Perpetually Unimpressed (Or The Angry Salmon Face)

At the time of writing, I’m on a 6 week run playing drums for the musical West Side Story. It’s been a wonderful experience.

One of my favorite parts is seeing the different reactions of each audience. One audience will be rolling on the floor laughing at a joke while the other one will miss it. Completely. But that second audience will chuckle at one of the more nuanced humors that the first would totally miss.

Also due to the way the conductor’s podium is set up and the angle of my drum set I have the view of just one audience member every show. Everyone else is blocked by the barriers that keep people who are laughing too heartily or crying in too mobile a manner from falling into the orchestra pit.

Since I essentially have the show memorized, whenever there’s downtime between songs or a part of the show where I can safely take my eyes off the sheet music and the conductor, I like to take a peak at the face of this person. Especially when I know a good joke is coming up, or an impressive dance move or a sad moment.

In one particular show I had a lady who was perpetually unimpressed. She had what I and a friend in the pit now call an “angry salmon” face. All the time. There was only one time when she thought something was funny (it wasn’t even a very good joke) but she didn’t actually smile. She just un-frowned.

But in this afternoon’s show I had a completely different lady. She was engaged the entire time. She smiled, she gasped, she frowned, she laughed, clapped, cried, she even danced a bit during the Mambo. She got everything out of the show that she could.

I’m not necessarily knocking on angry salmon lady. Some people just have a face that looks like that. Or maybe her friend dragged her into the show and she didn’t want to go. Maybe it was a dare. I dunno. What I do know is the second lady had to have had a way better time.

My take away from these two contrasting ladies is simple.

I want to be like that second lady all the time.

I always want to walk into my experiences with her attitude. There’s obviously something about her that let her so deeply enjoy and engage the art in front of her. She came ready and open to being affected.

I’ve seen the angry salmon face before. I really don’t know what it’s about. Seems like a weird way to experience life to me. I think for some people it’s an excessive guard that they keep up. I think for others it’s just their personality. I know for certain people it’s intentional. They come off tough and hard if they’re unimpressed by everything around them.

Yuck. What a boring, unfulfilling existence that must be.

As for me, I hope every time I play music, or see music or art in general that I take on this lady’s persona.

Ready to go anywhere the art wants to take me.

Ready to cry, laugh, dance in my seat and smile at any moment.

Listening With My Eyes

We’ve all seen it haven’t we?

The rhythm section guy at the jam session with his eyes closed. In the zone. Completely in tune with himself and his playing. Not so much with anyone else’s though.

Way too loud. Way too busy.

Way too soft. Way to sparse.

They’re obviously just listening to themselves, not anyone else. The sound, the audience, and the rest of the band are the victims, of course. They suffer the abuse of the self-centered super-musician while the musician enjoys they’re own incredible personal concert of none other than themselves being awesome. He’s his own world, closing everyone else off with his closed off eyes.

I don’t mean to say everyone who closes their eyes while they play is this guy. Some of my favorites close their eyes when they play, I’ve just made a conscious decision not to allow myself to do this.

Over time I’ve rapidly realized that I’m turning off my most important resource for communication when I close my eyes. Musicians can only accept communication with our ears and our eyes. That’s all we have.

So a secondary problem with closing our eyes when we play is cutting off the rest of the world. We can neither communicate nor accept communication when we close our eyes.

I think the primary problem is we can stop listening and stop prioritizing our listening. This doesn’t apply for everyone. But I will say that the people I enjoy playing with the most tend to have eyes open for connecting and the people I least enjoy playing with tend to have their eyes closed.

For me, my eyes are always focused on the most important thing going on, whatever that maybe. Usually its the soloist. Sometime it might be the bass player’s right hand as we start a new groove, or to encourage the piano player with a smile when they play a delicious voicing at the right moment. Maybe the conductor if I’m playing a musical or with an orchestra. It might even be my ride cymbal hand.

I call this listening with my eyes.

When I put effort into focusing my attention with my eyes I get so much more out of my experience. I play with the ensemble better. I concentrate on the current priority better. I remain engaged in each sound that’s made and react accordingly. I can enjoy the lovely surprises that the act of making music drops on you when you least expect it because I’m primed for the moment.

Listening with my eyes really works well for me. It may be that its not your thing and that’s just fine too. As long as you’re being a good band member and not being that guy I talked about earlier more power to you!

I triple dog dare you to give it a try though.

Higher Standards

In the last 6 months or so I’ve been much harder on my private students. I was hard on my drumline students this season too.

I said things like “that’s not good enough,” and “is that the best you can do?”

I also said “I’m disappointed,” and “don’t come back to a lesson with that kind of preparation again.”

Harsh right? Maybe. But maybe in general we all could use a harsh kick in the pants to start excelling instead of being mediocre. Maybe that sentence was harsh too. But I’m ok with that.

I didn’t just start pushing my students harder out of nowhere. They were “warned” if you will. I spent a lot of time talking with them about what my expectations were going to be and why my expectations for them had suddenly risen.

It was because my expectations for myself had risen. Dramatically.

I’m not sure where it came from, but I started seeing greatness in areas of my life that aren’t music. Example: Gordon Ramsay cooking a steak.

I began realizing that I had no excuse to not be as awesome as this girl doing a Karate saber demo.

And of course greatness in music too.

As a drummer and as an educator, I need to be striving for that level of greatness. Shoot, as a person I need to be striving for that level of greatness.

It’s my mission to share these kinds of things with my students when I get a chance so that’s what I did. Its not that I haven’t always dealt exclusively in high standards — I think and hope that I have. Just recent exposures to greatness have pushed me to more.

The results have been pretty outstanding to put it simply. They’ve worked a lot harder for me, thus forcing me to work harder for them. Higher standards rub off.

No one has complained either. I like how Gordon Ramsay cooks a steak, not so much how he terrorizes his chefs into doing it. While I’ve enforced high standards and accepted nothing less, I haven’t been mean or condescending. Just simply reporting the facts.

“This is not good enough,” isn’t mean. It’s honest. I think we could all do with a bit more honesty with ourselves, with others and especially others with us.

Being forward with my students has made all of us have better experiences. No one has complained, everyone has improved.

The more I experience greatness the more it rubs off on me. Hopefully it has the same effect on you. So go experience some greatness and then get to being great.

Don’t accept less than that, less than that is not good enough.

Just One Chance

I wish I could go back to middle school and fight to play the drum set in the band room a little harder.

I wish I could go back to high school and ask more questions in music theory.

I wish I could go back to college and practice a bunch more.

I wish I could go back to last week and change some stuff to.

Can’t. Why? Just one chance.

At any given time we’ve got just one chance. One chance to get the very most out of the moment. No matter what that moment is, its not coming back. Ever.

Sure, we can experience things more than once but not moments. I might have private lessons with my students every week but I’ll never have that private lesson again, and this private lesson will only be here for this moment and then its gone.

Whatever is in front of you get the very most out of it. Especially if its a learning experience. Milk it dry, its not coming back.

Even your leisure time. Really enjoy that sun set. Hang on every word of that book. Hear every note in that album. Get the most out of it. That moment is never coming back. Ever.

It requires immersion. Experiencing things peripherally isn’t fulfilling. The reason we wanna pull that cell phone out to pacify ourselves has everything to do with us and nothing to with our surroundings.

No matter where you find yourself there’s plenty to pay attention to and to take in. Its just whether we choose to absorb those things or not.

I’m trying to make the most of my one chance more and more every day. Let’s do it together.

Advice to a Future Performance Major

Just a few days ago a high school student about to graduate asked me for some advice on where he should go. He’s a saxophonist who’s very advanced for his age and planning to major in Jazz. We had wonderful conversation (not just about where to go but much more) and I thought I’d share the big stuff with you.

1. Where does your motivation come from?

I didn’t go to a school with the kind of international renown that a place like Berklee or USC has for Jazz education. There was no money for that. I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. I received a wonderful education but most of the time I had to motivate myself.

By my Junior year I was a big fish without a lot of competition. I had worked really hard to get to the top of the program and in virtue of upperclassmen graduating and my hard work, I got there.

But I didn’t say “what do I do now?” when that happened, because I knew it didn’t matter. My competition wasn’t at USF. As a drummer, my competition is Steve Gadd. My competition is Philly Joe Jones. My competition is Robert “Sput” Searight. My competition is me.

So I didn’t need to be in constant competition with my classmates to push myself. I already wanted to push myself, no external incentive needed.

I told the guy asking for advice that he doesn’t need to go to some expensive college if he’s motivated internally. He’ll push himself without a need for the hand-holding of his teachers or the competition of his colleagues. If he’s got the motivation, everything he wants to learn is already out there and he’ll find it if it’s not offered where he ends up.

2. Maintain and Build Your Network

I went to college a 2 hour drive from where I went to high school. I didn’t realize how big a deal that was until maybe a year ago.

Since I didn’t move to some other town many miles away, I kept the network of people that I had done a good job for in high school. My first professional gig was playing with my private teacher. I got my first (and current) teaching job working for my old band director when he moved to Tampa. That’s just two of many examples.

Relocating as an entrepreneur means giving up the network you’ve created and creating a new one. Relocation has its benefits, yes, but losing your network is a liability.

I told the guy that staying in the area he’s already built a huge network in will mean being well-established when he graduates. I also told him to make use of that momentum by being away from school and on the scene as much as possible while he’s in school.

3. Go For Free

I was extremely fortunate to go to college almost entirely for free. I had a full ride scholarship that covered everything I needed every semester.

All the credit goes to my mom on this one.

When I was a senior in high school she was always harassing me about finding scholarships. We spent hours at the dinner table in the living room filling out every application she could find.

Yes, she. I didn’t help a lot. The whole thing was really burdensome and tedious.

I wasn’t a brat or anything, I just didn’t have a clue the value of graduating with zero debt. But she did. She made me do it and I’m eternally grateful for her foresight.

Everyone who’s hope is to be an entrepreneur (that’s what being a freelance musician is) should have a primary goal of going to college for free. Maybe that means researching scholarships for an hour every single day or filling out 20 applications per week.

I told the guy to forget everything else I’d told him and remember this. Graduating with no debt as an entrepreneur puts you ahead. We can have a $2000 week this week and a $200 week the next. Having a variable income makes debt even more crippling than it usually is. I would make being debt free the very highest priority in choosing a school, and if being free of debt didn’t work out, go to the place that offers the most so you graduate with the least amount of debt possible.

So there it is, the three things myself and the guy talked about.

Going to a nearby university for my education was easily the best decision I could have made. I motivated myself, kept my network and went for free. I know this might not happen for everyone, but the closer you can get to these ideal situations, the easier post-graduation life will be.