Work Really, Really Hard

I was offered a year long, international tour with a major Broadway musical three Sundays ago. Dubai, Turkey, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore and more. I had one day to decide.

I turned it down.

How’s that for an introduction?

The details of me passing on the offer aren’t the purpose of this particular piece, I’m sure I’ll address that in the future. Instead I want to detail what led me to get that phone call. I had been auditioning for that phone call since my sophomore year of high school and didn’t even know it.

I worked really hard in high school and my percussion teacher noticed it and helped me get into his alma mater. In college I worked really hard, and two grad students noticed and asked me to be a part of their graduate recitals. I worked really hard for their recitals and their professor asked me to play a gig with him. With every form of nervousness I said yes, of course. I played a couple gigs with that professor and did well.

He noticed and recommended me for a musical at a nearby theater. I worked really hard to make sure I had the music ready for the first rehearsal and then I played a fairly consistent run of the show for 2 months. The music director noticed.

Then a year later, that same music director gives me that potentially life altering call 3 Sundays ago.

Did you notice a pattern? I worked really hard and they noticed.

Are you someone who wants to be a professional musician?


People will tell you you can’t do this. “It’s unstable.” “It’s not legitimate.” “What’s your backup plan?” “Are you sure?” “Maybe he’ll grow out of it.”

It’s probably out of sincere concern for you too. They want the best for you and all they’ve seen are the depressed, drunken, broke and broken artist tropes presented by movies and television. They don’t want you to be depressed, drunken, broke or broken so they’re trying to caution you.

What they don’t know are there are many thousands of musicians making a successful living in many thousands of ways. They don’t know those people are out there because those people aren’t making a lot of noise about it. They’re busy doing their work.

This was life confirming for me. This taught me that if I’ll just work really hard, I can get that kind of a phone call. Phone calls like that become careers. If I took that tour and aced it, I would be a part of the touring musical theater circuit. I could potentially stick to that for many years if I wanted to.

And don’t get it in your mind that I’m something special either. I’m no childhood prodigy. I started percussion in 7th grade. I had good teachers and I practiced a lot and I try to be a good person. That’s it. No fairy dust, just waking up at 5 am to practice when I was in college.

The more I live the life of a professional musician the more I realize there’s a straightforward formula to this. Work really, really hard and be someone people want to be around. If you do that, you can leave the rest to those forces that are out of your control. When those forces open a door, you’ll be prepared to cross the threshold.

When they tell you you can’t do it, smile, hear them out, say thank you and let it motivate you to prove them wrong. Friend, work really hard and nail every audition, even the ones you don’t know you’re taking. Soon they’ll be calling you instead of me.

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Thoughts on Musicians, the Orlando Shooting and the Power of Music

Do you believe in super powers?

I don’t either, exactly. But wouldn’t it be cool to have one? What if I told you we as musicians have something pretty close? I’m convinced we do.

The day after the Orlando shooting I had several private lessons and I discussed this Leonard Bernstein quote with my more mature students:

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I asked them what they thought it meant and we came to some important conclusions together.

One of them (which I hadn’t thought of) was that our reaction to the strife in our life can be to make music for ourselves. To practice our instruments or another art and use that as our way of dealing with the anxiety life hands to us. To express what is within in a constructive manner rather than a violent one.

The second one, the one I had in mind, was that our music-making can have a significant effect on the audience that hears us play. At any given performance, there will certainly be untold pain in the crowd. There may be recent divorces, family tragedies and financial woes.

What if the way we played our notes could lead the person considering suicide to give tomorrow a chance? What if the way we sang our lyrics made a couple considering divorce remember the magic they used to have? What if a well placed silence could be the thing that stops someone from walking into Pulse night club, killing 49 and wounding 53?

Many people use live music as a way to escape, for relief, as a way to recover. Whether its at a concert hall or a bar, a night club or a corporate gig we will always be handed the opportunity to make people feel. What they feel is up to hundreds of factors, yes, but one of those factors is us.

Is there potential for a well-delivered show to offer relief from a year’s worth of turmoil? It happened to me at the beginning of this year when Snarky Puppy came to Tampa and laid it all out before my eyes. I’m not a crier, but if I were a crier I would have flooded the place. While 2015 was the best year of my professional life it was easily the worst in my personal life. They took the misery off my shoulders, I felt it all flow, (maybe melt?) off my body. I don’t have an explanation for it, but I bet you have a similar story to tell too.

I think the ability to do that for people is a super power, or at least as close as we can get.

Maybe that’s arrogant, or wishful thinking but after so many “You made me remember my dad”‘s and “I’ve had a terrible week and you took it all away”‘s I’m convinced it’s reality.

May we be so devoted to our craft that the intensity and beauty of our music heals the hearts of our audience.

My condolences and moral support are with the families of the victims. My deep affection is with the survivors and with the many who are donating blood, money, time, and tons of love to those who have been affected. You are truly beautiful.

The terrorists win once we’re terrified. My prayer is that as the world appears to get darker and darker, we’ll see the light in the thousands who always react with love to tragedies and that we won’t let fear stop us from growing closer to one another.

What are your thoughts? Have you had an experience with the healing power of music? I’d love for you to write me an email and tell me about it.

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Is Being a Musician Stable?

A top question I’m asked by students and strangers alike is the question of stability. Is being a musician a stable way to make an income? This is the wrong question to ask, of course. The better question to ask is “Is this musician stable?” or “Are you a stable musician?”

They’re asking if I’m scraping by monetarily or living comfortably. Again, this can’t be a blanket question for the whole career of music-making. It’s too broad. Each musician has a different career, a different set of income sources, a different set of abilities, and a different money history as well.

I’d like to present some questions that a freelancer in any capacity (not just music) could ask themselves or be asked to determine if they’re stable or not.

None of these are end-alls. For each of these I could point to a musician who’s making a good stable living but doesn’t have the “right” answer to a few of these. These are more like individual metrics that add up to “stability.” The more of each of these someone has in their favor the more stable they would be.

So here we go:

1. Are they well connected? – The size of a person’s network means a larger pool to pull work from. The more people aware of a person’s talent and to which a person’s talent is applicable, the more opportunity will come their way in the way of referrals and bookings.

2. Do they have a low overhead? – Car payments, mortgages, student loan debt, and high monthly expenses while not inherently dangerous, can become precarious when they start to add up. Someone who’s doing their best to keep these kinds of expenses manageable based on their income is less likely to get in money trouble.

3. Are they saving for “True Expenses” and rainy days? – The idea of a “True Expense” as far as I know was coined by the folks at YNAB, the budgeting software that I happily use. We should expect that our 6 month car insurance payment will be coming every 6 months, that Christmas will come every year, and that our cars will breakdown and will be expensive to fix. If we expect those and save for them now we won’t be caught off guard when the time comes. Stability is when sudden changes don’t catch you off guard. The better prepared a person is for True Expenses the more stable they are. Most emergencies and surprises don’t need to be.

4. Are their talents diverse? – The more abilities a musician has the more work they can accept. Musicians that can play almost any style of music authentically and can read music are best equipped to be successful. Being a good educator, being able to repair instruments, and being able to write and arrange music are just more strengths increase stability.

5. Are they well liked? – People want to work with their homies. It’s an assumption that we’re good at what we’re doing. After that, it’s all about being enjoyable to be around. I love working for and with people who have warm auras, friendly smiles and good quality hugs. Drunk people, loud people, egotistical people, and selfish people are not enjoyable to make music with. Actually, they’re just not enjoyable. Music is a people occupation just like most of the other arts. Good people skills lead to stability. Bad ones take away from stability, there’s only so much people are willing to put up with.

6. Are they professional? – Things like dressing appropriately, showing up on time, learning the music, playing the music appropriately and selflessly, answering the phone etc. keep band leaders happy and thus add stability.

7. Are their gigs diverse? – Similar to number 4, it’s good to work for a lot of different people. No gig lasts forever – this is the best assumption to work from. New musicians move into town, venues close, economies ebb and flow, and relationships get strained. It helps to not be too dependent on any particular gig. “What would happen if this gig ended?” is a good question to ask. If “not much” were the answer, that’s more stability. In this regard, a lot of musicians have more stability than “normal folks.”

8. Is there debt? – Debt is a crippling, paralyzing, anchoring nightmare of a monster. Simply put the more debt, the less stability.

In my own career I’ve made these 8 things a top priority. The result has been a stable living. At this moment I’m the drummer for two very busy bands, serve as the house drummer of a weekly jam session, occasionally play at Busch Gardens and Adventure Islands, teach 7 private lessons per week, and teach/write percussion arrangements for two schools. In between those regular weekly, monthly and seasonal gigs I sub for lots of drummers in the area, play musicals, freelance all around Florida and teach percussion and jazz classes in schools all around the county.

As I have the opportunity I’m cognizant of expanding my network and skill set. Practicing good money habits, especially aggressive budgeting (get YNAB!) and saving.

I use these 8 metrics to determine the stability of my career. Keeping my skills, network and jobs diverse, remaining professional and managing money well is all it takes to be a stable freelancer.

With a little bit of planning and effort its absolutely possible to be a stable musician.

What are your thoughts or questions on freelancing and stability? I want to hear from my readers, send me an email!

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A Day in the Life

This is a question I get a lot and it doesn’t have a straightforward answer. That said, it may be a surprise to you that a day in my life is probably not incredibly different than a day in other professions as far as the contents. They’re just at different times of the day and in a different order and I’m in charge instead of someone else.

A day in my life will have some combination of these three categories:

Work at Home:

  • Practicing – I aim for two or more hours a day but sometimes a good warm up is all I can get.
  • Writing music – I lead three bands. We’ve got to have stuff to play.
  • Working on my websites – This one and Drummers Transcribed.
  • Managing Social Media – I’m super bad at this but I’m getting better. I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  • Research – Listening to music, watching performances, checking out equipment and reading. This research is enjoyable but its still research.
  • Emails & other forms of communication – I bet you and I get the same amount of pleasure out of this. This is not fun.

Work Away from Home:

  • Teaching a class – I get hired to teach high school and middle school percussion and jazz classes all around the county.
  • Teaching private lessons – I’ve got seven students that I meet with throughout the week.
  • Meetings – Discussing future plans with schools that I associate with and bands I’m a part of.
  • Picking up supplies – Printing music and buying sticks etc.
  • Rehearsing – Polishing the product.
  • Playing Gigs – This, of course is what its all about.

The Same Stuff You Do Every Day:

  • Sleeping
  • Cooking
  • Buying food
  • Going to the bank
  • Exercising
  • Relaxing
  • Washing the dishes
  • Laundry
  • Etc.

The main difference is while someone with a more “normal” job may be relaxing at 7pm, I might be relaxing at 3pm. While their work day might begin at 9 and end at 5, my work day could start at 2pm and maybe end at 1am when I get home from a gig. If there’s not a gig that night my workday might be really short. I usually get to cook my breakfast and my lunch where they might only get to cook their dinner.

Weekends are when I work the most and I have no prescribed days off. So I might work 11 or 12 days in a row before I get what most people call “Saturday.” Sometimes I’ll get 2 or three Saturdays in a row too.

I don’t normally wake up early unless I have an appointment that requires my physical presence or church. Yep, you read correctly. I’m pretty much only waking up early for Jesus.

We musicians drive a bunch too. Far more than most people. The most I’ve driven for a gig is 3 1/2 hours. 2 hours isn’t uncommon and 1 hour is typical. So a 3 hour gig when you include leaving early (lateness is unacceptable, people – construction, car accidents and snowbirds will make you late if you leave on time) driving there and driving back, a 3 hour gig is really at least a 5 1/2 hour commitment.

As you can see, most of this is self-directed work and that’s the way I like it. I like the feeling of holding the responsibility of my success in my hands. I also like the feeling of being able to measure my success the way I want to. For some people success is money and “moving on up.” For me success is autonomy, being able to do the work that I want to do, being able to give of my time and money to those who need it and being creative on a daily basis.

Aside from some obvious differences, we musicians aren’t terribly different from what everyone else does. That said, I don’t know that many of us really have a “day in the life,” to offer. Every day is an unexpected adventure. I don’t think I’ve duplicated the schedule of any given day since I started making my living as a professional musician.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Hard to Understand

I haven’t quite figured out how to explain what I do for a living.

Most occupations need no explanation or maybe very little, but that’s just not the case as a musician. Being a musician comes with the stigma (perpetuated mostly by movies, books, media and fearful parents) that artists are probably poor and starving, possibly lazy, maybe uneducated and certainly impractical.

Not the actual case. But since that’s the assumption and I’d prefer not to be thought of in those terms, it requires some explaining.

I think it comes from the foreign nature of an artistic profession to non-artists. If the primary exposure to musicians has been to the two polar opposites of Beyonce and that starving artist trope, of course someone making a blue collar living as a professional musician might be unsettling.

After I tell someone “I’m a professional musician, I play the drums,” they say “Do you teach?” Or when I get to the part in my explanation where I mention teaching they say “Oh you teach!” Like maybe I was being a bit deceptive when I said I play the drums for a living because that’s, you know, impossible and they figured out the truth like Lieutenant Columbo or Adrian Monk.

People. I’m not exaggerating this happens like clockwork.

It’s when they hear that I’m a teacher that they become relieved, even excited. They can now wipe the nervous sweat from their brow saying “Whew, turns out he’s on the conveyor belt like me after all.”

Full disclosure, I actually charge super low when I teach and its not my primary source of income. I teach to have a part in sharing music with young people. Music did a lot for me, great music teachers did a lot for me too and I’ve found a way to teach that fits with my life priorities. I don’t teach because I cant play (“Those who cannot do, teach” is another trope that’s got to go in every subject, not just the arts), or because I don’t make enough playing. I make enough playing, but I want to also be a teacher.

Anyway, once people hear “teacher” they latch onto that and suddenly feel very comfortable. I can see their posture normalize and their face un-scrunch. From then on the questions revolve around my teaching, not my playing, even though that’s not actually the focus of my profession.

This particular misunderstanding is just one example of many. I’ve just come to embrace the fact that this occupation is a bit hard to grasp if you’re not a part of it. We’ll always get questions, some accusatory in nature, because we’re doing something out of the ordinary. This used to really bother me but now I’ve come to understand that it’s just one of the costs of living a creative lifestyle.

Totally worth it.

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When I Realized the Value of Money

I’ll never forget March of 2016, the month I drove and worked way too much. The way it normally works is if someone says “Hey, can you play March 9th?” I check my calendar and if the date is empty I mark it and commit. I just committed to way too much this time and it really wore me out.

There was one day during the month where I was going to be driving about two and a half hours both directions to make some decent money. I didn’t at all feel like making the drive. I wasn’t even that excited to play the gig. I don’t mind driving long distances and the gig was a good and fun gig, I was just so tired and worn out from the amount of work I’d been doing already that the only thing I wanted to do was sit on my couch and relax.

This moment caused an important realization. This gig paid well, but did it pay as well as sitting on my couch right now would? Absolutely not. Sitting on my couch instead of getting in my car for a gig I wasn’t excited for with the amount of exhaustion I had going on was worth $300, maybe $400. Like if I could have paid to not to do the gig, I would have paid up to $400 at that moment.

Money is nothing more than a tool that enables us to craft the things we want into our lives. Without a direction money is nothing more than potential. I needed rest more than I needed more potential. I’d made good money for the month already and there was good money waiting for me in coming weeks. I had the potential I needed. My living expenses were more than covered, I didn’t need the money from this gig. I didn’t need more potential, I needed to rest.

The value of money is giving us the potential to do what we want with it. It’s a means to an end, it’s not an end. The end that I wanted was to vegetate on my couch but the end I was going to get instead was more means. This is backwards.

We’ve got to be guardians of our time, no one else is going to guard it for us. If we guard it well we can avoid burnout, if we don’t we might have to drive two and a half hours to a gig instead of recharge our batteries.

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This Life is Beautiful

I had an ideal day today.

I woke up at 7:00 AM to coach two middle school percussion sections at one of the most successful middle school band programs in the area. Talented band director, receptive kids. Beautiful.

I stopped at Sam Ash to look at some equipment and ended up trading licks with another drummer in the drum room. He asked me to show him some of what I was playing and we had a good talk. Beautiful.

On my way out of Sam Ash I got a text message about another teaching gig that would start next week. Beautiful.

I got on the highway and took the scenic route, (I275 South) to where I was headed (Naples, Florida). I stopped at the rest stop before the Skyway Bridge. As the name suggests, this is a very tall bridge surrounded by a lot of gorgeous water. I decided on a whim to stop there. I climbed out on the rocks, found a perch overlooking the pristine, glassy and still sea water, read Psalm 51, prayed and considered how huge the world is and how small I am. Beautiful.

I got back on the highway, connected to I75 South and stopped in Sarasota. Here I took a nap waiting to hear from my dear, dear friend Brittanny. We sat in the car for a couple hours after I got some food and just talked and listened to music. You don’t need to make plans with a friend like her, all you need to do is plan on being in the same place and you can be certain the experience will be fulfilling. 2 incredible hugs, many laughs and several wonderful conversations later I was back on the highway. Beautiful.

On the way down I75 I got a call from a North Carolina number (“Huh? I don’t know anyone in North Carolina”) who wanted to use me for some good paying gigs that were already booked. I found out that one of my teachers recommended me to this guy. A really great teacher who did a lot to shape the way I see music in just 2 semesters at the end of my college education. Beautiful.

Eventually I got to the gig, set my drums up and had the best time making some beautiful music with some beautiful people. We got funky, we played Latin, we did some swing – I even got to play some Baiao. I played some solos I was really happy with and several times the singer, guitar player and bass player all but made me stop playing because of how wonderful they sounded. There was one time I almost got teary eyed at the idea that this what I do. I didn’t. But I was really close. Once in awhile I just look up at the sky and involuntarily thank God that this is out there to be had and that I’m having it. Tonight was one of those nights. Beautiful.

Now it’s 1:05am and I’m on Sanibel, the island I lived on for 18 years, in the house I lived in for around 18 years, on a couch that’s probably not remotely that old but is still a relatively comfy couch. My parents and grandmother are sleeping in their rooms but they’ll wake me up at a frustratingly early hour I’m sure. I’ll quickly forget the early wake up call and we’ll spend quality time with each other – I get to visit them sometimes when I play nearby. Then I’ll hop back on the highway in time to play another gig closer to Tampa, where I live now. Beautiful.

This is the life I live.

Of course not every day is such a wonderful highlight reel. Some days are tough emotionally. Some days are all work and very little fun. But some days are like today.

I don’t enjoy a life like this without a cost, every good thing has a cost. There’s a degree of insanity that goes into choosing an entrepreneurial lifestyle like this one instead of the cookie cutter life most live. While I enjoy a pretty regular income, it’s not exactly predictable. While most people are free at night, night time is when I’m working. I don’t have anyone telling me what to do, everything is self-directed, whether its success or failure its on me. I can’t complain to my boss because my boss is me. It’s a lot of driving too. A lot of driving.

But I’m not forced into the rat race. I have time to make an impromptu stop at the water and be with my thoughts. I have time to stop in Sarasota and grab two of the best hugs humankind can experience.

And days like this? I get to enjoy days like today often! Every couple weeks or so I get a life-confirmingly incredible day like to day. A day where all of my emotional needs are filled to a surplus that’ll last a couple weeks or until the next life-confirmingly incredible day. Whichever comes first. This is incredible! This is beautiful.

This life is just beautiful.

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That Can Never Happen Again

I recently had an experience where I subbed on a gig and didn’t do well. The majority of the things that contributed to this were way out of my control, but there was one variable that was totally on me.

There was a weakness in my own playing that had nothing to do with the gig itself and everything to do with me and it was really magnified on this gig. I’ve known about this weakness for awhile but it had never been a significant problem. Always hovering below the surface, barely noticed until that night. Thus I hadn’t given it the proper attention and the performance wasn’t as good as it should have been.

In the grand scheme of things it went alright. No one got hurt, the audience had a good time and although the band I was subbing for wasn’t exactly happy, no one took any kind of damage. However “no one got hurt” is a low standard and I do my best not to deal in low standards. It just should have been better.

Of course I had the option to shrug it off my shoulders or blame my shortcoming on someone else but instead I chose self-reflection. For the next two days I spent a significant amount of time playing the events over and over in my head, searching deeply to find everything I could have done better. Every time I was driving, every time I had down time, every time I was to myself I was reliving every moment.

This was good for me. It helped me discover that most of it really was out of my control which was a bit of a comfort. But it also pointed me back to that weakness of mine over and over without any mercy. Thus I made a decision and I’ve made a mantra out of that decision.

That can *never* happen again. That weakness can *never* interfere with my playing again.

Every practice session I’ve had has revolved around hitting that weakness from as many angles as I can and I’m seeing humongous progress. Progress that should have been made a long time ago, but I’m making up for it now.

“That can *never* happen again” is making me grow and stay focused and hungry for growth in the important things. Soon I’ll be able to say with confidence “That *will* never happen again.”

It might be that there’s something in your past playing experiences that should never happen again. If we’re striving to be great, those kinds of things should only happen once right?

If you’ve got work to do to insure whatever that is will never happen again, I just want to encourage you to get on it today. There’s no sense in making up for lost time later when you can start now, my friend.

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Frustrating Personalities

Music is a people business.

Everything that happens from getting booked to packing up and getting paid is interpersonal interaction. Usually this is almost as fun as the gig itself but on occasion I’ve run into personalities that just don’t rub well with mine.

Did you notice how I described them? As personalities, not people. Personalities may clash naturally but people don’t have to.

My way of dealing with these personality mash-ups has essentially come down to attempting to appreciating our differences and checking my ego. Disorganization and alpha-male type micro-managing behaviors are the very worst for me to deal with. I’m not good at this, but I’ve gotten better.

I don’t mind a little spontaneity and open-endedness and I don’t mind a leader with a clear vision. It’s just when I feel those start to get out of hand that if I don’t watch myself my (normally minimal) ego gets the best of me and sometimes I let it it shut me down. Not good, especially if I’m supposed to be making music.

So first I try to appreciate the good in the personality in question.

Loud people can be incredibly annoying, but they’re also the type of people who become the “life of the party” and give a room wonderful energy. Assertive people can be overbearing sometimes, but they’re great to have around when a client tries to ask the band to go beyond the contracted agreement.

Disorganized people can be frustrating but they tend to also be the most calm and laid back band leaders, resulting in a very low stress gig. I’m the right guy to calm an erratic person and most definitely the wrong guy to build you an office building.

You get the point.

I try to think of each of our personality traits as though they’re on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is too little, the other end is too much and even those are pretty subjective. Between too much and too little are all the gradients.

Some situations need to lean towards the left and some toward the right, and sometimes we get it wrong. Given too much or too little, we end up throwing off the balance in a circumstance, but using the right amount of a trait seasons the situation perfectly. Like a good steak. Who doesn’t like a good steak? I’m sure you can think of some people you know and some examples.

So trying to think “this person went a little too alpha for my preference, but we need people like that in the world” makes it a little easier on me. Because even if I really hate a particular trait, the truth is if the world were void of any given trait spectrum, the world would be lacking something highly valuable. And we’re all guilty of going too little or too far on a given trait spectrum.

That kind of self-talk helps me to hold it together much better. By the way, I’m not a perfect pro at this by any means. Writing a blog post is cheap. Actually doing it is costly, in this case costs a lot of pride. So secondly, I remind myself that its not about me and check my pride.

Very few situations I’m in are about me. I’m just not important enough for that. Most of us aren’t. So any time we’re behaving as though a moment is about us we’re being super selfish and need to reel ourselves in.

So by attempting to appreciate a given trait and by restraining my pride I’ve gotten myself through many a tense and stressful circumstance. I’m still growing in this but the times where I really focus my energy on my own attitude the better everything goes.

My own attitude is the only thing out there I can change anyway.

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Let Them Struggle

As a teacher there’s a lot I want my students to feel. I want them to feel comfortable and affirmed. I want them to feel valued and safe. But more than any of that, I want them to be *learning*. If they’re not learning, I’m not really teaching them, and sometimes all of those things I want them to feel while they’re with me for 50 minutes won’t help them learn anything.

When’s the last time you really pushed yourself while you felt comfortable and safe? Probably not recently.

It’s usually under great discomfort and constant pressure that we make strides and adapt – necessity makes us grow the fastest. Of course we can grow without those things but the progress isn’t as big is it?

So I’ve been making my private lessons an environment where that kind of exponential growth can happen. I do this in a couple ways but the main way is asking a fairly obnoxious number of questions and giving very few answers.

After they play something I don’t tell them what I think – at least not yet. It’s always “how’d that go?” first. What did you hear? Was that better? Ok let’s do it again. If I can get away with not making any statements and asking only questions that’s ideal. Maybe they can’t find the answer immediately so I ask some guiding questions but I try to avoid giving the answer like its the plague.

Because it is.

Once I give them the answer, the opportunity to learn how to learn is drained. Maybe they know the answer now and they can work on it but they’ll still need me to give them the answer. They’ll always need me or another teacher there unless I teach them to evaluate themselves critically and to be aware of themselves as they play.

And they have to be hard on themselves too. I don’t let anything slip by, I want them to learn excellence. If they learn critical self-evaluation and they learn excellence all we have to add is problem solving and that’s pretty much how to learn.

The problem solving part is the toughest part for myself and for the students. I let them struggle to find the answer. Sometimes for a long time, like 5 or 6 minutes. Which is like 5 or 6 eternities for a high school freshman (2.5 eternities for a high school senior in case you’re wondering).

Sometimes I want to swoop in and say “just put your pointer finger here,” watch them do it and pat myself on the back. We got there painlessly. “I’m a good teacher!” I could say to myself. I know I can’t do that though. They won’t learn how to learn if I do that.

So instead it’s “Maybe there’s something off in the way you’re playing. On the video, do you see anything in your hand that’s unusual?” and then they say “no,” and then I say “look again.” Then they say “no” again and I say “look again,” again. Maybe this happens for a whole 45 seconds before I say “did you check every part of your hand?” and then let them try to figure it out again.

I know this might seem agonizing or even antagonistic and it feels that way too. I don’t relish it at all.

But what I do relish is when I let them struggle for awhile and then they get it. And then I can say “who figured that out?” or when they play something great “who made that?” and then they say “Me” and I can say “exactly,” with a massive grin on my face and give them a huge hi-five.

After we have a victory like that in my private lessons we celebrate. Because earning the answer to your questions is worthy of celebration. Having answers handed to you isn’t but searching and finding and struggling and battling for the answer – that is worthy of praise.

The last part of course is the debrief. My job isn’t finished until they can take victory home as a new tool and use it. So after they figure it out I say “so how did we get there?” and they’ll almost inevitably say “I moved my finger.” That of course is not helpful. That’s the answer. I don’t want the answer, I want to know how we got to the answer.

So I redirect them to the steps instead of the result. It may have included recording a performance and listening to it or watching it, looking at a mirror, paying attention to how their hands feel, listening to sound the drum is producing, etc.

After the debrief we move on. Sometimes the process is 2 minutes long, other times one process takes the whole 50 minute lesson. I’m fine with that and I’ve conditioned my students through many repetitions to be fine with that too.

The real learning isn’t going to happen in front of me. It’s going to happen in their bedroom at their drum set when they hate how they sound. Or in a practice room at school when their concert is tomorrow and they can’t figure out how to play the part. So I want to make sure they’re prepared for those moments.

The effect of this has been that my students who I’ve had for a long time are solving the processes for themselves very quickly in lessons and coming back better and better. Sometimes after only one of my questions they figure out the entire concept in their head without a word from me. These students have almost arrived to the destination. They’re figuring it out with just a bit of prodding. In a couple years they won’t need prodding, they’ll have it figured out.

They won’t need me.

I’m trying to build individual musicians who can figure things out for themselves. As I get closer the feeling is incredible. Worth a million dollars every time it happens.

j j j