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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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!

 

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 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.