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THE ESSENTIALS OF THE CHURCH DRUMMER

Here are some pointers I have learned over the years that I played in a large and excellently lead worship team in Brompton, London. Throughout this article it must be borne in mind that every situation (every church and even every service) is unique and it would be good to keep these principles in mind while modifying them to your own church’s situation. The over-riding characteristic of a successful church drummer must be sensitive adaptability – the ability to fit in to the music, the worship, the team and the tradition of the church where you are working.

NO DRUMMER IS BETTER THAN A BAD DRUMMER
Never distract the congregation with bad drumming or, ironically, amazing drumming. Andy Piercy (of ‘After The Fire’ fame), our wise worship leader once said to me: ‘if the congregation leaves at the end of the service saying that the worship band (or the drummer) was great today, then the worship band has failed. If they go home saying that the worship was great then the band has succeeded’ ... it’s a fine line.

Worship drummers are not showmen. It is not advisable to try out that long amazing fill with cross sticking that you have been practicing for weeks. Try not to twirl your sticks. One stick spin and you know that there are going to be a few people in the congregation that will spend the rest of the service watching you to see if you will do it again. In some churches however, the congregation run about waving flags so a twirl could hardly hurt there (see the first paragraph).
The church drummer needs to remember the KISS principle. Keep it simple - as simple as it can be without losing groove. If you want to stretch out and express your skill as a drummer then join a progressive jazz band on Saturdays. On Sundays you want to keep out of the way of the congregation’s focus. Your drumming should help them clap unconsciously and not force them to concentrate on bashing their hands together rhythmically against your funky odd time grooves. That said, some newer worship songs are very funky. Then you must have the skill to play the song accordingly.

Sometimes a tambourine is enough…or way too much. Just keeping a bass drum pulse throughout a song or tapping the hihat on the beat is sometimes all that is needed (see the ‘right kit’ below). And if possible NEVER ever give a tambourine to a congregation member. Tambourines are extremely hard to play properly. Many drummers think they can play them but even they cannot … so an excited congregation member is very unlikely to groove on a tambourine.
When in doubt, drop out. The church drummer must listen with very open ears. If the drums are not working, if there is a chance that what you are doing is in any way removing focus from God then you must fade out and let worship prevail. That said, do not drop out so suddenly that people stop thinking about God and start wondering what happened to the drums. Develop the skill of dropping down, fading out, halving the beat, halving the ride instrument, keeping a pulse, opening the groove out etc.

Finally, how close is close enough? Do you cover the song exactly - as on the CD that most of the congregation have bought in the lobby, or do you give them something fresh? This is really up to your worship-leader to decide. Some songs are really well executed in recordings and if the drum beat (and even the fills) are a signature of the piece then you should endeavour to cover them closely. Doing otherwise in this instance may once again distract the congregation. I believe its all right to do a bit of both.

THE RIGHT KIT
Most churches will have their own kit. If you are on a rota then tune the kit up and set it up respectfully. Keep everything middle of the road so the next drummer doesn’t have to make huge changes. Leave it as you would want to find it.
If the kit is rubbish then bring some of your own bits. Good cymbals, pedal and snare will transform a worn old kit into a musical instrument again.
Sometimes you will be playing your own kit. I strongly advise against bringing a giant eye-distracting, caged 15-piece drum kit. Space at the front is, more often than not, quite limited. An enormous kit at the altar throughout the service is likely to get in the way. A generic 5 or 4 piece set up with 3 cymbals and some percussion is all you need. Too much more than that and you become the star of the show for some (perhaps younger) congregation members rather than God. Plus having to set up and tear down a giant kit every Sunday for no pay will soon become tiresome. Church drumming is a wonderful sacrifice full of thanks-giving, but it should be sustainable and not a chore. A reasonable kit will help ensure this for you.

WATCHING FOR CUES
Every worship-leader is different but they are not just singers and guitarists or keyboard players. They are band directors. They have signals and you need to find out what these are. Sometimes it’s in the voice or in a flick of the head or a kick of the foot. Church drumming is all about dynamics. Sometimes you will be playing at full volume and then need to drop to finger touch in the space of a bar. Many times it will be up to you to direct yourself into these quiet times. I believe the Holy spirit directs the whole band this way and when an automatic mood change occurs instantaneously across a large band the effect is miraculous.

Just remember that the worship leader is responsible for the worship and that it is your job to support them. Develop a good professional and friendly relationship with them. Make their job easy. If they are concentrating on your drumming then they are not concentrating on the worship. And if they are not into the worship then the congregation is less likely to be so as well.
Once again, when in doubt drop out. One thing I’ve learned is that a talented worship leader by themselves can absolutely rock a song on an acoustic guitar. The drummer is a bonus not a necessity. Much better that you are not there in a loud section than blaringly there on a sudden soft section. Be sensitive and musical.

BE A PERCUSSIONIST IN THE KID’S SONGS
During the kid’s praise and worship songs you need to have a sense of humour. Think like a Disney drummer would. The whole kit can be used as sound effects. And why not bring a slide whistle, temple blocks or a ratchet? During songs like: ‘Don’t build your house on the sandy land’ I used to use my kit to sound like a construction site. I sawed my roughened sticks on the rim of the floor tom and it really does sound like wood being sawed. I hit the butt of the stick on the bell but held it there for a second each time and it sounds like an anvil. It's loads of fun and the kids love it. See what you can do.

SING WHILE YOU DRUM
Even without a mic. Remember that you too are worshipping. Get into the worship. Close you eyes if you need to. Don’t just be a drummer. You are part of a large group of worshippers and your visible attitude will help lead the congregation from the kit ... or distract them if you are only there to drum. All that said, do not sing if it causes you to drum badly. I know that I personally battle to sing any song where I am shuffling.

This is more about keeping up appearances. Smile but do not grin madly. Look involved in the worship not bored or morose. Most of this will occur automatically if you are in the Spirit  (see 'Prayer is all important' below)

COMMITMENT
Church drumming is fun and rewarding but it is a commitment. Never let the church down by being late, scruffy, tired or absent. Respect the individual worship team’s codes of conduct in terms of how you dress and how you behave between songs. If there is no dress code then dress in a way that is most likely to match what other people around you are going to be wearing and is least likely to distract attention from worship.

Rehearsal is another form of commitment. Some churches, like HTB where I worked, have extensive worship teams where each Sunday you may find yourself with a different leader and different band. Most rehearsals at my church happened an hour before the congregation arrived and it was essential to show up in time to arrange the more difficult numbers. In other churches the band is always the same and rehearsals might be organised during the week. You as the drummer might quickly learn the material and feel that you need not attend every one … but you should. The other musicians need to learn to play along with you and also, the possibility exists that the band will come up with new ideas in your absence.


VERSATILITY, ADAPTABILITY, COURAGE … IN OTHER WORDS: YOU GOTTA HAVE FAITH
Some things can be rehearsed but in church drumming the situation is fluid. There were very few times in all the years that I was a church drummer that we stuck to a song list or even to any predetermined song structure. God moves in mysterious ways and you had better be ready to drum in mysterious ways too. Which is very much why …

PRAYER IS ALL IMPORTANT
Before the pre-service rehearsal, before going up to play, between songs and after the service. As a rule of thumb: you really cannot pray enough. Prayer will focus your playing and fill you with the Spirit and faith after all, remember…

WHO ARE YOU DRUMMING FOR?
God. His people. And only for yourself in as much as you are one of His people.

 

 

Some of my best drumming experiences have been at church. I pray the same happens to you.

 

J

 

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