Drumming for Cirque Du Soleil (feat. Kit Chatham)

Although I’m yet to personally meet Kit, I’d read and heard so many positive things about his musicianship, I simply had to reach out to him. Ironically we are both currently working in Japan, so if our schedules align, we hope to meet up in Tokyo between our performances. As you may have gathered from the title, Kit is a full-time drummer with Cirque Du Solei and has been for over a decade. This blog shares Kit’s advise on preparing for a cirque audition, the key skills working for the company and his approach to staying healthy on the road (given that he hasn’t missed a single show – 350+ shows a year for 13 years!). Kit has taken the time to really think about his responses so I encourage you to take the time to read them, come back to them and sit with them as there is a wealth of knowledge found in his responses. Thanks for joining us, and enjoy the interview.

Can you please share how long you’ve been working with Cirque and what your positions have included so far?

I’ve been working with Cirque for over 13 years now. I started out in the beginning of 2005 with the creation of Corteo and I developed the role as drummer, percussionist, and stage performer. Since it was the creation, I was able to incorporate many of the areas of percussion and drumming I’ve experienced in to the role. I toured with Corteo up until the summer of 2009 when I left to start the creation of Viva Elvis by Cirque that was a resident show in Las Vegas. On Viva Elvis I was the percussionist but also incorporated my stage experience with me for the role. Viva Elvis ran up until the very end of August of 2012 and when it closed I started working on Zumanity and Mystere both at the same time but in a part-time capacity. For both of these shows I was strictly playing drumset but not for very long as I got contacted by Cirque for another show. In the beginning 2013 I was contacted by Cirque to see if I was interested in touring with Kooza as percussionist on their European tour. Literally a couple of weeks after me agreeing to go on tour with Kooza and even before me actually stepping foot on the show, Cirque contacted me to see if I was interested in doing a new creation that would later become Kurios. I agreed to the new show but still did Kooza from June of 2013 up until the beginning of Kurios creation in January of 2014. With Kurios I helped develop a stage drum feature in the opening act of the show. For Kurios I primarily played drum set, as the sound track of the show was moving away from a big world music influenced show and more fuzed with the styles of early European and American music from the 1900s. Also, with Kurios I’m the Assistant Bandleader so a few times a week I’ll call the show and control Ableton that controls the flow of the show.

How did you get involved with Cirque?

I actually saw the Cirque show, La Nouba, back in 2001 when I was working as the solo snare drummer/percussionist on the development of the touring Broadway show, Blast! in Orlando, Florida. While we were putting together the production of the show we were also performing a small excerpt of the show at Disney’s Epcot Center. Disney got us tickets for La Nouba and I totally dug the music. At that point one of my apartment mates was Paul Bannerman since he was also working on Blast! He actually ended up leaving the show early due to some VISA issues, but we definitely keep in touch. A year later he actually got the job as the original drummer for Varekai. He contacted me and told me that I needed to send Cirque my materials and audition. So.. I did. At the end of 2002 while I was still on tour with Blast!, Cirque invited me to come to Las Vegas to do a live audition. I did the audition while on a short break from Blast! and quickly went back to touring with Blast!

Later in the beginning of 2003 I even did a new creation with the same company called Cyberjam that opened and performed in London’s West End. When that show ended in 2004 I went back to my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to freelance, teach, and get married. While I was actually teaching a percussion class, Cirque called me to see if I knew of anyone that would be willing to do a new creation in January of 2005. I was a little confused, and I said: “yes, me!”. They had always gotten me and another percussionist friend of mine already working at Cirque confused. Within a matter of weeks I had signed a contract, started to prepare for the move to Montreal in less than 3 months, and the rest is history.

What would you say to a drummer interested in working with Cirque? For example, how should they prepare themselves and what should they expect?

When someone is interested in Cirque and they ask me about sending in their materials to Cirque, I’m usually straight forward (in a good way) and tell them that Cirque gets hundreds of auditions a year and that they need to make sure their videos and CV are the best it can possibly be. I tell them that it’s important to stand out in a positive way and have a lasting impression. It’s not about demonstrating blazing chops and “how many notes I can fit in a 2 beat fill” on the Cirque audition reel, but you need to have a great vibe (musically and personally) and more importantly have your tracks fit and support the music. I can’t tell you how many people have sent me their vids to check out and it’s been all about showing off and not about doing what is best for the music. Definitely, show off on your personal demo reel, but on the Cirque music really try to do what is best for the music. You definitely need to be your biggest critic when watching and listening to your material and be completely honest with yourself. Remember, there are hundreds of players who are trying like yourself to get into Cirque and you’re basically competing with them all. 

All drummers and percussionists who want to be apart of Cirque need to know that it is important to develop a certain set of skills that will help them be able to do what is needed to be a Cirque drummer/percussionist. You really need to be flexible to quick changes and even respond at a moments notice musically to changes and action punches. I always tell drummers that having good improvisation skills and quick musical reflexes are very important with Cirque. The artists on stage are humans and make mistakes, so you need to be able to adapt to the quick changes and make it sound like it was planned. Spend a lot of time working on improvisation and just being as creative as you can be on your instrument. This quality will be very helpful especially in a live audition.

Also, those interested in joining Cirque should really make sure they don’t try and skip steps. You really need to make sure that you gain the knowledge and work experience that comes from learning from experienced teachers/players and actually getting your hands dirty by doing a lot of gigs. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen so many young drummers/percussionist who are extremely talented but have only spent time in the practice room and not actually gigging. They need to get out and get their “musical calluses” by learning all those things you don’t learn in the practice room. Like how to use IEM’s, how to set up a monitor mix, how to play with a click/backing tracks, how everything is mic’d and types of mics, how to communicate musically, and especially how to play and work with others. Not only is this going to help you out, but it’s going to make your resume/CV look more impressive.

What’s your favourite thing about playing drums in Cirque?

I will not lie, it’s awesome to get paid to play for a living (I’m very fortunate), but to get the opportunity to not only be on stage in front of thousands every night to share your passion AND to contribute myself creatively & musically to a show is pretty awesome and humbling. I’ve been very fortunate to do 3 creations with Cirque in which they have allowed me to contribute my input and talents to create a very unique and special role to the show.

How many other instruments have you used during your time at Cirque? Were any of them ones you hadn’t already spent time working on?

This is a hard question, but I’ll try to list them all. In Corteo I had drum set (V-drums), tabla, congas, djembe, cajon, udu, darbuka, riq, bongos, bodhran, and small trinkets in the pit (I’m sure I might be missing something), and on stage I played marching snare and some Brazilian/marching influenced percussion. In Viva Elvis I had 4 huge moveable percussion rigs that all had congas, timbales, bongos, toms, cymbals, bass drums, e-perc, and many other handheld instruments, but I also played marching percussion, cajon, and even a custom built washboard on stage during certain songs in the show. One of my set-ups for 2 songs in the show literally had a wall of bass drums and bass drums all around me.

In Zumanity and Mystere is was pretty much drum set and e-perc. In Kooza I played a lot of djembe and darbuka along with pandeiro, bass drum, e-perc, and bunch of handheld trinkets (shakers, tambourines, etc.). It was a nice challenge with Kooza with making djembe and darbuka sound very different in songs since they were used so much. I actually used different hand techniques to get the drums to sound like other instruments.

Here on Kurios I actually do a lot of drum tricks that I developed while in Blast! on a table, suitcases, and even the actual stage during the beginning of the show when I’m featured on stage. When I’m not on stage I play drum set and e-perc. I even bandleader the show a few times every week since I’m Assistant Bandleader. This is a great challenge as I have to not only use all four limbs for playing, but I also have to open my talkback with my left heel, talk on the talkback while playing, trigger Ableton to move to the next section, and more importantly make it sound as if I was just drumming to the audience.

For me, there hasn’t been an instrument requested for me to play that I haven’t already studied. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve done just as many creations as I have fill-in spots. I have however had experience teaching people who have been hired by Cirque to play something that they haven’t done before. This is usually only the case when the player has the ability to cover pretty much all of the roles and shows the talent & ability to quickly learn the part they aren’t as familiar with. The advise I have for anyone put in the situation to play something they have never played before is to be honest. Don’t say you can play something because when it is put in front of you the truth will eventually come out. If you’re honest and say that you are willing to learn and work hard to achieve what they need then you will go farther and more than likely earn their trust & respect.

What’s the hardest part of working for Cirque?

The makeup… it has to be the makeup! Honestly, the hardest part for me about working for Cirque is doing 350+ shows a year and being away from friends and family. In my case my wife and two kick-ass dogs. Most of my family lives in Atlanta, GA where I’m from, but my wife, dogs, and I now live in Las Vegas since we moved there for Viva Elvis.

But back to the makeup… it is a part of Cirque that is hard for me to deal with. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that I’m really good at it and have even been featured in a magazine for my makeup skills, but I feel like it takes a big chunk of time out of my process that I could easily be doing more productive things like practice. Depending on the show it’s taken me anywhere from 20 minutes on the really fast side to almost an hour.

What would you say are the key skills you need to be successful working with Cirque?

I touched a little on this before, but I’ll definitely say it again. It is really important to be able to quickly respond to changes and make it so smooth that no one in the audience realizes that there has been a sudden change. A key skill that you really need to have is the ability to be very consistent. I feel this is a key skill for musicians to have but especially any live musician. We are not in a studio where we can have multiple takes and attempts. The audience member who is watching the show will probably never see that show again live so you will only get one shot to make it have a lasting impression on someone.

Another really important key skill that I believe you should have is not even a performance driven skill. You just need to make sure you are humble and there to serve the music. Also be humble to the point that if the composer or bandleader asks you to do something, you do it. You don’t have to agree with it and you of course can have a dialogue with them about what you feel, but don’t be dismissive or not open try new and crazy things. Understand you are there to serve the big picture for the show and the music, and not to show how fast or how many crazy licks you can play. I live by a quote I heard from Bruce Lee, “Simplicity is the key to Brilliance”. This will help you very much in music. Don’t get me wrong, I work on my chops just as much as the next person, but I understand that there is a time and a place for those chops and that space is a lot of times one of the best tools to help let your music shine and breath.

Could you outline the greatest challenges you’ve faced during your time with Cirque? For example, is it being away from family, or not getting injured etc.

Both of these are definitely the greatest challenges. It’s really hard to be touring and not be able to attend one of your dearest friend’s wedding or a special holiday gathering with your family. Back in 2007, my grandfather passed away while I was on tour with Corteo. I actually flew out at 5am in the morning after a show the previous night, got picked up at the airport by my dad, went to the funeral, and then was driven back to the airport by my wife who was there for the funeral. I literally was there for maybe 6 hours and then I was back on the plane because I couldn’t miss a show… there was no backup for me. Being away from family definitely wears on you. Being away from my wife and two dogs is honestly the hardest thing I do and the reason I travel home as much as I possibly can and on every break. I’m lucky to be with a very special person who knows and understands my passion for music and performing is very special for me.

So far in my 13 plus years with Cirque I haven’t missed a show and I’m definitely knocking on wood right now. I really try to stay in good physical shape so that I can not only stay healthy, but I can maintain the physical nature of performing on stage. I’ve endured many little injuries on and off stage over the course of my years with Blast!, Cyberjam, and Cirque. I actually got mugged by a gang of guys while on vacation at the very beginning of Corteo’s tour and suffered multiple broken bones in my jaw and bruising to my body. Luckily I had time to heal enough on the remaining part of the vacation to get back to the shows when they started up. My jaw was wired shut for 6 weeks and I was on liquid only diet, but I was still able to drum and perform on stage and in the pit. Just back in 2016 I even herniated my back while performing here on Kurios. Luckily it happened right before a week off so I had time to get it evaluated, start a physical therapy program, and have things managed so I could still do my stage performance and drumming. It hasn’t always been easy, but I put just as much, if not more, time on physical health as I do percussion & drumming. I feel that it kind of keeps me young… kind of.

Do you get time to practice while you’re on the road with Cirque?

I do get to practice and actually, travel with a lot of practice materials with me on tour. I’ll be completely honest though, I don’t practice nearly as much as I’d like and definitely not as much as some of my fellow Cirque drummers. After talking and performing with some of my Cirque drum brothers, many show or tell me they practice 3+ hours a day. I feel a little bad when seeing this but also inspired. I really try to make the most of the little time I do practice and usually have a certain goal for that session that I want to attain. My free “music” time is usually divided into a little practising, working on music with my little mobile studio that I travel, and writing/arranging for bands. I do try to scope out what drummers/percussionists live in the cities I’m travelling to and try to arrange lessons or hangs with them. For example, right before coming to Japan while I was in Vancouver our last city in North America, I studied with Reid Maxwell who is a world champion Scottish Pipe drummer with the SFU Pipe Band. Last time I was here in Japan in 2009 I studied taiko with one of the top taiko drummers and ensembles here in Tokyo. I’m a firm believer that you never stop learning and the knowledge you get from this will only improve other aspects of your skills.

How much of your time do you spend at your home between touring?

Definitely not enough! This all depends on the tour schedule, but I fly home as often as I can. For example, when we were on tour in North America we would spend an average of 8-10 weeks in each city. In between cities we usually get around 6-7 days off and once a year get a 2-3 week “annual leave” in between cities. The annual leave is basically our main vacation time. While here in Japan we get a little longer off between cities but we spend longer in each city. We actually spend over 6 months in Tokyo and even got a week off in the middle of the city. I flew home for that and even though I had some of the worst jet lag ever, it was worth it.

What is a day in the life like for a Cirque drummer in your experiences?

This really all depends on the drummer and whether you’re touring or on a resident show. I’ll try and give you my typical day on tour. For a one show day, I’ll usually sleep in a just a little later (maybe around 9:30-10am) and then I’ll do my morning ritual. For me, that is getting some caffeine (Coke Zero and not coffee… coffee would send me to outer space) and a simple breakfast. Then I would go and either work in my little mobile studio or do some practising while also watching quality TV like Family Guy, American Dad, Bob’s Burgers, etc. I’d do this up until just after lunchtime. After lunch, I normally would hit the gym or go for a run (all depending on where we are and the accommodations). After this, I’d go jump in the shower and get ready to leave for site around 5 – 6pm. Depending on how far the site is from where we are staying, my schedule would also change. Typically our call-time to site, which is also when we do sound check, is an hour and a half before the first show. Once a week we have o meeting called “Tapis Rouge” (meaning Red Carpet) where we go over details for the week and whatever company news that needs to be shared. This is usually done on the first day of the week and before sound check. Usually, I’ll start my makeup after sound check or even before if I end up on site with time to do so before sound check. Each show has been a little different as the amount of time needed to do the makeup depends on the makeup design. On Corteo, it took me about 40 minutes to do the makeup. On Viva Elvis and Kooza it only took me only 20 minutes. Here on Kurios, it takes me about 30 minutes to do the make-up. I’ll be very honest again, the makeup is probably my least favorite thing to do in Cirque. I just wish I had all that time to practised warmup for the show instead. Then it is show time… I knock it out the best as I can and then see where the night takes me. Usually, I’ll go back to my little studio to work or just chill in the apartment, but sometimes I’ll go and have a drink or two at the bar with some of my co-workers. When we have a 2 show day, everything is the same except I’ll wake up earlier, spend only a little bit of time working on stuff, hit the gym or run, and then head to the site by 1 or 2 pm.

How varied is the drumming between the all the shows you’ve done with Cirque?

Honestly, this is like night and day from each show. In Corteo, I played about 60% drum set and 40% percussion. The drum set was V-drums but all my percussion was acoustic. If you’ve ever spent a lot of time on V- drums or any electronic drum set, you have to change your approach since the rebound and action are all different. Also, you don’t have the ability to get all the possible timbres out of an electronic drum as you can an acoustic. I even developed a swiping motion when I hit the cymbals as it would allow my stick to travel through the rubber pad as close to a real cymbal. Luckily I play with a very open hand technique so I didn’t have to change much with drumming on mesh heads. You have to be careful on those as it’s like playing on a tennis racket. With playing in Corteo and developing the drum score, I really had to be sensitive to the situation. Since the drum pit was literally 2 feet away from the actual audience, I had to make sure the sound fit the score but also didn’t kill the audience.

When I went to Viva Elvis, I knew going in that I was going to be the percussionist and there was going a drummer for the show. I actually put in for both roles but said my preference was to be the percussionist. I honestly consider myself more of a percussionist than a drummer, but since I do both I feel I have a better understanding of how to play with a drummer. There are so many percussionists and drummers who really don’t know how to adapt their parts when they are playing with a percussionist or drummer. It’s so important to have a great musical and verbal dialogue with your counterpart and I was very fortunate to have Benoit Clement who is an amazing drummer. I miss playing with that guy! Like I mentioned earlier, I played a wide variety of percussion stuff which dove into my personal vocabulary of drums and percussion.

With every show that I’ve done, I feel that I really bring all my drumming and percussion influences in one way or another to the show. In the three creations I’ve done I was lucky to work closely with the creators and add my input and musical voice to the mix. In the three shows that I’ve done where I wasn’t the original guy, I basically became a chameleon trying to make the cast not even realize that anything had changed or that I was there. Over time and with working with the bandleaders of these shows, I would slowly put myself into the part and give it my voice while still maintaining the integrity of the song.

Are you involved in any other projects outside of Cirque? Music or non-music related?

Totally. I still do as many recordings for other musicians as my schedule and touring will allow. This is hard sometimes when I know I have only a week at home in my home studio and all I want to do is chill on the couch with my dogs during the day. I try to plan only 1 or 2 small music projects while I’m home. When I first started touring years ago I would plan my schedule way in advance booking live gigs and as many sessions as I can, but as in life my priorities have changed and my down time is pretty crucial for my mental well being.

I recently just finished working with a show in Mexico writing, developing, and even recording the percussion score while helping the composer create a unique sound for the show. I actually even flew home on a 2 day show break where the composer came to my house and we recorded almost all of the percussion for the show. That was tough since I had just finished a 10 show week, flew home for two 8+ hour days in the studio recording anything and everything. I now usually try to spend more time on my couch with the dogs than I do in the studio, but if I have to work in the studio the dogs are usually right beside me judging my musical discussions.

I’m actually in the process of creating and producing an educational YouTube series with a few buddies of mine. It will be for all ages and give insights on many different styles and methods form those who are some of the best in their field. I’m very excited about it as we are making it something unique to the drumming community and not only teach but

also highly entertain the masses. I hope to have it completed and launched in the next 6 months.

Regarding the digital world, how much time and energy do you invest in social media/online presence vs face to face meetings, networking and branding etc

Although I do a little of the social game and have a website that I haven’t updated in forever, I do make a point not to spend too much time on it. I feel that real connections are still the way to go to make solid career moves, but I have made some positive connections on social media. . I also feel that learning on Skype is way too 2-dimensional and you lose a bit of the hands-on learning. I do have a few students that I have taught in person that I will touch upon Skype, but when I do Skype sessions they are more like consultations and ways for me to help them seek out the right people. This is just a personal opinion and I have many friends who make a good portion of their income doing this.

I do however spend time on YouTube watching a lot of drumming/percussion, educational, and music vids. I wish I had a resource like this when I was younger. I can’t tell you how many VHS tapes I wore out or how many DVDs I eventual scratched by watching the hundreds of times trying to figure out stuff. On the flip side I fortunately, know what I’m looking for with the videos, but there, unfortunately, is a lot of bad, or I should say misguided material on there too.

What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are now?

Hmm… Definitely that I married the right woman!

Is there anything you wish you did differently that in hindsight you feel would’ve positioned you better?

I wish I would have actually practised in college and spent less time playing video games, eating pizza, and doing all that stupid stuff you do while in college. I feel that if I would have actually taken that time to spend practising then I would have been much further than I am today. Although I didn’t practice, I did gig a lot in college and spend a great deal of time in ensembles like marching band, wind ensemble, orchestra, steel band, African ensemble, percussion ensemble, and jazz band. Although I regret not spending the time, I did have a lot of fun in college. Maybe too much fun.

Have you ever wished you weren’t a musician or felt stuck?

Never… I knew since I started piano and then drums at an early age that music was what I wanted to do.

Do you/did you spend time transcribing other musicians?

Yes! I feel that this is one of the most important ways for you to develop a style or feel to playing a certain way. There’s no way for you to play a certain style in the original feel if you don’t first listen to it and don’t try to immolate what you hear. Here is the short list of drummers/percussionist I transcribed in the past (I also transcribed other instrumentalists as well): Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, John Bonham, Max Roach, Poncho Sanchez, Neil Peart, Tito Puente, Giovanni Hidalgo, Airto, Trilok Gurtu, Changito, Mamaday Keita, Horacio Hernandez, Zakir Hussain, Glen Velez, Peter Erskine, Weckl, Vinnie, and I can go on and on for sure.

Did you ever have an 8 hour a day practice schedule before working full time?

Unfortunately NO… well I take that back. Back in college with only days before my major solo recitals, I would practice and sleep in the practice room. I was a bit of a procrastinator and lazy in college (as I kind of mentioned earlier) and I would wait to the last minute to put it all together. My competitiveness wouldn’t keep me from having the biggest and most elaborate recitals from anyone in the past, but I had to at least pull myself together and put out a killer show. Again looking back, I wish I would have grown up a little quicker and not partied as much.

If you could only practice three things what would they be?

Seriously not going to happen unless I was stranded on an island with only 3 percussion instruments. What got me into percussion is all the cool instruments and all the varieties of sounds.

Where would you like to be in 5 years?

Hopefully off of tour (unless it was for a major tour that only went out for a few months and the $$$ was great), still playing for a living, and being able to sleep in the same bed every night. I still have a bunch of goals that I want to attain and my plan is to have them done within the next 5 years. You’ll just have to stay in touch to know what these are.

If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?

Peter Gabriel has always been one of those guys I’d love to play for. Ever since I saw the video of the Secret World tour I was kind of hooked. Like most drummers/percussionists, I’d also love to play with Sting or Paul McCartney. I would also love to just play drums in a great organic rock band with just 4 guys playing everything live. I just wouldn’t want to do the whole van tour like back in the college days.

Do you have any other interests outside music?

Yeah, I’m very big into running. I run on average 6+ miles a day and around 30+ miles a week. It’s kind of my meditation time where I think about all the things I’d like to do and also brainstorm on future things.

Also, I’m really into traditional Southern American BBQ and craft beer. I usually BBQ (that is cook things for a really long time and a low temperature not directly over the flame as opposed to grilling which is right

over the flame) something every time I go home on my smoker. You can’t beat a nice BBQ’d Pork Shoulder, Ribs, or Brisket. As far as the beer, I actually used to homebrew beer when I was full-time in Vegas. I actually keep a log of all the different beers that I’ve tried all over the world and even photo them. I’m definitely a beer nerd.

If you could simply up and pivot to another job entirely, what would that be

Honestly, I’m still trying to figure this one out. I’ll definitely have to let you know when I finally figure it out. Any suggestions?

What would you say to up and coming drummers who wish to have a ful filling career as a full-time musician?

Practice, Practice, and Practice. Get with a good teacher and learn all you can from them. Then practice all of that teachers techniques. Then, find another good teacher and do the same. Even if his philosophies contradict that of the other, it’s great to see how different teachers approach the same instruments. Rinse and Repeat… and countinue to Rinse and Repeat. I’ve had so many great drum influences on playing and technique that I feel like my hands don’t have a standard playing style. I also feel like I can play very comfortably in all of these styles. Now I just focus on the approach that feels most comfortable and will give me the sound I’m going for. For example, after studying contemporary rudimental drumming, jazz drumming, orchestral drumming, Scottish pipe band drumming, Basel drumming, and many ethic percussion stick approaches, I can make my hands shift back and forth easily and while achieving the sound I want. I can’t tell you how many times I use a Senegalese sabar technique on hihat while playing drum set.

Another big thing I tell students is that just like any job, to do music full time you have to know what people are paying for. In high school and college, I spent a lot of time practising and playing 4 mallet marimba. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it but I rarely play the marimba these days. Usually, if I’m doing a clinic at a school I’ll jump behind the marimba and hash out some of the old pieces I once played, but as far as getting paid to be a full-time marimbist is unheard of. Most of the great marimbist are teaching as their main gig. I usually tell college students to relay think about what they truly want to do for a living and then portion out their practice time to reach that goal. If your goal is to play with Cirque then you should spend more time on drum set and what I call commercial percussion and less time on those things that are only slightly used.

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