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 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.