Back in April of 2009, Branon Dempsey published a two part article on his blog entitled, “To Drum or Not To Drum” (go to http://www.worshipteamtraining.com/ArticlesOnMusic.html). These two articles cover the dynamics of how the drums (acoustic as opposed to electronic) mix with the other instruments in the smaller churches that tend to have small praise bands.
Before I begin my review of Branon’s work, let me first mention the Branon and I go back a ways. I played drums and percussion under him for two years from 2002 to 2003 while he was the Music Director at Family of Faith Lutheran Church. For the most part I think Branon’s articles offered some good insights. As for the points in Branon’s work that I would take exception to, I would like to politely offer a different perspective and smooth out a few rough edges.
First, I will highlight the positive parts of Branon’s work. In the beginning he correctly identified one of the biggest challenges a small praise band faces when he wrote:
…”the fewer instruments you have, the drums will only stand out that much more. In other words, if all you have is a piano, a guitar and a drummer, it's going to take more dynamic range for the other two instruments to balance out the drums.”
I know this to be true from first-hand experience. I have played in small churches under the scenario that Branon just described. I remember how I had to adjust my playing in order to maintain the ministry value of the music under that kind of arrangement.
Branon also did well in explaining the purpose of the drums in a praise band when he wrote:
“As for drums, the main purpose of the band is to support the singers, the end result to lead the congregation in worship and in song. I have seen and heard many church bands that spend way too much time on the drums, when they lack the other instrumental support to the music/singers as a whole. The drummer's job is like the band, to provide a clear sense of timing and pulse.”
Branon gave a lot of good practical suggestions on how to apply external volume controls on the drums by using carpets, shields, banners and other acoustical modifications. There were good tips on how the band members can better communicate, as well as some practice tips for the drummer. On the whole I think it was a good article that needed to be written. There are a lot of small churches out there that struggle to field a complete praise band and often times have to make due with less than ideal conditions. So that two part series of articles definitely filled a vacuum.
Now, allow me to dot and cross a few Is and Ts in the parts of Branon’s work where it fell a little short. For starters, he made the dependability and the reliability of the drummer an issue. Although he was correct in emphasizing the importance of having a consistent drummer, this is not an issue that is unique to just drummers. I have been playing drums in praise bands for almost 25 years, I can tell you quite a few stories about the inconsistency of a few guitar and bass players. The fact of the matter is, everyone in the praise band needs to be consistent.
The reason consistency issue is a lot more pronounced in the smaller churches is because the talent pool of musicians is not as deep as the larger churches. Those small churches who are fortunate enough to field a complete praise band, often times run into trouble when one of their musicians goes on vacation, a business trip or gets sick because they may not have a back up musician available to step in as a sub. Even the most faithful and consistent praise band member does not usually play all 52 Sundays out of the year. Having back up musicians is not a luxury that most small churches have.
I think Branon could have done a better job of laying out his premise and making some distinctions. For example, he wrote:
“Now let's talk about skill. As said before, it is always better to not have a drummer than to have one who is uncontrollable.”
When I think of an “uncontrollable” drummer, I think of an uncooperative drummer who is totally out for himself and disrupts the objectives of the Praise band while being under an illusion of MTV grandeur by playing loud all the time and playing fills every two bars whether the song actually needs them or not. I think we need to first start with the premise that if a drummer is coming to play at a church, then he needs to respect Praise music as a genre and be willing to learn to master all the nuances and techniques that are required to be an effective praise drummer. This is something all musicians of all genres have to do if they want steady work. If I go play a country music gig, I will need to use my vocabulary of country licks and chops on that gig. If I were to play like a metal drummer on a country gig, I probably will not get a call to play with that band again. Playing the Praise music genre in church is no different.
Let’s make the distinction between the beginning drummer who is struggling to keep time and the drummer who can keep good time, but may lack the finesse to play softly at those key points in the song service. If we are talking about the former, then we are talking about a competency level issue. In this case, I would advise the Music Director to find a tactful way of telling this young inexperienced drummer that he can’t play until he gets his timing together. Then again, the same could be said about a beginning guitar player who can’t quite make those chord transitions and keep up with the chord progressions of the songs.
As for the case of a solid drummer who is having difficulty playing softly, this problem can be easily compensated for. Although I give Branon credit for addressing volume reduction when he made some suggestions on external acoustical options, he never thoroughly addressed the issue of stick options. There is a reason I keep a set of brushes, multi-rods and mallets in my stick bag in addition to regular drum sticks. This is something all Praise drummers should have so they will be better able to provide whatever coloring or texturing a song may need. But, the multi rods can especially come in handy for those drummers who are having volume issues. Cross Sticking is another technique that can be used to take the edge off the volume.
The skill level issue is another problem that many small churches have to deal with. Breaking into a praise band in the larger churches is often times very competitive. And it can be difficult for a young musician to get in some quality playing time and experience if his church has a deep talent pool of musicians. To a large degree, the smaller churches are sort of like the minor leagues for praise musicians. They are more desperate for talent and they will be happy to have any kind of musician regardless of skill level. A lot of the larger churches have a youth group that might have a youth praise band. This is also another way young musicians can get some experience.
In part two of Branon’s article, he spent two paragraphs raving over “drum machines/loops/clicks.” I refer to those things as the “synthetic drums.” His advice on synthetic drums was sound. But, Branon never made it abundantly clear that the synthetic drums should be a plan B measure when there isn’t a drummer or a minimally competent drummer available. Remember, synthetic drums have their limitations. They are mechanical, predictable and they don’t have a heart and soul. They are unable to, as Branon would say, “match the moment,” or produce an ethereal (another word I learned from Branon) texturing or coloring effect.
When discussing the issue of the synthetic drums vs the live drummer, there is one hard cold reality that we need to keep in mind. The fact is, if any church in our day and culture expects to see any significant growth, they will need to have a good red hot praise band. Period! I don’t care how well the Pastor delivers his messages. If a Pastor does not have a good praise band backing him up, his church will not see any significant growth. I can make the argument that a church with a mediocre Pastor, but a good praise band has more potential for growth that a church with a really good Pastor and a mediocre praise band. So, using synthetic drums as opposed to working with a beginner level drummer who is struggling may be the most expedient and convenient way to go in the short run. However, in the long run I think they would be doing the music program a big disservice. So, if you have a drummer with the minimum required time keeping skills and he has a teachable and cooperative spirit, I say use him as much as possible. In the long run the music program will be better off for it. I don’t know of any church that developed a successful music program using synthetic drums.
Please understand that my critique of Branon’s two articles on the drums is in NO WAY intended to impugn Branon’s credentials and credibility as an accomplished Musician, Song Leader and Music Director. In fact, if the music program at your church needs some help in the way of coaching, training, workshops, clinics or whatever, Branon would be the guy that I would highly recommend for this. He holds a Masters Degree in Music, and understands every facet of running a church music program. He is proficient on keyboards and guitar. He used to be a drummer when he was in High School, so he knows how to communicate with drummers very well.
Branon has an excellent grasp of music theory, he can read music and write and compose and has written many praise songs. He is very good at evaluating talent and coaching accordingly. Branon is equally proficient in coaching vocals and the rhythm section. He also is very knowledgeable on the technical aspects of a music program. He knows his way around a sound booth and recording studio. So when it comes to church music ministry development, Branon is the complete package. For more information about how to contract his services, go to the Worship Team Training web site that I referenced at the top of this article.