The Dark Side of Passion-My Love Affair (With Music)

Sheesh! What a title. It sounds like the name of a lousy romance novel. Don’t worry. It’s not. It is a love story, though, and like lots of those dime store novels, it has a happy ending. But the road to that ending was anything but smooth.

I was a child when Cupid’s bow did its number on me. To this day, I can’t explain what it was that attracted me to the drums.  I’d played other instruments. Dabbling in them was like palling around with the boys, joining them in their kickball games. We were just buddies. But drums were different. They were the most popular boy in the class, the one with the longest hair and the coolest jeans (this was the seventies, after all). They were the object of desire but felt unattainable. I have distinct memories of sitting on the floor, gazing google-eyed at the drum kits in the Sears catalog. But somehow, I sensed that it wasn’t my time.  Not yet.  Someday. Maybe.

It wasn’t until middle age, when I truly began drumming, that I felt free enough to sing my love openly. I’d shyly but eagerly give impromptu performances for select family members, always choosing those who I felt would be most supportive.  I wore drum tee shirts. I proudly carried a tuning key in my purse (because you just never know when a drummer will run up to you in the middle of the street, needing help with tuning his drums).  And when I began to gig and needed to buy gear, I did my best to contain my utter joy when people at Guitar Center asked if I was in a band. I responded ever-so nonchalantly, but what I really wanted to do was scream: yes, I am! I’m a drummer!

It got hot and heavy really fast.  I didn’t take things slowly, the way I should’ve. I started entertaining the idea of taking my drumming far more seriously than I ever imagined. I began investigating the possibility of returning to school for a second Bachelors in Music Performance or Music Education. I toyed with the idea of changing my work schedule in order to allow me to study and practice for several hours per day. At one point, I fantasized about quitting work and briefly living off of savings.  And instead of enjoying the gigs that came my way,  I began to see them as mere stepping-stones to those higher-profile corporate or casino gigs, the ones offered to highly-skilled players or professionals. I read articles and books about establishing and meeting goals, and how to experience success in the music business. Taking my cue from them, I scheduled my practices down to the detail. I was to follow this schedule and if I didn’t, I would castigate myself. The little voice inside told me that hey, maybe I didn’t have what it took to realize my dream of being a top-notch player.  Ironically, all of this effort, this meticulous preparation, made me feel even further from my hopes.  The psychological  pressure I placed on myself was immense.

And it sure took its toll.  Drums and I sometimes had a falling out, to the point where I backed off of playing. I wouldn’t touch the kit for days or even weeks at a time.  Band politics, late-night gigs at empty bars or halls, performing the same music over and over, playing to people who were drunk, or turned their backs to the band in order to watch TV, getting stiffed by venue owners. The darker side of being a working musician came crashing down.  I didn’t expect it to be all roses at the door. Not at all. But I did have some preconceived notions of how it would all feel inside of me, and these ideas had absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever.  Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that my love object turned into an anchor.  I didn’t hate him-I could never do that. Let’s say that, when he called, I let the phone ring.

Drums and I were locked into a deep groove, but it was pulling us apart.  In order to keep the romance alive, I had to realize that it was okay not to have the passion machine running at a burning “ten” all of the time. There will  be push and pull, ebb and flow. Intense love can lighten to a more breezy “like”; it can easily devolve into indifference and even further afield. But it all swings back.  With no passion lost. None at all.  It’s okay sometimes to sit at the drums without any enthusiasm. It’s alright to be setting up at a gig and wish I was at home watching Netflix.  It’s understandable to be sick of those exercises that leave me feeling like the Energizer Bunny.  And I don’t have to sit and plot my next step up the musical food chain.  I’ll just play anyway. I’ll form the habit. I’ll show up. I’m no less a musician than I was before.

I do my best to practice gratefulness. Instead of looking at gigs and seeing them as a gateway to greater things, I try to remind myself to be happy in the moment, and feel privileged to play. I still long to play different venues. I hope it’s for the right reasons, not for the sake of doing them because they’re so highly-prized and pay more.  I truly am lucky to be doing this at all, in any capacity.

So, really, I can’t say that my affair with drumming has ended. Rather,  it feels like it’s matured and mellowed into a deep, loving bond that’s real and permanent.  There’s no more of the crazy, windswept “highs”, and best of all,  no more of that questioning as to whether or not I give it the love it needs. I do. I’ve granted myself permission to call it my “passion.” I just don’t need to prove it anymore. I don’t have to validate it by turning it into a career. But it’s not a “hobby.”  It’s part of who I am.  And that’s enough.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ll take another look at passion in the next post.

Please feel free to leave comments below. I’d love to hear about what you’re passionate about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jealousy: Turning Your “Green-Eyed Monster” into Motivation

I’m going to share with you one of my dark little secrets: I’m a chronically jealous person. Writing this is scary, but liberating. Jealousy is just another color on the rainbow spectrum of complex human emotion, but it’s gotten some mighty bad press. Deservedly so. Let’s be honest. When we’re jealous, we’re hit with the reality that we lack something, and that hurts. If our brains are hard-wired to avoid pain, envy ranks right down there with having a root canal, minus the anesthetic.

Early  in my drumming journey,  I read a wonderful book called “Baby Plays Around”, written by writer Helene Stapinski. It’s a memorable snapshot of  her time spent as the drummer of an up-and-coming indie band in 1990’s New York.  Her story offered me a glimpse into the life of an ordinary working musician. But that’s not all.  It made me insanely jealous.  My green-eyed monster suddenly ramped into overdrive, and was soon followed by its nasty little cousins, discouragement and inadequacy.   Why?

Lucky for me, the answer came quickly. I was envious because I  wanted very badly to join a band and play in front of an audience.  Odd as it sounds, this realization shocked me.   My performing ambitions went as far as drumming for the furniture in my living room. Or so I thought.  Jealousy forced me to dig deeper, and admit to myself that I’d always wanted to gig. I was just too afraid to consider it. The pitfalls were considerable.  What if I made an utter fool of myself?   What if I played so badly the band decided to replace me?

As awful as those emotions were, it was a lot easier to hold onto them than to move forward and take action.  The choice was clear.  Take steps to realize that wish, or continue to feel  unworthy of the  very drumsticks I held in my hand. I’m so very glad I chose the first option.  It was the first move toward a secret but very heartfelt dream I’d harbored for years.

Heaven knows, it’s been tough at times. My shortcomings as a drummer crop up as often as I hit the snare drum, and just as hard.  And the green-eyed monster never disappears, it just takes a rest now and then. Maybe that’s true for most of us.

So, if that ornery little beast can’t be banished,  how can it be tamed  in order to keep us moving forward? Here are some thoughts:

Become a Student who “Steals” from the Best

According to Susan Harrow in her article in Psychology Today, go from jealous “lurker” to earnest learner by looking at the person you envy and identifying those skills or qualities you wish you had. Learn their techniques. Ask questions and take notes. Most importantly, act on what you’ve learned. That can be the hardest to put into motion.  Practice more. Take steps toward starting that new business. Dust off that resume and work toward finding a higher-paying job. Go back to school or attend a seminar.

Pinpoint What You Really Want

In a recent blog post, ” The Tiny Buddha’s” Lori Deschene makes the case for defining specific goals. “Wanting” can be a very tricky thing. It’s easy to assume that those you envy are completely happy with their own lot in life.   Jealousy can be a powerful tool to help us clarify our values, priorities and true desires, and can show us the actual work that goes into reaching them.

I’m reminded of an illuminating conversation with one of my drumming mentors, Jeff Olson. Jeff has played with the likes of jazz great David Benoit and ex-Monkee Peter Tork.  He shared with me how he once envied the life of another well-known drummer.  “But,” he said,” then I think about how this guy got divorced several times and is constantly on the road. I wouldn’t want to be away that much. I’d rather be at home more ( with his wife and their beloved pets) than have that kind of career.”

See Yourself as an Object of Envy

This is a good way to take stock of  strengths and positives. Instead of being a serial “envy-er”, realize that there are characteristics and skills in you that others wish they had.

Believe

For me, this has been the most powerful way of keeping that little green-eyed creature at bay. Jealousy can become destructive when we believe that our hopes and wishes are unattainable.  Good things don’t happen only to others. If we plan and take baby steps forward, they can come to us as well.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Being “Bad-ass”

There are some people you’re meant to meet.  Out of nowhere, you run into them. Or, as in my case, your nosey side gets the better of you and you overhear things. Their words carve into you like a stonemason’s  tool, and help shape you into what you are and hope to be.  I’m glad I have big ears, because I got to hear Chad talk a little about his life.

Before meeting him last year at one of the local music jams that he runs, he was a complete mystery. Like me, he’s middle-aged.  Judging by the song list the house band played, it was clear that music to him is an ocean, rather than a narrow, meandering brook.  He’s another local, gigging musician . Or is he?

Chad is more than that. In that timeless seventies parlance that we grew up with, he’s bad-ass. Period.  A few years ago, he decided to devote himself to music full-time. His courage and determination are part of the reason I created this blog.  I wanted this post to be a Q&A-style interview with him, but after reading one of his recent emails, I said “forget it, I already have my interview.” Because in a few short sentences, he describes exactly what it takes to be a bad-ass, to live your passion and make it work. In utterly uncompromising fashion, he gets down and speaks his truth.

Here are Chad’s Rules for Making Your Dreams a Reality:

  1. Pruning—as with dead leaves and branches from a tree, it’s wise to let go of things that might tie us down and keep us from reaching up.  ” I’ve learned as I swim and wander through this remarkable thing called life that so much of what I thought was soooo damn important, doesn’t matter much to me anymore…I have learned/am learning to sluff it off as I go.” This includes “relationships that don’t grow or seem to work, as that is the greatest burden of all, and the most difficult to let go.”

2. Discipline— I can vouch for Chad’s work ethic. Just days after an operation, he was back in action at the jam, and although people often offer to buy him drinks, he doesn’t touch a drop. He provides the PA and comes early to set up and make sure everything is in working order. In all the time I’ve been a jam participant, he has never missed a Saturday or Sunday.   Chad also runs his own online business ,The Little Shop of Fantasy and Horror, a nod to his love of the  genre. Any business owner who reads this can appreciate far more than I the work that goes into creating and running a viable business.

3.  Love/Grit/Determination–they seem  inseparable.  Like many musicians, Chad is in love with music and is completely devoted to it as one would be another human being. He lives simply now, in an apartment along with his cat, surrounded by hundreds of books on art, film and music.  It’s this love of playing  that drives him.  When one of his mic stands went missing, he talked about how he never replaced it. He couldn’t. A good chunk of his earnings came right out of pocket to buy an abdominal brace, something he absolutely needed in order to continue singing at the gigs. He performs when he’s sick or in pain, lest the venue decide to replace him. And in this town, there are bands standing in line waiting to do so. An “impregnable deflection shield” is crucial for survival, even when making music at the local level. Chad didn’t elaborate or give examples from his own experience, but given that this is the music business, the reader is invited to fill in the blanks. I can say this from experience ( and thank you for reminding me, Mark). Sometimes you play to an empty house. Sometimes people talk over your music. You put in countless hours  learning the tunes, and then preparing, arranging and working out the song list so that your audience will stay interested. Maybe, if you’re lucky, they’ll like you and want to come back to see you again.  A larger audience correlates to more food and drinks sold. If you can’t draw a crowd, you’re out of a job.

As Chad so eloquently puts it: “believe me, there is sacrifice. The music gods demand sacrifice, and they will pull your world inside out and upside down, and twist you every which way to make sure you’re not gonna break. It’s a bitch and you better really, really love it, and love a different kind of reward that only the truly passionate can understand. Or the truly insane, perhaps. Because otherwise, you will run (or crawl) screaming into the embrace of the first safety net you come across, and that will be the end of it. ”

Everyone should meet a bad-ass at least once in their lives.

 

 

In Praise of Life’s Late Bloomers

“In the garden of life, late bloomers are especially beautiful”-Susan Gale

 

In gardening vernacular, late-bloomers are flowers that show their glory just as other flowers begin to fade.  Can the same be said for people? We late-bloomers like to think so.

There’s at least one instance I can recall where being a relative newbie worked in my favor. A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of playing with two ambitious and very unique players who were light years ahead of me in terms of experience and skill. Well, maybe “pleasure” is a word I can use only in hindsight. At the time, playing with them felt like flying on an amusement park ride with no “off” button and no belt.  Exciting, exhilarating and terrifying all at once.

During our break, the guitarist said that they wanted D. to be the one to  replace their drummer. D is one of the most well-known drummers in the area. “He won’t rehearse, though”, the guitarist lamented. “You”, he said to me,” are willing to do that. It’s great. You’re not jaded like other, more experienced players are. You’re like a blank slate.” In this case, being  an older “tabla rasa” with baby- level experience and skill wasn’t a liability. Aside from the roller coast-ery vibe of our jam, that’s what I took away from the session.

Why do we late-bloomers bloom so blooming late?  The reasons are probably as varied as we are. Life circumstances like education, exposure to experiences, and financial and social status can be factors. So can the level or lack of encouragement from those around us.  Fear. Lack of confidence. Trying to stay to the well-traveled path of life rather than veering off and following our own side trails.  Sometimes, though, it’s an epiphany that strikes later in life.

Singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne led a decidedly non-musical life before being struck by his lightning bolt at age twenty. He was working in a shoe factory when he awoke to the strains of Stephen Stills’ “Treetop Flyer” blaring through his clock radio at four in the morning.  He knew the course his life would take from that song on. Six years later, he recorded his first EP and in 2004 released his well-received album,”Trouble.”  Although one could argue that twenty is still a ‘kid’, it gives hope to us late-bloomers. Like the rest of society, we’ve been programmed to believe that you have to start really young in life in order to be successful in music.

Courage.  That seems to be the main ingredient, the fuel that drives the engine that moves us to act on our passion. Discipline, creating long and short-term goals, persistence, organization-these are all vital cogs.  But without courage, the machine will not move.  As writer Julia Cameron said, what often separates those who reach their goals versus those who stay in the shadows often has more to do with “audacity” than talent or skill. May those of us who have bloomed late gather the courage and the audacity to follow through.  When other flowers in life’s garden grow weary, our petals will just be opening.

 

“I’m Scared”

I’ve spent a lot of time in bars. Sober.  Call it an occupational necessity.  Because I’ve watched life’s pageant there with a clear head, I’ve been able to make some observations. Here’s one of them: we don’t usually get real at a bar, unless we’ve had one too many. Few of us that are still coherent and standing will bare our souls to someone we don’t know.  That’s what I thought, anyway, until I met Stacey.

She’d been sitting with friends, but when she saw me, she made a beeline in my direction, just as I was about to open the patio door.   I’d just sat in with the house band for a few songs. The desert heat had drained me to the point where I was desperate for a drink.  Stacey smiled at me, her eyes wide with wonder. “You really rocked…you were amazing” she said. I don’t do well with compliments. Part of me longs for them. The other wonders why anyone thinks my drumming deserves mention at all. I thanked her.  “I’ve always wanted to play the drums”, Stacey said shyly. I encouraged her to pursue it, saying it was easy to find an inexpensive set on Craigslist.  “It’s never too late”, I assured her, “just jump in and get started”. What came next was utterly unexpected. Her young brow knitted itself into a frustrated line.

“But I’m too scared”, she said.   Stacey’s honest words left me speechless. It wasn’t just what she said, though.  What really pierced my insides was the emotion behind them. Maybe I was reading into this far too much, making Mount Everest from an anthill, but I heard something. For that brief moment, twenty years of her life seemed to melt away.  It was as if the little girl inside of her was speaking.  All of the longing and fear she’d probably held in for years seemed to come bubbling to the surface.

I understood. Boy, did I ever. I used to feel that way, too. While I dabbled in several instruments during childhood, drums always seemed like forbidden fruit. They were the boy you liked, but in secret, for fear of anyone finding out. To this day, I can’t explain why. That feeling- that an electric fence stood between the drums and I- lasted well into adulthood. When I finally began playing, it’s as if I had to grant myself permission in order to start.

Our conversation was very short, so I never got to share any of this with her. I saw Stacey again only once, but we didn’t have a chance to connect. I wanted to share my story with her, and tell her I understood how she felt. Some people let their dreams go casually. Many years later they might look back at those childhood desires with a mixture of wistfulness and embarrassment. Some dreams die hard, though. They don’t go easily. I got the sense that Stacey was holding onto hers.

So, if you’ll permit me this literary license, I’m going to talk to that little girl inside of Stacey. Why is she afraid to try? Who knows; it could be one of an almost infinite number of reasons: fear of failure, of looking silly, of being made fun of, of not being perfect, of having to struggle. I guess this is the ideal place to quote some online study or insert some wisdom from one of the books I have on art and the creative process. But I’ll spare us the lesson and just speak from the heart.

What would I say? A million things flash through my mind, but it seems like, in a split second, they all distill into one thought.  I take her hand gently and say, “just try it and see what happens, and if you do, I’ll be right beside you, because no matter what, you’ll be okay”.

 

Julia Cameron is an utterly brilliant writer and teacher.  I highly recommend her book about nurturing creativity and the creative process :“The Artists’ Way: A Spiritual path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992, 2002.

 

Frankly, My Dear, When Drumming, Just Don’t Give a Damn

Steve Gadd and I are very much alike. That’s right. The man of “Aja” and “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” fame and I share an important trait. Surprisingly, it’s more than just being born on this planet.

We both stopped caring.

“It’s scary up here”: those were the first words out of Steve’s mouth as he faced a sold-out auditorium of drummers and industry people. He had just dazzled the audience with his most iconic grooves. Everyone at the Manhattan School of Music that night sat breathlessly in the palm of his hand. How, or why, would someone as accomplished as he still feel so intimidated in front of other drummers? Later, a young man asked him how he mentally and physically prepared for a gig. Steve’s answer was swift and direct: “Well, I try to get out of my own head…I go inward…I gotta get out of that kind of ego thing.”

Get out of that ego thing. Yeah. Me too.  I know what happens when insecurity, jealousy and other  pronged little monsters start to take over. The performance is no longer about the music. It’s about me.  My focus shifts to what others might be thinking. Instead of being deep into the song, I’m wondering if I’m going to screw up that ending ( yep, I do)  or if that drummer over in the corner is John Bonham’s long- lost twin. In my worst moments, I even wonder if the guitarist wants that Bonham clone to replace me.  Thoughts of turning my small tom into a fish tank cross my mind.

The regular Sunday drummer at our local jam was going out of town for two weeks, so I was asked to sub. Just before the first gig, the leader gave me a wonderful gift. He told me not to worry, that we would play only the songs I knew. No surprises. I could’ve kissed him. Because his expectations were low, mine could be low as well. I thought:  it’s okay if I make mistakes, because, well, it’s my first time drumming with this group. We didn’t rehearse. I’ll just go out and just do what I can.  To my utter surprise, I played like a woman on fire. I felt so free! For a few fleeting minutes, the audience and our group were one beating heart. Watching them rock in their seats and get up to dance was the greatest compliment I could’ve possibly received.  I glowed.  I wanted-needed- that second gig to be as rewarding.

It wasn’t.  Although the jam leader never said a word to me, I knew the stakes were higher. I wasn’t the new kid this time. The group expected more from me, and I expected more from myself. Much more.  After struggling through a few tunes, we took a break.  The leader smiled and told me through gritted teeth that I was playing timidly, that I was too hesitant. I was forcing the band to work harder, he said. After the gig, I went home, almost in tears, and wondered how I could turn my floor tom into a side table.

In his book, “Effortless Mastery”, jazz pianist Kenny Werner talks about what caring too much can do to our playing.  When you’re worried about your performance, you can’t focus on  the most important aspect of it: allowing the music to flow freely. He sets up two hypothetical but common scenarios: when you need to sound your absolute best, and playing in more casual situations, where it just doesn’t matter. A music student playing for a faculty jury, or Steve Gadd performing at a drum clinic might fall into the former. Jamming with friends at a club would cover the second.  Werner writes that when he gives lectures on this topic, he finds that 99% of his audience agrees: when it doesn’t matter and you’re not hung up on how good you sound, you play your best!  Werner sums it up perfectly with one sentence: “A person who is not afraid to fail, succeeds.”

I’d like to say I no longer worry or care at all, but I still do. I still have those unsure moments when I wonder why I’ve picked up the sticks at all. I haven’t reached that Zen sort of space yet. I wonder if Steve has, or if anyone really does. In the meantime, I at least know one strategy that can help me get through, one gig at a time.

Sources:

Please check out Kenny Werner’s excellent book, “Effortless Mastery”, Jamey Abersold Publishing, 1996

The drum clinic mentioned in this article is on DVD: Hudson Masters: Steve Gadd, Hudson Music, 2008

Photo credit: David Menidrey@ca za ult