Worship Pastors: How to Talk to Your Drummers
Worship pastor to drummer communication has got to be one of the most stressful things to be a part of within a worship team, but I think there’s a reason it’s so common. The drum set is such an oddball instrument, and also the only one who’s role is entirely different than most contemporary worship instruments. Unfortunately, it also happens to be the loudest and one of the most important and impactful instruments on the stage (don’t agree with me? Compare playing a single wrong chord with crashing into a groove completely out of time…)
The issue is that all instruments on the stage have a similar primary responsibility – melody or harmony. However, the drummer’s role is primarily one of rhythm. Drummers are generally very specific with their focus on rhythm, not concerned about chords or progressions, and have an entire set of specific vocabulary related to their instrument that doesn’t apply to other instruments.
So, is miscommunication bound to happen? Yes. However, there are plenty of ways that you as a worship pastor can improve your communication with drummers and learn how to talk to your church drummers better. Here are a few tips:
Learn Where Energy/Intensity vs. Noise Comes From
Many worship pastors struggle to communicate anything related to intensity to their drummers. It’s hard. Your drummer is way too loud, so you tell him to back off, but then the song completely loses its intensity. So, you give him some haphazardous suggestions out of left field that he has no clue what to do with and you end up with a frustrated worship pastor, frustrated drummer, and frustrated sound guy.
Here’s a tip that’s well known amongst professional drummers, sound guys, and studio engineers: intensity doesn’t come from the cymbals, it comes from the drums.
The drum kit sounds best when the cymbals sit at 50-60% the volume of the drums. It takes most drummers – even professionals – a long time before they come to realize this. Here’s my take on why a kit sounds best this way (I’m going to go to the basics for a second because it’s important to set it up):
The role of the drum kit is to provide “groove”. A groove makes people want to move or dance in some way. Grooves create the illusion of a pendulum swinging back and forth. Think about a grandfather clock or an old-school metronome. The kick on beats 1 & 3 make you move to the left, and snare on beats 2 & 4 makes you move to the right, creating the illusion of movement. There’s no “actual” movement happening, but the back-and-forth between those two very-contrasted sounds creates a sense of movement.
In my opinion, that’s the real value and purpose of the drum kit. No other instrument is responsible or even as qualified as the drum set to do that – to provide a back and forth movement, or “groove”.
Now, syncopating is a way to manipulate the way that a groove makes you want to move. Adding the kick underneath the snare makes the movement feel smaller but more impactful (i.e., 4 on the floor). A kick right before a snare makes it feel like the pendulum is accelerating to the next backbeat. A kick a 16th note after the snare makes it feel like a sudden “drop” in the movement. etc. etc. etc.
I say all this to convey the power that the kick and snare – the primary tools in a groove – have in manipulating the movement that a song conveys, and that is, in its most basic definition, the role of the drum kit.
But a kick and snare pattern feel rather exposed and empty. That’s a cool effect sometimes, but you often want something to glue it together, and that’s where cymbals come in. Cymbals play a gluing, or texturing role in the groove. They bring it together, and can help to support the intensity level of the groove. However, they are not the primary tool that helps accomplish stating the intensity, and as a result, should not get the same amount of sonic space in a song as the kick, snare, and toms.
Also, cymbals are significantly less pleasant to listen to as the audience when the volume increases, unlike the drum shells themselves. They hit that 3kHz-6kHz range that’s so harsh on the ear drums, and it makes it near impossible for the sound guy to mix the kit, as he’s fighting to bring up the close mics in the mix, but then it’s all way to loud in the PA, so he brings it all down and then you have nothing coming through the PA and the drums sound super thin coming only from the stage.
So in summary, cymbals as they increase in volume tend to create a lot more “noise”, but don’t contribute (at least not nearly as much) as the drums themselves do in creating intensity and manipulating the emotional effect that a groove has on a listener. They can help support the intensity, but should not drive the intensity. That’s why in studio and live settings, professional drummers will keep their cymbals between 50%-70% the volume of the drums, allowing the drums to drive the intensity with the cymbals playing a supporting role. This gives the sound guy a ton of room to crank the drums and make them sound huge through the PA without slicing everyone’s ear drums open from harsh cymbals.
Learn Your Counts
I’m baffled by how many people don’t know their 8th or 16th note counts. The sheer volume of instrumentalists that don’t know where the “e of 3” is in a measure is surprising to me. That is the language of drummers. Their job is predominantly one of rhythm, and having an instrumentalist who’s predominant job is melody and harmony attempt to speak into drum grooves and parts without knowing the 16th note grid/counts super well creates for major disaster.
Learn. Your. Counts. Practice to a metronome. What does ending on the “a of 4” sound like? Where is beat “2” of measure 5? What 16th notes are you accenting in your strumming pattern? Be aware and learn those things if you want to succeed in coaching a drummer at all. Know if the click in a song is playing the 8th notes or the quarter notes so you can offer timing suggestions (tip: always find and teach others to find the quarter note by putting the snare/backbeats on counts “2” & “4”. That will keep you and team members from counting half as fast or twice as fast as each other and failing to know what counts you’re talking about.)
Also, familiarize yourself with what 16th notes vs 8th notes on the hi-hat or ride sound like. That will allow you to speak into cymbal choices in grooves if something feels off. Take note of how that will make your conversation much more productive.
“Hey, in verse 2, can you go to 16th notes instead of 8th notes on the hi-hat?”
“Hey, in verse 2, I just need like, more.” *Drummer plays louder* “No, not louder, like, busier?” *Drummer plays a busy groove* “That’s too much. What about just like 4 on the floor? Or something on the cymbals?” *Drummer renounces his faith, tips over the drum kit, and leaves in deep-seated anger*
Hey, it could happen.
Be targeted and specific with your feedback and direction. Your drummer will know exactly what you are asking him of, and you will also know exactly how what you are suggesting will sound. No guessing if “this or that” will work and wasting 15 minutes of rehearsal time taking shots in the dark.
Learn Some Drummer Language
If you are currently referring to the rack tom and floor tom as “Tom Toms”, it might be time to revisit how much you know about the drumkit.
Spend time familiarizing yourself with every piece of the drum kit, but also understand the right words to use when giving specific direction. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a worship pastor say something along the lines of, “Splash out here”, “I just need like, a big hit or something on that one lyric line”, “Maybe like, add the floor tom?”
This kind of vague direction irritates the heck out of drummers. Learn how to be specific. Do you know all the parts of the drumkit? Do you know what crashing out sounds like? What about sloshing out on the hi-hats? A cymbal swell? The impact of drumsticks vs Hot Rods?
Telling a drummer to “splash out” doesn’t give them much direction. Do you mean “slosh out” with the hi-hats? Or “crash out” with the crash cymbal?
Listen to the drums in the songs before Sunday and familiarize yourself with what’s going on. Be concise, direct, and careful with what you’re requesting of your drummer so as to not leave a suggestion up to interpretation (unless of course, creative interpretation is the goal of a specific request).
Communication is the whole game here, and communicating with a drummer is difficult for the main reason that their instrument’s primary function is entirely different than all other stage instruments. Most instruments and singers share a common purpose in both melody and harmony, however, a drummer’s primary job is related to rhythm.
The thing about rhythm is that it has its own set of language (as does the drumkit itself). If you want to properly communicate with your drummer, you need to learn that language, and that comes through both educating yourself on drum parts and the drumkit itself, as well as practicing at home to familiarize yourself with syncopation and 16th note counts.
Learning how to talk to drummers is so important for improving your communication practices, relationships, musicality, and the overall worship experience for congregation members, since clear communication around musical ideas leads to a more cohesive sound on a Sunday morning!
About the Author
Chris Fleming is a professional musician from Minneapolis, MN who has played with artists such as TAYA, Big Daddy Weave, and Jason Gray. He is actively involved with the worship music scene and has contributed as a drummer, music director, song writer, and producer for various worship artists and churches locally and nationally. Chris is the Motion Designer at Motion Worship, helping to create motion background collections and countdowns for our subscribers.