28 year old Ben Todd is a drummer, percussionist, composer and bandleader from Adelaide in South Australia. Over the past 6 and a half years, Ben has been touring the world with the internationally acclaimed “Cirque du Soleil” as a featured drummer and percussionist with 3 of their shows, “CORTEO”, “KOOZA” and most recently “VOLTA”. During this time, Ben has performed in Japan, Russia, The United States, Spain, Canada, France, Belgium and England and performed over 1500 shows.
This interview dives into the life of a drummer working with Cirque, what it takes to be in the band, the lifestyle, preparation and other tips from Ben.
Ever since my parents took me to see my first Cirque show “Saltimbanco” when I was around 9 or 10 years old, something inside me was triggered and it became an absolute career goal for me to work for the company someday. I think the combination of being so young (but also already very interested in pursuing music as a career to some degree), as well as all of the elements of the show, acrobatics, lighting, sound design, theatrics and of course an incredible live band accompanying everything that was happening on stage added up to this incredible immersive experience, not just a show. I had always been interested in the musicians and bands that were playing on TV, or for musical theatre and awards shows; anywhere where the music was at an extremely high level but at the same time, part of something bigger than just a band performance. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s just something that I was fascinated by. Cirque was certainly that, and more, so I think that’s why I had such an immediate connection to the whole thing and it became such a clear career goal, even at a young age. From that point onwards, every time a Cirque show would come to town, I would always try and contact the musicians in the band to meet up. A lot of them were extremely kind and generous with their time. Through a very strange set of circumstances, I got the chance to audition for “Quidam” when I was 15 years old, but ultimately didn’t get the gig because I was too young. I kept sending in audition videos to Cirque, and after being presented but not chosen for many shows, I finally signed my first contract with company when I was 19. That was with the show “Corteo” which I stayed with for 2 years. I then moved to another show “Kooza” which I stayed with for 5 years. I’m now on Cirques newest big top touring show “Volta” which opened in April 2017.
There are many things that are great about playing drums for a Cirque show. Firstly, as a drummer in a circus, traditionally you are the musician most responsible for accenting the action on stage. As modern and innovative as Cirque is, this is still the case, which means that every day is different. Depending on how the acrobats are feeling from day to day, or which version of a particular act we are doing, accents are always landing at different places, so I always have to be focussed and engaged in what is happening on stage to catch that. The challenge then becomes playing the accents in a musical way, without disrupting the groove of the tune, and making it seem like part of the song. It’s also why they still have live bands for their shows, so that the musicians can react and accentuate the action live, otherwise they could very easily get away with just playing a CD of the show music! Secondly, the standard of all of the performers, not just musicians, is extremely high. Everyone who is in the show has gone through a rigorous audition process to get to be a part of the company. Being surrounded by people who are among the top of their chosen field is very inspiring. People are always working on something new, training, developing a new trick etc, so there’s this constant feeling of drive and persistence to get better, across everyone in the show. The travel is also really incredible. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have toured all over the world with the company, and played in some amazing cities. Also the tour schedule of big top shows is such that we stay in one city for around 7 to 10 weeks, so by the time we have finished the season, you really have this sense that you have lived in the city, not just visited it.
Like any action you do every day, there sometimes is the challenge of how to keep things fresh. Performing 8 to 10 shows a week can also be physically and mentally draining. I’ve found it to be very important for me to maintain a consistent personal routine outside of the show, which includes working out, meditating and practicing every day. This has helped me to not only have something to focus on outside of the show, but also assisted with developing skills that aid with better performance and focus during the show. Practicing helps me with developing new approaches and techniques that I can try out in the show to help keep my playing fresh, while meditating and working out helps with the physical and mental stamina required to deliver the most consistent, high level of performance that is required. Also, playing the amount of shows that we do, I’ve struggled in the past with comparing my performance one show to the next. “I played that better last show” or “Why doesn’t this feel as comfortable as it did last week” are thoughts that ran through my head quite often. I’ve been reading a lot about the mental aspect of musical performance and found that this is quite a common trait amongst musicians. As I said, because of the amount of shows that we do, there is this temptation to compare and judge from show to show. This can have incredibly detrimental effects not only on your playing, but also your mental health in general if you start associating your level of performance with how you feel about yourself as a person. I’ve found meditating to help with this a lot, as well as continuing to research and read about the subject. Being away from family and friends for 48 – 50 weeks out of the year is very hard sometimes as well. Living out of a suitcase in a different apartments and hotels has its challenges, but it’s part of the job and certainly the positives outweigh the negatives.
I think musically, you have to be able to be a very consistent player. Not only in terms of technically consistent within a tune, but consistent from show to show, day to day, week to week, month to month. I’ve worked with a few musicians in Cirque who may be phenomenal players in a certain style, but their performance from show to show is not reliable. These players usually don’t last very long within the company and either leave out of frustration of not being able to be as expressive as they want in the show, or they are let go due to not being able to deliver a consistent performance. Being a musician in this environment is very different to any other playing environment. The closest cmpariosn is probably playing a Broadway show, but 99% of the time, you can count on that being exactly the same every night. Cirque demands that level of consistency, but it can also change at any point in the show. You need to have the skills of self-expression and musical personality, but also know that there definitely are musical boundaries that you have to operate within. It’s not a gig for everyone. Even though many people say that they would love to be part of a Cirque show, the reality is that once they are there and the consistency becomes paramount, they realise that the level of self-expression you have may not be as fulfilling as you would like. For me, I enjoy the challenge of delivering a high level of musical performance consistently, whilst also finding my own ways of self-expression. I think as a drummer, there are certain small things that you can do within a groove, or slightly embellishing fills to change things up from show to show, but you always have to keep in mind that the show and music need to be as consistent as possible. You never really know if someone is listening to a certain part of a song as a que or reference point, so if one day you decide to play something completely different, it could throw someone or something off and create some pretty unpleasant consequences. All that being said, when you do have your moment to express yourself, you relish in that and treasure it. Being open minded and versatile in many styles is also very important, as Cirque scores usually have a lot of different musical influences that you need to be able to play convincingly. Playing with a click track is also extremely important, as all Cirque shows run additional tracks played from Ableton Live. Above all else though, it’s important to just be a good person. You spend more time with the people you work with than your family, so you need to be able to work and get along with all different types of people from different backgrounds.
I have a small electric kit that I travel with and setup in my room. Most of my practice is done on this, however I do also have a drum booth at the show, so I can stay and practice on my setup after the show and not bother anyone. Most of the time, musicians aren’t required to be on site until an hour and a half before the show for sound check on any given day, so the rest of the day is up to you what you do with. As I mentioned, I divide my time up between a few different things, but practice is always part of my daily routine.
We have 2 weeks annual leave each year, so I always go home for that. Otherwise, we have one week off between cities where the tent is packed down and setup in a new location. Sometimes I will go back to Australia for this break, but it usually only means 4 days at home. Coming from the US, that’s a lot of travel! But it’s always worth it to get home. Being able to see family and friends and be in a familiar environment is such a refreshing feeling. Apart from the 2 weeks off, I try to get home at least once, ideally two additional times each year.
From a playing perspective, I think as previously mentioned being able to be consistent, not only technically within a tune, but from show to show is extremely important. Being able to play with a click, but also have a natural sounding feel is also a big thing. A lot of drummers say they can play with a click, but to do it and make it sound like you’re not playing with a click is another. Of course I don’t mean moving all over the place, time wise, just to make it sound “organic”, but being able to lock in with loops and sequences whilst still maintaining a natural feel is a skill that needs to be worked on, and something I’m very conscious of day to day. Learning another instrument aside from just playing drum set can be a big asset and key to your employability with the company. Cirque bands are getting smaller and smaller, and they are employing more multi-instrumentalists than specialists. If you can play drums, and some percussion, and maybe some keyboards or guitar, that makes you more unique and shows that you have a wider range of influences. Even if you end up just being hired as a drum set player, you’ll come with other experience that makes your playing different from everyone else. It’s also just a great asset to be able to communicate with other musicians in the band on a theoretical level, and understand what they are doing. Again, being stylistically open minded and versatile is also really important, as generally the music in Cirque shows is quite diverse. In terms of actually applying for a position, it’s important to remember that the casting department receives thousands of applications every year for musician positions. Not only does your video need to be extremely good, it also has to have something that makes you stand out from everyone else. Once you have applied, make sure to follow up with them every once in a while. Be persistent but not annoying, and make sure to keep updating your casting material every 6 months or so, just to help you stay on their radar.
As mentioned above, the band is usually not required to be on site until an hour and a half before the show for a sound check. This means say on a one show day at 8pm, we don’t need to be on site until 6:30pm. During the day, you can do whatever you like. I usually like to try and use my days to either practice, write music, read, workout or explore the city that we are in. Sometimes I arrive to site early to start my makeup or just hang out with other people. Every artist in the show does their own makeup that has been designed specifically for them. This usually takes me around 20 – 25 minutes. During our daily sound check, we first of all just make sure all of our gear is functioning properly. Then we will usually play a short section of an act to test that our in ear monitor mixes are sounding as they should. Sometimes we will need to work on a new version of an act or transition, if an acrobat is sick or injured and needs to be replaced by someone else. After sound check, I typically go and have dinner at the onsite kitchen. After that, I put my costume on, do around 10 – 15 minute warmup, then play the show. After the show, I take the makeup off and jump on the shuttle bus back to wherever we are staying. On a 2 show day, it’s the same routine, but an hour and a half between shows, where I usually eat or call my family back home.
The music between those 3 shows is incredibly varied. “Corteo” had a lot of orchestral influences, as well as some Spanish, Gypsy Jazz and Folk. I was also playing a hybrid setup of drums and percussion (congas, djembe, doumbek etc.) as well as some featured moments on stage with a marching snare drum. “Kooza” on the other hand had more rock, funk, jazz and soul influences. In that show, I had a featured drum solo on a moving riser, that rolled out on to the stage with a huge double bass, 6 tom acrylic kit. That was always lots of fun! Now with “Volta”, the show is very electro-pop, with some influences of rock. The show was composed by Anthony Gonzalez (of the group M83), so a lot of the music you hear in the show sounds like it could be on current top 40 radio. With “Volta”, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the creation of the show. This meant that I was able to add my own personality and ideas to the drum parts that were presented by Anthony during our rehearsal and creation period. Unlike “Corteo” and “Kooza” where I just came in and learnt what another drummer had been playing previously, “Volta” was a clean slate and allowed me to construct some of the drum parts in a way that was most enjoyable for me to play night after night. Having already done 2 shows previously, I was conscious of trying to come up with parts that I knew would still be fun, interesting and challenging to play for many months and years to come. Across all three shows, there are some elements of playing that remain constant. The ability to play with a click, the ability to follow action on stage and catch accents and the ability to play consistently, no matter what the style of music.
As previously mentioned, I find it incredibly beneficial to set myself a loose daily routine, in which I work on my own musical interests outside of playing the show. This includes writing music and practicing, but also reading and studying still too. If I don’t consciously sustain a routine of activities outside of the show, it is way too easy to spend any free time being unproductive. I always have some form of writing project on the go, whether it’s for release or just a tune I’m working on for fun. As for practicing, well it’s kind of endless as to what to work on but I do have a bit of a routine that I try and get through daily and then move on to something else. There is quite a lot of time during the day, and on days off, where you can do whatever you like. This is when I do a lot of my own personal work. It also depends on if I’m working on anything in preparation for something specific, or just out of my own interest. For example, if I’m focussed on writing material for a new album, Ill focus more time on writing, or if I have to prepare for a gig outside of the show or on a tour break, I’ll spend more time practicing.
At the moment, I’m really not focussed on establishing myself as a “brand” or “image” on social media or online. I don’t really have a reason too, and to be honest feel I could be spending that time on more productive and beneficial activities. I have my backing track material for sale online, as well as recordings of my own projects, but even that is not something that I am focussed on marketing or pushing online. It’s there and if people want to check it out, that’s great but if not, that’s ok too. Perhaps at some stage when I leave the show, I will need to spend more time on that side of things to get back into the freelance scene, but for now I’m quite happy not to worry about it. Having said that, I do think meeting with people face to face can be really beneficial. Not from a business sense, but for me whenever we go to a new city, I really love to go to a local gig and chat with the musicians there to get a sense of what the music scene is like. In some cities I’ve been really surprised at how thriving the scene is, and that’s just been because I’ve met with people and they’ve recommended to check out other gigs, and those people recommend other places etc etc. I think as a freelance musician in this day and age, some form of social media presence is a necessity if you want to promote yourself or try and reach a bigger audience than just your home town. Having said that, there is definitely a balance in which spending too much time on that side of things and not enough on actually playing and practicing your instrument can be very detrimental.
It’s hard to look back on my development so far and pinpoint certain areas that have been most valuable in getting me to where I am now. I suppose as far as investments in my playing career go, and being employable as a musician, being versatile and comfortable in many different styles has allowed me to work maybe more than some other players who aren’t so comfortable playing anything that’s not their speciality. For me, playing music as a career was always my focus. I was never really in the mind set of just playing for fun and seeing where it went. It was always very clear to me that I wanted playing music to be my “job”. I guess this stems from the fact that growing up, my dad was a freelance drummer. He was constantly playing in all kinds of different musical environments, bands, sessions, shows, teaching etc. and I thought it was so cool that playing drums was his job. I loved hearing him listen through different material that he had to learn for whatever gig was coming up next. Hearing all these different styles at a young age got me very interested in learning how to play them in a very organic way. In some regard, I was just skimming the surface of many different styles, but it allowed me to at least learn some basic grooves across the board and not get too narrow minded in one particular genre. Later on, I dove deeper into studying the roots of Cuban music, jazz, funk, rock etc, but in the meantime, I was able to continue developing my playing with influences of all these different styles. I know there are certainly better jazz players than me, better salsa players than me and better rock players than me, but I’ve been able to work in all of those environments with different bands and do the gig. Whereas if I was a specialist just in small group jazz, I wouldn’t have been able to do the rock or salsa gigs, and therefore not make money. I’m certainly not saying that making money is the sole reason for learning to play different styles and genres, but if we are talking about having a successful, sustainable, financially beneficial career as a professional freelance musician, it has definitely helped me. Of course along with this, any investment I made in time for practicing has been priceless. Learning how to read and write music has been extremely beneficial countless times over, especially on gigs where I’ve had to learn a lot of music quickly, or sub on a show at short notice. Financially, I invested some money into a recording setup when I was in high school. I learnt how to mic, mix, record and produce my own drum tracks, which I utilised to record my audition videos for Cirque. The knowledge I gained from learning about recording back in high school has also allowed me to now have an upgraded studio setup and offer an online drum recording service for anyone around the world. The initial investment I made in buying that equipment and learning how to use it, helped me to get the job with Cirque, and now be able to make money by recording drum tracks for clients.
Right now, I feel like I am right where I should be in my career. I certainly still have career goals that I’m working towards, and in saying that, its right now that I’m working on positioning myself into taking that next step. For me, that just means continuing to broaden and deepen my knowledge in everything that I am interested in musically. I’m taking Skype lessons, reading a lot, listening to a lot of new music, learning about new recording and mixing techniques for my home studio, pretty much anything that is going to help me to continue to develop and have a successful career for the rest of my life. I think it’s all about continuously learning as well as staying interested and motivated in what you are doing. The moment you stop learning, is the moment you start to become stagnant and stale.
There have absolutely been times when I have suffered from self doubt and questioned my choice to be a professional musician. Looking back, this was largely due to an unhealthy and unrealistic mental state in which I was approaching many areas of my playing. I went through a period of recording every gig that I did, bringing it home and analysing it under a microscope. This can be very beneficial to your playing, but I went to the extreme with it, and ended up usually becoming pretty down after listening back to the recordings. I would go into the next gig with my head full of expectations and pressures to do better, but by being in that headspace, I would be totally removed from the music itself. Knowing that I was recording myself with the intention to take it home and analyse, I would undoubtedly play the same, if not worse. For a period of time, I suffered from quite a downward spiral of confidence by repeating this cycle over and over. This in turn started to raise all kinds of questions in my mind regarding my choice to be a musician, thinking that I wasn’t good enough, wishing for a desk job that I didn’t have to think about at all after I finished etc. It took quite a long time for me to get out of this rut, and it was only through continuous practice, reading and meditation that I was able to start letting go of that pressure. After researching online, and speaking to a few other close musician friends, I’ve found that this is quite a common thing amongst developing players. It’s just that no one wants to talk about it and everyone thinks that they are the only one going through something like that. If anyone reading this feels like that they are going through something similar, I highly recommend 2 books, “The Inner Game of Tennis” and “Effortless Mastery”. Both of these books take a really in depth look into the mental side of performance, and also introduce the idea of meditation, which I have found to be extremely beneficial in my approach and development.
My inspiration and drive to get better comes from discovering new music. I think the idea of effortless and relaxed performance is a real focus for me right now. Having had a small sense of what that can feel like in some areas of my playing, I have this drive to have that every time I play. It’s an interesting comparison, on one hand it’s something you have to consciously work on, with the result being it should feel subconscious when it comes time to play.
I started taking Piano lessons when I was in primary school, as well as Trumpet and for a short period of time, Saxophone as well. I stopped taking lessons for those instruments around halfway through high school, but I continued to keep playing them every now and then in my own time. The basic skills I attained taking Piano lessons have been invaluable, not only in me being able to write music now, but also gave me a basic understanding of music theory and harmony, which I later studied further at high school. I would love to learn to play guitar. I have tried a few times now, but anyone who is proficient to some degree on one instrument, and then tries to learn another one from scratch knows how frustrating it can be. To be able to see very clearly just how much work needs to be put in to get to even a basic level can make it very challenging to continue with practicing. Also I found that the time I spent practicing other instruments, I always thought could be better spent just trying to get better at drums!
I did a lot of transcribing when I was in school, not so much now days. If I hear a really great solo or interesting groove, and am looking for a challenge, I might write it out. I do think transcribing is important, to not only give you an insight into what a particular player is doing, but also develop your ear and listening to another level. It’s one thing to listen to a tune for enjoyment, it’s a totally different experience to listen to it on an analytical level for the purpose of transcription. You start to hear things that you just never would have heard, if you hadn’t listened to it back to back 10 times over. Most of the transcribing I do now is of chord progressions and melodies, to get new ideas for song writing.
I never had a consistent routine of 8 hours a day for any stretch of time, although there probably were days when I was younger that I would be playing for that long. I don’t really know how I feel about the whole “right-of-passage” association that the 8 hours a day routine has. After researching a lot about practice routines and endurance / stamina of concentration, I feel that a lot of the musicians that say they practice 8 hours a day, aren’t really practicing for 8 hours, especially day after day after day. The mental endurance and focus required to really be doing healthy, beneficial practice for that amount of time is almost super human. They might be “playing” for 8 hours, eg. jamming, playing along to music, regurgitating licks and grooves they can already play, just noodling around, but real practice takes an extreme amount of dedicated focus, attention and purpose. I try to practice for an hour a day, and honestly if I’m doing it right, I feel kind of exhausted after that. You can develop a lot as a player in your practice time with real attention to detail and focus in just a short amount of time, the key I really feel is consistency. Even if I can only get in 10 – 20 minutes, as long as I am practicing every day, I can keep track of my progress and see real growth, much clearer than if I practice 8 hours one day, then nothing for a few days, then 3 hours, then nothing etc etc.
Time, technique and dynamics. I believe that these 3 components of playing are what everything else is built upon. Time is at the very heart of what drummers do. It’s so important to have a solid concept of time both on a micro and macro level. Technique gives us the tools to do what we do. If your technique is shaky, there will come a point in your development where it will hold you back, or worse, cause you serious physical injury. Like time, having a solid foundation is key to giving yourself the building blocks to lay everything else on top of. Having control over your dynamics, again on a micro and macro level, gives you the control to shape your overall sound. This can be what separates the good players from the great players when you are needing to adjust your playing style dynamically to suite different live rooms, or recording situations, as well as just being able to give your grooves and fills shape, life and contrast.
I would love to be in a position where I am only playing or recording music that I enjoy playing. Financially, Id love to not feel the need to have to take a gig just for the money too. This is essential during the younger years of career development, but by then, I’d like to think that I have the option to pick and choose a little more.
I feel this is many peoples dream gig, Sting.
Hold on to the fire you have to practice, learn and get better for as long as you can. Get out to gigs and meet people. Get some recording gear and learn how to record yourself. Learn another instrument so you can write music. Practice as much as you can when you are younger and have the time. Once you get older, that time disappears really quickly with other life priorities. When you’re coming up, be as versatile musically as you possibly can. Later on you can start to specialise but I truly feel it’s important to at least have some knowledge and experience with many different genres, so you can draw on them later on, either in a specific environment, or to use collectively to shape your own unique voice. This may seem like a lot, but the role of what a musician is, and what I think it will develop even further into, is not what it used to be even 10 years ago. It’s not good enough, just to be a great player anymore. If we are talking about truly having a successful career as a musician, you really have to either be able to tackle anything that gets thrown at you, or be so incredibly good at one specific thing that there is no way people can ignore you. I truly love many different styles of music and environments, so I went down the path of trying to be as versatile as possible. Not to say this is for everyone, but for me it’s what I love, and honestly feel I had more chance of being able to sustain a career with this approach. Above all else, just be a nice, cool, humble person. I can definitely tell you that people would rather play with someone who maybe isn’t quite as experienced but is a nice person, than someone who might be technically more proficient, but is unpleasant to deal with. Arrogance and ego will get you nowhere in this industry.
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