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Drummer Disease. The phrase isn’t common lingo – it’s my own term for a frame of mind that all instrumentalists fall prey to, but it seems like drummers are especially prone to it. Broadly speaking, it’s a performer’s perspective that’s so preoccupied with one’s own playing that no attention is spent on the whole of the music. The sound of the band, the feel of the pocket with the rhythm section, the context of the gig… all of these things are left in the dust while your mental energy is wrapped tightly around the immediate context of your instrument and your instrument only.
There are many symptoms of Drummer Disease (DD), and I’ve touched on some of them before, so in this post I’ll just focus on the ways DD can specifically affect fills.
A drum fill, like anything else an instrumentalist would play, revolves around two things: what you are playing and how it sounds. The majority of the labor in playing fills revolves around the first task of deciding what to play and how the muscles need to function in order to play it. However, the key ingredient in turning this labor into MUSIC is the follow-up assessment of whether the fill sounds good and is worth playing. This is where Drummer Disease sneaks in. The drummer suffering from DD becomes totally consumed with the logistics and mechanics of what he/she is playing, and is unable to accurately determine if the fill sounds cool.
Obviously a drummer’s personal bias is a factor here, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m mainly referring to a drummer’s mental radar while playing a fill. The mind’s scope of awareness is large enough to track both logistics and quality. It’s not as if my attention can focus only on the fill I’m playing, and must scroll over to the other side of the brain in order to focus on how it sounds. The answer is to pan out… to realize that my brain is zoomed in on only one section of the radar. So then, a way to paraphrase the effects of Drummer Disease is to say that it causes my attention to zoom in on the mechanics and logistics of playing an instrument, instead of maintaining a full-screen view of all the factors: what I’m playing, how I’m playing it, context, execution, musicality, etc.
The best way to avoid catching Drummer Disease is to constantly look for the broader context you’re playing in. Every musical situation has a context, even if you’re playing in a room by yourself. How does this fill fit into the grooves surrounding it? How does this fill FEEL as it blends with the other instruments? Am I contributing to the song or am I just keeping myself from getting bored? Questions like these act as a vaccination against DD, and will help you to get well if you have already come down with the disease.
SUMMARY: Focus on the song. A drummer’s part is only a small portion of the whole, and the part can’t be accurately assessed unless the whole is in view.