Thursday, 31 March 2011

Livin’ in a box, livin’ in a Perspex box

As you may, or may not, know I am a drummer.  It’s not my profession; it’s more like a syndrome.  I am constantly tapping anything that will make a sound, making drum noises with my mouth, playing ‘air-drums’ as I wander around the house and from time-to-time I do also sit on a drum stool and hit drums with sticks.  I’ve played with a wide variety of people in all kinds of church settings and enjoyed some of it a lot and some of it less so.  There’s a couple of worship leaders (and I’m not especially comfortable with that term but it’ll do as a readily understood short-hand for now, I may blog about that another time) who I absolutely love playing with, the first is Godfrey Birtill and the other is Rob Cresswell.  I’ve played with both of them many many times over a number of years and its comfortable and exciting and fun and challenging each and every time.  There’s an easy connection and a ‘flow’ that feels natural and makes it just work when we play.  Some might spiritualise it and call it an anointing, some might just chalk it up to lengthy experience.  I think it’s a bit of both.  However there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to ruin the experience of playing together and that’s when the drummer is put into or behind a Perspex box.

Aside from making a professional quality recording there is no technical reason whatsoever for putting the drummer behind a screen.  Churches are the only places where the drummer is boxed off like that!  Have you ever seen a live band in any secular setting put a box around the drummer?  It doesn’t matter if the band is playing the O2 Area, Madison Square Gardens, the local community centre or a tiny back room in a pub the drummer’s connection to the band, especially the bass player, is immediate and personal and vital.  It’s also not a genre thing – the music can be jazz, rock, soul, funk, reggae, country, folk or anything – the drummer is still not hidden behind a screen.

The reason, or indeed often excuse, for this strange behaviour by churches is almost always ‘The drummer is too loud’.  This could be because (a) he really is so much louder than the rest of the band that he’s drowning them out or it could be (b) some people just think he’s too loud because they can still hear him! 

If you’re in point (a) then then most churches first and only course of action is often to buy  a Perspex screen and plonk it between the drummer and the band – this is like noticing the volume on your TV set is too loud and immediately deciding the solution to this is to put the TV in a different room!  You are tackling the symptom rather than addressing the problem.  If your drummer is genuinely too loud then the leader of the band needs to work with the drummer to teach him to play more sensitively.  It is possible to play quietly when required.  I can – and I’m an extremely average drummer. Try positioning the drummer in a better place so he can see the band leader properly and ensure a good fold-back unit is used, where appropriate, so the drummer can hear properly at the right volume level so he can pitch his playing correctly.  Your drummer is NEVER EVER going to develop sensitivity in their playing if you stuff him behind a screen and rely on the PA to control the sound.  The PA is simply there to ensure everyone in the room can hear what’s going on – it should never be used to control the sound.  The band should control the sound themselves and that requires communication, honesty and humility.  If your drummer is arrogant and insists on playing too loudly despite repeated conversations about the problem then the solution is NOT a Perspex screen, the solution is that they’re not allowed to play at all until they are prepared to do it with the right attitude.  If your drummer is a beginner and struggles to play sensitively then again the Perspex box is still not the answer – he needs practice, encouragement and feedback on each song.
And if the drummer is too loud occasionally, or the singers hit the odd bum note or the guitarist plays the wrong chords from time to time and they get flak for it then frankly those who have a problem with this need to get a grip and realise musical perfection is not the point in worship!  Expressing joy and delight in our heavenly Father is the point.  As Godfrey says “We’re all in the band” – so stop slagging off your band mates and get your focus on Jesus and not the music.

If the criticism is more point (b) then you have an easier problem to deal with.  People who think the drums shouldn’t be heard at all probably don’t want anything other than a 400 year old pipe organ in church so you’re on a hiding to nothing trying to accommodate that attitude.  If we’re only going to use ‘biblical’ instruments then all we can have is crashing cymbals (would they like that?  I doubt it!), a few flutes, primitive trumpets, the odd harp maybe but certainly no organs, pipe or otherwise, guitars or pianos let alone the evil of the drum kit! Western European diatonic scale melodies would also be out so clearly we’d have to just sing using the ancient Hebrew musical tradition!  If they just want ‘traditional’ English church music then they need to be reminded that the church persecuted those that wanted to replace the plain-song sung only by Monks with the congregational singing and the religious choral style that they now consider to be correct! So what you should do with these people is this: ignore them completely because they won’t be happy whatever you do!

So set the drummer free from the evil tyranny of the Perspex box!

This one is bad...

This one is ghastly...

But this one is PURE evil...

All of these were seen in churches where I've played.  (Didn't use the bottom one - we asked for a second kit to be put out on the stage - this one was nicknamed 'the garden shed' and it was in America!).


  1. Oh that made me laugh, especially the last picture!!! Is that for real?? Nightmare! Absolutely agree - drummers (as ALL instrumentalists in a band) need to learn to play sensitively as part of the whole. An overloud drummer is as jarring as an out of tune singer.

    I sorely miss the inimitable Ali Thornton who used to drum for me over the years, sadly lost to a brain tumour at only 27. But he was my right hand man - called me his left hand woman! The most sensitive drummer I have ever worked with and he produced absolute magic when he played. If anyone had attempted to put him behind a screen, I would have done them damage with a spare pair of his drumsticks!!!

    Liberate the decent drummers I say (and ban the egotistical ones!). Down with perspex!!!!

  2. It's just odd putting drummers in boxes, odd, odd, odd.

  3. We had a treat at Taith/Journey last Friday... It's a bilingual (Welsh/English) worship evening and we had a Mohawk and an Alaskan Indian (sorry, I can't remember the name of his tribe) who joined in with native american drumming and sound. It was just such a treat with Robin on acoustic guitar, Steffan on electric, Jeff on a djembe and these guys adding the sound they created adding to the welsh and english and Robin dancing planting a shepherd's crook, and Steffan doing modern rock guitar riffs. Some people sat quietly, some people danced but everyone was offering worship to a precious God of love... we didn't need translations of what was sung... there was just journey in Presence... and there is nothing that brings freedom like the drums!!

    Great points about communication... and everyone being in the band... part of the sound offering to God!. On Friday the sound was a bit messy, needed a bit of tweaking through the evening, but it was good!!

    Love your drumming :)

  4. Sadly PA has a lot answer for, ie: the perspex box, its all about control rather than freedom and co-operation. Dad

  5. Carol,

    All the photos are real - the first two are boxes I was asked to drum in. The first one was in the USA and we removed it for the next meeting. The second was at a wedding and it was horrifically HOT in there with the roof on. The last one was in Nashville and we asked not to use it and got a second kit out on the stage. The drummer in that church may as well do his bit via video link up from home!



    That sounds amazing. Bring it on! Cross-cultural jamming.
    Thanks for your kind comments on my drumming.



    Freedom and co-operation is the ticket! Let's ditch the control!


  6. I'm not be any means a musician, but this is a well thought out blog. I agree that a box is probably covering up symptoms instead of fixing the problem. I got a good laugh seeing the different drum boxes, especially the evil one!!!!

  7. The last one really made me laugh out loud. But then I've never seen one those screens outside a studio anyway. The idea is ridiculous.

  8. We have one like the last in our church in QLD - it looks like a dark version of the TARDIS. I hate it & feel for the drummer. That's why I found your blog - wanting to know if it happens elsewhere. It makes me ashamed. Thanks for your drummer's perspective. Lisa.

    1. Lisa,

      Just burn it. Smash it. Steal it. Do anything you can to get rid of it! Set the drummer free from his nasty prison!