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.

 

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

 

 

What? She’s the Drummer?

I hope this post makes you smile. Most of all, I hope female readers don’t get angry at Greg, one of the people in the story I’m about to tell.  I think his reaction was predictable because, let’s face it, female drummers are still an uncommon sight.

Several years ago, I teamed up with a keyboard player named RJ. We had booked a gig at a small café . Luckily for us, this café is a fixture in the community. Musicians love to play here. It’s an outdoor venue, so during the height of tourist season, big, eager crowds fill the patio and spill out onto the steps below, digging the music.

Greg, a well-known local songwriter, came upon RJ and I setting up our gear. I heard Greg ask RJ who was drumming for him.  I don’t recall what RJ said, but whatever it was, Greg was having none of it. “No, really,” he said, “who’s your drummer?” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect if a film director had arranged it. Just as the words left Greg’s mouth, my bass drum and I sauntered right in front of him.  You’d be right to think that seeing me lugging this huge drum would’ve been answer enough, but it wasn’t. “Jessica’s playing”, said RJ quietly. Greg broke into a smile. He seemed a bit embarrassed. He didn’t need to be.  It certainly didn’t bother me at all. I’m used to it.

It’s fun to tilt society’s idea of a “woman’s place” right on its silly little head.  I love interactions like the one I had with Greg. It reminds me that female drummers, be they amateur or professional, are pioneers.   The path has been laid, but there’s still so very much to clear.  I’ve been very blessed. Most of the men I’ve run into love the fact that I play, that I’m out there doing my thing.  I’ve been touched by the “boy’s only club” mentality, but thankfully very little.  I know, however, that’s not always true for those who pursue music professionally.  As recent headlines regarding harassment and abuse show, it’s still very much open season on women in all professions who long to realize their ambitions.

I completely support female-oriented publications like TomTom Magazine, who helped to create the wildly popular “Hit Like a Girl” international drumming competition. These forums allow us to reflect back to ourselves what we are and hope to be.  I applaud the advent of all-female music festivals. Our stories need to be told, our contribution to musical history acknowledged and preserved.  I’m able to chase my dream of being a drummer because of the fearless women who came before us.

With that said, I will always believe that the most powerful statement a female drummer, or any musician can make is to just get out there and do it. Let’s keep defying those stereotypes.  If enough of us do, maybe someday, our gender  won’t matter.  To honor those early pioneers, I prefer to present myself as a “drummer”, not a “female drummer”, because I believe that was their ultimate goal.   We’ll no longer be known as  “girl” or “chick” drummers; we’ll be respected as musicians who can lay it down as hard and as musically as we please. And if a woman at a gig walks by holding a bass drum, no one will ever question who she is.