Passion, Not Talent, Is The True Gift

Have you ever watched a musical prodigy on YouTube and concluded that bug-catching, rather than music, was your true calling after all? Yeah, me too.  I mean, I’ve got tee shirts that are older than some of these little ones.  Where does this otherworldly skill come from?

In my early days as a player, I remember feeling utterly discouraged. After all, in spite of their ages, these  musical wonders play at an  expert level.  In my jealousy, I cast around for reasons to explain their exceptional skill. They must have musical parents, I groused to myself. It’s their environment. They’ve gotten more encouragement than the rest of us.  They get excellent instruction.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. Maybe, as so many through the ages have believed, these unique youngsters have been touched by a divine force.  Because the questions seem so utterly unanswerable, my thoughts turned to something that I believe all of us share.  And thankfully, it doesn’t matter if you’re a three year-old golf champ, a ten year-old gourmet chef, or a sixty year-old student drummer.  We all have this miraculous life force.

Passion.

I guess right about now I should be inserting links to some of the research I’ve found, but I’m not going to do that. What I’m writing here is purely subjective, my opinion only.  It’s a view I’ve developed after  being humbled by prodigies, talking to fellow musicians, and reading everything I can on talent and learning.

It’s a cyclical thing, talent.  It seems that if you love or have a keen interest in something, you’ll engage in it every chance you get. The practice, in turn, builds skill. As your ability improves, your skill might draw attention from others. Any compliments you get encourage you to keep on going, which in turn, continues to ferment your talent even further.

But it’s a bit like considering the chicken and the egg: which comes first-passion or talent?  Are we attracted to things that we do well, or does a fire ignite that causes us to chase that dream, regardless of whether that skill comes naturally?

My heart tells me that passion comes first. Passion will see you through all manner of hardships. If you love something enough, it won’t matter if it doesn’t come naturally. You’ll do it anyway. And the more you try, the longer you stay in the game, the more likely your skills will improve.

I will never reach the heights of a child prodigy. I don’t have a bright drumming future in front of me.  But I keep playing.  I’m not “gifted,” but if I have anything in my favor, it’s that I just keep chasing. Maybe that’s enough.

Please share your thoughts and comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See It, Then “Be” It: The Power of Visualization

I’m going to be a lot kinder to myself from now on. For a long time, I’ve lamented the fact that I haven’t practiced my drums every day.  How on earth did I think I was going to improve? Well, I’m finished beating myself up, because although I never knew it, I’ve been  rehearsing on a daily basis for many, many years. In fact, well before I began drumming.

In my mind’s eye, I see my twelve year-old self sitting in my room. I spent hours there, listening to music and imagining myself playing along. Little did I know, I was actually practicing. So  even though I didn’t own a drum set in those days, I was unknowingly tapping into the power of visualization in order to set in motion a “blueprint” for drumming that was not fully realized until decades later.

This comes as no surprise to world-class athletes and trainers. Since the 1970s, Russian competitors have effectively used visualization to improve athletic performance.  In her 2009 article in Psychology Today, AJ Adams cites studies that have shown that imagining yourself doing an activity is nearly as effective as actually motoring through it. Intense mental practice involves engaging all five senses. Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist, found that those who actually went to the gym to work out experienced a 30% muscle increase. Surprisingly, those who performed virtual practice also improved-nearly half the amount of muscle increase as those who actually exercised.

Why does it work?  Visualization engages mental processes that are crucial to successfully completing an activity. These include motor control, attention, perception, planning and memory.  You might be sitting in your favorite recliner or driving in the car, but your brain is training itself to perform the activity.

As it turns out, however, simple visualization may not be enough. According to Srinvasan Pillay, seeing yourself in the “first person”  is a very important part of the process; breaking the task into smaller bits of information will further enhance the experience. If I want to learn that soul-stirring drum break, then, it’s not enough to  just “watch” myself playing it, as if I were viewing myself in a movie. I  have to be in the moment. I need to see the drum kit in front of me, and listen to the song while “feeling” my arms and legs go through the movements.

It’s tempting at this point to pat myself on the back. After all, if ten thousand hours of practice makes one a “master”, haven’t all of those years spent in rapture in front of the stereo brought me  that much closer?

Well, not really.  Researchers remind us that while visualization alone is incredibly useful, it becomes a potent force when paired with real-world physical practice.

When has visualization worked for you? Please leave some comments and thoughts below.

 

 

“Embrace the Suck” and Celebrate Your Screw-Ups

Miles Davis famously said that there is no such thing as wrong notes. Well, if Mr. Davis genuinely believed that, then he missed his true calling in life.  He should’ve been a teacher  or a motivational speaker instead of one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. Heaven knows, we as a society could’ve really used his fresh approach to making mistakes.

“Embrace the suck.”  Online drum educator Mike Johnston hands out bracelets emblazoned with this motto to his students. Members of the Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps live by this creed.  It assures them that it’s alright and even expected to sound lousy when learning something new. Mistakes are acknowledged and analyzed. If these drummers can accept and even welcome mistakes, why can’t the rest of us?

A quick review of articles on mistake-making reveal a plethora of reasons. Perfectionism. The belief and fear of looking incompetent, amidst a society that demands high performance in nearly all areas of life. And something author Alina Tugend refers to as “hindsight bias.”  This phenomenon was discussed in Margarita Tartikovsky’s review of Tugend’s book, “Better by Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong”. Once we mess up, it’s a lot easier to see where we went wrong than it is when we’re in the thick of a situation.  This hindsight tends to turn the incident into a “no duh” moment. We forget to show compassion toward ourselves and fail to realize that, in some cases, the mistake was unavoidable.

Well, where does this leave us fearful perfectionists who are terrified of letting our guard down?  Psychology professor Martin Antony and his co-author, Richard Swinson, have a solution.  We don’t fear mistakes, but rather what we believe about them; it’s these beliefs that fuel our anxiety and fears. It’s best, then, to confront the erroneous beliefs head on.

Antony and Swinson recommend “practicing” the act of screwing up. That is, make small mistakes that have only mild consequences, rather then avoiding them. Identify those negative beliefs about mistakes and substitute them with alternative thoughts and beliefs.

Teacher Diane Hanel uses what she calls the “experiential learning cycle”.  Once you make a mistake, use hindsight to answer these three questions:  what happened, what was the result/what did it mean to you, and how will you do things differently based on this outcome? These three very simple questions can help analyze the situation without embarrassment, shame or other emotional baggage.

So let’s all embrace the suck, show our humanity by  screwing up badly sometimes. Let’s make errors and then forgive ourselves. Learn. Grow.

 

 

 

Practicing Practice, or Creating New Habits

Please wish me luck. I’m about to perhaps foolishly drop a great deal of money on an online drumming course that promises to improve your technique in 26 weeks-which translates into six months.  This isn’t an impulse. I’ve given it a great deal of thought, and although I’m not a fan of online lessons, I think this program is exactly what I need.

Each Monday, I’ll receive a new video lesson that touches on some aspect of technique, along with direct instruction of what and how to practice, and how to know when that skill is accomplished. Very specific, with nothing left to question. I won’t be casting around wondering which book or exercises to use. According to the company who created this system, if I follow the directions and put in at least twenty minutes each day, I will see results.

I  don’t believe for one moment that it’ll give me great hands or nimble feet by the time the summer breezes come wafting through the window.  What it will do, however, is establish something that has eluded me for a long time: the drumming “habit.”

If I’ve learned something over these past few years, it’s that I need to practice practicing. That is, I need to incorporate drumming into my everyday routine and make it a part of daily life.  I wish I could say why I haven’t. Am I just a late-blooming, lazy drummer who lacks motivation?  Some things in life really are that black and white. But I’ve reached a point where the reasons don’t matter. They become excuses. The only definite cause I can point to is that I haven’t yet molded the practice of drumming and music into a “good” habit.

Will six months be enough time to establish this new habit? According to some studies, twenty-one days is all you need in order to form and habituate a new behavior.  Others calculate the time to be around two months, or sixty-six days.

Psychologists like Ian Newby-Clark, however, are reluctant to give us a number. In his 2009 Psychology Today article, he noted that the time it takes to create new habits will vary, based on a number of factors. “Tweaking” behaviors, rather than starting from scratch with brand new ones, will make for easier change. Most crucial, perhaps, is the concept of “payoff.” If a habit is instantly rewarding and automatic, it will be harder to extinguish and replace.

Hmmm. I had to think about that one. Have I been rewarded for not practicing daily? In the logical sense, no. While I can still go out and play with bands in public, I can say with definition that my lack of a daily drumming practice has kept me from realizing my full potential as a musician. I still can’t play jazz with any credibility. I watch drummers execute very interesting and complex grooves and fills and still haven’t reached the level of being able to do them. My hands and feet still get tangled up.  My drumming speed isn’t where I’d like it to be.

But in a twisted way,  avoiding daily practice has, in itself, been the reward. After all, if I don’t play everyday and challenge myself, I never have to feel the pain of coming up against my inadequacies. Avoidance removed the discomfort of making mistakes, of striving and falling short.  As I’ve learned recently, our brains crave pleasure and try to avoid discomfort. Improvement takes patience, time and courage. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be.  So while I hope to further understand more about those complex emotions that hold me back, I’m not going to dwell on them. Not now.  I’m going to start that course. I’ll just take it day by day.

Please wish me luck.

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

The YouTube Video I Never Got to See

Remember TV and movie “bloopers?” It was the stuff that no one was supposed to see, mistakes that ended up on the cutting room floor. Often, those outtakes were funnier than the actual show itself. When I started drumming, I watched a lot of videos. Maybe if there had been a video called “Drum Cover Bloopers,” YouTube and I would get along a whole lot better.

We’ve certainly had a love/hate relationship over the years.  Like many relationships in life, the good can be incredible but the bad can twist your insides into a double helix. I couldn’t have learned what little I know without seeing drummers far more experienced and knowledgeable than I.  Although some of them lived halfway across the world, or were long dead, the miracle of video brought them right onto my computer screen.  This was the really good. Now, let’s talk about the bad and yes, the ugly.

Product over process.   As an adult, I understand that “practice makes perfect” and that “good things come to those who wait”,and work. Still, while watching those videos in my early drumming days, my eye and heart were consumed and confounded by the bright, perfect images of flawless performances.  I wanted to play like that-yesterday. What is it about me, or about us, that makes the end result more important than anything else?

YouTube and I had to go our separate ways for a while. Instead of being fired up by these videos, I became discouraged.  I thought I was more likely to win the lottery than to get that groove or that fill.

It wasn’t long ago that I took to heart two very valuable ideas. One, that the learning process isn’t always joyous or fun. It’s not supposed to be.  It explains  why practice isn’t always enjoyable, at least for me.  When I try a new song or lick, I sound lousy. My coordination is so off that my limbs feel like tree branches in a hurricane. The second is that tomorrow is unknown, so the ride, that journey to the place we think we want to be, is everything.  Embrace the ride-the good, the bad, the fun, the joyous, the crazy-making. Hug it like an old friend. It’s all we’ve got.

I know deep down that I’ll never reach that fabled land where I’m the humble, nonchalant chop-monster who can play whatever I conceive.  But maybe, if I keep going, I can land somewhere a bit further down the road. And that’s okay. It has to be. The ride is all I have. I try hard to remember this.

Let’s play with this idea. Let’s suppose there’s a drum blooper video floating around in the YouTube ether. What would we see? Most likely,  someone with a great deal of skill breaking that song into smaller sections and playing them continuously until they were memorized.  But the best part would be watching that drummer trip and  fall, then get up and try again. There’d be some dark moments, for sure: sticks catapulting across the room in frustration, timing slip-ups, cursing, he or she walking away from the kit wondering why they quit accounting.  Here are the true teaching moments. How does this player get through the rough patches? What sustains him? What does she learn from this?

That’s the drum video I never got to see. The one with all the warts, where the drummers struggle just like we do, and come out the other side. As silly as it sounds, I think that video would be far more instructive and inspiring.