Less than 2 decades ago, I had a 13-piece band that I played in and managed encompassing the greatest challenge of my career in striving for the ultimate in audience entertainment. That was child’s play compared to the challenges I face just as a drummer with First Round in our delivery of REAL shows and REAL entertainment.
At first glance, it may seem easy to sum up this challenge with regard to the amount of material I have had to learn in such a short time. A few have even called it impressive. I, however, am not impressed by mere quantity, nor am I “credit hungry” for the feats I have engaged in over the years of joining bands and learning large volumes of material in very limited time. I have always been able to deliver in this area and consider it quite valuable within my musical skillset. When speaking of challenges, however, I do not consider it much of one. It is quite matter-of-fact actually.
It is probably appropriate that this is occurring now. After having taken a near 5-year hiatus from the gigging circuit, I found myself hungry for something more than just playing again. As I started to rehab my chops, doing hours of practice pad work and working on basic rudiments, I found that I wanted much more than rehabilitation. I actually wanted to get BEYOND the place I had left off. I had spent several decades building up my skill level on drums, even writing a book on the subject and teaching others to achieve that level. But my drumming was no longer challenging.
My drumming career was about to change with the opportunity which followed, and no one was more surprised than I at what happened next…
A stroke of planned luck: In my search for a challenge that would catapult me forward in my ability, beyond where I had already been, appropriately, the First Round drummer position fell into my lap.
What was the challenge? Well, it was three-fold. It was a combination of physical ability, mental capacity and sharpness as well as achievement of a high level of communication with an audience, all without words. Complex as that sounds, it could probably be summed up best in one word: stamina! Because of what it takes to pull all these components together and put on a show that people really enjoy to their very core!
3 aspects of my playing were augmented by the drive not just to play a bunch of songs for people in clubs, but to put on a show, to entertain far beyond what audiences expect and, blow their minds!
Let’s start with physical. It could be easy to dismiss this point as a given. Of course, drumming is very physical in nature, especially with the selection of material we cover as a band. This, however, is much more about how it is all orchestrated. It’s more about the unique use of the material itself.
To put it another way, especially for the layman, a normal night for the average cover band would include for 3 sets of music, about 45 minutes each, with a 20-30 minute break in between sets, for a sum total of about 40 songs.
With First Round, we play an average of 66 songs per night, 25 more than the average cover band, stringing many of them together in medleys, with few stops and take two 10 minute breaks. This is all in the name of keeping the show alive and keeping people on their toes and banging their heads, dancing and rocking.
This has presented a unique challenge to me physically. For instance, I have had to make dietary and supplemental changes. In point of fact, I actually can no longer play on an empty stomach. I need the energy as I burn it up fast!
Even my eardrums get a workout they have never gotten before and I have had to make adjustments to compensate for the stress they experience of being subjected to the high-frequency noise from behind the drumkit for over an hour longer than I have ever experienced in one night. Whereas I always have been able to tolerate the length of average shows, and the longer breaks and a lesser amount of material trained my body to a certain level of stamina, this was no longer sufficient.
Then there is the mental aspect. It is obvious this kind of entertainment would be physically challenging, which motivates me in and of itself, but then there are the mental challenges associated with a song-to-song, no-time-to-think kind of set-list with little margin for error which, with 4 limbs going in tandem can really add to the whiplash of it all. Mentally, you constantly have to be on your toes to make sure you keep the set on the rails. Any sharp turns result in a train wreck, a metaphor rock musicians have used for decades!
But it’s more than just keeping things on the rails and moving. There is something more to it.
According to frontman Carl LaCascia, “It’s the little things, the attention to detail that makes all the difference in putting on a show. People appreciate that when you take the time and the care to do some little thing that makes them go ‘whoa’”, a concept which makes me realize I am in good company with my viewpoint as a performer.
We have heard this time and again from Carl at practices and it can’t be stated enough. But, suffice to say, the song-to-song we do presents challenges to keep up with the changes and where one song ends and another begins. Then, of course, as a drummer, the tempo changes that occur are challenging enough, but when you have less than a second to shift gears – well, let’s say this is an adventure, to say the least. But these challenges are ultimately for us as a group to create an effect on our audience, and that’s what it is all for after all.
The mental challenges are phenomenal but I can’t seem to get enough of them. I find myself looking forward to them and seeing if I can yet again rise to the occasion with each transition or change, each song modification or detail. Sometimes I’ll even suggest something and then think “What am I, crazy? Why would I suggest that?” But the guiding principle to all of these challenges is anything but personal. It’s for the greater good. It’s for putting on a show for a real audience. And I not only believe fans appreciate it, I witness it in their faces at the shows.
As for audience communication, laying down rhythms is quite a bit different than singing and presents a unique challenge of translation from the record to the dance floor.
So, big deal, right? This is a given for any drummer in any band that the almighty clock, the meter, the beat is of utmost importance. And, when it is done poorly, you get no audience interest. Ultimately you get no audience! So why even bother mentioning it?
Well, couple this factor with the first two, the physical and mental challenges, and you have yourself a full-blown skill that needs to be precisely-honed: your ability to do all of this while still communicating the rhythm to the audience and get them moving and grooving!
It is this set of challenges that gets me looking forward to every practice, to every set of every show and it’s, so far, been the ride of my life, one I intend to keep improving on as a go.
Many people think joining a band is easy. You learn the songs, show up for practice once per week and then play the songs for people. This is more than an oversimplification, and while some musicians who are just in it for a little weekend fun may even look at it that way, it goes significantly deeper when you consider yourself way more of an entertainer than a musician. This hangs you with a tremendously larger responsibility and accountability to your fans. This is what First Round is all about and what drew me to the band in the first place.
I am not looking to be a hero or even elicit praise or approval for any of my work. This personal challenge I face is a great one, something a large majority of people don’t get to experience in their lifetime and so I feel obliged to share it with everyone. First Round is the most challenging band I have joined so far and the payoff is killer shows and people who get entertained to the end of vacating them from their worries and problems of life for a few hours. This is the crux of the challenge and why I (and we) do what we do