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The Wiser Sideman: Career Tips for Becoming a Pro Drummer

This column originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Stephane Chamberland

In my career so far, I’ve had the chance to perform with and book/promote my own bands and to become a sideman on many different artists’ gigs. I am always finding different challenges with both but, in this article, I want to particularly address the tools that you can develop and be aware of if you want to start freelancing. I’m going to discuss from the moment you get the call to the last note you will play at the live show. These are lessons I learned the hard way and they were humbling experiences that made me a better drummer and sideman.

Balance your workload

With success comes choices. Sometimes we must makes healthy choice and I would say these are quality-based choices instead of simply production ones. What I mean by that is that we are not products but we are human beings. I know many musicians who, when they started to have success and saw work coming, became crazy about taking every gig offered in order to make as much money as possible. I found myself in a similar situation and I realized that the quality of our playing is one of the most important parts of being a professional musician. You have to know the songs and perform them well. To be able to do that, it takes time to learn the material and run through it a couple of times before the gig. Make sure you don’t take on too much work as to be unable to prepare yourself enough before the gig. Learn or write the charts, listen to the music a lot, and play along with the material by yourself before going to the gig, or if you are lucky, the rehearsal.  Don’t get overwhelmed with too many gigs to affect the quality and pleasure of working well.

Make sure you understand everything before the show

If you get the chance to have a rehearsal this is a great time to ask questions. If you don’t have an opportunity to do a full rehearsal, make sure that you talk to the bandleader or the drummer you are subbing for if you have hesitations, no matter how small they could be. Remember that if there is something slightly unclear in your head about the chart, the form, or the music, it will be a huge deal come performance time. You will not by magic play it by chance, so never leave small unclear details unresolved. As the drummer you are the leader of the band and when the leader is slightly out of focus, the followers become blind. I love to write down all of my questions and take a moment to ask them all in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm the bandleader. Make your questions clear and concise. Write everything down and make sure you review the answers before the gig.

Good reader, good measure counter

As drummers we all have had the chance to read complex rhythms and challenging snare drum pieces. One of the difficulties could be at the bar-counting level. If you have a bass or piano chart, you still must follow the form. If it’s a drum chart, you will have to count also. My advice is to practice counting measures. You can count in your head, out loud, or find other ways to not get lost.

My personal way is to visualize a set of playing cards and I see the number of the bar forming the same design that we find on a standard playing card. This is a very quirky, individualized way of doing things but it is a mnemonic device that works along the lines of the memory palace technique. When it’s really challenging I will count 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, and so on. When you practice this, challenge yourself with a number of bars that are unusual, like six or five. For example, groove five bars and play a fill on bar six. In these situations, you sometimes need to let your reading lead your playing before you hear how it is going to fit.

The external job

Apart from playing the songs right and sounding good, you will sometimes have to take care of other things, such as counting-in before the song starts or following the metronome in your in-ears or visually. Starting the sequences if the band is using them, is something else that may become your job, so know how the sequence starts and make sure you loudly and clearly cue the other musicians. You may also need to control your own sound so I would recommend you always carry a small mixer with cables and in-ears. That’s where I’ve had the most challenge. It’s really hard to practice controlling your own sound because it’s something you learn by doing and with experience. Things you may consider that are not part of the playing but are also important are the way you dress and how you present yourself. Be on time and make sure your equipment is ready and right for the gig. If you go to a rock gig, you want to make sure your drums are tuned low and the bass drum is fat. If you go to a Jazz gig, you want higher pitched sounds and a small bass drum.

The emergency kit

You want to be as professional as you can and being professional means being ready for any contingency. That’s why I always carry a suitcase with many things I may need at the gig. For example, batteries, extra cables, adaptors, black electrical tape and duct tape, Moongels, plasters/adhesive bandages, extra contact lenses or glasses, longer cables for headphones, extra pair of in-ear headphones, or anything else you think you may need. The good thing about that is that if someone else has an emergency, you could be the guy saving the day – and the gig.

Gaining points or losing points

This may sounds harsh but the reality is that you are gaining points or losing points. The main thing we want is to get a call back and make the people we’re working with feel safe and comfortable. The way you present yourself and talk to the band, the way you play, and the level of preparation you will have are some of the things that are going to make you gain points. Being perfect is not the issue here, but you want to be aware of these things. Stay relaxed and positive. Be present but don’t draw too much attention by talking too much or making too many jokes. Be in observation mode and try to listen as much as you can and focus on your job. Be ready and try to adapt to the personality of each musician. Balance your volume when you play and play simple. Everything must be there musically speaking but never overplay. Keep transitions simple and just be a great musical drummer. Say, ‘Thank you!’

More to know

There are many other things we all learn with experience. Remember that it’s a question of skills, personality, and professionalism. If becoming a sideman is part of your desire or if you tried and found it difficult, well it’s time to evaluate what you want, how you can make yourself better. Learn from your mistakes and how to be happy in the process. I think that if you do a couple of fun, successful gigs, you will want to do more because of the great feeling you will get from having done a great job, making other musicians and people that hire the band happy, and by growing at the same time.


Stephane Chamberland is an internationally-recognized drummer and educator. He proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Remo drumheads, Shure Microphones,
and Prologix Percussion. He is the co-author of the books
The Weaker Side, Pedal Control & Drumset Duets. For more info, email Stephane at global2steph@icloud.com or visit www.stephanechamberland.com.

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