BY DAVID A. BRENSILVER
When we spoke recently with Roland Gajate-Garcia, he’d just started his fourth season as the percussionist with the house band on Dancing With The Stars. Since graduating from California State University, Northridge, Gajate-Garcia has worked with a diverse collection of artists, from Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons to Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Iranian singer Googoosh (Faegheh Atashin), and Armenian vocalist Armenchik (Armen Gondrachyan). Based in Los Angeles, Gajate-Garcia earned a reputation as the go-to percussionist for performance-based reality TV work, having played on such popular shows as American Idol and The Voice.
Perhaps his most valuable experience was growing up with (and performing alongside) a legendary father, percussionist Richie Gajate-Garcia, and around such percussion icons as Giovanni Hidalgo and Alex Acuña. From those musicians and the many with whom he’s worked, Roland Gajate-Garcia has learned plenty about playing music and working in the music industry.
We picked his brain to discover the skills every professional percussionist should possess. In addition to offering some insight into his approach to playing music, he gave us a perspective on what it’s like to maintain a career as a working musician. Here’s what he told us.
1. Developing Reading Literacy
The ability to read music, Gajate- Garcia says, is “one of the big things that separates a professional musician from somebody who’s a novice.” On Dancing With The Stars, he and his bandmates might learn and rehearse as many as ten to twelve songs in a day. They work with skeleton charts that might indicate bass or keyboard parts, but rarely include specific percussion patterns.
Most importantly, the charts provide structure. Being able to see the form of a song and its harmonic changes, and what other musicians are playing, allows Gajate-Garcia to create his parts. “There’s no way I could do all the sessions and TV work I’ve done without knowing how to read,” he says. Gajate-Garcia began to develop his music-reading skills in junior high school, and as a youngster at home. “I used to read snare-drum duet books with my dad.”
In high school, reading was required to participate in concert band, marching band, and drum corps. Then at California State University, Northridge, where he studied jazz and worked a lot on writing and transcribing music, Gajate-Garcia learned to read lead sheets. Using his work on Dancing With The Stars as an example, he explains that “being able to read music cuts the [song] learning process by, I’d say, 95 percent. I can honestly look at a chart once, maybe run it once, and then be able to record it. Whereas if I didn’t read music, I’d have to learn the form, learn all the aspects of what’s going on.”
2. Play What Is Required
It might be tempting to let loose on all manner of percussion instruments to show off your chops, but Gajate-Garcia says, “Sometimes we have to remember that we are part of the bigger picture and play only what the song requires. It isn’t about ego, it’s about the bigger picture.” To that end, he says, “Practicing things you can actually use will show in your ability to create music.”
That’s just one of the important lessons he learned when he studied with Gregg Bissonette at Cal State. For instance, a groove performed by Stewart Copeland could become an exercise. He used various salsa rhythms — the cascara and mambo bell patterns, for example — to develop “meaningful independence,” practicing one of those patterns with one hand and improvising with the other. “It’s drumming vocabulary,” Gajate-Garcia says.
Above all, he stresses, “Don’t feel like you need make up something new each time you play. Rather, try and create your sound based on the things you know and have learned, while putting the music first.”
3. Make It Feel Good
“Making the music feel good is the most important role a drummer possesses,” Gajate-Garcia says. “Timekeeping comes from your innate ability to escape from your physical body and really hear what you are producing along with an internal subdivision.” As much as percussionists need to listen to others in the ensemble, Gajate-Garcia believes it’s important to listen to your own performance to keep good time. “It’s very easy to focus on the physicality of it, rather than using your ears.”
To make music feel good for dancers and singers alike, you also need to internalize the correct tempo of every song you play. “I think this just comes from experience and knowing the song — really knowing, before you play the song, where it should sit,” he says. On Dancing With The Stars, song tempos relate directly to the choreography. “A lot of times they’ll ask us to do it at different tempos, and we’ll be changing the tempo right up until showtime.
“We all have our own interpretation of time,” he continues, “so just try to play as evenly as possible, with even spacing. Everyone’s going to do that differently, but it’ll kind of give you your own identity as a timekeeper.”
4. Strike A Balance
“Whatever you’re feeling at the time is going to show in the music you play,” Gajate-Garcia says, and that’s not always a good thing. He’s known musicians who burned out because they practiced too much, and their mood was reflected in their music. “When I was in college, I knew guys that would lock themselves in the practice room eight to ten hours a day, and they’d come out looking stressed out. And it’s like, ‘Why are you doing that to yourself? You’re supposed to enjoy this.’” Taking breaks — to watch movies, hang out with family and friends, or go on vacations — is vital to striking a healthy life/work balance, especially in a field that can easily become an obsession. “When I come back to music after a vacation, it’s so much more rewarding,” and it reminds him how lucky he is to make music for a living.
5. Learn Other Instruments
Learning to play instruments that aren’t in the percussion family can help develop and enhance overall musicianship. Gajate-Garcia took a sight-singing course in college, which taught him how to recognize pitch intervals, and helped him become familiar with the instruments that surround him most regularly — bass, guitar, piano, and voice. “It’s really opened up my ears and my ability to pick up things quickly,” he says. “I took piano lessons during college, and I feel like that’s when I started to really grow as a musician. Now, after doing it, I have a better understanding of how music works.”
6. Train Your Ears
Understanding the harmonic progression of a piece of music, and its harmonic rhythm, provides a musician with an aural roadmap of that composition. “You must be able to know where you are in a song, even when the melody isn’t being played,” Gajate-Garcia says. Being able to recognize the IV or V chord, for example, and where each falls in a harmonic sequence, helps a player understand the song form. “Eventually,” he says, “your ear is going to recognize the sequence.” And hearing the tension and release of a harmonic progression makes it easier to play the appropriate feel. “When you can tell how the chords are flowing it’ll help you decide how you’re going to interpret the time.”
7. Take Every Opportunity
“You never know who you will meet or what you will learn at a gig,” Gajate-Garcia says, explaining that doing every imaginable gig — from theater to television, recording sessions, club dates, and church performances — made him the well-rounded musician he is today. “I’ve played so many different styles, and people now know that they can call me for pretty much any style of music. Eventually you can start choosing which gigs you want to do, but when you’re learning, it’s just important that you’re playing music, period.” And that’s all about developing connections with people. “A lot of the music industry is about relationships. And I feel like learning to deal with so many different types of people is another skill that you really need to have. It’s not likely to happen that you’re going to be in a band that gets signed and tour for your entire life.”
8. Know Music History
Context is important. “Knowing music history will help you add your own unique voice while drawing from the past,” Gajate-Garcia says. “You study drummers that you like and pick out little things that create their sound.” However, he also thinks it’s a mistake to restrict your study to only the history of percussion.
Citing trumpeter Miles Davis’ influence on jazz, for example, he says, “You really have to get into his music and understand what he did and why it changed the jazz community so much. Having a bigger picture of what music is and where it came from will help you decide what kind of music you want to play.”
9. Have A Great Attitude
Being a professional means being professional. “Being on time with all of your gear ready to go sounds obvious,” Gajate- Garcia says, “but I still see musicians who just don’t get it.” And those who don’t get it don’t last long. “I end up spending half my day preparing for the gig at night.”
Showing up with a positive attitude isn’t only important to your longevity, it shows in the music you play. “Playing music is a team activity, and having a positive attitude will add to the creative flow.” Gajate-Garcia says those who do the hiring might think, for instance, “‘Maybe I know a better drummer, but being around this guy makes us play better and makes the music feel good — it just makes everything flow better.’”
You never know when a good attitude will pay off. “One time I was talking to a flight attendant and telling her where I was going to play, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s funny, Smokey Robinson is in the front of the plane.’ And she’s like, ‘Do you want to go talk to him? Do you want to say hello?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ And she brought me up there and I had a whole conversation with Smokey Robinson. And then later on I ended up playing with him on The Voice.”
10. Take Care Of Your Hands
“Being a hand drummer for most of my life,” Gajate-Garcia says, “I know how important it is to take care of your body.” It’s part of his daily routine and involves doing yoga, getting massages, seeing a chiropractor, stretching before and after performing, eating well, and getting an adequate amount of sleep. “Being a hand percussionist is a lot more physical, in my opinion, than playing with sticks. It takes some work and daily activity to take care of your hands.”
Recently, after doing an eight-hour rehearsal for Dancing With The Stars, he played a four-hour club gig. When he got home, he felt tightness in one of his shoulders and ended up stretching for about 20 minutes before going to sleep. “If you’re not aware of those kinds of things, later on they’ll become an issue.”