A Day in the Life of a Freelance Percussionist

Kevin Lucas • GoodVibesNovember 2022 • November 13, 2022

In August, I performed three successful concerts at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, IL. It seemed routine and the shows went smoothly. But there were a lot of behind-the-scenes activities that took place leading up to the concerts that I play. A lot of trial and error, planning, songwriting, successes, failures, and everything under the sun led me to the place I am today as a solo artist. 

I went through years of developing repertoire. I wrote many songs and recorded them. After my band split up, I had studio backing tracks made for all my original instrumental music as well as collaborations with many artists. It took me several years to where I had enough material to perform a four hour show and still maintain variety and keeping the crowd engaged. The best path for any aspiring percussionist is to write songs that are highly inspired and come from your heart. I believe students should never compose music just for the sake of writing; everything should be inspired. Your students should focus on writing inspired songs at a variety of tempos and styles to keep the show interesting. This takes many years and does not happen overnight.

I have also participated in many collaboration projects with talented artists. I have written songs with artists, and some artists have written songs for me. These collaborations have also helped bring variety to the live show. Your students should always try and keep it interesting and keep the audience on their toes.

I have selected many songs that I know many people love and have recorded my own versions of them. A couple examples of this are “Africa” and “Land of Confusion.” I did percussion arrangements of these with guitars, bass, drums, saxophone, flute, and keyboards backing me up. Nothing energizes a crowd more than a song they are familiar with. Every percussionist wants to play all their own music for several hours, but we are there to entertain and we must play to the audience. The audience will appreciate your original material even more if you entertain them.

There is a difference between a composer and an entertainer. As an entertainer, you must be able to read the crowd. Observe things like “What is the average age?” Feeling the crowd out for what kind of music they might like will help you put together your set list from a vast repertoire of music. I have remade Beethoven, but I would never play it live for a crowd in their 20’s in a party atmosphere. It just wouldn’t work.

Arriving at least two hours early to a show will remove so much stress from your student performers. You never know what can go wrong. I have had the most bizarre and unexpected problems before a show. Your students want to allow time for the absolute worst-case scenario, so they have time to troubleshoot with the sound guys and solve the problem.

Another aspect of being an entertainer is sound equipment. At most concerts, your students will have their own sound system. Having backups of certain important cords and parts is very critical. I have learned the hard way. I have had laptops go out and other sound equipment fail, and I did not have a backup plan. This happened sometimes even with having a sound company at the show. If one specialty cable fails and the sound guys don’t have one, the show is over. One time I had both my mixer and laptop both go out ten minutes before a show. Nightmares can happen. Now I backup my backing tracks on the cloud and run them through my cell phone if a laptop ever goes out. Always have multiple ways to make the show happen. If you are having problems with equipment, don’t postpone buying replacements. It will fail at the worst possible moment!  And backing tracks can be wonderful. They are your students’ own recordings and as a solo artist, the pay for the gig is much better!  A 500-dollar gig doesn’t go very far with seven performers.

After three successful shows, I can look back and say they were smooth and successful only because of years of composing, recording, buying equipment, planning, having success, having failure, and many countless experiences. It is my pleasure to share with your students the journey I have been on and hopefully I can help them avoid some of the mistakes I have made. 

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker and Tito Puente”. He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Lucas performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994 and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed second in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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