This article was written by by Stephen Brasgalla and was originally published in the March 2009 issue of Modern Drummer magazine and is being republished on this blog with permission from Billy Amendola of MD magazine. Since this blog is dedicated to church drummers, I thought it would be fitting to feature this piece.
This fact culled from the pages of MD should grab any gigging drummer's attention: Many of today's leading funk and rock drummers cite their experiences playing in church as their most important formative times for building skills in a band situation. Combine this with the fact that churches across the country are scrambling to put together praise & worship bands (often called teams) that appeal to the taste and musical preferences of their congregations.
Once you put your hat in the ring, you're very likely to find churches beating a path to your door--and these are potentially well--paying gigs, not donations of your efforts. This is especially true in more densely populated areas and particularly in affluent churches.
Here Comes The Sun
There's only one downside that comes to mind: If you've built a career on Saturday-night club gigs, then you can be sure that 7:00 am on Sunday morning is going to come pretty early and pretty hard. It's common practice to show up this early to soundcheck and run through the music set for the day. But balance this with the many positives that come with the gig, and you may find a very attractive package.
The finest programs feature top-notch performances and theatrical presentations. To sample the world-class services of some notable "mega-churches," check out the Web sites for Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, Saddleback Church in California, or Northpoint Community Church in Georgia.
A key ingredient to the music of praise & worship churches is a diversity of style and favor. In addition to straight-up rock, drummers may be asked to dive headlong into Latin styles, Indian rhythms, world music beats, reggae, and even hip-hop and punk genres. Don't worry; it's not likely that you'll be required to show a mastery of these styles on your résumé for your very first appearance. The point is, you'll have an opportunity to grow into learning and expressing yourself musically in styles outside of your normal comfort zone.
Churches usually have many volunteers who participate in their music ministries. You'll find that many or most of the players and singers on a praise & worship team will be volunteers and will likely be members of the church. However, church volunteers have widely divergent commitment levels to the music program. Some participate on a weekly basis and some only once and a while. Therefore churches that are serious about their music program will commonly pay the core musicians--and expect them to fulfill terms of their employment so as to ensure quality and dependability. These performers usually consist of a singing worship leader who also plays guitar or piano, a bass player, and, of course, a drummer.
A great benefit of a church gig is that age is almost a non-issue. An older musician who is experienced and stable will be very well received in a congregation. The "weekend warriors" out there, able to afford top-quality equipment and a desire to use it to drive a slammin' band, could find a reality cozy niche in this kind of gig. Young players (even teens), if reliable and reasonably presentable in appearance, will fit in just fine as well. It's worth mentioning that casualattire is commonplace for church performers in this venue. You probably won't be expected to wear a suit and tie.
In Search Of...
So how do you find a church gig? Well, other than the internet (the obvious first choice), cold calling is actually a good option. Ask the receptionist if the church has a praise & worship service. An older but very familiar term is a "contemporary" service. If the answer is yes, ask to speak to the praise worship director. If that falls flat, ask for the music director or pastor. This will likely lead to a straight-forward conversation about their program and whether it includes paid positions for core musicians. If the director expresses interest, this will probably lead to an informal audition.
Assuming that you present yourself well and that you have solid playing skills, you're off and running! There's no limit to the potential for different church venues. But you may find more success if you begin with the non-denominational Protestant churches. From there move to the mainline denominations. In semi-urban areas, there may be fifty or more churches within a five-mile radius of your home!
Perhaps you don't have a specific desire or need to be officially employed by a church. If your musical development is the main thing, then volunteering may be the answer. The "playing field" will open up even wider for you, and you'll reap all the benefits of the musical experience while "giving back" to your community. There's certainly a personal reward for volunteering in a church. It's also reasonably certain that you're going to meet some very nice people and also widen your base of friends and contacts.
So now you've found a gig and you're walking into the first rehersal. There are a few things to keep in mind that will quickly make you an indispensable member of the team. Note that "band" is not the right idea here, becasue it's common for the ministry wolunteers to have a different line up from week to week. "Bands" are closed groups; "teams" are usually wide open, and this has special relevance in a church situation. Therefore being a "team player" is very beneficial.
Now let's detail the areas you'll need to have covered if you want to become the ideal church drummer.
Is There A Drummer In The House?
Bring the equipment you need. Usually a church will have a drumkit that remains set up and in position. The quality of that kit could vary widely, but normally it will be reasonably complete. Therefore you simply need your stick bag, outfitted with regular sticks, "rods" for lower-volume playing, mallets, and possibly brushes. At your option, you might bring your favorite snare drum and kick drum pedal if you're particular about the action you want. If you remove any items from the kit, treat them with care and set them back up as you found them.
Be sitting in the drummer's seat on time, and with copies of the music you need ready to go in front of you. Bring a pencil! Church bands routinely play from lead sheets, which consist of one or two pages of lyrics and chords for each song. Some charts will have melodies on a musical staff, but this is often a luxury. The music is typically repetitive, and you'll be asked to quickly understand and remember how many times the verses and choruses are played.
You're likely to rehears a song you've never heard before, so pencil notations are a must. Bringa three-ring binder and try to put your music securely inside, in the order of performance. It's never appreciated when your music slides off the stand and you become hopelessly lost. If the director expects you to count off each tune, it will be essential equipment to have a metornome with a tap feature. During practice, tap in the tempo that the director likes and then write it down at the top of the lead sheet. This makes things simple and leaves the director feeling very comfortable.
During the rehearsal, never play until the director starts the tune or otherwise asks you to play your instrument. There's inevitably too little time to get through all the arrangements and nuances of an entire service. Nothing is more annoying than a musician who is constantly noodling on his or her instrument, creating distractions, and failing to follow the flow of the rehearsal. Yes, it's hard to sit silently, particularly when the director suddenly sidetracks into a forty-five minute special session with the vocalists. But do it anyway. You'll be regarded as worth your weight in gold. Rehearsals are most often sixty to ninety minutes max, so time is usually precious.
Thrills, Spills...And Fills!
Never play a fill until the bandmembers ask you to. This is clearly an ultra-conservative policy, but one that I believe will keep you in the highest graces. Countless MD featured drummers have stated that their prime goal is to play for the song. Never is this more true than in chruch. People are trying to attain a worshipful state of mind, so a sudden cataclysmic drum fill may pull them violently back into space. Better to play a straight beat consistently through the song. When the music reaches a certain point, the director will say, "Why don't you put in a fill right there." Don't be surprised if he or she is very specific about the fill that is wanted. They may be trying to replicate the performance from a CD or make some other specific transition. Again, you'll be revered if you're responsive and conservative when it comes to fills. Avoid putting the director in the awkward position of trying to get you to cut back on your fills.
If you don't know a style or can't sustain a particular beat (or tempo), just say so clearly and directly. Nobody expects you to be the Zen master of every conceivable genre. And with some simple direction, a substitute compromise can usually be made so that you can make it through the tune. But you'll waste a lot less time and avoid unnecessary blows your ego if you're straightforward about your limitations.
Can I Get More Drums In The Monitor?
Learn to control your volume to match the levels of the group. Church bands often play at strikingly different sound levels. Some groups routinely play at very low "acoustic"-style presentations, while others bring a full stadium onslaught of sound. You must be able to match your playing to the comparable levels of the other instrumentalists and the PA system. Reading between the lines here, you must be able to have control and musicality at quieter levels. This is a skill that many drummers lack and one that takes time and experience to build.
One of the easiest ways to manage this is to have a variety of sticks at your disposal that allow quieter playing while keeping your playing style consistent. Again, use "reverse engineering" tactics here: It's much easier for a director to ask the drummer to play louder than it is to try to get that person to play quieter. Bear in mind that hearing the singer or other vocalist is almost always the most important priority in helping the congregation engage in the music.
Lastly, I would stress the need to play exactly the same way in performance as in rehearsal. Too many players in too many situations (across the board, not just in church) are attentive to their director or their bandmates in practice. Then when the lights come up and there's a positive response from the crowd, the player gets excited or over-involved, suddenly breaks away from a balanced performance, and goes off on their own. This is almost impossible for a director to control mid-performance without creating a scene, so don't put the director in this position. Trust their judgment and try to duplicate your performance in practice as much as possible.
Shake It Up!
Many great players will attest to the fact that church performances were among their richest and most satisfying experiences. Short of being a full-fledged kit player, percussion is another excellent entry point into church playing. As a director, I look for the "egg shaker" more often than any other percussion instrument as a first-call sound effect. Tambourine is a close second for achieving that great pop-rock sound. And never forget our friend the cowbell! Many church bands routinely use a dedicated conga/bongo player for the flavor and dynamics that these instruments add. (Just take my advice, though, and go easy on the windchimes!)
Be a team player, keep a good spirit, and look forward to audience interaction, which can truly be a deep experience level whenever you play in a worship setting. Pay attention to the director and your bandmates, play conservatively when you begin, and keep your instrument silent when other things are happening in rehearsal or soundcheck. Follow these guidelines, and you may find yourself in one of the best musical situations that you've ever experienced. Heed the excellent advice that Cab Calloway gave to John Belushi in The Blues Brothers: "You get wise...you get to church!"
Stephen Brasgalla is a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, and praise worship director in the South Florida area who also has an extreme passion for jazz drumming. He teaches drumming and percussion privately in the genres of rock, drum corps, and jazz.