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.

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.

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.

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.