Now comes the real “homework” of the job. I set aside a period of time to chart out all of the songs. First, I start with a stack of plain white printer paper (although sometimes I will use whatever is available, a napkin, a torn sheet from a journal, or the backside of junk mail), a black pen, good headphones that allow me to distinguish kick drum patterns and bass lines, and any tap-tempo metronome.
Then I go down the list of songs, writing out charts using my own version of notation and hieroglyphics. My charts are usually as detailed as they need to be, but not unnecessarily detailed. I still follow a system similar to the one that I learned for reading high school big band jazz charts. Left to right, top to bottom, with sections like: Introduction, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Solo, Outro, etc.
How many bars are in each section? Include rests, accents, unison figures. Jot down dynamics (ppp vs fff). I notate specific beats, and signature drum fills. What would my hands be doing at any given time? RH on closed hi hat and LH on cross stick. Or RH on ride cymbal and LH on snare drum. Or RH on floor tom and LH on tambourine. I notate the tempo-markings. And if time allows, I will even check out alternate versions of the songs on Spotify or YouTube (remixes, live versions, cover versions).
Step 2 of this learning process takes place on the actual drumset. I take my folder of charts, throw on the headphones, and play along with the iPod, seeing how the songs feel on the instrument. At first, I approach the songs exactly like the album versions (as note-for-note as possible). Then, I gradually adjust them in ways that I believe would make them even more musical. That might mean changing the subdivision of the hi hat from 16ths to 8ths, or adding ghost notes to the snare part, or simplifying the kick drum pattern, or coming up with an alternate drum fill that does not clash with the acoustic guitar part or the vocal melody.
In general, I prefer to have all of the songs learned well enough to the point where I can do them exactly like the record, or differently from the recorded versions in case the artist, producer, or musical director requests a fresh approach. Brainstorm for multiple options. The artist could either be completely sold on their album version, or they could be utterly bored with it. You can’t be sure, so it’s a good idea to have choices.
Step 3 is the memorization. Even though I’ve been working on my reading since I was in middle school, I prefer to not read any charts on stage or during recording sessions. Staring at a page makes me feel as though I have not internalized the music. Therefore, I go through a process of memorization.
It’s a good brain exercise (like Sudoku)! First, I spend a good deal of time running through the music in headphones while staring at my charts. Then, I close the folder and spend time playing the music, still with headphones, but without the charts. This could be a bit bumpy at first, but it helps highlight the trickiest parts of the songs.
Finally, I will switch from the iPod to a metronome, and just play through all of the songs with only a click track while singing the melody and arrangements in my head. This can be the toughest part, but only when I do this do I feel as though I actually “know” the songs. It’s as though I am inside all of the phrasing. And practically speaking, if things go wrong on stage (bad monitor mix, guitarist breaks a string, singer gets lost), I’ll know exactly where we are, and I‘ll be able to hold everyone together. As a drummer, you are often steering the ship!