Roland Gajate Garcia

The 10 Commandments Of Hand Drumming

When we spoke recently with Roland Gajate-Garcia, he’d just started his fourth season as the percussionist with the house band on Dancing With The Stars. Since graduating from California State University, Northridge, Gajate-Garcia has worked with a diverse collection of artists, from Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons to Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Iranian singer Googoosh (Faegheh Atashin), and Armenian vocalist Armenchik (Armen Gondrachyan). Based in Los Angeles, Gajate-Garcia earned a reputation as the go-to percussionist for performance-based reality TV work, having played on such popular shows as American Idol and The Voice.

Perhaps his most valuable experience was growing up with (and performing alongside) a legendary father, percussionist Richie Gajate-Garcia, and around such percussion icons as Giovanni Hidalgo and Alex Acuña. From those musicians and the many with whom he’s worked, Roland Gajate-Garcia has learned plenty about playing music and working in the music industry.

We picked his brain to discover the skills every professional percussionist should possess. In addition to offering some insight into his approach to playing music, he gave us a perspective on what it’s like to maintain a career as a working musician. Here’s what he told us.

1. Developing Reading Literacy

The ability to read music, Gajate- Garcia says, is “one of the big things that separates a professional musician from somebody who’s a novice.” On Dancing With The Stars, he and his bandmates might learn and rehearse as many as ten to twelve songs in a day. They work with skeleton charts that might indicate bass or keyboard parts, but rarely include specific percussion patterns.

Most importantly, the charts provide structure. Being able to see the form of a song and its harmonic changes, and what other musicians are playing, allows Gajate-Garcia to create his parts. “There's no way I could do all the sessions and TV work I've done without knowing how to read,” he says. Gajate-Garcia began to develop his music-reading skills in junior high school, and as a youngster at home. “I used to read snare-drum duet books with my dad.”

In high school, reading was required to participate in concert band, marching band, and drum corps. Then at California State University, Northridge, where he studied jazz and worked a lot on writing and transcribing music, Gajate-Garcia learned to read lead sheets. Using his work on Dancing With The Stars as an example, he explains that “being able to read music cuts the [song] learning process by, I’d say, 95 percent. I can honestly look at a chart once, maybe run it once, and then be able to record it. Whereas if I didn’t read music, I’d have to learn the form, learn all the aspects of what’s going on.”

2. Play What Is Required

It might be tempting to let loose on all manner of percussion instruments to show off your chops, but Gajate-Garcia says, “Sometimes we have to remember that we are part of the bigger picture and play only what the song requires. It isn’t about ego, it’s about the bigger picture.” To that end, he says, “Practicing things you can actually use will show in your ability to create music.”

That’s just one of the important lessons he learned when he studied with Gregg Bissonette at Cal State. For instance, a groove performed by Stewart Copeland could become an exercise. He used various salsa rhythms — the cascara and mambo bell patterns, for example — to develop “meaningful independence,” practicing one of those patterns with one hand and improvising with the other. “It’s drumming vocabulary,” Gajate-Garcia says.

Above all, he stresses, “Don’t feel like you need make up something new each time you play. Rather, try and create your sound based on the things you know and have learned, while putting the music first.”

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