West End Drummers - Part 12 - The Summary
West End Drummers – Series Summary
The past year holds many memorable experiences for me; I’ve visited the orchestra pits of London’s West End theatres and talked with drummers and percussionists to find 11 months worth of interviews that would share their lives and views with the readers of mikedolbear.com. Hidden away in those theatres, playing the same thing night after night, are some of the UK’s top session drummers.
All of the drummers I met had similar things in common. They were highly skilled at playing whatever styles of music their show required, they could read well (not all of them started out that way, by their own admission), they could play to a click and follow a musical director; all the things you would expect from professional musicians. They also had vast amounts of experience playing in different situations, venues and music genres. The key similarity, which is important to being a musician in the West End and which is probably the reason they were there in the first place, was that they were all so easy to get on with. Every drummer was honest with me in their responses to the questions, they were all extremely generous with their time and keen to share their knowledge with other drummers. While I asked almost the same questions in every interview I was delighted by how unique each one turned out to be.
In Andy Newmark’s interview (Part 5) he said, ‘I thought the only way to remain a working musician and make money from it would be to get a show in the West End. Up until then I never would have considered it because I had worked on a show on Broadway when I was much younger, back in 1969 or 1970. I depped on a few shows in New York like Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar and I thought, ‘This is really depressing! I never want to be a part of this scene’… It was a long time before the idea of a show was acceptable in my mind but in 1999 I was 49 years old and there weren’t really other options on the table for me to make money.’
Several of the West End Drummers said the shows provide a regular income, which is uncommon in the music industry and therefore a big draw to working in theater. Pete May (Part 10) said how he was surprised to get holiday pay, ‘You can always take breaks so you’re not trapped in a show. When I got Avenue Q I couldn’t believe it; I’d been doing it for a month when I thought they’d paid me twice, then someone said, “That’s your holiday pay!”. I just wasn’t used to that. Then you get double money for bank holidays so whenever I could I would always take a holiday.’
With the economic troubles that we are experiencing, which includes the music business, well paid, regular gigs are bound to be attractive. Several of the drummers said they are often contacted by players who would like to get into shows and they stressed the necessity of gaining experience before working in the West End.
In Part 6 Dave Adams said, ‘Do shows by all means but don’t dedicate yourself to the black attire. Do loads of what you’ve learnt and love first, because that’s the reason you got into music initially, wasn’t it? The more experience you can get in every style, setting etc, the more it will help you in the long run. Shows are great for a lot of people when they are winding down careers. The regular money and playing is great… I didn’t do shows until much later on in my development. I’m 53 now and I think my first show was around the 38 years old mark, too soon... Young drummers – go and see shows, learn them, dep on them if you can but don’t take one on too early because you can get lost in them and that is by no means meant to be a negative statement!’
In Part 4 Tim Goodyer said, ‘I get a lot of people from colleges who want to sit in…a lot of people come out of college and they feel that they’re ready to do a show, which very often they’re not. They’re wondering why they’re not getting booked as deps on shows instantly.
I think it’s important to get experience of life and music because you need a lot of experience of various different styles of music, gigs and situations to come in and do something like this. If you’ve never done anything after leaving college you’ve got nothing to draw from.
I don’t want to put people off; there are musicians who come straight out of college, do shows and they do a great job, but there aren’t many. Don’t be in a hurry to tie yourself down to something or to put yourself in the firing line. Just have a bit of fun with it, get some experience and enjoy playing!’.
So is the money that good? The Musicians’ Union website states that from 1st October 2011 the minimum weekly production salary for a West End show musician on a once nightly rate (a maximum of eight performances in a six day week) should be £855.36, which equates to £106.92 per show.
Bearing in mind that there is tax to be paid, as well as outgoings such as travel and parking (I note that the MU have recently struck a deal with NCP and Q-Park to get cheaper London parking for their members) the amount it adds up to might not be as high as you would think.
There is also a personal cost to working the anti-social hours of a West End drummer as James Powell explained in Part 2, ‘I love everyone on the show but I do prefer being at home… I’ve got two young kids, a wife who needs me and working every night is very hard on that level. It’s not really working for me but I have to do it at the moment.’
In Part 8 Tim Weller mentioned the importance of having time away from the show ‘Billy Elliot’ for him and his family – ‘I try to balance working with spending time with my family. I''ve got a son who''s just started school and I like to make sure that I''ve got a bit of time in the week to build something dangerous out of Lego with him.’
The West End is a career that involves choices and is not just music for fun, as Tim Goodyer describes in Part 4, ‘I went to Dirty Dancing, which I wasn’t sure about at the time because I was really enjoying Avenue Q. By the time they asked me to do it they’d sold about £12.5 million in advanced tickets so I couldn’t really turn it down; I have a wife and kids and I had to think of them as well.’
In Part 9 Andy McGlasson talked about the positive creative aspects of being involved in ‘Ghost the Musical’ early on, ‘Quite often when you do a show that’s already been open in Broadway, for example, it’s all set in stone and you have to copy what the American drummer does, or you may have an arranger who writes something specific. That’s fine as well but I was able to suggest a few ideas, which was cool as it gave me a lot of freedom…The whole rhythm section had some kind of contribution so it makes it a fun show to be involved with.
…I’d been listening to some James Taylor on the way into a rehearsal with Russ Kunkel playing a really nice simple brush pattern. It was one of those days when they asked me to come up with something. I just ripped off the James Taylor pattern and it seemed to fit. The Musical Supervisor said ‘Ah! Genius!’ and I was like, ‘Ahhh... don’t mention it!’.
Musicals have had a resurgence in popularity over recent years and what better way to get people into music than including the band as part of the show?
In ‘We Will Rock You’ the musicians are in full view on scaffolding at the sides of the stage and in ‘The Lion King’, percussionists Damian Manning and Mike Hamnett play from the royal boxes throughout the show.
Mike Hamnett said in Part 7, ‘The visual aspect is a very deliberate choice by the producers of the show and in every production across the world the two box percussionists are featured soloists. We get individual bows after the orchestra as featured players.’
Also in Part 7, Damian Manning said, ‘as a musician it’s a very up and down world but even during the credit crunch the West End here is thriving and it’s never been so good. There’s a lot of work, which means there’s more for deps. There are shows now that quite often have a drummer and percussionist.’
All of the drummers mentioned the importance of their deps in staying fresh to combat the monotony of playing the same music every day. In Part 1 Tony Bourke said,
‘From a drummer’s point of view you have to nail it every night. Sometimes it’s hard. Working it out, I’ve done over 3,500 performances! I have deps so I can have holidays because there’s no way I could do it all the time. I have to go off and do other things to keep the brain going. You have to professionally step back from it sometimes…It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done but it’s bloody good fun.’
In Part 7 Dave Elliott described his experiences of depping as a percussionist on his first show, ‘The Lion King’ – ‘I quickly realised you have to go in, know the show, respect the community that is in place and respect the fact that everyone there has played it so many times. You’ve got to know the music inside out, listen to everyone and do your homework…
'I was called this morning for today’s afternoon show so it could be at any time and you have to stay on top of it; that might just be putting it on your iPod and listening every now and then. I realised that although you’re going in and others might be listening to you, at the end of the day you’re just part of a bigger picture so if you play as though everyone’s listening to you you’ll come across as too soloistic.
'You’ve got to know your place within the music. People might listen out to see what the new guy is like but mostly they just want the show to go well so they want you to play well.’
In Part 3 Elliott Henshaw talked with admiration about the standard of musicianship in the West End. ‘You can’t make a living just doing sessions now, there isn’t the work there anymore. The guys who used to be doing that full time 20 years ago are all in the pits now so you end up working with some heavy, heavy players.’
Doing this series of interviews has made me extremely proud of the musicians we have in the UK. These players are working under the radar in London each night in our theatres and when they’re not there they are playing on the albums we hear in the charts or touring with huge artists, all without us necessarily knowing anything about them.
I hope that the series has brought some positive attention to the musicians in the West End; go to see the shows they play on to keep the West End thriving and to make sure live music stays alive. While you’re there go and say hi to them in the pit because they are the most genuine people you will ever meet.
Many thanks to all the musicians who gave up their time to take part in West End Drummers and special thanks to Ralph Salmins and Tim Goodyer for putting me in touch with such charming and enthusiastic people.
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