I often get asked by worship leaders if there are any tips they can pass onto their drummers. A drummer can make or break a worship time, and like any musician there are so many things we can work on to make us more effective. These can range from skill/practice, ‘worshipping heart’, sensitivity, nervousness, musical maturity to communication. That’s a lifetime’s work but here are a few tips that could yield some short-term improvements.
Tips on timing and tempo for worship drummers
Firstly, work on timing. The difference between an average drummer and a good drummer is not necessarily technical ability, but a well developed sense of timing. Practising with a click will help develop your sense of time. Try to practise at speeds outside the familiar 100-120bpm window. If you really want a challenge, try practising at a really slow speed such as 40bpm. This will expose any timing discrepancies.
A well produced pop song usually has a set tempo. You might think the speed is moving, but in fact it’s only the dynamics that are changing. A drummer’s natural tendency is to speed up and there are number of reasons for that. Speeding up after a fast fill is a common problem. When you play something complex, panic can set in as you try to get round the fill and return to back in time. Adrenaline is to blame and if you don’t rein it in you’ll finish ahead of the beat. So again, practice your fills using with a click, but don’t use a live situation as practice time – if you’re unsure of your ability to pull a fill off cleanly, simplify it.
Adrenaline allied to nerves, are to blame for racing tempos. If you find that you are constantly starting songs off too fast, rehearse the tempo in your head before the song and then shave off 3 or 4bpm. Alternatively sing the chorus or biggest part of song in your head before you click in. Michael W Smith’s ‘Alleluia’ is a classic example, if you sing Holy, Holy it should give the right tempo to start with.
Bodily tension doesn’t help tempo either, so try to relax. Don’t grip sticks too tightly and try looking down at your snare after maybe the 4th or 5th bar of the song. Where are you hitting it? Great drumming is all about control and consistency so try to make sure you hit centre of the snare cleanly every time.
Don’t peak too early
Leave big fills until last – many musicians plough straight into a song with their biggest fills and don’t let the song gather momentum. We are all tempted to try something impressive especially if there are other musicians watching, but try to resist. Remember to play for the song and serve the worshippers. If you have thrown the kitchen sink at the song within the first four bars, you’ll have nowhere to go. Also, if you use the emphasis of the lyrics to help you build an appropriate groove you’ll improve the feel of what you play.
Work with the worship leader
Make sure you can see the face of your worship leader. Set up side-on if necessary. Communication is so much easier if you can see other musician’s facial expressions and much more difficult if you can only see the back of their head.
If you’re using a click track try to get the worship leader to have the click in their ear as well so they can help govern the time, too. Another option is to integrate an audible loop into the song so that it becomes part of the groove. Make sure it’s loud enough in everyone’s monitors and try to get it in your headphones which will be much easier to pick out than if it’s just in your drum wedge.
Times when its permitted to change the tempo
Although tempos should stay fixed, there are instances when we can legitimately pull back the tempo at specific song junctions to create a sense of tension and release. These are known as Rits and Ralls. For instance, in the bridge of Here I am to Worship before the final chorus, slow down on each word of Here..I…am……to…. ,and then bring the tempo back on ‘worship’. Rits and Ralls can be a useful tool if you have a congregation that loves classical music and struggles to engage with contemporary rock styles.
If this goes wrong it can be horrible, so be aware of a few key things. Firstly, make sure everyone is aware that this is going to happen, otherwise it sounds like someone has fallen down the stairs. Communicate visually with your expressions and body language so everyone can follow easily. You may need to start the slowdown earlier than you think and increase the volume as you pull back each beat. This will help you gain control of the band and congregation. Most importantly, you MUST come back to the original tempo afterwards. Make sure you are confident you can pull it off, so if there are any doubts, don’t try it live until it’s well rehearsed. Lastly a movement like this can become really irritating if you overuse it so choose your moments carefully and worshipfully.