The world of drumming has produced more than its fair share of creative and original musicians. Drumming requires more interpretation and imaginative input than most other instruments, since drummers are rarely presented with highly notated music parts. Broadway bands, for example, will find that the drummer is allowed more freedom in the way he or she plays. This artistic freedom cuts both ways. As drummers, we are generally in a position of interpreting the musical wishes of others in the absence of totally written out parts, so we have to become competent in understanding what is required. We need to "take direction". This is what the best and busiest players are good at. They develop a sixth sense that tells them what is required, and they use this instinct to provide what is right for the music. The sixth sense should start functioning as soon as we walk into a new situation. It encourages us to look out from under our cymbals and remember the wider context of our musical efforts. Though most of us actually play live more than in studios, it is in the bars, clubs, and theaters that the "sixth sense" begins to work overtime.
Beyond the important demands of interpreting the music, we now have other things to worry about. One area well worth thinking on is that of volume level, or dynamics. If you are playing in a piano trio, for instance, don't play louder than the piano. It is forgivable to test the waters and bring the volume level up occasionally to see if the pianist responds to the stimulation. But if he's running the show, once he tells you to watch the volume level, that's it! Musical directors do not appreciate giving instructions twice. Its amazing how much work goes to drummers who know how to play softly. This is an aspect of our job that other musicians are obsessed with. The secret is to play softly behind the singers so that their words can be heard, and really play out in chorus and dance numbers. Your sensitivity will be noted, and approved. The ability to take direction cheerfully and, indeed, to accept criticism in the right spirit is, along with sound musical skills, the essential factor that helps free lance musicians stay in business. To achieve this, we must accept that by the very nature of the music business, the drummer is on the receiving end of a long chain of command. The musicians have to accept that what they are being asked to do might not always be the way they would choose to do it, but that they are doing it to keep someone, somewhere happy.
The ability to "take direction" may seem a passive or negative goal, but if you are going to regularly face new musical situations, it's the only way to convince fellow musicians and future employers that you are a safe bet. I take heart from the fact that the greatest drummers can use the tight constraints of a musical situation as a stimulus to creativity. Accept "taking direction" as the name of the game, and turn it to your advantage.