Top tips on arena shows (and getting them!)

We caught up with Richard Brook, our subject leader for drums, to talk about his work on arena shows. Richard has played with a fantastic list of acts, including ABC, Annie Lennox, Sugababes, Rick Astley and more.

We were excited to get the low down on Richard’s recent work with Take That and All Saints, as well as some more general tips on how to get into the game as a respected session drummer.

“We didn’t even see the Take That guys until they were side of stage waiting to come on…”

What’s your favourite thing about playing arena shows?

“I think just seeing the sheer size of the venue and the crowd is pretty amazing. I always feel a bit more pressure with the bigger shows but I’ve learned to embrace that. Feels good!”

What is the biggest challenge of playing big shows with established artistes?

“The expectation from the audience is very high for these shows. They’ve paid a lot of money to come and see them. My stress levels rise if I’m MD [musical director] rather than a band member on a big show. If anything goes wrong, as an MD I’m the first port of call to the artiste and I have to have answers for them. Obviously if there is equipment malfunction or the artiste goes wrong there is nothing I can do apart from make a snap decision during the song regarding how to get us out of it. Sometimes it works, sometimes… well, it doesn’t.

I think the major difference with doing the bigger shows is communicating cues and an ‘exit strategy’ with the band if anything goes wrong. Everyone is so spread out because of the sheer size of the stage. Normally we’re all on in-ear monitors and we all have what’s called a ‘shout mic’ that only the band can hear. This is very important on bigger shows – especially festivals. If we’re over running on time and the manager signals to drop a song I need to communicate that to the band calmly with direct information so there’s no ambiguity.”

You recently played a show with Take That. Could you tell us a bit about the circumstances, rehearsal process and what was involved?

“I was called by their MD, Mike Stevens, to see if I was available for an extra show they had put in the diary during their current UK tour. It was a shorter set than the full show set but it was very short notice. I’d worked with Gary Barlow a little last year as an MD for a TV show and drummer for his own solo show.

The Take That show was only 100% confirmed a couple of days before it was meant to happen and everything moved pretty quickly. As always in these situations, there were changes at the last minute. Apparently we were also playing with All Saints; a bit of pressure now…

Thankfully I wasn’t MD for this one! I wrote the charts out and put them on my iPad. The rehearsals took place in the venue the day before with full production rehearsals going on at the same time. That day went on from 9AM to 11PM. We rehearsed the Take That set a few times without the guys being there then had the MD from All Saints come in to make sure we weren’t rubbish! We had been sent live recordings of the songs we were doing the day before to check out arrangements. Everything was to a click track which actually made things easier for me.

We didn’t even see the Take That guys until they were side of stage waiting to come on. We played the set, then they left straight away to get back to the tour show. It was a buzz to get through it. I loved it!”

“If you get a tour or support slot, get to know your tech and the rest of the crew by name…”

Could you give some advice to younger players wanting to get into this kind of session work?

“There are a lot of players wanting to do this type of work so you have to have some basics down cold.

– Play simple things really well.

– Be beyond prepared. Learn your parts inside out. Don’t busk it. Practise! Get a reputation for doing this.

– If you get a gig, remind yourself you are there in a supporting role. Play for the song. Do what the MD tells you to.

– Make sure your gear is good, well tuned and you have spares! Snares, Pedals and heads if anything breaks.

– If you get a tour or support slot, get to know your tech and the rest of the crew by name. The person doing monitors and your tech are professionals and can make your time on tour either amazing or really hard work.

– Don’t be ‘that guy’. A trouble maker on tour (getting a bit lippy or drunk all the time) draws attention to you. If word get’s back to the powers that be, you will not get booked again.

– Get to know everybody. Be personable. This always leads to other work in my experience and you’ll have a much better time.”