How To Stay Alive As A Drummer
You became a drummer in order to play drums. When you made that decision, you probably envisioned a career in the studio and on stage. And while you should expect to spend plenty of time playing the drums, it is impossible to predict what the future may hold.
What will you do if you never get that big gig that insures a lifetime of fame and fortune? Will you give up drumming altogether and find a lucrative day job? If that is your choice, you wouldn’t be alone. It can be very difficult to make a living as a professional drummer, even when you do get a few lucky breaks along the way.
No matter how famous a musician is, he or she is rarely as wealthy as most people think. But for many professional drummers, the very act of drumming provides such an overwhelming degree of satisfaction that it justifies having to make certain sacrifices. So if you love playing drums, and can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, there are a number of time-tested ways to piece together a decent living from a variety of jobs – including live performances and studio work – even if you never become rich and famous.
You shouldn’t be ashamed of working during the day to finance your passion for drumming. After all, you have to take care of yourself if you expect to land a big gig somewhere down the road. There are all sorts of day jobs that can provide you with working capital, though you should never lose sight of your musical goals. Many drummers take day jobs that they wouldn’t mind suddenly quitting when a good long-term gig rolls around. Some like to take jobs that somehow relate to drumming, while others try to pursue professional careers completely separate from the music industry that will give them “something to fall back on” if drumming just never pays off.
Many drummers make ends meet by working in drum shops. In many ways, this is the perfect day job for drummers who aspire to make it big. When you work in a drum shop, you get the opportunity to network with other drummers in your area, which helps tie you into the grapevine. You can be among the first in your area to hear about choice gigs and sessions, as well as new equipment innovations that can greatly enhance your competitiveness. Depending on the store in which you work, you might have opportunities to meet successful drummers in your area, or ones who pass through on clinic tours. Not only can you pick their brains for business and playing tips, but you can also try to develop a professional working relationship with them, either as their tech or as a sub.
The other advantage to working in a drum shop is that your employer will most likely be sensitive to your career needs. Let’s say you are offered a month-long tour. It is possible that your boss will give you a leave of absence, allowing you to return to your job after the tour wraps up. This is hard to do if you work for the phone company.
Yet working in a music store can be its own career. Don Frank manages the drum shop at Gelb Music in Redwood City, California. Even though he has played with internationally successful artists like Ronnie Montrose, the Doobie Brothers and Mark Bonilla, Frank takes his retail job seriously.
“This is my first priority,” he says. “I enjoy this job because I like being around the instruments and talking with the players who come in. It helps me stay in touch with other musicians, and reminds other players that I’m around and available. If a band is looking for a drummer, they know how to get in touch with me.
“But there’s more to it than that. This job has helped me to develop good communication skills and work habits that I’ve been able to apply to my drumming. There are a lot of drummers out there, and if you can have a bit of an edge because of your organizational skills, it can really pay off.”
There is no better way to supplement your drumming income than taking on some students. You can arrange your teaching schedule during hours when you normally wouldn’t have conflicting commitments, such as gigs and recording sessions. This translates into late afternoons and early evenings, as well as slow gigging nights, such as Mondays and Tuesdays.
Being a drum teacher is a real job, though, requiring you to be organized and responsible. Students pay good money for your time and expect to get some real, concrete information in return. Like any other aspect of drumming, it is important for a drum teacher to be prepared, show up on time and be willing to work hard.
Most drum teachers work with students from all levels of drumming expertise. Some will be utter beginners who need to be walked though the fundamentals, including how to hold the sticks, read basic notation and play the simplest figures and rudiments. However, if you develop a reputation in your area as a hotshot drummer and teacher, you may attract semipro and even professional drummers who want to learn particular aspects of your technique and style.
Therefore, if you decide to become a drum teacher, you need to be prepared to exercise some flexibility. Certain students will desire a highly structured lesson plan that methodically develops their drumming skills. Others may not be interested in taking such an academic course, and will only want to learn certain beats and licks that they’ve heard on albums. It’s best to allow the student to dictate your lesson plan – at least to a degree. After all, the whole idea is for you to keep them interested in drumming and inspire them to move forward with their technique. So you must get to know each of your students in order to determine the method that will work best.
“That’s something I learned when I first began to teach,” says Wally Schnalle, a San Jose jazz drummer who has released three solo albums, and is the music editor for DRUM! magazine. “At first you think that you’re going to teach them to have the same level of commitment that you have yourself, and quickly you discover that isn’t going to be the case. But everybody who goes through my doors as a student has to cover three areas: good hand technique, reading abilities and four-limb independence.”
As your roster of students expands, you will find that it is imperative for you to keep detailed notes of each student’s progress. Write down the exercises, techniques and assignments covered in each lesson. Review your notes from the previous session before you begin a new lesson, so that you never duplicate material or appear to be confused.
Some drum teachers work out of their homes by converting a spare bedroom or garage into a teaching studio. There are definite financial advantages to this approach, including a low overhead and even some tax benefits. However, in this instance, it can be difficult to develop a roster of students. Identify the magazines and newspapers in your area that seem best suited to reach prospective students, and test each of them with a classified ad offering your teaching services. Track the response from each ad to determine which magazine draws best.