Kelli Rae Tubbs is a Jill-of-all-trades. She drums (jazz, pop/rock, blues, country, and other genres), sings, refurbishes antique instruments, writes (she’s currently co-authoring a book with Daniel Glass, who writes Drum’s Moment In History column), and creates videos that explore historical drumming concepts and equipment. She has performed at PASIC 2017 and presented at the National Women’s Music Festival, the Delaware Drum Show, and the Chicago Drum Show. She also shares her insights in the world of percussion through writing and in clinic settings as a member of the Sabian Education Network and the D’Addario Education Collective.
Women are underrepresented in the percussion world. Our weekly series, Woman Crush Wednesday (#WCW), aims to recognize, celebrate, and inspire female percussionists of all stripes. Each Wednesday we’ll feature a profile of a drummer, who will share tips, advice, and videos.
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Where do you reside?
I live in a small town on the outskirts of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. I’ve got cornfields for neighbors and love it, because those ears don’t mind when I’m playing at 2 in the morning.
What kind of gear do you use?
I’ve got 12 drum sets: A 4-piece “round badge” Gretsch champagne sparkle set for my big band and jazz combo gigs; 5-piece Yamaha Maple Custom for pop/rock, country, and blues gigs; a beautiful sounding hot pink sparkle Tama Starclassic set — that one is a 10-piece. That’s a lot of real estate, but it’s got a killer sound!
When I play traditional “Dixieland” jazz, it’s a completely different vibe. I use a 30″ bass drum. Aquarian Drumheads helped me outfit it with custom-crafted “Modern Vintage” heads because 30″ is a size they don’t normally sell. I use a 1920s snare drum with calfskin heads, then finish the set with the typical cowbell, woodblock, Chinese cymbal, and choke cymbal.
As far as cymbals go, I have been hunting up vintage cymbals from the 1930s for playing traditional jazz, but I am expanding my modern sounds, too. I was recently given a Sabian Omni ride cymbal which has a band that is lathed and another that is unlathed. I am using that a great deal.
How did you become interested in music history?
Around 2005–06, I toyed with the idea of starting a big band. I thought if I was a bandleader, I wouldn’t have to depend on other people calling me for gigs. I became serious about it in 2008 and purchased a lot of arrangements, focusing on dance-band music from the 1920s and 1930s. To my surprise, I got an education simply cataloging the music. The parts were printed on much smaller pieces of paper and oftentimes referred to instruments and equipment I had never heard of, like the “C Melody saxophone” and a “megamute.”
The drum parts held a real mystery. They were not written with the typical “spang-a-lang” ride cymbal pattern, because that era of music pre-dates swing and bebop, but I wasn’t thinking about it that way. I didn’t know much about the development of the drum set at that time. If I had, I would have understood that our drumming peers from 100 years weren’t using cymbals the same way we do now.
The drum set music from those arrangements is typically notated in one of two ways: quarter-notes in the bass drum and snare drum for the whole chart or quarter-notes in the bass drum and 5-stroke rolls on the snare drum, which looks more like a Sousa march than anything else. I realized there was no way I was interpreting the music correctly and that’s when I started seeking answers that would lead me to play the music authentically.
What’s the most interesting historical tidbit you’ve learned recently about drums?
A drummer in the Twin Cities is hiring me to tuck calfskin drum heads for a European snare drum he owns. I needed to know if there were condition issues that would create problems, so he and I met one afternoon. I’m so glad we did, because the snare system on that drum was unlike anything I had seen before. It was elegant in its simplicity.
Regardless of the type of discovery I make about our drumming peers from 100 years, each bit of knowledge brings me closer to a better understanding and I can better interpret what I see in vintage books, music notation, and images.
What bands/groups do you perform with, if any?
When I am home, I lead a couple of groups that play jazz or pop music for corporate functions and festivals. I also take my marimba out from time to time and do solo gigs with it. I am the percussionist with a production company which presents theatrical/musical shows and I get to do session work from time to time. I’m also hired as the house drummer for blues jams in town.
Those gigs are great, but I’m a bit of a nomad, so travel and adventure are key to my happiness. Tennessee is a second home base for me, so I loved having the opportunity to perform there as a utility percussionist for a Christmas show last winter.
I’m aiming my sights on a traveling gig — maybe a touring artist, a Broadway show, Cirque du Soleil — something that goes city to city to city. (As a nod to the incredible Viola Smith, I would love to perform in the Kit Kat Band in a production of Cabaret.)
What led you to your instrument? What’s your origin story?
One of my first musical memories is from age two, when my mother and I would visit a neighbor lady who owned a piano. While they were upstairs enjoying their coffee, I was downstairs plunking away. I was tall enough to reach the keys, but not tall enough to see them! That didn’t stop me from playing the melodies to the songs I heard on the radio.
During the same time frame, my oldest brother would play his Beatles albums and the two of us would sing harmonies. Both of us developed really good ears by doing that, and that early consistent exposure to singing makes it easy for me to sing while I play drums. By the time I was three years old, I knew I wanted to be a musician.
Who is your favorite drummer and why?
I don’t have a single favorite, but the drummers I listened to most as a kid were Ringo Starr, Billy Cobham, Buddy Rich, and Stewart Copeland. After that, Chris Layton, and more recently, Daniel Glass. You can hear the influence of those drummers in my playing today.
How do you practice? Do you have a routine?
I’ve been struggling with practice lately. I began reading a book, The Art Of Practicing: A Guide To Making Music From The Heart by Madeline Bruser. Examining the first two chapters in her book, I thought long and hard and identified what was lacking not just in my practice regimen, but in my “career regimen” as well — the ways in which I need to expand in my learning that will prepare for the next opportunity, whatever that might be.
This month, I am working with a course created by Rich Stitzel, author of The Foundational Series drum mantra books. He crafted a 30-day, 30-minutes-per-day online course and the timing of this opportunity with my renewed concentration levels couldn’t be better. I am concentrating on breathing, smiling, and feeling good about having my sticks in hand. In the moment, that’s my primary goal. The benefit from the exercises themselves are gravy at this point, what is more important is that I am happy to have sticks in my hands every day.
“I fail all the time, but that’s because I try all the time.”
Are there any specific playing tips or techniques, or advice, exercises, or discoveries you’d like to share with Drum readers?
First and foremost, pinpoint a specific concept or style you want to learn and find the expert. If they have videos, listen and watch and learn what you can about their philosophy and technique. Then reach out and ask to take lessons from that person, no matter who they are. You might be surprised who is willing to spend an hour or 90 minutes with you in person or online. When you are studying with the right person, it will have a profound impact on all of your playing.
The task of learning good hand and foot technique cannot be ignored, but if you have great technique, yet don’t know how to apply it, you’re no better off than the person who has lousy technique, because neither one of you can earn a living playing music.
Second, consider taking a drum lesson with a bass player who is an exceptional performer and who can communicate with you in drumming terms. I took a lesson with Ric Fierabracci, who has toured with many artists including Billy Cobham, Lao Tizer, and Blood, Sweat & Tears in recent years. He’s recorded with drummers like Dave Weckl, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Vinnie Colaiuta. Clearly, he knows what a world-class drummer should sound like and feel like. In the hour we spent together, he helped expand my concept of the pocket, not only through conversation around recorded examples, but by performing with me right then and there, giving me immediate feedback and correction and encouragement.
Third, a practical tip that everybody can do right now that doesn’t cost a thing. When I practice, I sometimes enjoy playing with recorded music as my metronome. When playing with songs I love to listen to, it makes playing technical exercises more fun. I modify the “details” in the “properties” for my MP3 and WAV files so the song number indicated by the “#” sign is changed to reflect the beats per minute. In my media player, I can click on the “#” column heading to sort the songs in BPM order.
One of my favorite exercises is the revolving flammed mill. Usually in a flammed mill, the flam is on the downbeat and I’ll play that for eight measures before changing the sticking pattern so the flam lands on the e of every beat, then the and, then the a (if you’re playing them as sixteenth-notes). I love playing flammed mills to Sting’s “Big Lie Small World,” which alternates between 4-4 and 5-4 time. Your feel has to be solid not to be thrown by the re-positioning of the flam from the downbeat to the backbeat, returning to the downbeat throughout the whole song when the song’s time signature changes.
What’s something you believe about drumming or music that other people think is crazy?
I’m not sure this qualifies for crazy, but if I have nothing more important to do I will seek an activity that is not musical, but lands within the realm of the entertainment industry. I gain behind-the-scenes knowledge, learn their industry terminology, learn and adapt their performance hacks to my musical situations, and get new creative ideas percolating.
As artists, the goal post for “success” is always moving. There’s not one “I made it!” point. How do you think about and define success?
I consider myself successful when I prepare something, anything, in such a way that I am capable of accepting an opportunity with a high level of confidence that I can nail it right out of the gate. If an opportunity presents itself and I’m ready — and I mean ready right now —to say, “Yes!” then I have succeeded. Participating in that opportunity is the proof of the success and any money or recognition I earn is the reward of the success. Performing at PASIC last November was exciting proof!
Do you have any quotes or sayings that you live by?
“Wake up and be awesome.” I try to do that nearly every day. I say “nearly” because sometimes we all just need to listen to that inner voice telling us to check out for the day. Take that day to recharge, but you’d better be ready hit it hard again the next morning.
When you sit down to make music and are starting with a blank canvas, what’s your process like?
It depends. Many times, I am part of an ensemble performing from sheet music. In that setting, I quickly look at the musical road map to find the D.S., repeats, and coda jumps, and look for figures that might be tricky versus areas of the song that my training allows me to read easily.
In a live setting, where there are no charts and I may or may not know the song, I listen for a few bars to figure out who is the strongest member of the group. I lock in with that player — whom I hope is the bass player, but sometimes it isn’t — then listen and look for visual clues from the rest of the group. For example, the singer walking up to or away from the mike, the length of the notes the bass player is playing, even the cues from the lighting tech to know who in the band is being featured at that moment.
“[Women drummers] have always been around, but what hasn’t always been there is the documentation of these professional and amateur female musicians.”
How important is failure in making music/performing?
As a guest on the “Around the Kit” podcast, host Joe Gansas asked, “We all make mistakes in life. Are you okay with that?” and my response was, “Yeah, I am totally okay with that. I fail all the time, but that’s because I try all the time.” I’m working on things to continually raise the level of professionalism in the performance opportunities I’m offered. I’d be very disappointed in myself if I never attempted anything risky. I would have missed out on some awesome experiences and amazing people if I was afraid to fail. Nobody likes to fail, including me, but the difference is I’m not afraid to.
Any advice for girls contemplating getting started and making it in this arena?
I haves scores of photos, illustrations, and stories of girl and women drummers that date back to the Civil War and earlier. We’ve always been around, but what hasn’t always been there is the documentation of these professional and amateur female musicians.
My advice to a young girl starting out would be this:
- Don’t pay heed to the hard criticisms you may you hear. Instead, find a couple of trusted musical friends and mentors who will analyze your performance honestly and tell you, from a place of love, what you could improve to get to your next level. Sometimes hearing about our shortcomings is hard to hear, but how can you lose by giving thoughtful consideration to comments made by someone who genuinely has your best interests at heart?
- Learn your craft — the people who are looking to hire great musicians do not care what gender you are. They want to perform with someone who plays well and who is easy to get along with. If you’ve done the work, they will know it when you play.
If you had to put together a school or resources for drummers, what would the training include?
What I feel is lacking in musicians’ education regardless of the instrument they play is a course in the practical skills they need for gig survival. How does your instrument actually function and what components on it have the greatest amount of impact in the way it sounds? What kinds are tape are there — duct, gaffers, electrical, etc. — and which kind is best for which purpose? Cable identification — what is the difference between quarter-inch and XLR. How to solder cables. How to put together and operate a simple P.A. Where to place the mikes on your instrument. What to carry in an “emergency repair kit.” Examples of innovative solutions to situations encountered on gigs. Things like that.
Where else to find Kelli
Watch her historic videos on YouTube.
And be on the lookout for her book with Daniel Glass, The Postcard Project: A Snapshot of Drumming Life, 1900-1930. It features Tubbs’ collection of photographs of drummers from the turn of the last century and she hopes to publish it in 2019.