Drum & Rhythm Section Performance Tips

Educator resources

Drum & Rhythm Section Performance Tips: Understanding and Executing the Tune

by Marvin Sparks

Tunes (Examples)
Straight Ahead:
Medium Tempo: “Take The A-Train” – Duke Ellington (Sonny Greer)
Up-Tempo: “Milestones” – Miles Davis (Philly Joe Jones); “Impressions” – John Coltrane (Elvin Jones)
Latin/Samba: “Blue Bossa” – Dexter Gordon (Al Foster)
Funk: “Chameleon” – Herbie Hancock (Harvey Mason)

Over the past few decades, I have judged the All-State Jazz Drum Set submissions, listened to auditions for placement in college jazz ensembles but have been surprised by the lack of knowledge that some young jazz drummers and rhythm section members have about the music they play or listen to.  In this article, I will discuss the importance of learning music (the tune) and applying it to the drum set and rhythm section.  This concept will help musicians focus on the music instead of “licks” to impress.  (This article is taken from my JEN 2014 presentation in Dallas).


To begin this concept, remember “if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.”  Begin by introducing your musicians to the “jazz standards” by giving them selected lead sheets.  Use the above musical examples for the best results.

In the 70s and 80s, I played with bands where everyone sang lead and background parts.  This is extremely difficult and takes total concentration, but it teaches drummers & rhythm section players the melodies, lyrics and form.  It also serves as a “personal metronome” because your time won’t fluctuate due to the lyrics and melodies you are singing.  As a drummer & rhythm section, you automatically compact your pattern to fit into what you are singing (melody or harmony).

Musicians should research various versions of the tune to get an idea of the melody (phrasing, etc).  All of the same musical principles that you discuss with the horns, piano, guitar, bass should be directed to the drummers and rhythm section.  If you are not familiar, here’s a great way to start.

As directors, we often deal with drummers and rhythm section last.  I have done it when I directed my Latin Jazz and Jazz Ensembles because we are so concerned with the melody, chord changes and related parts.  In some cases, we will tell drummers to “just play time on the hi-hat.”  Many young high school and college drummers who have not studied with a good private drum set instructor have not been exposed to the jazz standards or been taught how to read a “lead sheet.”

The above tunes have melodies that are 16 bars, which is the length used in most auditions for styles.

Each one of the above tunes are “heads” that are 16 bars and they can be used as great primers for students to learn the melody.  Have students listen to the “original” recording, as well as various other arrangements.  Also, listen to combo recordings rather than big band, so students can get the experience of playing with a small group. If you don’t have a combo, start one.  In the real world, that’s the type of group that will have the most performance opportunities.

Have students sing the melody while playing just the hi-hat, then add different limbs (ride cymbal, snare drum, etc).  In some cases, this will be difficult; in other cases it will slow down “active” drumming.  In all cases, the drummer is now thinking about — and learning — “the tune”.

This technique is challenging to students, but it is the foundation for them to start focusing on the tune instead of licks from a tune.  One New Years Eve, I played a gig and the keyboard player said to the singer, “He’s playing the melody…Marvin is playing the melody on the drums.”  What he was referring to was that when I construct my drum pattern, I’m thinking about the melody.  The song we were playing that really made him say this was Sade’s “Smooth Operator.”  And, remember…LEARN ALL GENRES AND STYLES OF TUNES!!!

This concept can be used for your big band charts giving meaning to the “horn cues” that the drummers or rhythm section may not understand.  
On many occasions, when drummers or directors want me to work with the drummers, I’ll ask them if they can “sing” the horn lines written in their parts, or if they know the tempo.  In most cases, they don’t.  It is important to sing these melodies (even if you can’t sing) so you have the correct rhythms and articulations embedded in your mind, then translate that to the drums or rhythm parts.


When you use this concept, your playing takes on another dimension; that of melody and harmony from the drums and rhythm section.  Drummers should be able to play the melody with each limb, and will eventually learn how to orchestrate it throughout the drum set. When you listen to the great recordings of master jazz drummers, listen for those qualities in their playing.

Also, have your students do reports on these tunes and the drummers/rhythm sections who performed them.
A great website to get information from is www.jazzstandards.com.  It have tunes, links to YouTube and ITunes, information on recordings and players, and much more.  Students should also maintain a file so they can have references.  We must take the time in our teaching to get our students interested in the historical significance of this music, so they can make educated decisions on developing their personal styles.

Marvin R. Sparks, Jr., has worked throughout the United States as apercussionist, drummer, educator, consultant, writer, and producer. Mr. Sparks has presented at the 2012 (New Orleans) and 2014 (Dallas) JEN Conferences, IAJE, TMEA, TBA, Midwest Band and Orchestra and PASIC as a director, panelist, and performer. Professor Sparks serves on the faculty of Lone Star College-Kingwood. Mr. Sparks holds a achelors of Music (Performance) from the University of Illinois-CU and a Masters of Art Performance) from Eastern Illinois University.  As a performer, Marvin Sparks has worked in various genres of the music industry including performances with Motown-The Musical, The Color Purple, Ragtime, King and I, Max Roach, Roy Ayers, Lakewood Church Orchestra (w/Israel Houghton and Cindy Cruise), and James Cleveland.  Sparks has recorded over 200 commercials for Radio and TV as a writer, player, and producer. He is an educational consultant for Evans Drumheads, Sabian Cymbals, Vic Firth Mallets and Sticks, and Latin Percussion Music Group.  For more information: (www.sparksedproserv.com

charlotte lang

Swiss/Dutch saxophonist Charlotte Lang was born in 1996 in Basel and studied the bachelor and master program at the JAZZCAMPUS Basel under the guidance of Domenic Landolf and Daniel Blanc. She is currently studying the Master of Music in Global Jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston under the artistic direction of Danilo Pérez. In addition she is part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.


From 2015 to 2018, Charlotte she was a member of the Swiss National Youth Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Christian Muthspiel. Since 2020, she became a member of the German National Youth Jazz Orchestra (Bundesjazzorchester Deutschland), under the direction of Niels Klein and Ansgar Striepens. She also plays is the Austrian FJO (Frauen Jazz Orchester→Women Jazz Orchestra of Austria).


In 2021, Charlotte founded her own Quintet the „Charlotte Lang Group“, for what she is composing, arranging and booking. In the fall 2023, her first album will be recorded and hopefully released by a renowned label.


Charlotte plays in the “Swiss Jazz Orchestra” and the “Zurich Jazz Orchestra”, the two professional Big Bands of Switzerland.

Charlotte recently got the unique opportunity to write a monthly blog for the Swiss Jazz & Blues Magazine called JAZZTIME, to tell readers about her time at abroad and specifically her time at Berklee. Her graduate program lasts only until the summer of 2023. She hopes to stay in the United States to enlarge her network and build her musical career.