Can drummers read?

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by TIMBONE, Jul 22, 2004.


    TIMBONE Active Member

    I know that what I am about to say may 'ruffle a few feathers'. Those who know me however, will verify that I am a kind, sensitive, well meaning chap.

    In my long career as a musician, which has included playing timpani, percussion and 'kit', I have suffered the 'drummer' who covers his/her innability to read music.

    I am talking about playing 'kit'. This person will be an awesome percussionist, they can play xylophone, (which is no mean feat), and have no problem with single percussion parts in the most demanding test piece. However, when it comes to a 'kit' part, they fail miserably. Now I am the first to admit that 'reading' a kit part is almost as demanding as reading piano music. Why can't a 'drummer' humble him/herself, and admit that they are not very good when it comes to reading a 'kit' part? They may well be a fantastic kit player - when they are able to have a free reign - BUT THEY CANNOT READ IT. When I compose or arrange a piece of music, I pay as much attention to the percussion as I do to anything else, as it is a vital part of my musical conception. Comments such as, "I just make it up", or, "that bit doesn't sound right", are a little arrogant and opinionated, ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY ARE DIRECTED AT THE ACTUAL WRITER OF THE MUSIC.

    Sorry, I had to get this of my chest. Some of my best friends are percussionists, I have even been one myself.
  2. drummerboy

    drummerboy Member

    I can see your problem here!
    I think the problem may lie in the players 'training' if you will. I was initially taught kit, and to read kit parts. But soon after I began playing I started playing percussion in the county youth wind band (who were very, very good). So I'd say I pretty adept at both (I do prefer kit, but that's beside the point). However, I have a friend who was taught percussion first, then picked up kit afterwards. He's a very good percussionist, but his kit playing, especially his kit reading, is not so good.
    Part of the problem possibly lies in the inconsistent kit part writing. By this I mean the way it's notated. One composer may do one thing, and another a completely different thing. Each could well be equally as good, but it makes it more confusing to a player who isn't so strong at playing kit from the music.
    What annoys me (not about you Tim!) is composers who think their kit part is fantastic, whereas it's either implayable, or sounds rubbish, hence why kit players 'make it up' so often.
    Most drummers aren't taught to read music initially, but similarly most percussionists aren't taught to read music that complex for quite a long time (probably post grade 8 is when most people start reading 'complex' percussion music). Hence why percussionists can play kit, because their percussive technique is good, but their reading is not so good. Playing kit has a different feel and style to 'classical' percussion, and some players (I know a few) who find that difference hard to adapt to.
    Hope this helps Tim!
  3. ScrapingtheBottom

    ScrapingtheBottom Active Member

    Most of the kit players I've played with have been excellent sight-readers (in fact one sight read for us on the contest stage and is in fact a euph player).

    Guess it comes down to personal experience I suppose.
  4. MRSH

    MRSH Supporting Member

    Interesting discussion.

    I tend to agree with the point that it is down to personal experience.

    Like Timbone I pay as much attention to the kit part in my arrangements as everything else. I would at least expect the 'drummer' to look through the part and take note of the nuances that are there. By this I mean if I write a bog standard hi-hat/side drum/bass drum rhythm and want to give the player licence to 'flower it up' so to speak I would wite one bar then bar-repeat the rest. What I do do though is write out the 'fill' bars if I want a particular rhythm in a particular bar. If I don't want a particular rhythm I just write 'fill' over the bar which gives the player licence. If I want a cymbal crash in a particular part of the bar I write it and expect it to be played.

    Having said all this I do think a lot of the problem boils down to composers/arrangers not being specific enough with the kit part. One great example is an arrangement of a famous Queen piece. The kit part is nonsense. So what do players do? They listen to how Queen play it and try to emulate that - irrespective of what is on the printed part. Some of the modern day 'pop tune' arrangements that are around at the moment have drum parts written that a three year old can play. All they contain is one bar written out at the beginning then bar-repeats for the rest of the piece. Inspiring - not!!

    So 'drummers' get in to a mind set of thinking "Ah! Another pop song drum part - time to ad lib". Not that I'm saying that is right - but you can hardly blame them. If composers and arrangers took a little more time and effort over the 'kit' part (which you obviously to Timbone) then they might get a little bit more respect from the player.

    Just my two cents worth.
  5. mikelyons

    mikelyons Supporting Member

    I've seen a lot of kit players, perhaps drummers is too strong a term, who cannot actually read notation at all. Certainly, those who grew up learning with rock/pop bands tend to play by ear (hence the headaches and the mood swings).

    It's a failing of music education not to teach notation, but it happens all the time.

    One of the best percussionists I know is actually a PIANIST (Yeuch!) by training, but he does, actually, read the music - albeit in a drummer kind of way (You know, always behind the beat, at HIS tempo etc. etc.)

    Also, as a tune maker who uses various software to notate, the inconsistencies in the way notation is handled is a nightmare. Sibelius, in particular causes immense problems. It's about time someone got a grip on the different kit notations and had them standardised. Preferably with a couple of bricks :wink:
  6. PeterBale

    PeterBale Moderator Staff Member

    Not perhaps related directly to reading a kit part, but one of my frustrations from time to time has been playing with a kit drummer who is not sensitive to the correct approach for the type of music being played. Maybe I was spoilt as a youngster when playing with the Dud Clews orchestra, where we concentrated on the big band jazz of the twenties and early thirties and had a first class drummer, but all too often drummers tend to overlay everything with a rock style which is quite out of place, and tends to detract from the music, rather than adding to the effect.
  7. Well Worth It

    Well Worth It Active Member

    *coughs* All the time.....? :wink:

    The biggest problem I encounter is when a (non-percussionist) composer writes parts that he thinks would sound good (and sometimes would), but are physically impossible to play.

    Some form of keyboard training is advantageous when doing tuned, but for kit it's probably better to get dropped from a young age and a great height.

    And another thing... :roll: ...when writing for different instruments attributing the same 'pitch' and value on the stave, it's usually helpful to denote WHAT you'd like it playing on...?!?!
    We're 'special' not psychic.


    TIMBONE Active Member

    Replies to this topic are so far very reassuring! Thanks everyone.

    'DRUMMERBOY', you mentioned 'inconsistencies in kit writing. My own experience of reading kit parts is as follows, and I am talking about where they originate from, ie jazz orientated music.

    So here goes. A 'drummer' has to be analytical about both the written part and the music itself, he/she needs a 'sixth sense'. They are the 'engine room', not the leader, (unless they are called Buddy Rich). If the drum part is a just a 'guide' part, then it will usually indicate this at the top. Generally speaking, SD is third space, BD is bottom space, HH is top space, 'crash' & 'ride' cymbals are above the stave, & tom toms are between SD & BD. The important thing is that this is indicated on the part, the drummer then knows which part of the kit is where. Also, the writer indicates important points such as 'rim', 'brushes' etc. This is why it is so frustrating when the drummer doesn't even read the instructions. Here are a few examples. The part does not say 'swing', it may even say, "not swing", and the drummer swings! It says brushes, and they use sticks. It says 'ride', and they play HH. One more, there is a bar where the drums are resting, and he/she carries on playing, or even vice versa! If you are directing the band, you are able to tell them, however, if you are playing, you just have to sit there and put up with it, or loose a friend!
  9. Dave1

    Dave1 Member

    I know this is off topic BUT - years ago I went to Germany with a band and we desperately needed a kit drummer. We found this guy simply called "Brush"
    He couldn't read a note of music but was an incredible kit drummer. So, with one rehearsal and many hand and eye signals worked out for entries etc off we went. He did a superb job, but my nerves were shot before and during each concert.

    Turns out "Brush" was the drummer from a band called Unit 4 plus 2. Some of you oldies like me will remember them I'm sure.
  10. Naomi McFadyen

    Naomi McFadyen New Member

    When I was in Saltash we needed a kit dep because I was unable to play... they got a lad who was a very good player (rock player) but he couldn't read the music to save his life!

    The only way to beable to read, is to learn what all the notation is and means etc... Either that, or if you have some commonsense in ya mind you can work out what the different positions mean... At the end of the day, once you know it's not a problem; it's just a bit of theory to learn, like playing any other instrument... just learn what the blobs and dots mean!

    Some arrangers and composers who write for kit don't have a clue... let's face it, some just can't be bothered about learning how to write the parts for their pieces... best way is to look at what other composers have done... BUT, at the end of the day, all kit parts are just a guide, so it doesnt need to be anything fancy...
    When I play kit parts I rarely play whats there (especially the pop stuff etc), just ad lib around it and I can see where to start and stop etc.

    The mistake that some arrangers make, is not doing research to find out how parts are written in the first place... It doesn't cost much to buy the basic books to find out about writting kit parts... it isn't hard at all... I'm sure there's plenty of websites to show how to write the notation at all, so you can get the info for free...

    If any arrangers out there who dont know how to read percussion need "a hand" at doing basic kit parts, send me a pm, I have a sample page at how to do this on Sibelius which I can forward onto you.
  11. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    I might take Naruco up on her offer! Although I have some limited experience playing tuned percussion, I can't say I'm confident writing out kit parts. I have taken some to study to get a 'feel' but we aren't all perfect at writing out for percussion but I do try at least!

    So far as kit players 'making things up', there are some who CAN read but still make it up anyway. Part of the problem is that percussion players are ignored by some conductors so they just get on with their own thing anyway. Then there's the flip side, that rehearsals are planned by these 'percussion ignorant' conductors with little or no thought for the poor percussion section who can sit there most of the night doing 10% of sod all whilst the brass are put through their places. I know the feeling. I've been a trumpet player in orchestras...... the sooner everyone realises that percussion is just as vital a commodity in today's brass bands as the brass themselves, the better. That way the problem of 'non reading' percussionists might just diminish.
  12. Andy_Euph

    Andy_Euph Active Member

    Does a bear shit in the woods....nuff said
  13. tsawyer

    tsawyer Member

    ...and then you get the part with a rock rhythm written out and it says "Swing!" in bit letters above the part. :shock:

    The way I approach a kit part is to listen to the band, look at what's written down, and then try and make it sound good. I do look at what the composer writes, and do take it seriously, but if I think it sounds rubbish then I'm going to change it to what I think is good. If the conductor doesn't like it then I change it. Sometimes, I play exactly what's written.

    I think this attitude is born from playing lots and lots (and lots) of rubbish kit parts, where the composer hasn't a clue.

  14. ukdrummerboy

    ukdrummerboy Member

    I must be the other way around!!! I was taught from a VERY early age to read kit music (before i could read and write my own name!)...but now, when i see bars with "Solo - Fill" written over the top.....I HATE THEM!!! I cannot improvise a solo at all! The composer/arranger could write what they wanted, making it as difficult as possible, and i'd still much rather attempt that than an "ad lib".

    Much prefer my music written down!

    TIMBONE Active Member

    I wish that every kit player had this approach Tim, this is exactly as it should be. (Fortunately, my own percussionist has the same approach). I am also fortunate in having been a kit player myself, so I know exactly what I want, and how to write it. It is true that any good drummer will embelish the part in places, and stamp his own identity on it, this is fine, as long as he/she is following the basic guidlines of the part. A kit part would be far too cluttered if the composer/arranger attempted to write every tiny detail into it. What annoys me, and I feel is very impolite, is if for example I have clearly indicated a quaver sequence on ride cymbal, with off-beat clicks on the SD rim, and the drummer plays a completely different rythm on HH & skin.
  16. drummerboy

    drummerboy Member

    But generally you don't kit 'parts' as such in jazz. So much so Buddy Rich couldn't read music. If he did, he certainly never used any charts when he did gigs.

    Not in my experience.

    If you look at Guildhall exam books, who use what is increasingly becoming the 'standard' way of writing kit, then high tom is top space, middle tom 2nd line down and floor tom second space up. All cymbals are then on top of the stave, a crash cymbal being on one ledger line.

    Part of the problem, is composers/arrangers often put things which on paper work, but in practise don't. Brushes is a very good example. The number of arrangements I've played where you have to play with brushes (which would be too quiet) then change within a beat or two to sticks is almost too numerous to count.

    As Tim from Rothwell said, we play what sounds right, generally using the part as a guide. Take the Floral Dance (as an example, sorry!). It would be stale and monotonous if you played the part, but if you add a few crashes, and a few fills, it makes it sound right.

    As Naruco said, doesn't take a lot to find out. If nothing else, there's enough percussionists here on tmp!
  17. MRSH

    MRSH Supporting Member

    Sorry to disagree with the Guildhall exam books but if I saw a kit part written like that I'd scream. And using ledger lines for a kit part is totally unnecessary.

    The way I write kit parts and also like to see them (assuming standard kit with 3 or 4 toms) is as follows (which is very close to TIMBONE's way):
    Top space (above the stave): crash cymbal
    Top line: ride cymbal
    Top space (in the stave): hi-hat
    2nd line: 1st tom
    2nd space: Snare
    3rd line: 2nd tom
    3rd space: hi-hat if needed to play with bass drum (e.g. for a march)
    4th line: 3rd tom
    Bottom space (in the stave): bass drum
    Bottom line: 4th tom.

    As far as playing what is on the part is concerned I agree with what has been said. Play the rhythm indicated on the instrument indicated with the sticks indicated. If you follow those basics you can't go wrong. Then, if the music suits ad-lib around the basics. Drummerboy mentioned The Floral Dance as a example of a bad kit part. I would use Hootenanny (sorry!!) as a quite appalling drum part. Any player that sticks (pun intended :shock: :roll:) to that part should have his drum kit confiscated.
  18. Naomi McFadyen

    Naomi McFadyen New Member

    Actually Guildhall have it pretty right!
    Drummers write the thing after-all! ;-)
  19. drummerboy

    drummerboy Member

    Exactly. In my experience, it's only non kit players who scream at the Guildhall books. :p
  20. Naomi McFadyen

    Naomi McFadyen New Member

    If you want a good book:
    Practical Percussion, by Kevin Edwards

    It's brilliant! I use it... Ask drummergurl, I've leant it to her! :lol: