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.

Hating on Pop Music

I did three majors in college, finally arriving at a Jazz Studies degree. Before that I spent time as a percussion performance major and a music education major. All three areas of learning did a lot of good for me but there was one pattern throughout those communities that I just never understood.

Hating on Pop music.

A lot of people insisted on the “musical stupidity” of the general public. They didn’t come to the wind ensemble concerts because they weren’t smart enough for the music. Alternative music education curriculums meant dumbing down music ed. “They can learn that in a garage band,” they’d say.

I’ve always found this kind of silly. I don’t think music serves the same purpose for all listeners. I just don’t understand how that idea isn’t more intuitive for professional musicians (especially educators).

Some people want their ears challenged. Some people want to hear a super flashy saxophone solo. Some people just want good ol’ four on the floor. Some people want something to help them survive their awful commute to and from the gut wrenching job that they really don’t care about. Are we so egotistical as to call people who just want comfort music “musically stupid?”

I’ve got just two things to say about this.

First, this is not about musical intelligence. I think this might really be about our jealousy. Having great ideas and challenging ourselves should pay better. Why is it that Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is taking all the recognition but my super adventurous 17 piece Hip Hop/Reggae/Polka/Jazz/Alternative/Heavy Metal/Fusion band (with 3 bass players and a kazoo) hasn’t taken off yet?

Dude. I don’t know. I’m not crazy about that either.

I do know the solution isn’t alienatating our audience with petty name calling.

Our expectations for audiences need to be realistic. We can’t expect niche genres to get the same respect as accessible genres. That’s silly and maybe a bit infantile.

Here are three alternatives to that attitude.

1. Find ways to be accessible and artful instead forcing ourselves to choose between the two. Examples include Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers and of course Snarky Puppy.

2. Do a better job of reaching our niche instead of complaining that people outside our niche aren’t buying. Again, I wish we found this to be more intuitive.

3. Don’t change anything and face the consequences. Maybe the way you’re doing things is too central to your identity or too precious to be changed. That’s fine, just don’t expect any changes. You’ve heard of Einstein’s definition of insanity by now right?

Secondly I think we should reevaluate the way we think of ourselves as musicians. I consider myself a healer more than anything else. If you take a minute to consider *why* people listen to music, sometimes it comes down to wanting to be healed of some kind of internal malady.

Maybe a bad day at work, a break up with a significant other or just being tired.

Or maybe it’s not an internal malady, but simply filling in the time or curing boredom. Or going somewhere where there will be music to create the opportunity to build relationships and community.

Either way, its serving a purpose. Emphasis on serving. Most of our work is working as a servant. Maybe if we were willing to think of ourselves as servants and healers instead of high and lofty artists we’d enjoy our opportunities to play music more.

Yes, I know that’s unattractive.

Being a willing servant is so incredibly unattractive to us in Western society. When we’re put in positions of serving we whine, moan, complain, kick, and scream about it. This behavior actually just makes us more miserable, why not modify our outlook?

Thinking of things this way is the kind of thing that keeps me a happy drummer. I want to be a great servant to whoever I’m playing with and to the audience. I love being a great servant.

It’s time for us to stop hating on pop music and start loving our opportunities to heal and serve.


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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.