“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