INTERVIEW: The Nature of Live Performance with Drummer Soichiro Tanabe

The gap between learning an instrument and being able to perform with that instrument on stage is a big one. To non-musicians, performing tends to look easy because the best performers can make their work seem effortless.

This is especially true for drummers. To the average listener, legends like Buddy Rich, Greg Saunier, Zach Hill, and Max Roach just seem naturally gifted. What they don’t see is the weeks, months, and years of diligent practice.

This brings us to our guest for today, professional drummer Soichiro Tanabe.

Soichiro Tanabe has created an exciting career for himself, becoming a prominent drummer here in the States, putting down roots in Los Angeles, a city with a thriving and vital music scene.

To date, just some of Tanabe’s accomplishments and credits include working with Grammy-nominated producers Richard Rudolph and Adam Berg, performing with artists Mike Bauer and Cody Dear, and opening for The Spinners and Barbara Morrison/Petrella.

Never stagnant, Tanabe also finds time to work as a session musician and share his expertise with young drummers who are still learning the ropes.

In our interview, Tanabe gave tips for other performers and musicians who are looking to improve their on-stage presence.

Welcome to Vents! To start, we’d like to ask if you ever feel nervous before live performances? Do you still get nervous before a show?

I wish I could say I don’t get nervous but I still get nervous sometimes. I used to get nervous almost every show, especially at the beginning of my career. It was because I was trying too hard to be the best and play more than I could. You can’t be more than who you are and I simply needed to focus 100% on the moment.

Once I realized that, it became much easier to make music. Even if I get nervous, I’m trying to enjoy that feeling. And sometimes those nerves turn into a great power. Once you get away from your worries, you can experience the joy of playing. If we can share that joy with other musicians and the audience, that makes the performance even better.

What kind of venue tends to be your favorite? Do you prefer smaller venues?

I like both small and big venues but, in general, I don’t care much about the capacity. I like the venues where I can feel the audience’s energy and that has a good sound. I think live shows are all about the interactions with the audience and other musicians. So if we can feel the audience’s energy, that already makes the show so much better. Also, if the musicians are happy, the audience can feel that joy, too. So I like venues that make both the audience and the musicians happy.

Have you ever made a big mistake during a show? If so, how did you respond to the situation? Was it easy to recover?

Yes, I have. There was a show where I started a song completely different and a music director stopped the show and shouted to me to start the song over.

Another time, I broke the bass drum’s skin in the middle of a show and I panicked for a bit. It was not so hard to recover the show but it was hard to recover mentally. I pretended nothing happened but my mind kept asking myself “Why did I do that?”

It kind of traumatized me for a whole song, and the only thing I could do was try not to let it happen again. It’s a good thing was I always had good musicians and good friends around me. There were always people who smiled at me at that moment and that saved me.

How important is it to have a good rapport with your fellow performers?

I think that is one of the most important things for a live performance. Good live performances need good teamwork. Even if everyone did their best, that’s not enough. I believe that the element that makes good performances even better is a good connection between the team.

If the team has really good vibes, that definitely affects the sound. There were some shows in my life which had magical moments. I could feel that all band members brought their hearts together and that generated an incredible amount of power and joy. That’s what I want to experience in every show. Skills and musicianship are very important, but being a good person is the most important.

Is there one performance that has been your favorite so far?

There is a show I’ll probably never forget. I played a show with a great artist who is also a good friend of mine, Cody Dear, in 2019.

It wasn’t a big show. We had a house show in Cody’s hometown. Cody’s family was in the audience and he performed a song he wrote for his grandmother. When I heard that song, it really touched my heart. I was listening to his piano playing and it was the first time in my life that I cried on stage.

That song was for his grandmother but it reminded me of my family. I have no family here in the US, they all live in Japan. So that song really reminded me of good memories with my family.

Everyone in that room was so impressed by his music. That was a really special moment for me and I just learned that music can really touch people’s hearts.

Do you often like to play solos during performances? Have you always been good at solos?

I like playing solos even though I don’t practice solos. I think solos are a totally different approach. When I play music, I usually focus on what other musicians are playing. But when I play solos, that’s the time to express myself. I think it’s more like an art.

I always begin from a blank idea and try to pick a story or message I want to tell. It can be about my family or something I’ve seen. Once I start, I try to empty my brain as much as I can and only focus on that moment.

There were definitely some spiritual moments during performances. It’s the only way and time I can express my inner thoughts and feelings. My favorite thing about a solo is that sometimes I come up with ideas I’ve never thought about. So I always enjoy my solos as a listener, too.

What’s one important thing you’ve learned since you started performing live?

The one thing I’ve learned from my experience is that you’re not playing alone. In the beginning of my career, I was trying so hard to play my best and only focused on my job. But once I experienced the power of music that you create with others, my playing totally changed.

I started thinking more about the connections between musicians. As a drummer, my job is to create a good groove and energy for other musicians to bring the sound together. And that makes people move. Music is something magical and music can definitely convey a performer’s emotion. I want to create that kind of magic on the stage.

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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