Misadventure #1: Lip-Syncing for Percussionists 101

Natalie Grant sandwiched by Casting Crowns'Tis the season for musicians to be inundated with holiday gigs. Wait, that makes it sound like a bad thing. Don't get me wrong...a little extra cash is always welcome at this time of the year. It just makes for a rather busy schedule.

I had a particularly amusing experience with one of these holiday gigs this year. I was hired to play timpani & percussion (along with 10 string players) for a Christian rock concert at Greensboro Coliseum, featuring headliners Casting Crowns, Natalie Grant, and Avalon. Because I was hired by the local symphony to play the gig, they provided the instruments for me. However, there was apparently a discrepancy between the list of needed instruments and the music itself, so I was left scrambling 30 minutes before rehearsal to track down a set of orchestra bells and wind chimes. Found orchestra bells pretty quickly and was about to run around to find wind chimes when one of the band members stopped me just outside the arena. The conversation went something like this:


Band member: "If you're missing an instrument or two, don't worry about it."
Me: "But the bass player just told me that I definitely need to have wind chimes."
Band member: "Look, you're really just for visuals."
Me: "Ummm, what do you mean?"
Band member: "There are no microphones on you, so you're just eye candy up there. Make it look good. Make it look like you know what you're doing."
Me: "Wow. Okay. Easy enough."

Walking away, I felt a little deflated and maybe even a little used. I climbed back on stage to my rickety, elevated set-up (consisting of 2 timpani, a set of bells, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, and 2 egg shakers) next to the bass player, who reinforced what the other band member had just told me. Why he couldn't have told me this when he saw me running around looking for instruments, I don't know. Anyway, I started mentally preparing for what would be my very first experience "lip-syncing" for a gig. That might be overstating. I did actually play. It's not like I was air drumming or anything. Nonetheless, here's how I would (and did) approach it:

1) Look very engaged, even when not playing (which was a lot for me on this concert). This involved a bit of head-bobbing, toe-tapping, and closing my eyes every now and then.

2) Don't look around in awe of the spectacle around you. We (the string players & I) did not rehearse with any of the bands before the concert, so there was a lot to take in once the concert did start.

3) Pick up sticks/mallets several bars before you play and get in position to play. Then, give many prep strokes above the instruments to try to refocus attention on you. Not once were the strings or I featured on the 2 huge screens on either side of the stage, so you do what you have to. It's all about ego, right?

4) Timpani and cymbal rolls should end in a flourish with mallets up in the air. Similarly, crash cymbals should end up out and in the air after crashes.

5) When playing egg shakers, since they're so small, you may choose not to even pick them up. Just put your hand in the air as if you're holding them and shake. I did actually pick them up. I didn't want to go 100% Milli Vanilli for the gig.

5) I was directly behind and above the drummer for the entirety of the show. Whenever the drummer was taking a solo, I would twirl one of my timpani mallets above my head while pointing at the drummer with the other mallet. OK, that one's a lie.

I've run out. I followed these directions for the first half of the show, meaning I was on my best behavior. However, when I realized no one was looking at me at all during the second half, I might have taken out my iPhone and taken some on-stage pictures (see photo above).

I think I realized why they don't amplify the local musicians that play with them on their tour. After the concert was over and we were packing up, the bass player shakes my hand and tells me I was the first percussionist on their entire tour to play everything correctly. Not that in mattered, but yikes!

So, that was my Friday night and my first experience as lip-syncing eye candy.