My most unprepared, last-minute gig ever... and how I pulled it off.

It was supposed to be a Friday where I could rest and recuperate after drumming two sessions per day at a week-long youth camp and then spending an entire day driving back home. My wife and I decided to take a trip to my in-laws that afternoon to tackle one or two tasks that needed urgent completion, so I was sitting in the kitchen at my in-laws' place when a call came through at around 5:30 pm.


The caller ID belonged to an artist that I had worked with once or twice in the past, so I took the call, expecting the call to be concerning a prospective gig in the near future, or possibly a few recording sessions for a new album. I was right about the "gig" part... the only snag was that the gig was scheduled to start in 90 minutes! He had a drummer that was scheduled to play at an event with him that evening, but he found out right before the gig that his drummer was double booked. The venue where the gig was held is normally around 2 hours' drive away from my house, but as luck would have it, from my in-laws' place where I found myself, the venue was a mere 40-minutes away.


Pretty bronze pocket watch on a daily planner, representing time spent, planned, or invested
Time should be Invested, rather than Spent.

The first thing I did was to negotiate a gig fee with him for this gig. Now, for some people, this might feel a bit cold, considering that this artist had a bit of an emergency, and then adding to the complexity of the scenario was the fact that the event was actually a non-paying one for the artist. He was basically playing a volunteer worship set at his local church.


But even with these things considered I still negotiated a gig fee for the event, and here is why: I see my time as something that needs to be invested, rather than spent.

There are different seasons in life for investing time in different things (like investing time into your education at a young age), and at this point in my life, I recognised that I needed to invest time in my marriage and my family. That means if my time doesn't go towards providing for my family then I would rather invest it in building and maintaining quality relationships with my wife and family by giving them my time.


So, once the gig fee was sorted, I faced a different challenge: I had absolutely NONE of my own equipment with me. My wife and I were on a social visit, so I didn't plan on playing any drums that evening. I enquired about the gear that was available at the venue and decided to try and make it work with what they had. With these issues settled I left my wife with the family for the evening and drove to the venue, arriving there 30 minutes before the scheduled starting time for the event.


I found the rest of the band on stage, busy running through some songs, so I walked up to go and greet the artist who booked me. He quickly showed me the house kit with the option of adding or swapping a few items from his touring rig's drum set, so I looked through the options and decided on a plan of action.


The drum set was a rather entry level kit with two rack toms and a floor tom. The first thing I did was to choose only one of the two rack toms to use and then removing the other one. I did this because, in my experience, it is generally a lot easier to make one rack tom (mounted on a bass drum with cheap mounts) sound workable than trying to get two rack toms (that tend to interfere with each other's resonance) sound good. The floor tom was a 16", so I elected to go with the 12" rack tom. I had to tune both the resonant head and the batter head on the rack tom until they worked together to give me a tom sound I can use for the gig, and, after adjusting both the tuning and the positioning of the tom, I got something to work with. It definitely wasn't the SONOR sound that I had grown to love and respect over the years, but it would have to do for this gig.


The snare drum that was with the house kit no longer had a working snare strainer, so I took up the offer of fetching a different snare drum from the artist's touring rig. I tuned the snare drum to a medium/high tension (with a drum key that someone found for me somewhere) and tried to find the best balance between a tone that has some "body" without sounding "tinny" with too much sustain, and a cracking tone without hurting everyone's ears around me. I had no way to dampen any of the resonance or overtones on the snare drum, so I had to make sure I got a usable sound by merely tuning the factory batter and resonant heads that the drum was shipped with. I was glad to have a strainer that was able to release the wires because this opened up another sound possibility for me, especially for slower songs in a worship set.


Next up I had a look at the cymbals. They had a fairly nice cymbal setup from a Zildjian ZHT cymbal pack which included two crashes, a ride cymbal and a 12" splash/crash. The crashes sounded quite good, so I wasn't too worried about them. The ride cymbal had a very solid sound, which is great for "hard and heavy" kind of music, but I have found a thin ride with a dark tone to be much more useful for the 'worship' environment, mainly because you can make it "wash" a lot easier to create a bit of a "sonic ocean" undertone to the arrangement in some of the bigger sections of the songs. That was obviously not possible with this ride cymbal so I had to consciously make an effort to find alternatives here and there (like rather riding on one of the crashes).

The hi-hats, as far as I remember, were quite useful, but the battle I had to fight with the cymbals overall was that I am used to a nice and dark cymbal sound, whereas these cymbals that I had at my disposal were fairly bright. But despite the sonic mismatch, I was positive that I could make it work for what I needed during the gig.


The drum throne that came with the venue's kit wasn't great. It looked a bit flimsy and had a very little cushioning on top, so I was relieved to find an alternative amongst the touring rig that was offered to me as a source of supplements. A drum throne doesn't have a direct effect on the tone that I produce out of a drum set but it does have a big influence on how long I can keep on playing the drums! The way I sit behind the kit definitely affects the way I experience the gig (whether I feel like I'm fighting the kit all the time or rather feel like everything happens effortlessly, which in turn has an influence on my confidence level, etc.), so I have come to appreciate a solid drum throne as a good investment.


Next on my list of requirements was a set of drumsticks. This was quite a challenge because the only sticks they had available were really cheap drumsticks made from a fairly soft, low-density wood, and obviously not 'pitch-paired' and 'weight-matched' like a proper set of Vic Firth sticks. Drumsticks are yet another one of those seemingly small factors that actually have a big influence on things like your tone, your confidence, your consistency, etc.

With the cheap pair of sticks I instantly found one to be significantly heavier than the other, so I made sure that the heavier stick was always in my left hand (which plays the backbeat) because a solid snare drum sound is much more fundamental to a good-sounding groove than a solid hi-hat or ride cymbal sound, for instance. Even so I felt like the sticks weren't giving me enough momentum to work with, so for fear of actually breaking one or both of the drumsticks in an effort to get more sound out of them (by the way, this set of sticks belonged to the artist's little girl) I turned both sticks around with the butt-ends forward to try and get more weight and momentum out of each of my strokes. I lost the definition on my ride cymbal that I would normally get from the tip of the stick, but this was yet another small sacrifice I had to make for the sake of better tone on the rest of the drum set.

I recall that somewhere during the evening I tried to play a side-stick groove on the snare drum but no matter how much I moved and adjusted the stick, and no matter how much force I put into it, I just couldn't get a proper cross-stick tone out of the rim, so I quickly reverted back to some alternative sound option.


After getting all the gear set up it was time to have a very brief soundcheck with the band. I was provided with a little 8" speaker for a floor monitor and as soon as the acoustic guitar strummed his first chord I realised that I would have to make a plan if I wanted to retain some of my hearing after this gig. The first issue was that the level of the monitor was very loud, so I asked if the sound guy could drop the master level of the monitor mix by about 30%. The next issue I had to deal with was the fact that the sound that was produced by the floor monitor was extremely bright and piercing, so I simply took my jacket which I had brought along and laid it across the tweeter section (the tiny speaker dedicated to playing all the high frequencies) of the monitor to try and dampen the high frequencies that were forcefully attacking my eardrums. The combination of these two adjustments instantly gave me a much more workable monitor mix.


Once my monitor mix was up and running we played through a song which the artist/worship leader called out in order to make sure everyone's monitor levels were still good after adding a live drum set into the mix on stage. Once we finished the song the band leader asked the sound engineer whether he was happy with the mix, and to my surprise, the mix engineer said that the drum set actually got lost in the mix (apparently their regular drummer played much louder than I did). Through all the chaos of a quick setup I think I might have noticed that there were no drum mics on the kit, but now for the first time I realised it and started contemplating the implications.

Over the years I have come to summarise a drum's tuning and response in the following way: the bigger the drum, the more air it has to move to generate sound, the more effort is needed for its sound to travel further (and, of course, the opposite is true); also, the lower the tuning of a drum, the less it projects the fundamental tone of that drum (and, of course, the opposite is true).

So, with this principle in mind, the drum that I was most worried about was the bass drum, which is obviously the biggest drum with the lowest tuning. We didn't have a microphone to help reinforce the sound of the bass drum, and I also couldn't tune it much higher in this instance, so I realised that I would need to make an effort to kick louder than I am used to throughout the set so that the bass drum could be heard. The other drum that usually has potential to get lost in the mix is the floor tom, so I checked whether I could raise the tuning a bit for better projection, and after that, I made sure that I hit the floor tom with enough "meaning" every time I played it. This was the best I could do with what I had for the occasion.


It wasn't long into the gig before I started feeling that my ears were taking a lot of strain. Between the stage's sound level, the fact that I had to hit hard to compensate for not being mic'd up, and then the unfortunate issue of not having brought any ear protection along to the gig was a bad combination. I tried turning my head to one side at an angle that could possibly shield my ears from the snare drum's volume (which was the biggest contributor to my pain at that stage), but this method didn't help with the bright sound of the cymbals, and also had the negative side effect of me not being able to see the worship leader. Fortunately, about halfway through the song list, there was a lady that performed a dance together with a backtrack, which gave me a brief moment to try and rescue my hearing.


Normally I would throw my hoodie over my head to try and keep some of the high frequencies away from my ears, but my hoodie was already being used to compensate for the floor monitor's sound. So, I started rummaging through my wallet and found a few till receipts that I could roll up into little balls. I crumpled and straightened each of them a few times to try and soften up the paper, and also to try and make sure that they didn't form any sharp tips before I pushed them into my ears as improvised earplugs. This definitely helped to protect my ears, but unfortunately, it also took away most of the definition of the sound that was supposed to help me follow the worship leader.


Typical cues to look out for in a band- or worship leader's body language that give direction and guidance during a worship service
Following a Worship Leader's Body Language

So from there, I had to pay closer attention to a lot of other factors to help me know where the worship leader was heading at any given time during a song. We never had any form of rehearsal before the gig, so from the moment we started playing together in soundcheck I already had my "antennas" up to collect any useful information about the leader's mannerisms, his way of indicating changes, etc. Luckily I knew most of the songs from my early church days, so I had a fair idea as to the overall 'vibe' that was required of me, but I still needed to try and figure out on the fly what the structure of each song was.


One of the factors I kept a close eye on was the leader's strumming arm. This not only gave me a good indication of the tempo he was establishing for the song but also gave me some clues as to the intensity of the song section we were busy playing. There was a song early on in the evening that he ended with a definite triplet-phrased strum pattern. I actually missed that ending because I didn't realise what he was doing with the strum pattern, but further down the song list he ended another song in the same fashion, and this time I was right there with him on the ending.



Another factor that also guided me through some of the dynamic changes was the intensity with which he sang each section of a song. Many of the songs were just plain "rock and roll" all the way, but a lot of the more mid-tempo songs had more gentle sections which I could pre-empt every time I heard the worship leader's intensity on his voice drop just before a gentle section. Of course, his body language also pointed in the same direction each time (with noticeably less motion, as well as a kind of 'relaxed' posture that he eased into right before each quiet section).


Many times my cue for the next section would actually come from the first note or two of the next section's melody line. This obviously always happens on very short notice, so the key was to start getting ready for the change already towards the end of every section, and hopefully react quick enough to the cues to make the transition sound smooth.

Other things I had to try and pick up on the fly were things like phrasings and extra bars that I didn't expect. Some church songs just have a lot of 2/4 bars in their arrangements, and the tricky part about this is that every church generally starts developing their own way of interpreting the rhythms and placements for these bars. But in general I kept a record of everything that happened in the first verse and chorus of each song, then I made sure to implement all the unique factors that I picked up from the 2nd verse and chorus onward. And so, the 2nd time we repeated each section of the song I knew exactly where all the phrases, accents, and extra bars were.


After spending just short of two hours on stage we reached the end of the evening without any major train smashes (much to my relief), and when the gig was done I tried to put the drum set back more or less the way I found it. I then grabbed a quick bite to eat with the worship leader and his family before heading back to my in-laws to collect my wife.


Looking back on the evening, I think I knew beforehand how challenging the gig would be with all the factors I had to compensate for (like being unprepared and having to make do with less-than-ideal equipment), but I embraced the challenge as a test of my skills, experience, and musicianship. I dare say that I think I passed the test :-)


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