Sitting in an airport waiting for the band to pick you up is a good time to write a blog.
So although I'm primarily a drummer by trade, I also stage manage a group called the Young Dubliners. The job involves being a guitar tech, a drum tech, a monitor engineer, sometimes being a security guy, rarely being a lighting director, and always being on point to solve ANY problem that arises during their live performance. I'd say I'm a master of none of these skills, but I'm decent at all of them. In truth, the job requires a serviceable knowledge of every single thing on stage.
So, I met the Dubs years ago when I was in a band called The Janks. The two bands shared a booking agent and over the years I eventually got offered the job with them. Although I don't think of myself as the most qualified guy out there, many musicians and engineers over the years have asked me about the job or expressed wishes to have the knowledge to do my job. It's been a weird hodgepodge of collected information and experiences over years of being in music that got me to the point that I was qualified enough to get this gig, so I thought I'd talk about it from the standpoint of being a 'drummer first.'
To start with, I was a teenager when I got hired at Metro Music Center in Glendale, AZ. The place is now shuttered along with most of the other ma and pa shops of its kind, but the knowledge I gained there was indispensable. I had to tune about thirty guitars daily, as well as ensure cleanliness and order about them. Over time, I had to learn to change broken strings. The resident guitar tech Dennis taught me bits of his trade over the years and after awhile I became sufficient at making action adjustments and intonating. We also sold PA systems. I had to learn to demo them, so there I developed a basic knowledge of audio hardware and how to use it. This was the early days of digital and ProTools was yet to come out so I really was only working with analog stuff. But we did sell drum machines, so I would program those for fun in my spare time. A few doors down was a small recording studio called The Grey Room. Mark was a nice guy and needed an intern, so I interned there for a bit. I feel like I could've learned much more if I'd paid more attention, but I most certainly gained some meaningful knowledge there which helped set me up for interning at a larger studio when I moved to Los Angeles a few years later.
The trajectory of that story mostly entails me being a drummer, but always dabbling in everything else, from playing guitar and keys, to occasionally working in live or studio settings. I've never been a great engineer, but that's never been my focus. But the fact of the matter is, being okay at everything else has made me a much better drummer.
Here are some key points that I'd say are important for any drummer that is similarly interested in the world around them.
Treat the entire stage/studio as if it were your domain
Especially with drummers, we tend to just focus on our kit, and not anything else around us. "Oh, the guitarist is talking chords with the keyboardist. I guess I'll practice paradiddles," is the wrong way to go. Who cares if you don't know how to play guitar or keys and don't know chord theory? You are playing in the band. They are talking about a song you are playing. Listen to what they're saying. Besides the fact that you may pick up a bit of what they do over time, it may inform your perspective on the music you're playing. Perhaps you'll have an insight about their perspective on a piece of music that will affect your approach and make the song better.
Just as important are the engineers. What they do translates your live acoustic sound into an amplified or digital signal that is shaped as much by the work they do as the finicky selections of cymbals, drums, and drumheads you made over the years of putting your kit together. You should know what they're doing and how the set-up works. It is actually pretty easy to learn by observation how they wire up the stage. This kind of information gives you a lot of flexibility over the years. For instance, you can be in a band that sets up its own PA. You can spot a problem on stage before the show starts, ensuring your band has a better gig. You come across as more of a pro in some situations and can create new opportunities for yourself.
Always ask questions when it's appropriate
This is the pandora's box. Make sure you've got some time to spare before you ask an engineer about their console or a guitarist about their pedal board. This is nearly as good as on the job training. If you really pay attention, you'll learn a lot. I mean, sometimes you'll just learn that people really love their own opinions and like hearing themselves talk. But most of the time you'll learn something you didn't know. In fact, if you don't know anything about the gear you're looking at, you're basically guaranteed to learn something.
Most of the time I've gotten in conversations of this sort, I've learned a lot about the perspectives engendered by the other roles surrounding me. And over time, this has done a lot to make me a better player with others. Compared to when I was younger, I listen to the other instruments a lot more and pay attention to how they are approaching the song. I look at what the engineer is doing and how the room is set up, and I adjust my dynamics so that my kit isn't overpowering the PA, or on the opposite hand, that I'm not playing a lot of sensitive and subtle stuff that is going to get lost in a big and loud amplified PA system.
Never miss an opportunity to poach a lesson
The sole reason I am a serviceable guitar player and can plink around on a piano is because I took tons of makeshift lessons from great players over the years. It wasn't so much of a, "hey man, can you give me a thirty minute lesson today after practice?" It was more just like an extended version of the above point, but about playing, and with me holding a guitar in my hands or something like that. I worked with a handful of highly trained guitarists over the years that had degrees from MIT or USC and they all knew their shit. So when I asked them, "why does this sound cool," or "how do you get your hand to do the thing," they were almost always happy to take a minute to show me.
Same thing with mixing. I didn't know shit about solving feedback problems on stage at first. So I just kept asking. You're allowed to be ignorant. It's scary to show your ignorance if you're trying to learn. It's another thing to wallow in your ignorance or act out of ignorance and make mistakes. Most people appreciate the person that is working hard to learn. They might wonder how the fuck you got your job without knowing a thing, but if they see you're a hard worker and a proactive motherfucker, maybe actually they won't.
Ah, there's so much more I could write, and I could probably be more concise, but this is it. Just recognize what your comfort zone is and always be pushing yourself out of it, like getting up out of that warm comfy bed on a particularly early and chilly morning. It's fine to hang back on occasion, but you've gotta keep growing. Just remember that part of being a competent musician lies beyond your instrument and exists in everything around it. You don't need to master it all, just become intimate with it all. Know the world that surrounds you.