playing.

Ray "Quasi" Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

For a long time you’re growing up and seeing all these pro Drummers and you’re like, what classifies a professional Drummer? Doing solely that for a living, whether that be touring or being a Studio Drummer, whatever? But as you get older and you get into it, you see the world and the reality of what that is.

I would consider myself a professional Drummer from the things that I’ve done. I was blessed to do some TV stuff and record stuff when I was really young. My first touring gig was with the Count Basie Orchestra. I was able to get that shot through Scotty Barnhart who is the Director of the band and also my big uncle. (He was friends with my dad and they went to college together.) That was my first official touring professional gig and it was a great experience.

When you get into it, it always looks different from what you thought. I had a very strong history of jazz growing up. I have my degree in jazz studies. Never thought I’d go on tour with a big band or within that music scene, but when the opportunity came, it came around full circle. (I was thinking I was going to get into some hot R&B gig, which eventually did come down the gate.) I got that because of a relationship I had developed with Scotty Barnhart, because he was calling me to do gigs in college. He was a Professor at Florida State and I went to Florida State A&M in Tallahassee, and those schools are right down the street from each other. So I studied a lot at FSU on the side and played with a lot of cats there. I did a lot of gigs with Scotty in college and he would say, “This guy’s going to be the next Drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra,” and I’d be like, “Ok, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

After I graduated, I got the call four or five months later to come and sub for the band, and then two months later I was offered the position. From there, all the other gigs I started to get outside of that were from relationships I had with friends or referrals.

Be prepared. You gotta put in the work.

Experience & Skills

It’s important to note that Drummers are also musicians, and must know about all aspects of music, including melody and harmony. Reading music is an important skill, and not just drum music. Drummers must be able to look at sheet music and quickly understand the melody, harmony, and form of a piece. There may be a few Drummers who don’t read, but this is becoming increasingly rare, as Music Directors and Bandleaders aren’t able to take the time to play or listen to a piece over and over in order for musicians to learn by ear. That being said, it’s also important to be able to quickly memorize new music.

In addition to strong music skills and knowledge of music theory, Drummers must have a firm grasp of rudiments and the ability to stay on tempo while creating a rhythmic groove that will support and enhance the music. Listening carefully to the other players in the group and blending their sound, the Drummer must lock in rhythmically and find appropriate patterns using the components of the drum kit to complement the group and make the musicians playing the lead (melody or solos) or the Vocalist sound good. It’s especially important for the bass drum to fit precisely with the rhythm of the bass guitar or double bass instrument.

The Drummer should play in a way to provide exactly what the other players need to perform their parts, without adding too many extra embellishments or fills that might sound too “busy” or get in the way of the other musicians. There’s a fine line to doing this, and the best Drummers know how to do this masterfully.

After playing accompaniment roles in bands, some Drummers advance to Music Director or Bandleader. In these roles, they make decisions about which musicians to hire, select the music to be played, and write and direct arrangements for the group. Many Drummers also sing, both lead and background vocals. Singing is always viewed as a valuable skill and is likely to increase Drummers’ opportunities to perform. Being able to write musical compositions, arrangements, or songs, and produce shows and recordings are also extremely valuable skills a Drummer might bring to the table.

Beyond technical and music skills, Drummers must have strong people and leadership skills. Working collaboratively as part of a team, taking leadership roles when needed, and being an effective communicator all contribute to a Drummer’s ability to succeed. People and leadership skills extend beyond networking to include managerial ability, project management, time management, planning, and executing on the operational and logistical requirements of running a professional performing and recording band.

Music is a business, and the best Drummers understand the business of music inside and out. They tend to be easy to work with, friendly, and fun to be around. (Nobody likes a sourpuss.) It’s important to know how to listen and make genuine connections with people. Being positive when engaging with the community of musicians is key to finding and maintaining work as a pro-level Drummer.

What skills do you need to become a Drummer?

Chris Beck (Soloist, Cyrus Chestnut, Rufus Reid)

In terms of pedagogy, there are rudiments that you have to learn. After you have the knowledge of the rudiments, you would obviously know how to read music. I would say reading music is not 100% necessary, but it definitely makes your job easier. Especially these days, most Bandleaders don’t have time to keep rehearsing, rehearsing, and rehearsing before the show. A lot of the time, you see the music like fifteen minutes before you’re about to go and play.

Being able to look at a chart and decipher, “What am I playing here, and what’s happening? What’s the form of the tune?” All of that stuff comes with the role of being a Drummer. So I would definitely say reading is important. However, there are so many examples of great Drummers who don’t necessarily read. That doesn’t take away from their musicianship and the mastery of what they do artistically. You know what I’m saying?

However, in my own experience, being able to read music has allowed me to get through the rehearsals and get to the next gig. Because if somebody puts a chart in front of you and you don’t know how to read, or you need to hear it multiple times to get it … These days everything is fast and in a hurry, so I would say it would help out if you knew how to read.

Ray "Quasi" Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

Speaking of foundation, I think at the root of everything, you have to be in tune with what your rudiments are. A lot of the time, you take private lessons growing up or have an educational background, or you learn just by hearing and watching.

It’s all rudiments. You’re able to merge what comes naturally and what you’re able to pick up with the educational component, once you know all the necessary basics such as how to hold the sticks, rudiments, how to tune the drums, history of the drums, the list goes on, then you are on your way.

At the core, it’s really about that technical background and developing that. With any skill or instrument, it’s about studying as well–taking private lessons or watching Drummers on YouTube. I know a lot of Drummers are always studying other Drummers, whether it be social media, YouTube, or old videos, and learning that way. Being some type of student to the game is a skill.

Definitely discipline [is a skill]. You have to be disciplined because, being a Drummer, you have to be ambidextrous. There’s a lot going on, from what you have to think and what you have to do between different limbs. Being in tune with the feeling but also being in tune with the band. There are so many things going on. You have to be good at multitasking. You have to be able to walk and chew gum.

Terri Lyne Carrington (Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding)

The days of living in a silo and just doing your thing on your instrument are over. Everybody has to know the industry or you will not succeed. You don’t have to know every detail, but you have to have an understanding of how everything works, or you could be taken advantage of or just not do well. The industry now is made for people that really know how to do all of that: market and promote themselves … If you’re great at your instrument, you could just be a gun-for-hire, but there seems to be less and less of that these days.

As far as percussion skills go, you need to be able to read. You need to understand different styles from different places in the world to some degree. These are the things they teach at Berklee. You need to know a little bit about all genres. You can become a master in one genre, but I think you need to have some knowledge of other genres in order to be a successful musician. Again, if you’re so good at one thing, then that’s one path. But that’s not the path that most people succeed in. You have to be multidirectional.

Education & Training

Almost all Drummers started playing drums at an early age, likely studying with a Private Teacher to learn rudiments, using books and videos, and improving through countless hours of practice. Drummers must be ambidextrous and work hard at learning to use all four limbs independently. Drumming takes a lot of coordination, and the training can be intense.

Progressing from private instruction, the next level might be attending a music camp or summer program, playing in bands during high school, and then attending a music program at a college or university. Not all Drummers attend music college, but it can be a great place to improve performance and music skills while connecting with fellow musicians who will help to mold a viable artistic career in the future.

In college, Drummers learn the basics of music theory, study harmony, arranging, and ear training (solfege), learn music notation and become proficient with music technology and music software. They also study music history, and learn to write arrangements, plus they study counterpoint and other traditional music subjects.

Drummers perform in ensembles, take performance skills labs, and study privately with a Faculty Instructor. They also study music industry and if earning a bachelor’s degree, liberal arts subjects such as literature, sciences, world history, or mathematics. Tackling liberal arts and business courses provides for a broader education and helps prepare graduates for fulfilling careers as musicians.

Students in most college programs have choices of majors and minors as well. For example, many Drummers choose to major in film scoring, music production, songwriting, or music business. Some programs allow students to complete dual majors or design their own major concentrate.

Student Drummers may choose to continue their studies in graduate school, where they focus on performance, composition, music technology, or music education. This is a smart idea, especially if they intend to teach one day. Many professional Drummers do teach, and a graduate degree is one of the best ways to prepare for a career as an educator. There are other jobs available in the music industry which don’t involve playing, and some Drummers work in these roles to get a foot in the door of the music business. Working in the music industry is always a good way to learn more and expand your network at the same time.

Playing drums at a professional level requires a dedication to the art and craft of performing, as well as lifelong learning. Reading biographies of famous Drummers and studying what they did is a way to get ideas and get inspired. Attending concerts to study what Drummers do should also be part of a Drummer’s education. Studying with a pro can open the door to opportunities to work.

Becoming the best Drummer you can be, paying attention to details in the music, being super-reliable, easy to work with, and a team player will lead to more and better chances to show what you can do behind the drum set. Although it can take a few years, as the word gets out that you have what it takes, you can expect to become busier and busier.

What kind of education do Drummers need?

Ray "Quasi" Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

I can speak from my personal background. I grew up in a family of musicians. I was blessed that my grandfather was a Drummer. My mom was a Singer and my dad was in a band. I was in it all the time; it was natural for me.

My grandfather helped me pick up on that at an early age and tried to get me private lessons. Before I could even play the drumset, my grandfather would set me down with a notepad and make me read and do the exercises. He said, “It’s going to be boring and you’re not going to want to do it, but it’s what you’re going to need to do.”

It was a benefit down the line. I think private lessons are important. The relationship with a mentor or private Teacher and having them as a resource is key. Private lessons really prepare you to establish that discipline in your practice because that’s the one thing, even as I got older, I got away from–that discipline in my practice.

There is a component of just getting out and experiencing it and just getting in it. Going to concerts and/or shows, watching old tapes, and listening to old records really gives you that application component.

FAQ

Anything else you think aspiring Percussionists should know?

Chris Beck (Soloist, Cyrus Chestnut, Rufus Reid)

Don’t miss out on the other opportunities to learn from other facets of the music. Whenever I go on tour, there’s a Sound Guy or sound crew; they’re part of the business. They’re part of the drum, and without them, I can’t do my job completely.

Even though a person may not get to be on tour and be the Drummer or be the superstar, there are other facets of music that you can still be involved in and still feel like you’re included, like you’re doing something for the music community. So if one doesn’t get the opportunity to be the star on the stage, or the Drummer, or whatever, there are still ways to be involved. Don’t miss the opportunity to seek out or to know those things.

Ray "Quasi" Nelson (Kehlani, The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, Sabrina Claudio)

My non-profit is called Synergy Camp Inc., founded in 2015, started as a drumline clinic. I used to do private lessons in my community when I was in school. When I was in college, I’d go back in the summer and do lessons. I was able to develop some relationships with my close friends and mentors because we’d do clinics together.

This was a way, when I decided I was going to move to LA, that I could serve my community. It would also serve as a fundraiser to help me move. Everybody was pretty supportive of me, especially when I started giving back in a sense. I had a heavy drumline background so it started as drumline and drum set. Literally within the week, we went from having two students to twenty kids. In the span of a week! That was based on a relationship my mom had going with this lady who was doing a community drumline. That was the foundation over the years.

As I grew out here in LA and my career started to do what it did, I was exposed to things, and one thing I knew I wanted to bring to my community was not just another drumline camp. People were doing that in the city. I wanted to bring more.

As I grew into a professional Music Producer, especially in the drum realm, I was like, “The students need to be exposed to careers in music.” There are so many other opportunities that students can get into but they’re just not informed.

All they’re teaching in school is Band Director, Choral Teacher, private lessons; it’s very specific, that side of music education. Nobody is giving music industry education and music industry insights. That’s our niche. We’re going to bring students in using drums and percussion, but once you get in, we’re going to expose you to music production, and how to be an influencer, and branding, and professional development, and financial literacy, and other job opportunities. Manager jobs. A&R. Engineers.

To me, it was about giving that lightbulb to students and helping them know it’s bigger, and starting it early. We start our program at ages 8–18. That’s the demographic we focus on. This year we’re launching our virtual component. What we’ve been doing in our camp for five years, we’re doing it virtually to make it accessible to everyone globally and to all ages. I want to plug the website: synergycampinc.org. You can register there. If you go to my page on IG @QuasiDrums, or our page on IG, @SynergyCamp_Inc, you’ll find all the information.

One of the biggest things I pride myself on is getting to use the relationships I’ve built. The camp isn’t really about me, because I bring in my friends and professionals from across all different genres, from drumlines to mallet to percussion to drum set. It’s a great opportunity, so check it out if you can. At the end of the camp, we meet in person and do a showcase.

Check it out. It’s for all ages. Get involved. I promise we have something you can benefit from for your skill level on the technical side, over to the career and performing side.

Terri Lyne Carrington (Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding)

Everything takes time and desire. There’s more to it than money. You have to put the time in. You have to have the desire. You have to be curious. You have to be realistic and understand what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, and try to strengthen your weaknesses.

There are a lot of people, young people, that have delusions about the business … they get into it maybe for the wrong reasons. It’s gotta be for the love of the music, not just the instrument. A lot of people that love the drums sound like they just love the drums and like they haven’t paid enough attention to other people, other instruments, everything else around them. You have to love the music first.

Most people don’t get into this for the money, especially in genres that are not as popular, like jazz, which is what I play. You’re not going into that for the money; you’re going into that for the love of the music. It should be for the love of the music because money’s not guaranteed. And they don’t pay us to play; really, they pay us to travel.

Drummer Chris Beck
Chris Beck

With the release of his debut album, The Journey, Chris Beck is making a name for himself on the New York scene as a hard-swinging, powerhouse Drummer and Composer. Beck’s refreshing and soulful vision as an artist is on full display, as is his unique ability to pay homage to the classic straight-ahead style of jazz while infusing elements of his African roots and Gospel upbringing. Born into a musical family, Chris Beck, a native of Philadelphia, PA has been exposed to music from a young age.

Deciding to make music a career, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Music from Temple University in 2004. In 2006, Beck moved to New York City to establish himself on the jazz scene. After settling in New York, he began studying with highly esteemed master Drum Teacher Michael Carvin. In 2010, Beck graduated with a Master’s Degree in Music from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he studied with Victor Lewis.

Chris Beck currently performs with talented musicians such as Cyrus Chestnut, Oliver Lake, and Grammy-nominated Rufus Reid. He has also been blessed to share the stage with renowned musicians such as McCoy Tyner, legendary Motown recording artist Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, James “Blood” Ulmer, The Mingus Big Band, David Murray, Billy Harper, Curtis Fuller, James Spaulding, Harold Mabern, Charles Fambrough, Mulgrew Miller, Wynton Marsalis, Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield Jr., Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, Wycliffe Gordon, Orrin Evans, Bruce Barth, Nicole Henry, Jennifer Holliday, Macy Gray, Mark Whitfield, Derrick Hodge, Ralph Bowen, Joanna Pascale, Joe Locke, Duane Eubanks, Eric Lewis, and many others around the world.

Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington

NEA Jazz Master and three-time GRAMMY® award-winning Drummer, Producer, and Educator Terri Lyne Carrington started her professional career as a “kid wonder” while studying under a full scholarship at Berklee College of Music in Boston. In the mid-’80s she worked as an in-demand Drummer in New York before gaining national recognition on late-night TV as the House Drummer for both the Arsenio Hall Show and Quincy Jones’ VIBE TV show.

While still in her 20s, Ms. Carrington toured extensively with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, among others and in 1989 released a GRAMMY®-nominated debut CD on Verve Forecast, Real Life Story. In 2011 she released the GRAMMY® Award-winning album, The Mosaic Project, featuring a cast of all-star women instrumentalists and vocalists, and in 2013 she released, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, which also earned a GRAMMY® Award, establishing her as the first woman ever to win in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category.

To date Ms. Carrington has performed on over 100 recordings and has toured or recorded with luminary artists such as Al Jarreau, Stan Getz, Woody Shaw, Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, James Moody, Yellowjackets, Esperanza Spalding, and many more. Additionally, Ms. Carrington is an honorary doctorate recipient from Berklee, and currently serves as Founder and Artistic Director for the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

In 2019 Ms. Carrington was granted the Doris Duke Artist Award, a prestigious acknowledgment in recognition of her past and ongoing contributions to jazz music. Her current band project, Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science (a collaboration with Aaron Parks and Matthew Stevens), released their debut album, Waiting Game, in November 2019 on Motema Music.

Waiting Game was nominated for a 2021 GRAMMY® award and has been celebrated as one of the best jazz releases of 2019 by Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Boston Globe and Popmatters. Downbeat describes the album as, “a two-disc masterstroke on par with Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 hip-hop classic, To Pimp a Butterfly…” Ms. Carrington was named as JazzTimes Critics Polls’ Artist of the Year, Jazz Artist of the Year by Boston Globe, and Jazz Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Photo Credit: Tracy Love

Drummer Ray Quasi Nelson
Ray “Quasi” Nelson

At the age of twenty-eight, Ray “Quasi” Nelson has proved that he can wear many hats in the music and entertainment industry. Born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, Ray‘s primary reason for starting Synergy was to create a program that will provide students in his community with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. Synergy was created to serve as a bridge-builder for young musicians and influential artist in the music industry.

Growing up, Ray was no stranger to performing and organizing events. By the time he graduated from Alexander Dreyfoos SOA, Ray hosted several percussion clinics, debuted his self-produced DVD entitled, Out the Box, performed internationally and on television, and was featured in Modern Drummer magazine.

After receiving his B.A. in Jazz Studies with a minor in Music Industry from Florida A&M University, Ray, AKA Quasi moved to California to pursue a career in music and entertainment. Shortly after, he began touring and recording with The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, becoming one of the youngest members to hold the Drummer’s chair and was part of their 2018 GRAMMY nomination. Since then, Quasi has toured with GRAMMY-nominated recording artists from Kehlani to Sabrina Claudio, Mykal Kilgore, and many more. As a Producer, he has co-produced multi-platinum records and is the co-owner of Folk. The Collective, a production group consisting of artists, Producers, and creatives. Outside of music, Quasi made his television acting debut on BET’s The Quad and has served as Social Media Messenger for the NAACP Image Awards.

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