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.

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.

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.

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.