It’s All In How You End
Last night I played a gig and had a bit of an epiphany. Now, I’m pretty old and have been playing a long time, so as you can imagine, I get excited when I have epiphanies. They mean that I’m still learning, still listening. They mean that my dentures are glued in tight and all is functioning normally.
This particular gig was one I play a lot. The music has an open-ended feel to it, and it’s usually up to the band to follow the singer and help shape the tunes. Often times, we’ve never played the song before, we’re reading it down for the first time on stage, no rehearsal, no discussion, no predetermined ending.
Endings are elusive things, especially when there isn’t a chance to talk them out beforehand. Possible endings are limitless—and this is where my epiphany comes in—good endings require confident choices by at least one member of the band, and often times, that person is the drummer.
On the gig last night I witnessed a drummer who took charge of endings. If a tune was going on too long, he ended it. If a tune wasn’t going well, he ended it. If someone got lost, he took control and led the band to a place where the parachute could be ejected safely and without injury. This is the height of listening, the ability to choose a musical direction and help everyone on stage take it. It is not an easy thing to do.
I’ve been on a lot of gigs where the band stands around looking at each other waiting for an ending to present itself. Like two baseball players chasing a pop fly and colliding moments before the ball hits the ground, someone has to yell, “I’ve got it.” It’s music marred in hesitancy, a situation where no one is willing to step up. But I’m here to say, make the tough call. Be that player, that listener. All songs must end.
Why drummers? It’s not impossible for other members of the band to take charge, but it usually involves a lot of hand waving and awkward cues that aren’t always seen by everyone on stage. The drummer is in a unique position to initiate a change of tempo, to take the band high speed into a left turn. They can take control with the volume of a single snare hit. When a band stands around holding their collective breath in hopes of an ending, things can go long.
The drummer last night, who shall remain nameless to protect his awesomeness, is a good friend of mine, and it made me realize that this level of listening is what often separates New York drummers from a lot of other towns, but even so, my epiphany was a wonderful moment for me. To witness that level of musicianship, to be aware of it happening as it was happening, made me aware of my own development, the growth of my own ears. All the drummers who play this gig bring with them this unique ability, for some reason, I noticed it for the first time last night.
Don’t be afraid to make a choice in a given musical moment is what I’m saying. If you’re playing with great musicians, they will follow, they want to follow, it’s what they do best. Choice, and the confidence to make it, is the height of musical growth. Keep that in mind the next time your band feels like it’s circling an airport without a runway. Light up the flares, lead the way, and bring ’em home safe.