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.


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