Tuesday, December 31, 2013

With the end in mind, you don't need resolutions

I'm on record as saying that I don't do New Year's resolutions. They're largely a waste of time and they set you up for failure. And that failure results in less motivation and less productivity.

One alternative is to focus on results. Ask yourself what you want the end result to look like, then work backwards. What will have to happen to get that result?

The other day I was shooting baskets, and I wasn't having much success. Mostly, I was just chucking the sphere at the hoop. The more I missed, the more I just thought, "Well, try it again!" You know what they say about insanity, right?*

Finally, after missing many shots in a row, I thought, "What am I not doing right?" I had been focusing on my feet, my arm/hand position, release, follow through, etc., but I had forgotten what needed to happen at the hoop - for the ball to go through! That simple thought reminded me of a key concept, that of "dropping" the ball on top of the hoop.

Instantly, my release angle changed, my elevation (such as it is) improved, and my posture straightened up. Miraculously, the ball started to go through the hoop. It sounds simple, but just by knowing what needed to happen at the end of the process, my brain automatically changed the beginning.

Like my shooting baskets without thinking about the end result, many resolutions are basically nice gestures, but ultimately useless. When I hear people say they need to, "exercise more," or, "eat less junk," or, "start saving money," I usually cringe. Unless you connect those good intentions to an end result, they're almost worse than not making resolutions at all.

Join me in a little mental exercise, will you? Just take a minute to think about the next few scenarios.

Let's say you played fifty paying gigs last year - and that's cool - but you want to double that number this year. What would you have to do to play one hundred paying gigs this year? What would you do first, then next? Whose help would you need? What would need to change about how you run your business?

What if you really did need to lose twenty-five pounds this year? What would you need to do to get it done? Is there anything you need to stop doing or eating? Need to get a gym membership, or a new alarm clock? Maybe you need to finally read that health book or take your friend up on his offer to be your jogging partner.

Or maybe there's an audition you want to prepare for and take. Where do you need to start? What instruments do you need to get? Do you need to study with someone?

Whether it be a technique goal or an earning goal, number of gigs played or something else, this same process can apply. What will the end result be? What do you need to do first (right now!), and what is next? If you keep your eye on the final goal, the process will usually make itself clear.

Happy drumming!

*It's a colloquialism by now, but, "Insanity is doing the same thing you did before and expecting a different result."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Servants get all the good stuff

"You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want." - Zig Ziglar, Secrets of Closing the Sale (1984)

December is a great time to be a freelance musician. One of my annual Christmas gigs is to play in the percussion section of Dr. Craig Jessop's American Festival Chorus and Orchestra. It's a world-class ensemble, and always features a prominent soloist.

Dr. Craig Jessop
This year was no exception. The performances were electric, and the guest artist, Alyson Cambridge, delivered passionate, moving interpretations. It was a joy to be a part of the process of preparation and presentation of such a gift.

During one of the performances in a section where I had rests (welcome to orchestral percussion), I was watching the singers, the instrumentalists, the conductor, the soloist and the audience, and I had an epiphany.

I don't think about it often, but a section percussionist's role - almost without exception - is to be servant to the music. Candidly, what musician doesn't have this responsibility? Percussionists, possibly more than other musicians, have to find ways to fit fewer notes into the texture and framework of the performance, and make them count.

Watching the performance that night, suddenly all I saw were servants.

Each musician was giving, contributing his or her sound and heart. Dr. Jessop, with his back to the audience, while conducting energetically with both arms, was sweating and breathing heavily, smiling the smile of the joyous laborer. He was serving the music, the performers and the audience at once.

Alyson Cambridge
Alyson Cambridge, the soloist, was engaging the audience in every imaginable way, expending her considerable talents to the fullest. The audience, for their part, received the gift with absolute grace and rewarded the performers at every possible opportunity. The ovation at the conclusion of the program lasted for several minutes.

All gave. All received. That's how it's supposed to work.

I'll be honest. It's not totally altruistic. Nobody plays music exclusively to give. Music has huge rewards, and one of them was the rush of being a part of that much energy focused in one room at one time. There are other rewards, but I think this is the one that keeps me coming back for every gig.

Financial guru Dave Ramsey has a saying, "Live like no one else, so later you can live like no one else." In a nutshell, he's talking about being financially conservative now so you'll have money later.

If I may, I'd like to alter that saying a little bit as follows: "Play like no one else, so later you can play like no one else."

American Festival Chorus and Orchestra
The best, most successful musicians in the industry are the ones who give their whole hearts to each gig, be it a casual for a few people who don't even care, or a huge venue in front of attentive, die hard fans. When these musicians play, their colleagues, clients and audiences appreciate them and learn that they can depend on them to deliver meaningful music each and every time.

Develop a reputation as a good servant, and you'll soon be master of your own career.

Happy drumming!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gear Up: What's in your tool bag?

"If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." - Traditional Proverb*

Any musician knows that you can never have enough stuff. Whether it's reeds, mouthpieces, picks or strings, you need tools at your disposal. For percussionists, this means sticks and mallets - and a lot of them - and a variety of other small instruments and tools.

One of my students recently asked me which was my most expensive single bag or case. I pointed to three: a cymbal bag (lots of metal means lots of dough!), DW kick drum, and my mallet bag. The last one surprised him.

"Isn't that just all your sticks and stuff?" Yes. It is. And it's maybe my most valuable bag - if not monetarily, then certainly practically.

Think of yourself like a construction worker.** Even if you only have one specific job, like framing, you are going to need a wide range of tools. Hammers, a variety of saws, measuring tapes, levels, squares, nail guns and air compressor (if you're using pneumatics), and more - not to mention special tools for problem solving, like a jigsaw or power drill, and all of the accessories. And if a tool fails, you'd better have a backup. Can't be running to the hardware store while your partner holds up a wall!

For every tool you don't have, you either can't do the specific task, or you'll do it with the wrong tool. And if you do it with the wrong tool, you're not likely to do it well - if you can do it at all - and it will be a lot harder than it needs to be.

Drummers and percussionists are actually a lot like the construction worker in our example. We need to have tools in our bag that will allow us to play a wide variety of styles and instruments at a moment's notice on any gig.

You can find literally thousands of lists of tools you should have in your gig bag, and many of them are extensive. Specific brands and models are the subject of another blog post (or several), but here's a bare minimum list of a few things I think are critical on any and every gig for a percussionist.

Light, medium and heavy drum set sticks.
At a minimum, you should have three pairs of kit sticks in good repair. Not only will you face different styles - like jazz and hard rock - you'll face different volume needs, environments, and preferences of band leaders, just to name a few. If nothing else, you can answer a confident yes, when the inevitable question is asked: "Hey, do you have something lighter/heavier you can use?" Besides, it's easier to actually play louder or softer if you have heavier or lighter sticks.

Brushes and rods.
Aside from their obvious tonal and stylistic uses, brushes and rods provide great options to get to lower volumes without having to use 0.05" high strokes. In super low volume situations, you'll need rods or brushes just to get below the tolerance of, say, the mother of the bride. You might end up even using your hands!

Timpani mallets.
More than one pair is preferable, but you'll need something in the medium range. You might end up playing timpani (but if you're the timpanist on the gig, you need a very different bag of tools - again, for another blog post), but more likely you'll play cymbal rolls and your drum kit with them. Because of that, buy something cheap that you won't mind getting beat up, lost or broken by the bass player. I use these. They're passable for rolls, and they sound great on my toms.

Keyboard mallets.
Again, at bare minimum, you need a pair of something either cord or yarn wrapped that could be used on vibraphone, marimba or xylophone in a pinch. A set of four would be even better. You'll also need a pair of phenolic or acrylic mallets that can be used on bells (glockenspiel) or xylophone. They can also be used on wood blocks and other small percussion if needed.

Egg shaker? Yes. That, too. I'd also recommend at least one plastic barrel shaker for medium to soft volumes, and a metal barrel for louder settings. As a side note, try practicing basic rock beats with your hi-hat hand playing eighth or sixteenth notes with a shaker instead of your normal hat pattern with a stick.

Pencils, pen, sharpie marker and highlighter.
No, I'm not kidding, and keep the pencils sharpened. In fact, get one of these and throw it in your bag, too. Most musicians have at least learned to carry a pencil, but the other tools are useful if you need to mark up your music, quickly write out a chart or sign for your check. And at some point, you're going to sign an autograph. Pull out the sharpie and make the kid happy, okay? You're the drummer!

Ear plugs.
As a very young man, I got asked by the coolest band in town to sit in on a "jam." It happened to take place at a new local studio, and we played Voodoo Chile at volume eleven for forty-five minutes. It was my first real hearing damage. I would have killed for a pair of ninety-nine cent foam ear plugs.

Miscellaneous tools.
A drum key (or two), a roll of gaff tape, a note pad (legal size), your business card(!), a metronome, and anything else you've ever needed on a gig and didn't have.

All of my recommendations come from personal experience. I've played hundreds and hundreds of gigs over the last fifteen years or so, and every item on this list has been needed on at least several occasions. Over time, you'll develop your own list of must-haves, and you'll never leave home with out it.

As the ol' Boy Scouts say, be prepared!

*If you're a nerd (like me), there's some interesting and brief background on this proverb here.

**Full disclosure: I actually worked a construction job for my father, who was a general contractor, for many years. We built homes. Lots of homes. It was my dad who taught me the value of not only having great tools and the right tools, but also taking care of them. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review: The Gigging Musician by Billy Mitchell

I just finished a book. That's not unusual for me. I read a lot of books, usually fantasy/sci-fi, business management and personal finance books. I'm a nerd. For a musician, I don't read a lot of music related books aside from the notes and staff variety, but this one reached out to me. Maybe it knew I needed it.

The book is Billy Mitchell's The Gigging Musician: How to Get, Play and Keep the Gig.* 

So, how did I come by it? Pretty simply. There's a decent thrift store in town, and I cruised through the book section and picked this one up. It had a one dollar price tag on it, so I thought, "Well, I'll just carry this around for a while and then bring it back."

I couldn't bring myself to leave it, so I paid the buck and took it home.

Not only did it have a title that hit close to my heart, but this book was a little ragged around the edges, seemed colloquial - I honestly felt like I was adopting a lost puppy. I brought it home, but didn't think I'd actually read it. But the first time I cracked the cover, I was hooked.

Billy Mitchell, Author
There was a reason for the ragged cover - the book shoots straight. It's full of plain advice and straight talk that the wise musician will take to heart. It is written in a conversational style that provides for easy and quick reading. It seemed to me that the author tried to create the feeling of having a personal conversation between colleagues.

In short, Billy Mitchell gets to the point, and gets there very clearly.

There's much more here than this, but a few of my favorite lines include these:

  • "If you keep on doing the same stupid things, you can expect the same stupid results"
  • "You are the only one who realizes the full potential of your work."
  • "It's blood, sweat and tears - and then you still might not get the gig."
  • "When you begin to look at gigs for their dollar value only, you begin to diminish the spiritual value of the craft."
  • "The music business is a living thing, a beautiful yet vicious animal that sometimes eats its young."
There's no shortage of one-liners, and there are myriad concepts that you simply cannot miss if you're attempting to make a career in the music business. From figuring out who you are, to showing respect to those who work with you or for you, to arriving prepared to the gig - Mr. Mitchell covers critical aspects of the music business. I've been playing paying gigs for almost twenty years, and there was plenty that I needed to read.

It's a unique thing to read a book that makes you instantaneously feel that the author knows you, knows your situation, and cares. But you do get that sense. The writing style is personal, honest and very straightforward. More importantly, it's plain. I don't mean uneducated or simplistic, but written like you'd write something important to a good friend.

If you're a gigging musician - or aspiring to be one - you need to read this book. It'll take you an afternoon. Two, at most. And it'll be worth every minute, and every cent you spend to buy the book.

Happy reading. And happy gigging!

*Active on the pro LA scene since 1970, Billy Mitchell is as experienced and decorated as any musician in the game today. You can read his full bio here

Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's all about the music

As a sophomore in high school, I was one of two drummers in our school jazz band. This may sound strange, but at our school the band had as much prestige as any of the athletic teams, and the jazz band was the top of the heap. It was an honor, but also a lot of pressure, to be in that band.

For the first couple of months, I struggled to open up in rehearsals. My playing was stiff and not very musical. I had a hard time reading the charts and couldn't see the, "big picture," of the pieces we were playing.

Each fall our band director brought in a clinician to work with us, an amazingly gifted and inspiring educator, the illustrious Dr. Newell Dayley. During the session with Dr. Dayley, I was more than usually nervous. I buried my head in the chart and tried for all I was worth to play every figure, hit, fill and groove to exact specifications. Our band had a very good reputation, and I wanted badly to live up to it.

Near the end of the rehearsal, Dr. Dayley walked over to me, smiled, and said, "How well do you know this piece of music?"

"Pretty well, I guess," I replied.

He smiled again, then took the chart off my music stand and started to kick off the band. I didn't know what to think - didn't know what to do.

How could I play the music without my part? What would I do without the chart?

Something seriously strange happened when we started to play. My entire approach changed. It was as if I had been playing under a cover, in a cave - as if in total darkness - and now the sun had come out, the clouds had lifted, and the drumming sunshine was bright and clear.

While playing without the sheet music to glue my eyes to, I was able to make eye contact with my rhythm section mates, as well as to look around at the other sections - to pay attention to what and how they were playing in a new way - and to take cues from the director.

Now, I'm sure it wasn't my best playing that day, but to my fifteen-year-old mind it was a totally new experience. I was no longer playing notes, figures and rhythms.

I was playing music.

When we finished the tune, one of the trumpet players looked at me and said, "I don't know what that was, or where you found it, but you'd better find it again!"

It was awesome. I loved it. It changed my perspective on playing music forever.

Scott Hagen, Director of Bands at the University of Utah, is fond of saying that the music is what happens between the lines, notes, rhythms and rests. So, next time you sit down to play a piece of music, be sure not to stop where the ink ends.

Happy drumming. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Practice LESS. (Wait....what?)

Like all music majors, I performed solo recitals at the end of my junior and senior years in college. The experience of prepping for a recital is excruciating, and it feels like every waking minute is devoted to learning, cleaning and rehearsing every aspect of the performance.

Just a few weeks prior to my senior recital, I was seriously struggling with a difficult snare drum solo, and the stress was really getting to me. I was practicing no less than an hour and a half per day on just this one piece (in addition to hours on marimba, vibraphone, timpani, rudimental snare drum and drum set), and I was making very little progress. I was frustrated, and getting very desperate.

At my weekly lesson, I presented the problem to my instructor, Dr. Dennis D. Griffin. He suggested something that sort of blew my mind. It went something like this:

Dr. G: How long are you practicing this piece every day?

K: About ninety minutes, give or take.

Dr. G: And how long do you spend warming up - doing exercises and rudiments and the like?

K: About fifteen minutes.

Dr. G: Ok. Here's what I want you to do. Practice the solo less. Spend at least half of your time on technique exercises, things like the Stick Control book. Make sure you're using exercises that apply to the challenging aspects of the solo.

At this point I sort of freaked out.

K: Practice....less? But, Dr. G, I only have a few weeks until my recital! I just CANNOT give up the practice time on the solo.

Dr. G: Try it for just one week. Give it as much focus and determination as you can, and if it doesn't help you in one week, you can go back to doing it your way.

Needless to say, I felt pretty hopeless. How could I possibly make progress on the hardest solo I'd ever played in my life by practicing less? And a lot less, at that?

But the good Dr. Griffin had never led me astray before, so I took his advice and went to work. Over the next week I took apart the solo, broke it down to its elements, and found exercises (mostly out of the Stick Control book, using the slow-fast method as my approach) that applied to each element.

To cut to the chase, it worked. In that week, by practicing my solo for half of my normal time, I made more progress than I had accumulated up to that point. I made my recital deadline, and played the toughest piece of concert snare drum literature of my life - and played it pretty well!

Candidly, it would have been good enough just to make it through my recital, but here's the amazing part: the skills I worked on during that period of time have stayed with me to this day. They have become part of my vocabulary and remained at the tip of my fingers for use not only in formal concert settings, but in my improvising and drum set playing, as well.

There are probably more lessons here than I'm thinking about, but here's the one: Being a great musician is much more about having the skills to construct a variety of musical phrases, sounds and components, rather than knowing a piece or a collection of pieces. You've got to have a repertoire, for sure, but to continue to be expressive and adaptable, you must constantly be building a collection of musical tools.

Musicians often call this their, "toolbox," or, "bag of tricks."

Let's think about it another way.

Did you ever play with Lego's? Imagine if you only had one kind, size or color of Lego block. What could you build? Not much. You would have a limit on what shapes and functions you could construct out of one block.

But what if you had two, or five or a hundred? With every added type, shape, size of block, you exponentially increase what you can build, how it can function, etc.

One more comparison: Basketball. If you only have one move, your defender will easily stop you from scoring, and you'll be an ineffective - not to mention boring - player.

The same is true with your musical skills. If you don't have very many rudiments, sticking patterns, independence skills - even ideas - to draw from, you'll be limited, ineffective, boring, etc. More than that, you'll be frustrated.

Lego's, basketball and music all have this one thing in common - they're more fun when you're better at them. And you're better at them if you have more tools, tricks and skills.

So, long blog post, but short message: Practice less. You'll get more done, and you'll keep it longer.

Happy drumming!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Friday Feature: Diana Krall

Recently I was going through a box in my garage and ran across a pair of concert tickets from the summer of 2004. One of my close friends, also a serious music lover, took me to see Diana Krall for my birthday that year. Diana gave four (FOUR!!!) encores that night.* Just looking at the tickets put a smile on my face and sent me to my stereo to enjoy some tunes.

Diana Krall is at once a throwback to an earlier era and a pioneer into new places and dimensions. Her vocal quality and style of delivery are both timeless and innovative, and her piano stylings are the perfect compliment to her wide-ranging musical forays. As a bonus, she is a beautiful and photogenic person.

Personally, Diana has been my favorite jazz vocalist since the first time I listened to her. And given the musicians she generally plays with (some of whom I'll list below), listening to Diana Krall is both entertaining and educational. It's classic, timeless music.

Not only have I been in love with the voice and music of Diana Krall for years, I've enjoyed listening to the musicians she works with. A partial list includes:
  • Peter Erskine
  • Jeff Hamilton
  • John Clayton
  • Anthony Wilson
  • Russell Malone
  • Christian McBride
  • More HERE
As with other Friday Features, I hope you'll do some exploring and get to know the music of Diana Krall for yourself. You will be very richly rewarded.

Happy listening!

*I've been to many, many live shows in my life, from major symphonies to rock, jazz, pop and country acts in the largest and smallest of venues. Even though I love the music and the atmosphere, I'm ready to go home at the end of the night. Not so with Diana Krall. Even after four encores, my hear broke when she said goodnight. I could have listened and enjoyed forever. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

It's a matter of (public) perspective

Disclaimer: Before I dive into the topic du jour, I have to say that I get it. I really do. It's just a little joking around, and there are jokes about every profession and every class of people. (Recently I played a gig for a bunch of sewage system engineers, and, let me tell you, those were some pretty crappy jokes.) But there is an underlying problem, and it's time that we, musicians and non, face it head-on.

A friend of mine, an insanely successful and renowned guitarist and music educator, tells one of my favorite stories. Shortly after he and his family moved into their brand new, beautiful home in a somewhat exclusive part of their city, he was chatting with a neighbor at church when the guy asked him, "So what do you do?"

"Oh, I'm a musician," he replied.

"No, no. I mean, what do you do for a living?"

I love this story, because it exemplifies the standard attitude toward musicians from many people who aren't. Music is fine as a hobby, I guess, but you can't seriously call it a career, right? It's just not important enough. 

Alright, so that characterization might be a touch incendiary. In a nutshell, here's my problem: musicians, and music education, have always been marginalized by mainstream society. Whether it be in the professional world, in education or at the gym, music is often viewed as a sidebar.

Too often, musicians and music are turned into a punchline.

Example number one. Here's the commercial that just about made me fall off my treadmill.

I get that it can be tough to support a young personn through the cumulative hours it takes to develop a musical skill, but the mom is essentially saying, "I deserve a reward just for being in the same space with a kid practicing her instrument - that's how bad it is to have a musician in the house!" (It's also a subtle dig at bassoonists, and I get that, but...)

Example number two. Although KFC has taken their ad down (you can't even find it on YouTube), you can get a sense for it and read their response to criticism here. The commercial contrasts the "good idea" of buying fried chicken for dinner, to a bunch of "bad ideas." The one that caught my ire? "Bad idea: buying your own kid a drum set."

Again, I get that marketers are just trying to get viewers to laugh and remember their product. But as I wrote above, it betrays an underlying attitude that musicians, like lawyers, proctologists and used car salesmen, are somehow not people, and that their contribution to society is a necessary evil.

It's a topic for another blog post, but music is possibly the most reliable catalyst for positive change for students and society, and to marginalize it simply reinforces many of the things that are wrong in the world.

What do you think? Just laugh and let it roll? Or is it a more serious problem? I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments below.

Happy drumming, even if it is a, "bad idea."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Great! Now do it again

I'm always using basketball metaphors, but I guess 'tis the season to talk about football, so here goes.

For two years in high school, I played on our school's football team. It was a lot of fun and taught me much about hard work, teamwork, perseverance and more.

I remember a day when our coach introduced a relatively complex play. We worked hard and finally got it right after lots of tries and correction. For some reason, I expected the coach to move on or give us a break. He didn't.

Instead, he said, "Great! Now do it again."

We proceeded to run the play correctly for over an hour, until we could do it without even thinking about it. That, it turns out, was the goal. After that practice, our coach explained the following principle:

Getting it right is just the first step. "Practicing," means doing it right over and over again. 

Now, think of that principle in terms of your music. Do you ever move on after only one or two successful runs at something? Muscle memory develops after lots of reps over a long period of time, so be sure that getting it right becomes a habit.

It's almost cliche to hear a coach say, "Again." But it's a core principle in becoming great at anything - repetition is how we learn something, how we make it permanent. It wasn't very fun practicing the same play over and over again that day in practice, or on the following days. But it was very, very rewarding to run the play in a game situation and have it work perfectly

Happy practicing. (Again and again and again.) 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

(UPDATED) Friday Feature: Neil Peart of Rush

I while back, I posted about Neil Peart, expressing my respect for him as a person, even if I have been slow to fall in love with his playing and the music of Rush.

This past week I discovered an article on www.drummagazine.com talking about the new album, "Clockwork Angels." The article is absolutely worth reading in its entirety, but there are two points that immediately struck me.
  1. Neil Peart considers himself an athlete. As such, he trains his entire body with intense cardio, stretching and yoga, as well as strength training and weight-lifting. He specifically targets areas where drummers commonly have injuries - such as shoulders and elbows - to prevent an injury to  himself. This, in my opinion, is one of the key reasons he continues to innovate and play at the highest level in Rush's fourth decade.
  2. To quote the article directly, "Master Player = Master Student" Peart is one of the great examples of someone who is never satisfied or complacent with their playing. Repeatedly over the course of his very long, illustrious career, Peart has, "surrendered," to great (and I do mean great) teachers who have helped take him to the next level. 
To summarize, treat your body as well as you can, and always be learning. Could it really be that simple?

Neil Peart continues to earn my respect as a human being, and my love of his playing, lyrics and the music of Rush are constantly growing. 

Thank you, Mr. Peart. You're worthy of your rock star and idol status!

Here is the original post:

Friday Feature: Neil Peart of Rush

You know how tall people always get asked if they play basketball? I have twin cousins who are 6’6”, and they do not play basketball, nor do they want to. They humor people all the time who ask the question, and privately want to slap them silly. 

Well, it’s like that for drummers, too. The minute somebody finds out you play, they’re all, “So, hey, what about Neil Peart, huh? You must love Rush, right?” I’m the kid who deliberately avoided all things Rush and Peart for years. No, decades. Religiously, you might say.* 

Up until a couple of years ago, I loved fantasizing about witty remarks I could reply with, but always said something like, “Oh, yeah, well you have to love him/them, right? Great stuff. Yeah, big fan.”

So, here’s the thing: I finally read an interview with Neil. After his first wife died in 1998, he spent an entire year riding a motorcycle around North America, and wrote a book about it - his fourth. The interview, and subsequent other articles I read, revealed Peart as a highly intelligent, well-rounded person, as well as being one of the most respected and emulated musicians of the modern era. I remember being impressed with him as a person, not as a musician

Somehow, for me, that opened my ears - and my mind - to the music of Rush. Had I my life to do over, I would have taken that album the first time it was offered, not the 28 billionth. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan, not yet, anyway, but I have finally become an appreciateur, if you will, of Neil Peart and Rush. They take the creation of their music, and musical expression, very seriously. I respect them a great deal, and am coming to know more of their repertoire.

For those of you who have yet to get to know Neil Peart, allow me to suggest a starting point, although I’m probably the only one of his fans who would recommend it. Start with his instructional video, “A Work in Progress.” It’s pretty recent, so it’s thirty or so years into his career, and he talks about reinventing himself. Awesome. That I love.

Happy discovering!

*The way I also avoided the Beatles until about a year ago, I might add. I’m a fool’s fool, so to speak, because I’m now a dedicated student of the Beatles. Wish I had come to them sooner.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bag of Tricks: Easiest linear funk grooves EVER

Creating fun and funky grooves doesn't have to be hard. If you're looking to get out of your groove rut, try these two easy linear grooves on for size. As always, start slow and work to get comfortable and play with a solid feel before you increase tempo.

Performance notes:

  • Keep the bass drum nice and solid. Fat kick sound helps both of these patterns groove.
  • Any unaccented notes in the hands should essentially be played as ghost notes.
  • In the first example, count four is played as a buzzed snare drum stroke in the left hand, and an open hi-hat note in the right hand. Try to get both sounds to last until count one.

As I've stated before, it can be helpful to try playing these grooves with a variety of styles. If you can make them groove to Metallica, Keith Urban, Frank Sinatra, Bach and Enya, you can play them anywhere. 

Happy drumming!

Monday, July 22, 2013

The importance of buy-in

Recently I attended a band concert at Utah State University. The first band to perform was the Symphonic Band, largely made up of Freshman music majors and other non-music majors. They performed their selections technically very well, but there was something even more impressive to me.

The difference between a lot of "good" high school musicians and what I saw at USU was simply this: buy-in. Every single member of the ensemble gave every possible indication that they were completely focused and enjoying what they were doing. In short, they had buy-in.

From an audience perspective, the body language and perceived attitude of the performers can make all the difference. I've certainly heard better, cleaner performances, but rarely have I been as engaged in watching and enjoying the entire performance.

Likewise, when I went on this trip, I got to hang with a very small high school choir. Seriously, the choir was made up of twenty-three students - the entire student body!

Let that sink in for a moment. The entire school is in the choir, and there are twenty-three of them. When we met the kids, I honestly expected a sorta-kinda-not-so-bad sounding ensemble, and I couldn't have been more surprised.

The choir's performance was excellent - compelling, even. Each singer (as with the USU band) was engaged and actually performing. It was mesmerizing and inspiring, not to mention that it was musically very sound.

Later, I asked the director of this choir a few questions. My first was, "How do you get every single student to get involved like that - to really sing and really perform?" Her answer to this question provided another mind-expanding moment for me as an educator, and as a leader.

Roughly paraphrased, she said, "I don't get them to buy in - they do it for themselves. Every year I sit the seniors down and say, 'This is your choir. You have worked hard your entire career in this school to build it. If you want it to continue, you've got to bring in the new and younger students, help them to feel welcome and understand how important they are.' I know that as the teacher, I can only do so much, and that they have to find the desire to perform - to be expressive - by themselves."

Candidly, I don't know what the magic bullet is, whether it's just having a great group of kids, an outstanding tradition, a dynamic and effective leader - likely a combination of at least these factors - or if there is something more. But I do know that when I watch performers who are engaged and visually demonstrate their confidence in and enjoyment of the music, I have a better experience as an audience member.

Whether you're a performer, a conductor or an educator, my message is this: Buy in. Go all the way. Treat every musical experience as if it will be your last, and savor every note. You'll enjoy it more, and so will your audience.

Happy music making!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What are you bringing to the kitchen?

One of the biggest frustrations for musicians who are starting to develop into good players is often the people around them. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir, as it were, but here goes.

Think of a rehearsal like a bunch of cooks in the kitchen. Each member of the band or group has the assignment to bring an ingredient to make, say, chocolate chip cookies. You need eggs, milk, flour, chocolate chips and so forth.

So let's say you spend time finding just the right wheat, preparing it, sifting it, grinding it into beautiful flour. You have it ready well ahead of the rehearsal, and you bring extra, just in case there's a spontaneous double batch in the works.

When you get there, the person who was supposed to have the chips says, "Sorry, still making these chocolate chips. I'll have them ready next time. And you're totally going to love them, they'll be so awesome! Let's bake some cookies anyway, and imagine they have chocolate in them."

And the egg guy or girl is like, "Yeah, no eggs yet, but I brought the chickens! Let's try it again, and maybe they'll lay some eggs."

Pretty soon you lose your motivation to work on your flour, or you take it elsewhere, or you give up baking altogether.

The point is that we can spend more time baking a better, tastier cookie if the ingredients are all there very early on in the rehearsal process. You have to ask yourself if you're bringing the highest quality, best produced ingredients that you're capable of, or if you're compromising the end product with your lack of preparation.

Prepare your ingredients well, and you'll find yourself "baking" at a high level with serious pros.

Happy drumming!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Battle of the Bands

A few months ago, I was on the panel of judges for the Utah PTA's Battle of the Bands Finals (2013).

In a nutshell, here are a few things I observed, and would humbly suggest to every band that is ever going to play in front of an audience, ever:
  • Don't let anything get in the way of good tone, time, musicality, etc. It's easy to get excited during performance, but put the music first.
  • Know your role. Good music is like a house, made up of necessary, quality parts. Not all of them are seen, but all contribute to the quality and comfort of the home. If that means you need to play back a little, or not have a solo, or play more texturally, then do it.
  • Listen, listen, listen. And act like you're listening. It's okay to make eye contact with other members of the band, especially during their solo.
  • Put on a united visual image. Differing styles distract from the music, especially if the look and feel are different from the music. This is why a lot of music groups show up on stage in neutral greys and blacks - it allows them to play what they want and let the music speak for itself.
  • Support the front man/woman. Know what's the "thing," and how to support it.
  • Have fun, and show it. Don't go overboard, but look happy and confident, not nervous and scared.
  • Play to your strengths and within your abilities. I'm not saying you shouldn't push the edges, but the audience "vibe" completely changes when they're worried that you might not land the next fill or riff.
  • Be humble and gracious, but don't stutter. "Um," doesn't help your show.
Put simply, do whatever you need to do to make the music speak for itself, and don't do anything that will get in the way of that message. 

Happy gigging!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Practice - What does that look like?

I have a love/hate relationship with a certain question that I frequently ask my students.

"Okay, what do you need to do to make this better?" (Or accomplish this goal, or nail this performance, etc.)

The answer - say it with me, people - is, "Practice." Yup, the dreaded p-word. And are they right? You bet they are. Good, solid practice cures just about everything that ails musicians.

The problem is that when most people say, "I need to practice," they might as well be saying, "I need to build a house."

So I've started following up with this:

"Good. You need to practice. Can you tell me what that will look like?"

When I first shifted to this tactic, I got a lot of startled looks from my students. It was as if they were saying, "What do you mean? I answered the question! The answer to your question is practice! There shall be no further questions after this answer is given."

As I said, you might as well be trying to build a house. You have sort of an idea of what the finished project will do (maybe you'll live there), but you haven't defined any of the critical components or addressed the different parts of the total process.

How many floors will the house have? How many bedrooms and bathrooms? Will it have a garage? What materials will you need? Where will you build it? When will you start? Will you need any special tools? Do you need help, or any special permission to build it?

Before you can build a house you need a plan, and then you have to proceed in a specific order. You can't paint walls that haven't been built yet.

The exact same concept applies to practicing. The first two questions I ask myself before any practice session are*:

  1. What will the final result of this practice session be? In other words, how will I know when I've accomplished my goals for today (or this week/month, etc)?
  2. What do I need to do first - right now - to make progress?

Knowing the very next thing that you need to do - and doing it! - may be the make or break moment for any given practice session. As Mary Poppins famously opined, "Well begun is half done."

I realize that this is not a new or earth-shattering concept, but hopefully it has gotten you thinking about the next steps you need to take to get going in your next practice session.

Happy drumming!

*Yes, this is a drumming blog, but allow me to recommend a business book that helped to change my paradigm not only on practicing, but being efficient in life. It's called Getting Things Done, written by David Allen. You can check it out here

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Flexibility 101: Focus on the goal

Over the course of my career I don't think I've ever had a performance where everything went as expected. Each time, I have to make adjustments and remain flexible. No, I'm not talking about gymnastics or yoga. I'm talking about the ability to adjust to surprises, unexpected problems or opportunities while performing. I wrote a little bit about this concept here.

Let me illustrate with a (true) story.

A while back I mixed sound on one of the stages at a local arts festival. Summertime is a great time for bands to play more gigs and access new audiences by playing at fairs, festivals and celebrations, so most bands take their performance very seriously. This was the case with a teenage rock trio.

The lead singer for this band, a talented young woman, was also the drummer. She had great gear, tons of energy and an obvious passion for the music and for performing. The band came with the usual entourage of parents, relatives and friends to support their set. They also attracted quite a few passersby from among the festival attendees.

The stage and appointed audience area were small, so most of the sound reinforcement was for vocals and guitars, etc, and not for drums. While they were setting up, I mentioned to the drummer that I was going to have to mix the sound level based on drum volume, so, "Please just be aware of how loud you're playing."

Honestly, I hated saying it. It's been said so many times to me, and each time it sort of feels like an insult. I let her know that I'm a drummer, and I understood what I was asking, and that I'd do my best with the volume levels. When soundcheck started, I was a little concerned.

She was loud. Not Ted Nugent loud, but loud. So, up came the volume levels on everything else. After soundcheck, I (as gently as I could) reminded the drummer/singer that her volume needed to come down a little, and she gave me the you're-an-adult-so-I'll-nod-my-head-and-smile reaction. The set began, and I really, truly tried my best to make them sound great.

By the second song I had the festival director in my face.

"You've got to cut the volume by half, at least! NOW!" Apparently we were upsetting the poetry stage,  ruining the petting zoo and wreaking havoc on the GDP of several small African countries.

I reduced the volume levels to the point where the director seemed less likely to pop a vein in his head, and basically all that could be heard on stage was drums. After that song, every member of the band converged on me, asking what was wrong. I told them what had happened and, like true rockers, they said, "We don't care! We're a loud band. They can just deal with it. We need more sound!"

My first responsibility was to the festival, so I told them I would do the best I could, but they needed to make the best of it. To the drummer I said, "If you can play a little softer, I'll be able to get the sound evened out. But if I turn everything back up, the festival director will stop your set. If you want to finish, you need to play softer."

You would have thought I had just murdered her family by the look on her face. When she went back to the kit, everything in her body language said that she was bummed, to say the least. The fun, positive energy was gone, replaced by anger and disappointment. If anything, she played even louder than before.

Then came the inevitable stream of parents and well-meaning audience members to my mixing desk. Can't you just turn them up a little? I can't hear my guitar-playing son. You're ruining their performance! 

In my defense, I did turn the band back up, little by little. I never stopped tweaking, trying to get everything to sound as clean and clear, and as balanced as possible. But the band had checked out mentally. The rest of their set was not great, and the audience seemed to deflate before my very eyes. I am certain that the band felt like the performance was not good, and the audience was ultimately not very impressed. And I feel badly about it, because the band was very good.

But, I've been there. As I mentioned above, every single performance I've ever played has had weirdness, at least, and outright disaster at worst. And if you let those things affect your commitment to the music and to your audience, you're bound to have a bad gig.

It's tough, but you have to put the purpose of the performance first. You have to serve the music, your band mates, and the audience. You almost have to view yourself as a cog in the machine. I am absolutely not saying you can't have artistry and integrity, and that you are a doormat. But you do have a choice to continue to work toward your musical goals or to put your own pride and emotions first.

Sometimes there really is no flexibility - things have to be a certain way - but most situations can be worked out if everyone is on the same page about what the end goal is.

I've also blogged about this before, but the musicians who get the most work - and who have the best reputations - are not only great artists, but are also known as, "easy to work with." In short, they are flexible, and always keep a positive, accommodating attitude.

Lastly, try to remember that no gig is THE gig. Each one is a step toward a better, more flexible you, and each one is a learning experience. Try to view each challenge as an opportunity to practice handling that type of situation. You'll land on your feet.

As always, happy drumming!

Monday, June 17, 2013

V-Drums from a sound engineer's perspective

A few days ago I got a last-minute call to engineer front-of-house sound for a local band at a fairly high-level corporate event. Their drummer used the Roland TD-9 kit on this particular gig.

It's worth noting that the room was about about the size of half of a basketball court, with high ceilings and real wood paneling on all of the walls, and that the sound system consisted of Mackie's DL 1608 iPad-based mixer, and their DLM series powered speakers (more on the Mackie gear in another post). I was able to mix from all over the room with my iPad, so I got the full-range perspective on the band's - and each individual player's - sound.

Here are the bullet points:

  • Individual drum and cymbal sounds were fine. In the context of the mix, they actually sounded a lot cleaner than many acoustic kits I've mixed. 
  • I absolutely hated not being able to adjust the volume of the individual parts of the kit. During sound check I asked the drummer to manually turn up the kick drum on the TD-9's brain. That helped, but once the show started I basically had no way to deal with imbalances. 
  • Likewise, any EQ, effects or other manipulations happen across the entire kit. You can't do anything to the snare drum (or kick, toms, etc.) without it affecting the entire kit. 
  • We were able to quickly adjust the pitch of one of the toms - again, on the brain - to eliminate a sympathetic vibration without drastically affecting the overall sound of the drum and kit. This happened in seconds, rather than the several minutes (or longer) it would have taken to similarly adjust an acoustic drum. 
In the long run, I'm sure that a good engineer and drummer would be able to dial in the sound they need from a particular room very effectively, but the aforementioned frustrations kept me from feeling like I had achieved the best sound possible in the situation. 

As expected, the major benefit of the V-drums in this situation was the low stage/house volume. Especially for corporate and casual events, volume levels can be a very big problem. The drummer also effectively used many electronic sounds that would have been impossible on an acoustic kit. 

As technology improves, it will become more and more common for electronic percussion instruments to be integrated into all kinds of performances. I will continue to explore their application, benefits and drawbacks as the opportunities present themselves. 

Happy drumming!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Five minutes a day?

A few years ago I was privileged to be teaching at a studio with a guitarist friend of mine. He is truly one of the most creative, unique and thoughtful practitioners of the six-string art I've ever encountered.

One day we were trading stories and shop talk, and we struck up a deal to take lessons from each other. I'd teach him percussion, and he'd teach me guitar. Knowing my own schedule and priorities, I decided to test the "how much time to commit" waters. The following conversation took place.

"How much would I have to practice every day to make progress?"

"Five minutes."


"Yep. If you focus on just one thing, and really work for those five minutes, you can make a little bit of progress if you do it every day."

Over the years of teaching, practicing, rehearsing and just generally trying to improve myself as a musician and a person, I've found the wisdom of this philosophy. Often we try to do it all at once. We want to work on stick control, four-mallet chops, independence, speed, creativity and twelve new styles all at once. That can result in lack of focus and ineffective practice sessions - and little to no results.

Now, I'm not saying you should always limit yourself to only one thing. You should definitely have a well developed and comprehensive plan to become the musician/person you want to become. What I'm saying is that what it takes to make forward progress usually comes down to focus and consistency.

So, here are today's two cliche rules for becoming a better musician.

First, whatever your top priority is, you must work on it every day. Every day. Especially if you can really only give it five minutes.

Second, whether you practice five minutes or five hours at a time, you must focus. Particularly if your time frame is short, you have to make every rep count.

Happy forward progressing!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

It's just a mistake, right?

Let's make a quick comparison between our natural reactions to "mistakes" in a couple different settings.

First, in music. Often, when I am teaching or coaching students, I ask them to, "pretend like you're performing." They should conduct themselves as if it were an audition or an actual, audience-in-the-house performance.

Especially early on in the process of learning how to perform, many students will be just fine until they hit that first inevitable snag. Whether it's a wrong note or rhythm, a missed sticking or whatever, they will simply stop, look up at me, and say something like, "Hey, sorry. I messed up. Can I start again?"

Sometimes the reaction is even more forceful - along with the stop in the music, they pull a face or slump their shoulders or let out a sigh or shout. Many times they will go back and play the same bar/figure over and over again. Almost invariably, the forward motion of the music is completely stopped.

Keep in mind - this is supposed to be a performance.

So, let's examine another setting. Say you're walking down the hall in school (or at work) with somebody that you need to impress, and your shoe catches the edge of a tile and you trip, just a little bit. It's not enough to put you on the floor, but it's obvious your shoe caught.

How should you react? Do you stop walking? Do you back up and walk over that particular tile a few times just to make sure you can do it? Do you point out the place where you tripped and say to your companion, "See? See that right there? THAT'S where I tripped. I really stink at walking right there. Come closer - it's right there. See that? Mind if I try that again?"

Most of us would never react to a simple thing like that. We would just simply keep walking and act like it never happened. Why? Two reasons. First, you don't ever want to magnify a problem when you need to look like there are no problems (as in performance). Second, it's not a big deal, so why make it one?

Yes, I'm taking it overboard, but it always amazes me how much attention we can draw to ourselves when we overreact to a mistake in performing. All musicians make mistakes. All people make mistakes. As young musicians, one of the most important skills we can develop is the ability to keep playing and ignore the mistake as much as possible.

When I was in high school, I was in the drama/theatre program. I wasn't terribly good at it, but I really enjoyed acting. One of the ways that our teacher helped us to develop good performance skills was to deliberately surprise the cast during each performance. Every night, on stage, in front of an audience, something was bound to be wrong, ridiculous or just plain surprising.

I was in the cast of, "Oklahoma," and one of my scenes involved shooting a pistol straight up into the air. In rehearsals, we focused on getting my actions to match with the sound of firing the pistol, which was supplied offstage. Imagine my surprise when, on opening night, I fired the pistol and was promptly hit on the head by a rubber chicken dropping out of the sky!

I remember thinking, "What in the world am I supposed to do with that?!" The firing of the pistol was usually the closing of a scene, so we waited for the lights to go down. When they didn't, one of the other actors picked up the chicken, said, "Good! Now there's something for my extra dinner guests," and walked off stage.

It may or may not have made for good theatre, but it taught all of us would-be actors how to keep our composure and apply the, "the show must go on," mantra of the performing world.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that there is never a time and place to examine and eliminate our mistakes through scrutiny and practice. There are lots and lots of times and places for that. What I'm trying to get across is that we also need to develop our, "performance mindset," so that we can be effective performers regardless of imperfections.

One of the key ways we humans show our maturity and life experience is by the way we react to unexpected or unfavorable surprises, whether in music or in life. The more a person can take the surprise in stride - even incorporate it into their plans - without missing a beat, the more they can downplay or even obscure the "mistake" from outside observers.

More importantly, we learn to put the focus on what's going right instead of what's going wrong. We let the story be told even if we misspell a word or two. Because at the end of the day, none of us is perfect, and all of us have a story to tell.

Happy drumming!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pop Drumming 101

I know I've posted before about some of the misconceptions surrounding being a successful rock/pop drummer, but I had another experience this week that I thought I'd add to the canon of scripture for aspiring studio drum-smackers. 

While talking with this guy about studio drummers and why they may or may not be called for a certain project, we started talking about the difference between time-feel and "chops." If you'll allow my paraphrasing, the conversation went something like this.

RT: "Come on. When's the last time you listened to a pop tune and thought, hey, wait - that drum fill wasn't complicated enough?"

KS: "Fair point."

End of conversation.

Now, I know I don't have to draw too much of a conclusion here, but I will, anyway! 

I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't strive for as much technical facility as you can get, but there are three basic things (and two of them are almost the same thing) a drummer must do to get consistent studio work.
  1. Play nice with the click.
  2. Have a great, "feel." (In other words, play nice with the click.)
  3. Sound like a drummer. 
Remember, as a musician, you're a servant to the music. You should always play just what the track/project/piece needs, and nothing more.

Happy drumming!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"Strange Fruit" - Billie Holiday

Today's post is another contribution from guest blogger Emily Sorensen in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month 2013. Please feel free to leave comments below. 

Strange Fruit is an iconic song made famous by Billie Holiday. First recorded in 1939, Billie's version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1999 TIME magazine called it the, "song of the century."

The recording - even the performing - of this piece was an incredibly bold statement long before the mainstreaming of African-American civil rights was in full swing. The atrocities in the South and elsewhere were not talked about (a proverbial elephant in the room, if you will), let alone given the full, unvarnished spotlight by a prominent artist.

The lyrics of Strange Fruit are from a poem  written by Abel Meeropol, an English teacher at Dewitt Clinton (a public high school in New York), as well as a poet and social activist. The poem is titled Bitter Fruit and was published in 1937. Mr. Meeropol put this particular song to music himself (he would often ask others to put his poems to music). It gained certain success as a protest song in and around New York.

The simple melody is as haunting as the lyrics. It lies within a transparent -  almost non-existent - arrangement. The song begins with a disturbingly mournful instrumental introduction, only to lead to an even more disturbing metaphor of the southern lynching. It ends abruptly, without harmonic resolution.

The song has been recorded many times over the years. For example, Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an amazing and haunting instrumental cover of the song with Marcus conjuring the melody with his bass clarinet.

I was first introduced to this song as a college Senior when observing an English 1010 class. I no longer remember the point of the class discussion, but I will never forget when the professor handed out a copy of the poem and then played first a rap version of the song followed by Billie Holiday's seminal rendition. I remember tears trickling down my face and knowing my life would never be the same.

Being an avid student of the Civil War and of civil rights heroes - the likes of W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, Jr and others who advocated a non-violent approach to civil rights advocacy - I was deeply moved by Billie's ability to use melody and song to evoke a living metaphor from the lyrics.

That day Strange Fruit became one of my favorite works - not because I was necessarily uplifted by the message, but because it was delivered in a way that spoke to all who heard it, whether they were comfortable with the protest or not.

Have a listen for yourself  - and be assured you can never be the same again.

Additional sources:



Tuesday, April 2, 2013

April is Jazz appreciation month - JAM!

Guest blogger Emily Sorensen visits again with an introduction to Jazz Appreciation Month, and 2013's theme.

"The spirit of jazz is the spirit of openness." - Herbie Hancock

Designated in 2001 by John Edward Hasse, PhD of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to honor jazz as an original American art form. The 2013 theme is "The Spirit and Rhythms of Jazz".
 April was chosen to celebrate the birthdays of Jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. However, jazz appreciation encompasses more than recognizing the iconic performers, it relies upon educators, libraries, museums, and musicians all through America to teach and cultivate this unique cultural expression.

Many resources are available to increase understanding and appreciation for this great American art form. One of the great works shedding light on the history and growth of jazz music is the 10 part series Jazz: A Ken Burns film; it is a pretty accurate review of the history of Jazz.

Enjoy this fantastic opportunity to embrace this amazing piece of our American culture and history.

Other great resources (which served as resources for this post) are:
National Endowment for the Humantities - Edsitement!
Smithsonian Jazz
Jazz Appreciation Month - Wikipedia

Sunday, March 3, 2013

I piloted a helicopter!

Part of my day job is to help facilitate clinician visits to school music programs (I have a good job, I know!). Last week I was able to accompany one of our top clinicians to a remote city in southwestern Utah. As a result of fortunate scheduling and some deep generosity, we were able to travel by helicopter.*

The clinic itself is worth at least a blog post, but for now I'll try to encapsulate what I learned from the flights out and back.

On the flight out, I sat in the back. Surprisingly, it was roomy and comfortable. The weather was beautiful, the pilot was experienced and we had absolutely no problems. I shot pictures and video, enjoyed the chatter - both radio and that of my companions - and just generally enjoyed myself.

The flight back was an entirely different story. I sat in the front and got a much closer look at how helicopters are flown. About fifteen minutes into the return flight, a question I hadn't even considered was shot my way by the pilot.

"Okay, you ready to fly this thing?"

What?! Me, fly?! I have to admit that about 99.9% of my body and soul was screaming, "NO! Of course I don't want to fly! What are you, crazy? We'll all die!" Luckily for me, the 0.1% that wanted to fly had a pretty strong argument - it was such a unique opportunity, I couldn't possibly turn it down. Besides, the pilot was there to keep me from making any serious mistakes. So, I took the stick and started to fly.

I was nervous, to say the least. From the moment I took over the stick, it felt like I couldn't put my eyes in enough places at once. We were only about 3,000 feet off the ground (compared to 25,000 for commercial airline flights), and there were what seemed like 50 gauges, meters, dials and other controls on the dash. It was a lot to handle, and it took 100% of my brain power.

The total duration of my piloting experience was only about 30 minutes, but it was amazing. It was a microcosm of any new experience, I suppose, because I viewed flight, helicopters, pilots and myself very differently at the end of that short time.

What does this all have to do with music? At least three things, and I'll try to briefly explain them below.

First, great musicians have the ability to focus - totally and absolutely. While flying the helicopter, there was nothing else in the world that seemed worth thinking about when compared to staying in the air, safe and on course. Likewise, in music, we need to develop the ability to block out any distractions or factors that aren't going to aid us in our music making. We can develop the ability in both practice and performance to, for a defined period of time, focus on nothing but music.

Second, I was impressed by the ease with which our pilot flew. He told us that over the years flying becomes, "second nature." His instincts, muscle memory and other mental and physical attributes and skills have been honed by hundreds and thousands of hours of flying, meticulous training and practice, and by never, ever allowing himself to be distracted by anything other than flying. As musicians, our course is similar.

Great musicians have honed their skills and musical senses over many, many years. Not only in practice, but in performance, we need to maintain the standard of only playing at our very best, highest levels.

As Aristotle famously opined, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit."

Third, and finally (for this blog post, at least), it couldn't have been more obvious that our pilot loved flying. He seemed free and ultimately happy in the air. As a result of his excellent preparation, trust in his helicopter, and years of experience, he enjoyed - even exulted in - flying. What could be a better example for musicians? The more you have control of yourself, your instrument - your craft - the more you will enjoy music.

At the end of the day both flying and music have many purposes, and both can take people to a higher place (literally and figuratively) in a way that nothing else can.

Make music. Be happy. Fly.

*This is a story in itself, but the short version is that we were flown by a pilot-owner who also happens to be a huge advocate for music education.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Headroom" Addendum

In an earlier post, I talked about developing headroom. Headroom is the ability to do more than you need to do in a given situation. This post is part confession, part illustration of how I learned about headroom in my own playing.

While a college student, I studied with Jay Lawrence for a while. At a certain point he was putting me through some very complex, difficult exercises every week, and demanding that I play them up to a certain standard. One week, after having practiced particularly hard, but having not gotten up to par on an exercise, I got a little frustrated at the lesson. The conversation went something like this (I'm paraphrasing, but you'll get the point).

Keith: Jay, when would you use something like this in an actual performing or recording situation?

Jay: Oh. You probably wouldn't.

K: WHAT?! Then why are you making me learn it?!

J: (Laughing) Here. Let me show you something. See this groove exercise you were working on a few weeks ago? Was this one pretty hard?

K: Yeah, I hated that one. Super hard. 

J: Well, I want you to play it.

K: Wha..? Now? I haven't practiced it for like three weeks!

J: Just give it a try.

I then proceeded to play the earlier exercise. Not only was it much easier than I remembered, but it was immediately cleaner and clearer, and much more musical. Jay had made his point.

By constantly challenging me to play increasingly complex patterns and exercises, he was building my musical muscles, so to speak. What used to be hard became easier, and what seemed impossible at first became realistic.

Again, the whole point of headroom is to be able to do more than you have to, so that you can do what's required of you comfortably and with style. Then, instead of being at the edge of your abilities by default, you can choose when and how to push your own envelope while being more musical, engaging and sensitive.

Drumming - and all music - should be fun. And the better you are at it, the more fun it will be.

Happy drumming!

Monday, February 18, 2013

What is "headroom?"

For one year in high school I drove an old Dodge pickup truck. I loved having a pickup but hated having to drive it anywhere. It had a worn-out engine and a pathetic transmission. Its top speed was 60 miles per hour, no matter what. You could have dropped that thing off a cliff and it wouldn't have gone any faster!

So when I had to drive two miles on the freeway (where the speed limit was 75) on my way to school every morning, it was torturous, to say the least. The truck would shake and scream, and generally threaten to come apart at every possible point. My friends would pass me in their nicer cars, and I would try not to make eye contact. It was stressful and embarrassing. Honestly, it was all I could do to keep that thing on the road. Needless to say, driving wasn't very fun, and I didn't feel very good at it.

Early one morning I was on my way to school and wrecked the truck. It had snowed the night before, then cleared, so there was black ice on the road. The accident totaled my truck, and probably should have taken my life. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

When I got back to driving, I (luckily) was able to borrow my mom's car, a late model sports sedan. To give you some idea of the capabilities of this car, let me make one comparison to the truck. My old truck's speedometer went to a maximum of 85, and that was wishful thinking. Mom's car? Its top mark read 140, and in all the time I drove it I never came close to challenging that mark, or had reason to doubt that the car could reach it.

That car totally changed me as a driver. I no longer had to fight the vehicle or worry that I was going to destroy it just by driving it on the freeway. My driving "style" became much more consistent and relaxed. I wasn't worried about driving anywhere - the freeway, on a hill, etc. Driving became fun.

Among all the differences between the car and truck, the fundamental one was headroom. What is headroom? In a nutshell, it's the difference between what you must do and what you can do.*

Here are a few examples of how the term headroom is used various settings.
  • If I have the strength to lift 100 pounds, but only have to lift 50, I have headroom. 
  • If a DJ has a sound system with 5000 watts of power, but only needs 1000 watts to play in a certain space, s/he has headroom. 
  • If you need to drive 75 MPH on the freeway but the car can go 140, you have headroom.
How does this relate to music and to drumming? 

Essentially, we're all trying to develop headroom in our playing as we continue to practice and learn as much as we can. Think of it like the car. If the band you're playing in is asking your "engine" - your skill set - to go 80 miles an hour, and you can only go 80, then every time you play you're maxing yourself out. This is usually neither comfortable nor fun.

But if they're asking you to go 80 and you have the ability to do 120, then you can do what you need to do with style, and have bursts of "speed" when they're appropriate. More than that, you have the strength and "chops" to play what you hear in your head. And that, my friends, is fun

I'm not saying that you should never push your limits or live on the edge a little bit. But think of it another way: If we're talking about athletes, you need a basic ability to keep up with your competition, but headroom is what allows you to make the extra play or effort to win the game. 

In another post I'll give you a direct example from my own drumming career, but for now, think about headroom. How much do you have, and what are you doing to increase it? 

One last thought. At a certain point, you'll have an "engine" that is capable of getting off the streets and getting into the big leagues. 

Yeah. Let's do THAT.

*It's actually a construction term that refers to the height of a doorway or the ceiling over stairs. It literally means the distance between the average person's head and the point where they would hit said head. This is why, when the average American stands under six feet, the ceiling is generally at least eight feet high.

Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

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