The Traffic Cop

Have you ever noticed how incredibly clear and decisive a traffic cop is? I mean imagine if you came to an intersection and he was like “Um, yeah you can go now. Oh wait! No let this other guy go first. No wait…! Accidents would happen, wouldn’t they?!


When the drummers on our worship teams don’t signal sections, it's like you're sitting at an intersection and the officer directing traffic isn't clear. Everybody hesitates and there are accidents. The leader makes the call for the arrangement, and the drummer communicates those calls to the band.


The drummer’s basic job description (beyond keeping time) is to signal sections, to direct traffic.

Here’s what I mean. It’s a technique I remember from conducting class. (thanks Dr. Mabry!) You’re waving the baton indicating a certain intensity or volume, but when you want to change that, you indicate it by making a change to the last beat of the current section. So if you are in a quiet section and want to go to loud, you do three beats at quiet, but the last one is loud. (in conducting terms, this is usually indicated by a bigger pattern)


The point is this. As a choir following its conductor, you respond without even realizing it because you’re cued into the waving baton and when it gets bigger, you get louder. It’s subtle, it’s a nuance. Same with the drummer.


This signal often happens with a “fill.” In drum-speak, a fill is defined as a "short break in the groove--a lick that 'fills in the gaps' of the music and/or signals the end of a phrase.” (thanks Wikipedia)


In layman’s terms, a fill usually includes a set of beats on the toms (the drums on top of the big kick drum) climaxed with a cymbal crash. (or in the words of my friend Anthony “digga-digga, digga-digga, digga-digga, digga-digga, pshhhhht!”)


Those are the obvious signals, but my favorite ones are much more subtle.

  • Moving from a closed hi-hat to a slightly open one
  • Going from 1/4 notes on the snare and floor tom to 1/8 notes to 1/16 notes
  • Cymbal swells
  • Crescendos (getting louder) over a few measures


The effect of all those (and many other) ideas communicates that a change is coming. It’s like that glorious moment as a wave crests and then crashes…bringing all the ocean to glorious life. That’s what a drummer is to do.



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