Pressure by Roy Burns

Playing well under pressure is something that all drummers have to face at some point in their careers. Fear of pressure can hold you back or cause you to turn down a job or situation that you might otherwise be able to handle. Talent and training are not always enough. If two drummers of equal ability and experience audition for the same important job, the one who usually gets the job is the one who plays best under pressure.

I know a drummer who lives in a mid-size city. He idolizes a famous drummer to the degree that he dresses similarly, attempt to play exactly like him and expects people to treat him as though he is as good as he drummer he emulates. He has the same drum setup, same haircut, same size drumsticks and so on. He once told me, “I play too good for the people in this tow. They can’t understand or appreciate what I’m doing.”

At the time, I said nothing. However, I was thinking to myself, “If you are so good, why don’t you go to New York or Los Angeles and then we’ll see just how good or bad you really are.” The reason he doesn’t take off for the big city is the “pressure.” It is one thing to brag and boast in your home town, because you are relatively safe. But it’s quite another to go to the big city and find out for real how you stack up against the best in the business. I guess this drummer prefers to be “a legend in his own mind.”

If you decide to go to the big city or to audition for a famous band, the first thing you must do is be honest with yourself. What are your strengths? How much experience do you have? Do you feel that you are prepared? If the answer to the last question is yes, then you are ready to go for it.

Avoid the “what if” game. Avoid saying to yourself, “What if I fail?” Well, so what if you do? At least you had the courage to try. Even if you don’t get the job or win the audition, at least you will have experienced an audition. You will know what to expect the next time.

If you are auditioning, don’t let your mind get in the way by thinking, “What if I rush? What if I make a mistake? What if they don’t like me?” The best way I’ve found to deal with pressure is concentration. Concentrate on playing your part. Concentrate on the music. By doing this you won’t have time to play “what if.”

Remember, you will never know how good you can be until you lay well under pressure. You must learn to play your best when it is important, like when the red light is on.

Now, before you begin to fell overwhelmed by the thought of great pressure, understand that the ability to play well under pressure is developed in degrees. You may first feel some pressure and excitement when playing the big concert of the year with the high school concert band. Later, you may feel pressure and excitement again when you audition for the high school or college jazz band. Then you may feel that same way yet again when you play to a large crowd for the first time. Playing well under pressure is an ability that can be developed. Experience, over a period of time, teaches you how to handle pressure.

Preparation helps you to handle pressure. Be on time! There is nothing worse on the nerves than being late when the gig is really important. This only adds to the pressure. Make sure that you have all the necessary equipment. If you are recording, try to find out exactly what equipment you will need. Then plan of taking some “extras” just in case, such as another snare drum, additional cymbals, some mallets and drumsticks of different sizes. In other words, be prepared. This will also make it easier to handle the pressure.

You must realize that no one is perfect; we all make mistakes. If you make a mistake at a rehearsal or and audition, simply correct it. Don’t take it personally. Mistakes do happen; just don’t make too many. Also, don’t make the same mistake again and again. Mark your part with a pencil to help you remember. If you are not reading, have a note pad handy and make a few notes for yourself. Studying your notes after a rehearsal can refresh your recollection of what was truly important.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you can’t win them all. Some people will choose another drummer no matter how good you are. This is a matter of personal preference. It is sometimes a question of personality, style or even friendship. This thing to do is play your best and be as professional as possible. Remember, when you are in the music business, the second word is “business.” To be businesslike in pressure situations is to be professional.

Being a professional, very simply put, is doing your best in any situation. If you do that and some other drummer gets the gig, then that’s life. However, if you make a point to always do your best, eventually you will hit situations that are right for you. Word gets around fast.

The thing about pressure is that no one is immune to it. You just learn how to deal with it. The great actor Laurence Olivier once said, “When I don’t get stage fright, I will quit acting.” I think what he meant is that pressure can be stimulation. Pressure can be exciting. It will bring out the best in you.

Indeed, pressure is a necessary ingredient for growth and development. This does not mean that you should throw yourself into situations that you know you can’t handle. Pressure helps strengthen you, little by little, over a period of time. Be prepared and grow into dealing with it. Don’t be like the drummer I mentioned earlier who wants to be considered good while avoiding the pressure of being tested. We will all be tested, once way or another. So do your best. Accept the pressure and learn to live with it. It’s all part of paying your dues in the music business.