Posted by Mike Murray on 27 May 2015

Are you a drummer at your church or know someone who is? Here are some really helpful insights from Mike Murray, a fellow church drummer.

1. PRACTICE UNTIL YOU CAN’T GET IT WRONG

There’s a famous but anonymous quote I remember my high school baseball coach liked to tell the players: Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong. Drummers, this doesn’t start/end during band rehearsal. It always begins with you alone “in the woodshed, working on your chops” until the instrument and the song are as natural to you as breathing. It’s the foundation for a player truly being free to worship, as opposed to staring at a lead sheet, overthinking the next drum fill, which often leads to missing Point #2…

2. TRANSITIONS ARE DOORS THAT LEAD TO LIFE OR DEATH 

Transitions are both within songs (i.e. intros, outros, chorus/verse turns, entrance/exit of the bridge, etc.) and between songs (i.e. going from a fast song to a slow song or vice versa). These are doorways that can make or break – even train wreck – a worship set. Unless you’re playing to tracks, there’s a good chance tempos (Point #3), song arrangements, and transitions may fluctuate a bit from leader to leader and from team to team. This is what band rehearsals are for. When everyone in the band knows it’s “all in” at the top of a song, or “down 1st time” at the top of the bridge, and collectively they do these with authority, it genuinely brings a confidence to the song/set that can be felt from the congregation. On the flip side, blowing those intros/transitions can bring a pain so great, you’ll want to climb into the kick drum and hide.

3. THE METRONOME IS YOUR BEST FRIEND

Play to it when you practice. Play to it when you rehearse. Turn it on when you’re listening to music (using the “Tap Tempo” feature), especially when it’s the songs you’re preparing to play on Sunday. If you have an iPhone/iPad, the best app I’ve found is called Tempo. One of its best features for church drummers is that it allows you to share saved tempo markings/set lists via email, which is great if your church has more than one drummer. You’ll be surprised how much rehearsal time it saves if you arrive to rehearsal already having tempos mapped out for the set. I highly recommend you also notify whoever keeps tabs on songs from week to week so they can mark that on all charts, just like the key of a song.

4. FOCUS ON THE LEADER

Keep a very sharp eye on the worship leader during rehearsal and also during the set: during rehearsal as he walks the band through each song, and during the set in case he wants to repeat a section or, in many cases, when he feels the need to vamp or “soak” in a particular moment. It’s easy for a drummer to zone out at rehearsal while the leader is working the background vocalists, but don’t let it happen to you. Stay dialed in. At a moment, he may be ready to pick it back up from the 2nd chorus leading into the bridge. You need to stay on the ready to arm the metronome – or “click” – and count everyone back in. I once heard a well-known touring/recording drummer say, “The drummer drives the bus, but the worship leader owns the bus.” Make sure you lead the way with confidence, but remember the leader is in charge. 

5. ANTICIPATE, ANTICIPATE, ANTICIPATE

No doubt your church worship leader has subtle and/or conspicuous cues – body language, subtle nods or even vocal pick ups – that give you a heads up where he’s headed. Learn them intimately… learn to anticipate those cues. Again, unless you’re playing to tracks, even following a chart/lead sheet hopefully leaves a little bit of room for the leader to truly lead the set as the Holy Spirit leads him. The better you are at focusing on what he’s doing before he does it, the better the time of worship will be.

If you’re starting/stopping the click between songs so the leader can exhort the congregation, learn to anticipate when you can start it back up before the intro of the next song. Or if you’re coming to the end of a song, pay attention to how quickly he may want the click turned off so he can vamp softly, maybe with just acoustic guitar or pads at the end of a slow song. Our primary worship leader likes to stomp his right foot if he wants the band to stay in strong rather than drop out. This often depends on how engaged the audience is. But all that to say: stay focused and anticipate.

6. DYNAMICS SEPARATE THE MEN FROM BOYS 

Sure, you can play the song in your sleep now and can read the worship leader’s mind, but playing with dynamics is what separates the men from the boys. Think of it as using a box of 8 crayons versus a box of 64 crayons. Blue doesn’t necessarily mean just blue. For example: your velocity building up from a down bridge to an “all in” bridge the 2nd time through could display a dozen “shades of blue” within the phrase. Worship songs have a natural arc to them, like a good film. Make use of that arc with solid dynamics. Going even deeper, the best drummers in the world live in what’s called the “pocket.” What is the “pocket” you ask? Here’s a great blog post on “Pocket Philosophy”:  Make your home there. Mastering this with great tempo will get you invited to play again and again. 

7. IT IS A SONG SO TREAT IT THAT WAY

Just because you may not need to know if the chorus starts on the C Major chord versus an A Minor chord, you do need to know the “story” of the song. Pay attention to the lyrics – the actual words and their rhythm in phrase. Does your kick pattern complement it? What about your cymbal “coloring” while the leader is quietly strumming on guitar at the end of a song? You’re not just laying down a groove. You’re telling a story. Think of the journey of the song GREAT I AM. Is what you’re playing reflecting the imagery of “The mountains shake before you; the demons run and flee” in the bridge? And reflecting back on Point #6, are your dynamics also helping to reflect that imagery through the end of the bridge?

8. BE A STUDENT OF THE GAME

Study other drummers. Watch YouTube videos. Play along with your favorite worship albums. Go back and listen to your church service board mixes if they’re recorded. Share what works or what doesn’t work with the other drummers at church. Read blogs like the one on “Pocket Philosophy.” Then play until you find your own natural “pocket." Whatever it takes… be a student of the game – someone who refuses to plateau but keeps pressing on to get better and better and better. Our church streams each Sunday service in full, including the worship set. I go back and watch the set, usually on Monday mornings, and critique myself from beginning to end. It’s kind of like an NFL quarterback watching game film. I know I will have played many of those songs multiple times before – at the same tempo and on the same road map – but there are always subtle things I’ll find, where I can improve on my game the next time I play those same songs. 

9. KEEP YOUR KIT TUNED, WELL-MAINTAINED, AND UPGRADED

You’d think this is a no-brainer. But sadly it isn’t. Change your heads every 4-6 months, be careful not to “gorilla tighten” stands/tom arms (which make it difficult for the next drummer to make adjustments without destroying the gear), leave the area cleaner than you found it, and, if you lay off the $4 cup of pre-gig coffee long enough, you may find you’ve saved up more than you need for that cymbal or snare you’ve been drooling over. By the way, put down that roll of duct tape. It never, ever belongs on a drum kit. But that’s another conversation for another day… In the meantime, try Moongel if you must.

10. YOUR MIX IS JUST THAT – YOUR MIX 

Assuming you’ve been assigned your own monitor mix (using headphones, in-ears or an old school monitor), make sure your mix is just right for you. Building from Point #4 and being able to focus on the leader, make sure you have what you need in your mix and don’t feel guilty removing or at least dropping the rest in the mix as you feel comfortable. Just because there are background vocalists on stage doesn’t mean you need them all in your mix (unless one of them steps out to lead a song of course). Just because there’s a second acoustic guitar on stage while the leader is also playing one doesn’t mean you need both of them in your mix. And, you may also need a little more click than the rest of the band.

Take time to get that stuff right during rehearsal. Fixing your mix during the set is distracting, even if you have the ability to make your own tweaks on the fly. My personal preference is plenty of click, plenty of lead vocal, plenty of kick, and then fill in the rest accordingly. While some will contest that having everything that’s on stage present in your mix builds unity, I believe unity is either there or it isn’t before everyone puts their ears in. You can have plenty of that mandolin player and lovely alto singer in your mix, but if they aren’t following the click – or the worship leader – as closely as you should be, the potential for distraction is inevitable. Give genuine love and support to every individual on your team who, like you, is volunteering their time to serve, but treat your mix like it’s just that – your mix.

Have fun, engage in worship, burn some calories and, for goodness' sake, live in the “pocket.” It is what separates kings from mortal men! Just don’t treat the drum throne like it is one… 

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Mike Murray is the Creative Director for Integrity Music, overseeing the company’s Publishing division. Murray is a 20-year veteran of the Christian music industry, working with artists and songwriters like All Sons & Daughters, Paul Baloche, Israel Houghton, Kari Jobe, Gateway Worship, Hillsong, Newsboys, Lincoln Brewster, Jennie Lee Riddle, Dustin Smith and New Life Worship to name just a few. Mike is a graduate of the University Of Mobile, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Composition. He is also an accomplished drummer, playing and recording regularly at his home church, Gateway Church in Franklin, TN, and with worship leaders like Michael Farren (Pocket Full of Rocks). You can follow him on Twitter at @murraysongs.

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