AS YOU START TO READ this article, I don't want your thoughts to be drawn to
the finesse of a rudimentalst or the flash of a great jazz drummer.
This, in a sense, is a great "show" of many hours of study and
practice. These people have worked hard and accomplished a great thing.
But what about the real show drummer . . . the one who
plays the theatre pits, vaudeville acts, circuses and television? Where
did he study? In all probability, most of his knowledge came from watching
and listening to other drummers in places that were a little off the
beaten path. Seeing a dancer kick up a heel . . . hearing a singer miss a
beat . . . or even seeing a circus bear sit down when he was supposed to
stand up. The drummer has to catch all the cues, plus remedy any mistakes
that are made. So, from these experiences, he has learned.
These drummers are not exactly percussionists, but they are musicians. They have
heard and watched, and they have depth of thought and feeling for what
they have seen. It is really tragic that the students of show drumming
nowadays usually are not exposed to such places as vaudeville, burlesque,
circus, and show-type night clubs. These places were, and are, the
training ground for great show drummers.
However, let's face the problem at hand. A good show drummer must be able to
anticipate a tempo change, catch cue after cue, in addition to musically
backing the group he is working with. (Naturally, the conductor has
something to say about this!) Also, to be a complete, well-rounded show
drummer, a technical knowledge and functional application of all the
mallet-keyboard instruments, timpani, and "traps" is a
necessity. Furthermore, modern-day musical shows may require anything from
auto horn and anvil to washtubs, much after the fashion of the drummer's
responsibilities in the pit during the days of the silent movies.
Coping With Space Problems
Now let's get into problems of space. There are very few places where a show
drummer has enough room to manipulate all his equipment. You may say that
this sounds impossible, but have you ever thought of playing timpani
seated on a kitchen chair, or having to play a chime part picking up each
tube one at a time, or having to play a xylophone part with your back to
the conductor as you watch him in a mirror?
Every pit and stage has a personal problem for the drummer which, again, has to
be remedied by the performer and the conductor. I find that in my
particular work, a drum set consisting of a 22" bass drum, high hat,
snare drum, two suspended cymbals, a floor tom-tom and a tom-tom mounted
on my bass drum (with a reversible mounting that will allow me to turn
this drum in any direction or angle) works best. A combination of wood block or cow bell holder attached to the bass drum is a necessity. In
addition, I have a special rack that places a set of bells over my bass
drum and traps when necessary. To buy something like this would be an
impossibility, but with a little thought and imagination, this rack can
easily be made out of conduit, a tubing used by commercial electricians.
The cowbell and wood block should be carefully selected to produce just the sound
that you have in mind. Also, the relative pitch of your bass drum,
tom-toms, and especially snare drum (I recommend a metal shell-type)
should be to your taste. This and all your other traps should sound the
way you would like to hear them from the audience. You might ask one of
your colleagues to go out into the audience area and listen to your
equipment. His observations can be of great value in improving the
percussions you evolve. If possible, the player himself should listen to
his equipment from the vantage point of the audience.
Also remember that there is a tambourine, and there is a tambourine.
Which means, of course, that you should always seek a better instrument or
stick that might give a better sound for a particular purpose. Show
drumming is the roughest style of them all, but after a fine performance,
whether a one-nighter or a one-year's stand, the satisfaction is one
of an award. Remember, you helped make it possible.
© 1985 by Harry J. Brabec
A Note from Barbara:
Regrettably, the photo at left is the only one I have of Harry sitting behind his famous
drum set. (The photo was cropped oddly to remove unwanted elements in the
picture, which I put in a framed collage of pictures.)
Some details of the
setup have been lost in the cropping, but if you look closely you can see the instruments mentioned
in this article—how he attached the woodblock, cowbell, and
triangle. On the rack that sometimes held a set of bells is a
tambourine. (Notice that Harry never bothered to carry a
drummer's throne. He simply turned his drum case on end and threw
the pad he used to protect his snare drum over it. He was
nothing if not practical.)
In the detail shot at left, you can see how Harry attached the bass
drum pedal to the drum frame as well as the holder for his tom-tom
(cymbal holder is on the right side). He designed this set for
the hotel jobs and recording dates he was doing in the forties, and said that, in all his years of playing
and meeting drummers across the country, he never saw another
setup like his. What he wanted was a set of drums he could easily pick up as one
unit and move it easily from one hotel room or recording studio to another.
Like the drummer who played it,
this old set of drums was truly one of
a kind, and Harry couldn't bear to part with it even when he was no longer
playing. Just too much nostalgia attached to it.
It was still in his music room when he died. The interesting story of
how it was acquired and where it ended up afterwards is told in my memoir,
Drummer Drives! (available in both print and eBook editions). The
book also features stories about the many
percussionists, musicians, entertainers, bands, orchestras, and conductors Harry
worked with during his fifty-year career.
<<< Click the book graphic to go to Amazon, where you can read a lengthy excerpt
on the site.
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