What’s the difference between playing the drums in your bedroom (or where ever you practice) and playing on a stage in front of a live audience? Is it really that different? Well, the short answer… is yes!
There are plenty of differences. Some quite large and obvious, and many smaller ones that are sometimes not so evident. In this post, I will cover the ones I believe to be the most important, the ones I believe to be the most useful and the ones that I find are missed by a lot of drummers. So without further a due, lets dive right in. A one, two, a one two three four! (Sorry… couldn’t resist!)
The main difference is a pretty obvious one. You have an audience. And this makes a huge change to your motivation for playing. Simply put, it means you are no longer playing for yourself, you are now playing for the entertainment of others.
Whether it’s a small crowd of a few family members or a packed to the rafters stadium, there are now people watching you perform. And along with this crowd comes a series of expectations. Now it doesn’t really matter at all what those expectations are, it simply means that you are not playing to your own expectations, but to those of others. In other words, you are not playing to satisfy yourself, but to satisfy others. Especially if it’s a paid gig.
You are getting paid to do a job, and that job is to perform, entertain and ultimately help the audience have a good time. This really changes the dynamic of the way it feels to play an instrument. It’s one thing to play away on your own to make yourself feel good, or to jam with your friends, but its a completely different thing to understand that your performance can have a direct impact on whether the crowd has a good time or not. At times it can feel like pressure, but it can also be extremely satisfying to know that people are enjoying themselves because of your performance. And this is something that can absolutely only be achieved while playing live.
The next difference, and it’s definitely not a small one, is that aside from a crowd of people watching you play, you also have other musicians playing with you who are not only being watched by the crowd like you are, but are also watching you as well as the crowd is. And this is definitely the largest difference of them all.
Playing live with other musicians completely changes the whole experience. You are now working together alongside others musicians as a team to create something unique that you simply cannot achieve alone. Unfortunately, it’s one of the concepts that I see get neglected way too often. I see so many musicians, not just drummers, who fail to realize they are in a team and continue to play as if they are alone in their practice room. And this lack of realization leads to a performance that is way below what it could have been otherwise.
And it’s generally not because of lack of talent. It doesn’t matter how good or talented a musician is, if they fail to embrace the team effort, the performance will always be sub-par. Overplaying, non-fitting tempos, missing endings, excessive fills or cymbal crashes… all are a result of the lack of understanding that we are no longer playing by ourselves, and that the audience and the rest of the band simply don’t care about our fancy fills, our latest paradiddle beat or our impressive stick tricks. They only care about one thing… the song. And if one or more band members fail to align with the rest of the musicians in order to work together as a team, then the song… the music in general, will never be as good as it could be.
Another obvious one, but its a huge difference. Especially if you are used to a certain sound. First of all, it’s probably going to be a lot louder. This shouldn’t bother you in itself because drum kits are pretty loud anyway so you should be used to the volume. But now you have a whole new sound with all the different instruments at volumes you probably aren’t used to.
This can feel confusing at times, and will definitely feel at the very least, different. Usually, you will be sat somewhere behind the main speakers, and unless you have some kind of monitoring system, whether in-ear or otherwise, you will most likely have trouble hearing the band. I have played many gigs where all I could mainly hear was the instrument I had closest to me (usually the guitar). This is something you learn to adapt to. The different equipment, the size of the stage and where the amps are placed, the size of the venue, even the amount of people in the crowd will all make a noticeable difference to the way you hear things.
If you are behind the speakers and have no monitors, you may even have difficulty hearing your own bass drum and toms. This can be quite confusing when doing subtle double or triple bass drum kicks as you may only hear the last one. The hi-hat, cymbals, and snare generally can be heard fine due to their midrange to high frequencies, but the rest of the kit can simply get lost in all the confusion.
One thing to remember is that what you can hear as a drummer, will be completely different from what the crowd can hear. A common mistake is to forget about this and try to compensate by hitting the drums way too hard. By doing so, the sound will suffer, your playing will suffer and the music, in general, will suffer. And you will get tired. But just like anything, the more we are exposed to these different environments, the more we learn to adapt and simply trust our playing and that what comes out of the speakers is not the same as what we can hear.
The drum kit
You may not be playing the same kit you practice on. You might have more than one kit, you may have rented one, borrowed one, or there may be one already at the venue. And of course, this changes things.
As we practice, we tend to develop a feel of familiarity with our instrument. Now there is obviously nothing wrong with this, in fact, it is quite desirable to obtain comfort with our instrument. But if our comfort is converted into dependence, then we have a problem. I have seen too many musicians complain about not being able to play an instrument because it’s not set up the exact way they like it, or they don’t have their exact brand of drumsticks, etc. It’s almost like saying you can only drive one particular car. I have heard the phrase “you are only as good as your last performance” many times before, but I would like to add a little extra to this phrase if I may be so bold… “you are only as good as your last performance, on somebody else’s kit”.
At the end of the day, if John Bonham, Steve Smith or Mike Portnoy sat behind a cheap second-hand kit, they would still sound like John, Steve, and Mike. Your ability to produce music shouldn’t be limited by your equipment. Now it definitely helps, and can definitely contribute towards your particular sound and style, but it shouldn’t completely depend on it. If you do have your kit you are used to, there are still many things that could be distracting. You may not be able to get the set-up just the way you want it. You may have forgotten something, or even worse, broken something. But even if you get everything set-up as you like, there are silly little things like toms moving when you hit them.
I played a radio gig with my band on one occasion, where there was a drum kit already there that belonged to the band on after us. Unfortunately, the bass drum wasn’t fixed, and with every kick it would move a little farther away from me, taking with it the two toms on top of it. I had to shout the bass player to come and keep pushing it back towards me, while I focused on hitting as softly as possible while still getting a sound. I told the drummer of the next band, and it didn’t appear to bother him. But he was a much heavier hitter than me and played the bass drum much more frequently. So when they went on to do their set, the bass drum began traveling away from him at a rapid speed, and the singer had to do the rest of the set with his foot resting on the bass drum! And just for the entertainment value, I will tell you that the main amplifier that was powering that gig, actually caught fire… while that band was playing the song “Sex on Fire” by the Kings of Leon!! Oh, sweet irony. And that’s a good reminder that it’s not a bad idea to double-check your equipment, and if possible have backups in place!
So these four are the most obvious and impact-full differences, but there are many other smaller details to consider as well. Here are a few.
This one is often overlooked, but it can definitely make a difference. Sometimes the lights will be right in your eyes, making it difficult or at the very least uncomfortable to see.
Flashing lights can also be distracting. Other times, it may be too dark, and you may find you have slight difficulties judging your distances with your sticks. And of course, it may be difficult to see the other musicians, or for them to see you. And if you or they are used to receiving cues from one and other, you will need to take into consideration the lack of visibility and be sure to make your cues extra obvious. And let’s not forget, that if you rely on any kind of notes or dots, you might not even be able to see them.
Another subtle and often overlooked detail. The clothes you wear while practicing, will most likely not be the ones you wear to a gig.
Depending on the venue or the specific style of your band, you may be wearing something completely unfamiliar, and this can bring many distractions or at least a feeling of discomfort. If you are used to practicing in shorts (or a skirt), then wearing trousers all of a sudden can be quite confusing.
Depending on the length of your trousers, as you sit down the opening to your trouser leg can lift and expose itself, and this my friends is a bass drum beater trap! As you lift your foot while playing the kick, the beater can easily get stuck in your trouser leg as it retracts. It’s incredibly frustrating to be playing your bass drum, and all of a sudden feel a sharp tug on your pants leg and have your kick disappear. Of course, the rest of the band will look at your confused as to why you stopped playing the bass drum, but no matter how you try to explain what just happened, it’s too late! They will just roll their eyes and carry on! (A quick and easy fix for this problem, is to secure an elastic band around your leg, so as to hide this opening. I knew a drummer who used bicycle reflector clips for this very same purpose).
I was in a few gigs where a tie was part of the uniform. Again, if it’s not something you are accustomed to, the tie can get caught in-between your hands and sticks as you play. I prevented this situation by wearing a short tie with an elastic loop around (I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be a girls tie… but whatever!).
Ok… so now we are getting down to the nitty-gritty… the cash! The fact that money is now involved (hopefully), can change a lot.
Firstly, if you are getting paid, that means that someone is actually giving you their money. And if they are giving you cash, it means they have a certain level of expectations. In other words, they want you to do a good job. And this now changes your motivation. Previously, you were simply enjoying yourself, trying to get better and having fun. But now, you are doing a job. You have an employer, and they expect something of you. You have a responsibility to deliver a professional performance to someone who has trusted you with their cash. Whether it’s a venue owner, an agent or the crowd who have bought tickets, they have entrusted you with their money, and you owe it to them to do your best.
All the previously mentioned (and a few more not mentioned) details, come together to create a completely different atmosphere than you are used to. And of course, the crowd will also contribute significantly to this. Whether it’s a small or large audience, the way they react to your performance can have a direct impact on how you feel.
There is also the nerves before the gig. I personally know at least one musician who used to gag before every performance. Some get the shakes. Some start to blank and forget the songs or at least think they have. Some get completely engulfed by the excitement.
Then there is the reaction of the crowd. It can be incredibly satisfying to hear and see the audience enjoy your performance. But it can be just as depressing to see them get bored and simply disapprove. Whatever the reaction may be, it’s completely different to playing in your basement, and the only way to experience it is to be on stage.
So there we have it. An overview of what I believe to be the most important differences between playing in your basement or bedroom, and playing live on stage with other musicians in front of an audience. At the end of the day, as musicians, we aspire to share our music with others. And what better way to do so, than live on stage.
Do you agree/disagree? What other important differences have you found? Have any questions?
Leave a comment below.