My older brother Matt is a great guy and one of my best friends. He’s also an incredibly talented drummer, and phenomenally gifted at playing drums in a worship context. I asked him a few questions about his experience and advice as a worship drummer to worship drummers, and here are his answers.
1. What is the job of a worship drummer?
This didn’t really hit me until about 5 years ago. I knew the importance of drums as well as their overall role in music, especially the more rock/contemporary style in my church.
It wasn’t until one particular Sunday during the first song that morning. I forget what song it was but it was very upbeat but, just as we rehearsed, I was waiting until the first chorus to come in. I looked around the room and noticed some people engaging in worship while looking over in my general direction pumping their fist to the beat. It was as if they were saying “Come on! Let’s go!” As I began to play it felt as if there was already this energy or emotion in the room and that the drums really help capture that.
Now, I try to be sensitive to the message of the song, what style the worship leader wants, and where the spirit may lead us during that song. Some parts may have heavy tom pounding. Sometimes, just some light cymbal splashing. Even other times, it may mean not even playing at all. Yes, there are actually parts of songs where by back off completely the drums are adding the most to the feel of that song!
Recently, someone who has been a member of my church for years complimented me by saying “you play so tastefully“. Usually, I try not to dwell on compliments (or complaints for that matter), but that stuck out to me. It wasn’t speaking to my skill or even style, but rather that I had an awareness of where things were going musically and helped facilitate that.
2. What are some big mistakes worship drummers make?
A mistake I made for over 10 years was simple. Showing off or overplaying.
For many years growing up, I would be in small bands that had no bass player. I played at some large event with a full band and really went at it. I was quite impressed with myself afterwards seeing as how my sextuplet runs were performed with precision and I was even able to sneak in a couple Carter Beauford style fills.
When I was asked back to that event a few weeks later, the worship leader informed me that the bass guitar player really didn’t like to play with me. “Me? How’s that possible?” I wondered “I really rocked out! Didn’t you notice?” What I didn’t realize back then was that the drums and bass guitar help set the rhythm or “groove” for a song. In order for that to happen, the bass guitar player should be generally playing when the drummer is hitting the kick drum. Well, that was impossible for this bass player as I was all over the place!
It took me years to refine how I play with bands. In marching band, our drum captain taught us that simple and clean is better than complex and messy. Musically most worship songs are not that complex. It’s great that I can play along to funk, gospel, reggae, etc. when I practice but I don’t need to cram all that in to a Chris Tomlin song.
Drums by nature stand out. Put them on a stage and people are going to see them and that’s fine. I’m not suggesting that drummers play backstage (though I had to do that once when there wasn’t enough room on stage. It was awkward) or that they should avoid all fills whatsoever. But be sensitive that your playing doesn’t scream “Hey everyone look at me! Look at how good I am!” Have fun and be creative but, as I mentioned earlier, be sure to remain “tasteful”.
3. What is going through your mind when you’re playing drums during a service?
I try and be mindful of the message in the songs we are leading. Some drummers can sing and play. I can’t. (I can’t even really sing for that matter so I’m better off behind the drums). I’ve come to see my drumming as my body singing. I’m worshiping God through my playing. This helps me stay in tune with the worship leader.
It also helps to be positioned in a way where the leader and I have a clear line of site with each other. An experienced leader will be able to give quick cues to the band. The more comfortable I am following a leader musically, the more freed up I am to worship as I play.
4. If you could give three pieces of advice to worship drummers, what would you say?
Your gifts don’t define you. They are just that, gifts. You’re no more special when you play a great set than you are a failure because you made a lot of mistakes. Anyone in ministry who is visible is subject to the temptation of being prideful or needing to be validated by what we do on stage. God could care less about how well I played if I’m not living a life that’s pleasing to him.
Play humbly but with confidence. Just as it’s important not to overplay, it’s equally important to not play hesitantly or weak. Think of drums as a foundation to a house. The rest of the band, even the singers, depend on that foundation to be solid. That means keeping a steady beat, building up or down as needed and just overall saying “I know where this is going. Follow me.” Come to practice and service comfortable with music. Meet with the leader to make sure you’re on the same page about feels and cues. If you have the capability to have in ear monitors, I highly recommend playing with a click track. It will take some getting used to but will help you immensely in staying on beat and keeping the tempo.
Stay fresh. Drumming for me is fun and therapeutic. However, during different seasons I’ve been the primary drummer at my church. I’ve had to ask for a month off here and there to recharge my batteries. Every time, I come back feeling and even playing better. If you’re feeling burnt out and that your heart really isn’t into it, ask the leader to let you take a step back for a while so God can refresh you.
Thanks to Matt Brown for these good words of insight and advice! If you have any questions for Matt, or thoughts of your own, please chime in (pun intended) in the comments below.