Drummers sometimes forget that composers write music and not drum parts. Classic performances are always the result of a great song meeting a really good drummer. When we listen to Toto’s Rosanna, the first thing that we are drawn to is Jeff Porcaro’s groove.
That groove was Jeff’s response to a great melody, even though his part was somewhat complex and dominant the song still comes through. Rosanna is not a happy accident, but the result of years of a drummer playing for the music and not for history. The fact that the groove is legendary is proof that letting the music speak is the way to go.
Listening is the most important element in a musician’s toolbox and if you don’t listen you may miss the opportunity to make a song better. Many people will often talk about Buddy Rich’s awesome technical abilities but I don’t admire him for that alone. It is his ability to hear every aspect of an arrangement and make it his own.
I have heard several composers and arrangers say that Buddy played the music exactly the way they envisioned it and he did it by listening not reading. A written drum part does not relieve you of the responsibility of listening. You have to be able to hear how your part is meshing with the rest of the band.
Are the dynamics right, does your sense of the pulse fit with the rest of the rhythm section and most important are you phrasing the music correctly. Reading and listening in tandem is what creates good music and it goes a long way to fulfilling the composers intent.
Musicians dream of becoming a great player and there are many paths to greatness. What gets you to the top and keeps you there is mastery of your craft and the humility required to let the music speak.