There is this misguided idea in the world that, once someone becomes a Zen Master, they’ve reached a destination where they no longer have to work at anything. It should all be relatively easy.
When I say “Zen Master,” I’m talking about becoming your best at whatever it is that you might do, and then being at peace with yourself and your own abilities.
Too often, we may compare ourselves to others. They have nicer gear, or they can play something faster, or they’ve sold more records, or whatever the case may be.
Coming to terms with who and where you are should not be a Pollyanna perspective, where maybe you really are not all that good, but you want to convince yourself that you are. Instead, this is about coming to terms with it all while working to improve.
This is often necessary because of your own self-perspective.
INTERNAL FORCES For example, I have been studying guitar for a while now. Compared to how I was when I started playing, I have never been a better guitar player. However, in my own mind, I have also never been a worse guitar player.
The more I learn, the more I realize I do not know.
There is no destination where I will sit back and declare that I’ve “made it.”
My guitar mentor seems to be in the same position. He has been studying and playing for over 50 years. I honestly love everything that he’s ever recorded. And yet, he does not like ANYTHING that he has ever recorded.
This is because he writes a piece, records it, and continues to improve. By the time it’s mixed and released, he’s advanced beyond the point where he was when he wrote and recorded the piece. It’s old news, and it’s his old self.
This could be the person who thinks your guitar sucks, which is hilarious. But it could also be that person who asserts that you are no good at what you do because you can’t do X, with “X” being a parlor trick on the instrument.
For guitar, it could be playing fast, sweep picking, or general “shredding.”
All of it sounds stupid. But do not underestimate the power of it when someone says something like this, either to you or to someone else. It seeps into the subconscious. People who talk this way, or who treat music like a “who is the best” contest should be avoided.
FALSE SUMMITS OF ACHIEVEMENT
I used to think this way, and it became a disappointment. The idea here is that, once I can play that new riff, or once I can do X on my instrument, then I will have arrived. I will be a better player.
So I sit with the riff, the rudiment, the passage, or whatever the case may be, and I work on it until I achieve. Suddenly, I can now play this magical thing that I had once only dreamed of playing.
After that, I feel no better. The riff or rudiment has lots all of its magic. I can play it, so it’s no longer special. Lots of people can play it.
This issue can manifest in other ways. Once I get THIS guitar, or THOSE drums, or THAT setup, then I will suddenly have arrived. Once again, as the story goes, the gear is acquired, and nothing has changed.
Once my band gets signed, we’ll have made it!
Same thought, same outcome. Same false summit of achievement.
Yea, but once I sell one million copies of my album, I’ll…
…save it. Same issue, same idea. Same outcome.
OTHER FALSE MEASURES OF SUCCESS
But if shredding, and big record sales, and being a rock star, and expensive gear are not measures of success, then what are real measures of success?
In order to understand this, one must first understand why these measures will fail you.
I’ve already covered shredding and acquiring new skills, and why that does not work. Still, it has something in common with the other things noted above.
Record sales are nice, and it’s cool to have a number one. Much like being a rock star, it is fleeting. The more time passes by, the less people are impressed with it.
Money is also something that comes and goes. It’s an artificial concept, where a dollar is worth a dollar simply because we all agree that it’s worth a dollar, as the government asserts that it is worth a dollar.
REAL MEASURES OF SUCCESS
These measures are going to sound simple and unimpressive, because they are just that. These measures are not meant to impress anyone, and only serve as a tool for your own psychological health and safety.
Taking Steps: Are you taking steps in the right direction? Are you practicing every day? Have you noticed some results here and there? Include everything that is about your music-related goals. If you are moving forward, then you are succeeding.
Learning: Are you learning something new today? It can be a rudiment, a riff, a scale, or other music tools. It can also be learning more about your instrument, or listening to someone else and getting a spark of an idea of your own. If you are learning, then you are succeeding.
Positivity: Are you remaining positive about your lessons, your music, and your life’s ventures? This can be the most difficult, because people and circumstances can bring us down easily.
HOW TO FIND YOUR ZEN CENTER
It’s all about inventory. My music goals for today are to practice my guitar lessons, perform some luthier work on a few of my guitars, and record some new ideas.
At the end of the day, I can perform an inventory check. Did I do all of these things? If so, then I am making progress.
Of course, you may sometimes have to make allowances. Last Thursday, I had lots of music-related goals, and yet I could not achieve any of them because I had to get a tooth extracted. Sometimes life happens, and you have to give yourself a break. It also meant that I had to work just a little bit harder the next day.
Remember that this must be a daily occurrence. You should be practicing every day. At the end of every day, do your inventory.
IN THE END
Sometimes, the words of others can be positive and encouraging. Other times, they can be negative and cause harm. Daily work, with daily practice and daily inventories, is essential to maintain your Zen Center.
More important than what others say to you, is what you say to yourself. Be kind, be positive, and be honest. If you really are bad at your instrument, then figure out why and fix it. Either that, or you can quit and move on to other things. It depends on how important music is to you.
But if your self-perception gets skewed, then it’s best to acknowledge your behaviors and make adjustments, if necessary.
If adjustments are not necessary, and you’re doing fine, then be happy that you’ve found your Zen Center. You can sleep with the confidence that you will find this center tomorrow, by working on your goals and making a note of it.
“Hey, great show! Love seeing your band, and I really enjoy your drumming.”
If you have ever played a show at a club, and then had someone say something like this to you after, then you know the feeling. You have to smile and say “thank you” to this person. Meanwhile, in your head you are re-playing all of the mistakes that you made during the show. Your opinion is that the show sucked.
This situation highlights the difficult psychological issues that come up for musicians. Others might view us as being great, while we have a different perspective of ourselves.
A FEW MORE EXAMPLES
When I told my band that I was taking guitar lessons, one of them had an interesting reply.
“Why would you do that? You’re already a great guitarist.”
My initial reaction to this was that maybe I should no longer trust his judgment, and that he’s lost all credibility with me. This is not because I have a judgment to pass on him, but because of judgments I pass on myself. I do not see myself in this light.
Later, I was on the other end of this transaction with my guitar mentor. I wrote him an email about where I want to go in my studies. I talked about artists whose work I wanted to investigate deeper. He was one of those artists. I said, “I really like your style and approach, which is why I’m here.”
When we had our latest lesson, he said that he’d read my email. He thanked me for the kind words, and then asked that we be “done with” the compliments. He did add that we may disagree about certain things in the future, as well.
I think that he approached it this way in order to intercept a potential issue that he may have had in the past with fans. Maybe he and the student had a disagreement, and some hard feelings resulted.
I have a respect for what he does, and do not approach anyone as if I’m a fan. Still, respect is an attribute that fans have, and expressing this can come off as if I’m a fan. I view fans as being blinded by celebrity, which is something I’ve done away with decades ago. Still, better safe than sorry.
In the end, my respect is understood, and now we’re going to move forward. I do not need to express this again.
UNDERSTANDING BOTH SIDES
If someone says they like what I do, then I take it at face value. They mean it. My perspective of myself or how my show went does not factor into their perspective of me or how their experience went.
I had to see both sides of this before I understood the dynamics of it.
A STRANGE THING THAT HAPPENS OVER TIME
When I was young, I learned, and then I did. Music came easily for me at the time. I felt that I had my genre of interest “mastered” to a degree that was sufficient for my artistic expression.
The older I got, the more my perspective shifted. I would become unsatisfied with what I could do and what I knew. As a result, I would observe other players and try to teach myself elements of what they could do. I would also take lessons.
This resulted in a paradox, wherein the more I knew, the more I realized I did not know.
It’s like running on a football field, where you are certain that there is 300 yards of field in front of you. You start running toward to goal post on the other side, only to see it getting smaller. You keep running, and it gets bigger for a brief period, but then shrinks once again, rather quickly.
Suddenly, the other goal post appears to be many miles away. When you turn around to see your own progress, you realize that you’re only ten feet away from your original starting point.
WHAT YOU DO NOT KNOW
That feeling is daunting, and can cause someone to give up. As horrible as this feeling may be, let’s make it way worse.
If there is something you do not know, and you don’t know that you do not know it, then how can you know?
When I started with my guitar lessons, I had certain goals. Some of these goals ended up being modified, while others ended up going away completely. The more I learned, the more I realized I did not know.
Learning tends to go down this path. The guitar is an infinite instrument that can never truly be mastered. However, I can get better at what I want to do and what I want to get out of the instrument by practicing accordingly.
MY VIEW ON MY OWN ABILITIES
When I was young, I was a bad ass who could play any rock song I heard, to varying degrees. But as I got older, my musical interests got more complicated. Also, I wanted to be able to play beyond where I had been before.
I have confidence that I am not a beginner. However, the goal posts have moved so far that I cannot see the end. I can gain some ground, or so I think, by learning new things and implementing them into my tool box.
But will I ever be awesome? Will I ever be the best? Will I ever be a guitar god?
No. In fact, I may not ever think that I’m all that great. Not only do I acknowledged all of the musicians in the world who are beyond my ability, but these days I end up listening to music that I know I can never play.
As a musician, I have never been so good, and have never felt so not good.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a form of cognitive bias, where a person who has relatively low ability holds the illusion of superiority.
Everyone has witnessed this at one time or another. A good, generic example is the person who parrots all of the talking points of their favorite talk show host. As they speak, you can tell that they believe that they are smarter than you. When you ask them to clarify their position, they tell you to “Google it.”
HOW TO TELL IF YOU SUFFER THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
A person who believes themselves to be the best, the smartest, the fastest, etc., suffer this effect if their abilities do not match their claims.
What most of the great musicians I know have in common is that they do not assert themselves to be in some kind of category. They are constantly learning.
I may enjoy some of my own music, but I don’t see any of it as some kind of stellar accomplishment, or something that will change the world. Regardless of where one puts my current skill level, I am open to learning more, I am actively learning, and I am actively practicing what I am learning.
Will I reach a level of greatness one day? Probably not. I’m enjoying learning, and I am also enjoying the results of my hard work.
I will not be writing the next great symphony, but I will be having fun with what I do.
CLIMBING A SUMMIT AND WHAT IS AT THE TOP
Every musician has had thoughts like this at one point in their lives, most probably when they were young.
“If only I can learn how to do [insert instrument trick here], I will have finally made it.”
On the surface, this sounds silly. To a degree, it is silly. But it’s also positive.
I had this belief long ago, that if I can learn how to play something, or build up speed, then I will have “arrived.” But then something strange happens when I actually work and acquire the ability to play this desired “thing.” That is, it’s no longer special. It no longer has meaning. It becomes something that “anybody can do.”
I’ve just learned something, and I don’t feel any better about it. I don’t feel that I’ve arrived.
As I stand on the summit of that “thing,” I look around and see one million other summits that need to be climbed. I see other people standing on those summits, and I know that it took them 50 years to get there.
I’m now at the base of a new summit, ready to take the first step toward getting to the top, with the realization that I won’t feel any differently when I get there. Taking those steps suddenly gets more difficult.
People who suffer Impostor Syndrome have horrible thoughts about how they’re really no good at all. They’re a fraud, and everyone is going to find out.
This is the polar opposite of Dunning-Kruger. To summarize:
Dunning-Kruger: Believing you’re the best, when you’re the worst.
Impostor Syndrome: Believing you’re the worst, when you have ability.
I’ve had these feelings on many occasions, especially when I’m in the presence of someone who has incredible talent. If you work with someone who is way better than you, then you’ve felt this before.
Writing down your accomplishments and then working to internalize them can help with this issue.
SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE WITH HONESTY
I have never walked off a stage and thought to myself that I’d had a perfect performance. It just does not happen. However, I have left the stage after a show and declared, “That felt great!”
Indeed, the show did feel that way. The audience was fantastic. Sure, everyone in the band screwed up here and there, but nobody seemed to notice or care. Everyone had fun, and that is the ultimate point of it all.
DO NOT TRUST YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
Your self-perception is about as reliable and possible as your ability for your eyeball to see itself without a mirror.
If you think you can, then you are correct. If you think you cannot, then you are correct.
While you may know yourself better than anyone else, you’re also an expert on how to fool yourself.
THE DANGERS OF YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
If you believe that you are really good, then you have no motivation to learn more or to practice. This path leads to a place where you are no longer trying. Dunning-Kruger has just been invited to your house.
But if you believe that you are really bad, then you run the risk of giving up.
Either way, your opinion of yourself is not reliable.
HABITS OF THE BEST
One’s perception of others has a better likelihood of being honest.
Pick the best players you can think of, on any instrument, in any genre. What they all have in common is that they do not rest on their laurels [accomplishments] while declaring themselves to be the best.
They’re still running toward that goal post, working to improve, trying new things, implementing new abilities, and so on.
HOW TO COPE WITH IT ALL
As you read through this, you might be thinking that all of this sounds horrible. Why try to be a musician in the first place, when you cannot be the best? Many other questions like this one will rise up.
I do have some ways to cope with these perils, which I will share.
Abolish your opinion of yourself: Don’t think of yourself as good or bad.
Take the opinions of others with a grain of salt: They might have bias. Grandma said you have a beautiful singing voice. This may not be true. They could also be jealous. You will never know the truth, so keep some perspective on it.
Know when to add weight to opinions: A drunk in the bar who says you suck is meaningless. A judge in a competition who says you need work in areas has something valuable to say. A teacher who has a critique should be taken more seriously, and their claim must be investigated.
Set SMALL goals and keep notes: Playing a riff or rudiment at 50bpm might be your baseline. Once you have that clean, then set your metronome closer to a goal. Maybe you’re trying to slow down, or speed up. Whatever your goal may be, document your work toward that goal.
Celebrate your wins: Once you hit a goal, acknowledge it. Document it. Be proud of it. Generate a feeling about it. Understand that this feeling will go away quickly and become meaningless.
Forget about reaching a destination: Remember the goal post I mentioned earlier? The one that keeps moving? The point of it all has nothing to do with a destination.
THEN WHAT IS THE POINT?
When you dance, the point is not to start on one side of the room, and end up in a specific place in the room by the end.
The point is the dance.
The point of learning music is to learn. The point of making music is to make it.
I practice every day. Then, I play music every day. Sometimes I write and record music. Other times I make music with others. Some days I make music for a future record with my band. Other days, I make music that I suspect nobody will ever hear, and nobody will like.
If you want to learn music, then learn it.
If you want to make music, then make it.
If you want to do something else, then go do it.
Should you be looking forward to your destination, then understand that you will be met with disappointment. Instead, look at the grass under your feet. Smell the fresh air. Look at the animals moving about. Take in the sunset. It’s all you’ve got.
“Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired, go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand” –Bruce Lee
This is something my guitar mentor told me recently, after I had confided in him that I was experiencing some issue relevant to what we were doing. I may talk about those issue someday. More about these “rocks” later in this blog.
I wanted to write this as as follow-up to my previous blog entry, Anecdote: Sharks, Sour Grapes, and Fruit Baskets. Although the story is honest, and it reflects what could be expected of the old music industry model, I felt that it was too negative.
It was probably one of the most negative experiences that I’ve had on the inside. To put a more positive light on it, I did not let it destroy me, and I kept on. I’m still here!
There will always be negativity in the world, and in daily life when dealing with others. Various situations will arise, where you might get those feelings, or a sense of anxiety.
THE OLD MUSIC BUSINESS MODEL STINKS!
You can’t sell records. You won’t make big bucks with it. It’s not what it used to be.
These sentiments are very true, and that is one way of thinking about it. If you try to get somewhere with music in the same way that I tried in the mid-1980s, then you’re not only going to have a bad time, but you will probably get almost no traction at all.
It may still be possible, as a few dinosaur labels are kicking. There are other things to do.
YOU CAN STILL MAKE SOMETHING OF IT
If you write and record a song or album with the idea of moving units or having hits, then you might be taking the wrong approach. Second-guessing the audience or hip trends is always a fool’s errand.
By being true to yourself and doing what you want to do, you can create something and then push it out there as a representation of who you are.
YouTube, SoundCloud, Patreon, and other digital avenues are out there. Most do not cost very much, if anything, and you can reach more people. Get creative with it. Chances are that you will not sell one million albums, but you can make things happen with other avenues.
With Patreon, for example, you can have tiers and offer exclusive access to fans and social networking followers to participate in those tiers by donating a specific monthly amount. I don’t want to get into it too much, as I’d rather encourage you to check it out for yourself.
There has never been a better time in the history of music for independent musicians and songwriters than right now. It’s incredible.
MAKING THINGS BETTER
As you use today’s modern tools, think about how you can make them better, or how you can better utilize them to your advantage. Expensive hardware has been replaced with cheap or free plug-ins. Pricey interfaces are no long the only option, and other options are within almost anyone’s budget.
Today, you can make your own album-ready music. I’ve been doing this with Noodle Muffin for the past 15 years, as we’ve self-recorded and self-produced everything we have ever released. The band was doing self-production long before I joined, as well. You can check out our albums on iTunes. It’s a fun band with some great songs, which is why I’m there.
ABOUT THOSE ROCKS IN MY BACKPACK
It is true that we all have rocks in our backpack. When he told me this, I initially took it as a simple way of being kind while rightfully suggesting that we’ve all got problems. However, I decided to dig a little deeper into what this statement means to me.
I was in the middle of writing this, when the batteries in my keyboard died, and I had to change them.
That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that the need to change the batteries was a part of my writing of this blog.
I don’t view this as part of the rocks, so much as the dust that gets kicked up when I start running and the rocks start bouncing in my backpack. At least, that’s my perception of it.
If that’s just the dust, then how big are these rocks?
WHAT IS THE BACKPACK?
The backpack represents a person’s ego. The ego is a container that I call “me.” You call it “I.” It lives in a biological locker known as your brain.
The rocks represent life experiences. It could be a parent saying that you’re “stupid,” or school kids calling you “ugly,” or a teacher who says that you’ll never get anywhere. It can be what you like, or your expectations, or behaviors. These are all rocks that are put in your backpack for you.
You put your own rocks in there, too, with negative self-talk, or memory of moments where you tried something and failed. When you quit instead of persisting, that’s another rock. Adopting preferences, becoming a fan of something, being influenced by marketing, going with the crowd, your hopes and fears, and more, are all considered to be rocks.
Not only do we hang onto these, but we cling tightly to them and carry them around. This is “me.” The contents of the backpack is who I am.
At one point, not only was my backpack full, but a stone quarry was dropped on my head a few years ago, when I was publicly scammed. Without getting into the re-telling or re-living of this horrible event, I will talk about how I dealt with it.
HOW WAS YOUR DAY? Ah, you wouldn’t believe it. I was writing a blog, when my keyboard batteries died. So I went to my battery stash and did not have any of the proper size. This meant that I had to get pants, drive to the store, get the batteries, and stand in line. By the time I got back, I felt so uninspired. It just ruined my entire day, you know? [insert bad attitude and negative feelings here.]
Can you imagine letting batteries ruin your day? Batteries!
The attitude about it would be the first problem, and the re-hash of it would be the second problem.
This is why accepting it as being part of the process is so important, when compared to adopting it as a problem. This is also why I won’t write about the details of what happened. That information is for the investigating authorities. It’s not for my daily life.
THE REALLY BIG ROCKS
Getting scammed was one of the biggest rocks in my backpack. It’s easier to blow off dead batteries, than it is to cope with a life-changing event such as this. With the really big rocks, you have to chip away at them. This can take years.
This one took me four years, and I had to find ways to cope with the weight of it all, while trying to live a regular everyday life. This rock was so tremendously big that it obscured my vision.
After years of chopping away, it has been turned to sand. This has been pouring out through a hole in my backpack, like sand through an hour glass. Time healing wounds.
TAKING THE ROCKS OUT
Therapy is valuable. When discussing these rocks with a professional, their responses can sometimes result in the removal of some of the rocks. Trying to cover it up or going into denial might provide temporary relief, but this does not deal with them.
The rocks are still there. You’re just pretending they are not there.
Rocks are intimidating and overwhelming. Big rocks can be crippling.
DUMPING OUT THE ROCKS
Treatments involving therapy with psilocybin have been mentioned in the news recently, as a way of treating Veterans who suffer PTSD. The purpose of this treatment it to reset and normalize activity in the Amygdala.
The PTSD, or “triggering,” arises when statements or events result in an “Amygdala hijack.” This is an immediate and over-the-top reaction to something that is typically not meant to be all that bad. It’s making a boulder out of a piece of gravel.
For a while, I had a fear of going outdoors, and was lacking in confidence. These rocks have weight and power.
USING MUSIC TO COPE
I had addressed some of the major rocks in my life by spending 2017 writing and recording a series of songs related to people and events of my life that were of concern to me.
Some of the people mentioned in the songs had a hand in making the giant boulder in my backpack more difficult.
Putting these people and events into songs was a way of taking them out of my backpack, looking at them, and tossing them aside. I don’t have to think about them anymore.
People who do not write music often do something similar, when they write these things down on a piece of paper and then burn it.
GETTING A NEW BACKPACK
This may be done with a great level of psilocybin or other psychedelics, and the resulting effect is known as an “ego death.” I am not recommending this approach, and have not done this. I still have the same backpack. It’s just significantly lighter now.
What I have done involves the employment of meditation, as well as forgiveness. The forgiveness is not about excusing what they did, or letting them know that it did not hurt you.
MORE ABOUT FORGIVENESS The forgiveness surrounding my biggest rock involved letting go of what happened by accepting that it is now part of the past. It is not who I am, and is not my future.
It means not holding bad feelings or grudges against the many people in this incident. These grudges will make a person sick. That’s a guarantee. Concepts, such as hating them or wanting to get revenge, get thrown out the window.
This is not to suggest that I would be friends with them. The similarities between loving someone and hating someone is that it’s an act of caring about them. By not caring about them, it is as if they no longer exist in my world. These negative people are now completely inconsequential in my mind.
I do not have the space, time, or energy for hating anyone.
THERE IS NO BACKPACK
Now we’re getting into the realm of intense spiritualists who become Elements of Heatless Light.
Do not think that you can never achieve it, for this is not about achievement, a goal, or a destination. When you dance, there is no spot on the dance floor where you try to end up. When you write a song, it’s not about the ending.
It’s about what you’re doing right now. After that, it’s not about what you did just then, and is about what you’re doing right now.
The only problem is that if you think you’ve attained it, then this act means that you have not. It is not a destination.
HOW ALL OF THIS APPLIES TO MUSIC
It is said that art comes from pain, and it really can. But when a person is angry, depressed, or otherwise injured, the last thing they want to do is create music. Anything that can get in the way of a person’s ability to get out of bed or to pick up an instrument is not conducive to the creative process.
Whether you’re a new student who is just learning, or a seasoned player who is working on new things, being able to play your instrument with a clear mind is essential to progress and creativity. At the very least, it is more difficult to focus and do what one wants to do with a heavy backpack.
A PROMISE TO MYSELF
I will be leaving the previous blog up, as a reminder of what I would prefer to avoid. While I will not avoid the negative aspects or challenges associated with music, I will take the time and care to address these things in a positive light, in a way that is productive and educational.
The promise I make to myself is a promise that I make to you, the reader. This blog will not turn into a dumping ground of negativity.
TODAY Today, there is practice to be done, lessons to be written, floors to be swept, dishes to be washed, and garbage to be taken out. I will not think of these items as things that I have to do, like chores. Instead, I will approach these items as things that are a part of my life.
Today, I get the opportunity to live. I can sweep the floors, wash the dishes, take the garbage out, do my lesson work, and practice my own music lessons. I might even get to write a song, and maybe record it, too.
I will have no expectations regarding any of it. What gets done will get done. What does not will not.
Should the winds blow, I will set my sails. Should the air be still, I will row my oars. Should my arms grow tired, I will rest in my boat and enjoy the scenery. And should I catch a fish, I will consider it a bonus.
I have no destination.
What I do have is right now. My attitude toward and about “right now” is for me, and I will give myself what I deserve.
I will not waste “right now” with negativity, hatred, or fear. And I will not fear Death, for Life is an illusion caused by Death.
I was only 32 years old when I was writing and recording with Filipina recording artist Ruby Cassidy [aka “Mystika”] in Hollywood. The engineer, producer, and owner of the studio was [and is] famed drummer Jimmy Hunter.
During a stretch where we were in the control center together, while the artist was recording vocal tracks, Jimmy told me, “You’re an old guy now. You should get out of the way of the young kids and do something else.” His suggestion was that I be his assistant, or at least I took it that way.
That never happened, although I did help him a bit. My conversation with Jimmy did not bother me, because I was 32 and was not feeling my age yet. But if we’d had this conversation just a few years earlier, I probably would have been destroyed.
A MEGAFRIEND IN A BIG CRISIS
Then Megadeth drummer Nick Menza and I were introduced by his mother back when “Countdown to Extinction” was released. I figured it would be cool to meet him, and had no idea that we would become friends.
On Halloween 1994, Megadeth was having an album release party for their new album, “Youthanasia.”
The party was in a castle in Hollywood, and a ton of people were there. Kennedy from MTV was conducting interviews. Famed photographer Richard Avedon was taking photographs of the event. He was also the photographer for the album, as well as promo photos.
There was a mote around the castle, snake handlers, an incredible catering spread, and a phenomenal atmosphere that was fitting for a Halloween release of a metal album of this nature. It would be fair to say that it was an ideal evening.
That is, ideal for everyone except me.
I was there with my on-and-off girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time. Even worse, in less than five weeks I would be thirty years old. This may not sound like a big deal. Turning 50 was a cakewalk for me, and 40 was easy.
But there was something horrific about 30. Here I was, 30 years old, with a toxic relationship being cemented with a baby, and a job where I worked for an abusive boss. Not only had I not achieved anything that I wanted to achieve within the context of the music industry [another long story], but now I was going to be… old!
There was no going back. There were no do-overs. Life had passed me by, I felt that I had failed miserably, and everything was over. At least I was celebrating the accomplishments of a friend who was only six months older than me.
I did my best to keep my depression in check. I tried to not think about what was happening with my life, and what was going to happen. So far as I was concerned, my life was over. Destroyed. Wasted. When I thought about it, anxiety would come up and make sure that I was not going to enjoy this celebration.
At one point, I hid behind a tree on the edge of the property, because I felt that my issues were too visible. Once I had gathered myself, or so I thought, I see that Nick Menza is heading my direction.
He starts the conversation with a pleasantry. “Did I autograph your promo poster yet?” He then gave me an autograph, which was cool.
Then he gets to the real reason why he came over. “Dude, are you okay?” I said that I was fine, but he wasn’t buying it. “What’s wrong? I can tell something is up.”
There was nothing else I could do but be honest. I let him know exactly what was on my mind. I told him about my impending “thirty-ness,” stress about my future son’s arrival, and how I had failed as a musician because I had not ended up where I thought I would be by age 30.
Being a drummer who was only six months older than me, I figured that Nick would understand my situation. Fortunately, I figured correctly, as he had some wise words to say to me about all of it. What he said will stay with me forever.
Nick’s words did not negate the attitude of the music business toward older people who had not yet gained entry. Had these words come from anyone else, they would have meant nothing. Because it was Nick saying this to me, as a friend, it meant the world.
On May 21, 2018, it will be the second anniversary of the passing of my friend, Nick. He died while drumming, which seems rather fitting for him, since he loved drumming so much. Here I am, almost half a lifetime later, still feeling the impact of Nick’s words, his kindness, and his friendship.
I’ll always remember what he said, as well as the encouragement that he provided. There were many times where I would play drums at his house while he riffed on the guitar. Fame comes and goes, but friendship is forever.
WHAT OLDER MUSICIANS DO
Nick left this world behind a drum set, passing away during a gig with Ohm at The Baked Potato in Studio City, CA.
Most older musicians who are performing professionally are doing so because they had built a name for themselves when they were younger. People want to see where they are now, how they are now, and they want to re-live their youth.
The only difference between me and Nick is that I never did build a household name. I did build a reputation among people who were playing shows, back in the day. Those days are gone, and so are most of those people.
What do older musicians in my shoes do?
My friend Jimmy had suggested that I become a producer, or get involved in the control booth of a studio. This advice was more solid in 1997, when he gave it to me. Unfortunately, this advice did not age very well, as recording studios are taking a major hit. People are recording at home now.
BECOME A PRODUCER? Even I record at home most of the time. While I may record live drums for Noodle Muffin on occasion, I do not even record live drums for myself. I do not have a facility or the gear, and it is too expensive. I use Addictive Drums in Reaper, with an AKAI MPD18 pad controller. The songs and the situation do not warrant such an effort or expense.
It’s an expensive proposition that may not show much of a return.
I have done some songwriting in the past, and have put some songs up for sale using various services. This is a case of industry focus, meaning these songs are for sale to bands or artists who are in the music industry.
With this approach, I can still say what I want to say with music. I just get a younger, more palatable face to say it for me. Checks get cashed, with no hassle that comes with fame.
PRIVATE MUSIC TEACHER
This is one avenue I am actually pursuing. I’ve taught lessons before, on a casual basis, and I liked it. Music has always brought me happiness, which is why it’s still a part of my life. If I can teach someone, get them on a path, and give them encouragement, then I will be passing along Nick’s gifts to me.
COVER BAND/PARTY BAND
When I was younger, this had a limited amount of appeal to me, because my focus was having an original band and getting attention on our own songs.
When I was almost 20, I observed the power of the cover song with my college band, The Beertonez. We played a decent mix of covers and originals.
People loved our rendition of the covers we played, and it turned out to be really fun, as well as a money-maker. One gig would produce enough to pay rent for six months. My cut from our last gig paid for my entire college year.
In 2018, the money goes not go nearly so far. But the way I see it, if I can get paid to make music, then it’s a win-win for me. Plus, people seem to have a lot of fun with covers.
This is not a money-maker, but it sure is fun. Getting together with older musicians and making music is what keeps me feeling young.
Music isn’t always about money.
THE MUSIC BUSINESS GOT OLD, TOO
Not only did the music business get old, but the original path of getting discovered, signed by a major label, and putting out records is almost dead. Back then, this was almost the only way to get anywhere substantial. There were a few bands who were doing their own thing, but they weren’t raking in the dough like it seemed the signed bands were doing.
RIDE THE WRINKLES
The once smooth, Botox-injected face of the music business is now showing its wrinkles. The good news is that these wrinkles result in alternative revenue streams becoming available.
At one time, YouTube was one of these alternative avenues, although they are starting to die out as a result of their penchant for de-monetizing videos. By the time they review and monetize your videos, the maximum views have been had, and the excitement has worn off a bit.
One might suggest that YouTube is dying, although it would be more accurate to suggest that YouTube is committing suicide. The bad things that are happening to YouTube are things that they are doing to themselves. They are lacking in adequate customer support, but are also very lacking in self-awareness. They are on the fast-track that MySpace was on, except they are bigger. YouTube is too big to survive, but that’s another topic.
Patreon is another good way to get financial support from fans, and it can be used in conjunction with YouTube or other social networking sites. I do not have a Patreon site myself, but I know many other artists who do, and they seem to like it.
Online Sales can be good, too, depending on the exposure your band gets on social networking. Noodle Muffin uses sites like iTunes and CD Baby.
In summary, when I first started pursuing work in the music business on a more official level in 1986, getting signed was the best thing that could happen to a band. In fact, it was almost the ONLY thing that could happen. As for today, getting signed might be the worst thing that can happen to a band.
IN THE END
Whether it’s playing smaller crowds, playing covers, teaching, or writing songs for others, older musicians still have things to say. Thanks to our modern times, the industry cannot stop them, as they are no longer the only entity that dictates what the people will hear, and when they will hear it.
I have something to say, as do my older contemporaries. The number of ways we have to say it now is incredible.
Working with a metronome is important for all musicians, and not only drummers.
As the drummer, I would always make my own set list. I’d make it in a font that was big enough, but would also include some extra information that would not make sense to anyone else in band. It looked something like this.
My Original Song Name Here (Purple Haze)
More about that later.
A METRONOME’S PURPOSES
In my instrument practice, I use a metronome to make sure that I am playing something clean and in time. For example, arpeggios on guitar have to be even. As I get better, I can increase the speed of the metronome, in order to give myself a new challenge. This lead to improvement.
For instrument rehearsal [for songs], a metronome gives me a reference point. My goal is to keep in time with the metronome, to the point that the metronome becomes a part of the performance. It’s a guide. It also sets you up for other reference points later.
Repetition is key, for you build your own feel, muscle memory, and reference points.
Eventually, the metronome goes away. It does come back as a click track when recording. Sometimes, it hangs around if you need it to keep things relatively perfect for a sequencer or other automated action. But if it’s a bunch of people on standard instruments, playing their parts, then they should not need it.
OLD AND NEW MUSIC
New music is always set to a click. Today, lots of new music may not even have a drummer. You can tell by the lack of creativity, feeling, emotion, or purpose. It is also quantized.
This brings a level of perfection to the music. It can also sterilize and sanitize the music, thereby taking all of the feel out of it.
Old music was not quite like this.
Before our modern age, an orchestra had a conductor. Their job was to be the metronome of sorts. They were the click track for the performance. The only difference was that they were, obviously, human. The conductor could decide that a piece needs to slow down or speed up just a little bit, and they can do it.
With modern rock bands, there was no conductor, so this job was handed over to the drummer. This is why drummers are often times referred to as “time-keepers.” I do not like this phrase, because many people take it to mean that this is all the drummer does.
A good drummer can bring feeling, emotion, phrasing, or can make the other players sound better. There is so much more to it than being a metronome.
The rock bands of the old days may have recorded to a click track at times, but most of them appear to have not. If you listen to some Led Zeppelin songs, and you really pay attention, some of the songs waver in tempo by as much as 6-10BPM (beats per minute).
By today’s standard, this is considered to be unacceptable. But really, I did not even notice until I really paid attention and figured it out. I’m not the only one who has noticed this.
There is a difference between wavering slightly in tempo, and being completely off.
ON TIME, AHEAD, AND BEHIND A skilled drummer can work with a click/metronome and weave in and out of it. Tony Royster Jr. has a great demo on how to achieve this, so I’ll kick it to him for a few minutes.
PURPLE HAZE, ALL IN MY BRAIN
Now that we’ve talked about the purpose of the metronome or click track, and the various uses and purposes, I’d like to set the stage, and go back to what I mentioned earlier, where I make a set list that contains the name of my band’s original song, followed by the name of a highly memorable [for me] song.
The Situation: My band is playing a gig at a club. We do not play along with a click. I want to play the song as closely as possible to the tempo in which we wrote it, but I do not have the time to set a metronome and get that in my head.
There are two solutions to this. One is you can have a metronome with a visible flash, and you can reference it before you start. If you do this, then you will want to avoid looking back at it later, seeing a variance, and then slowing down or speeding up. Keep the flow of the song, even if the tempo wavers.
The other is a mental trick that I use, and you can use it, too.
Purple Haze is a song by the late, great Jimi Hendrix. Almost everyone I know has heard that song. I’ve listened to it several times. My college band did a cover of it during our gigs in the early 1980s.
When I think about Purple Haze, I cannot help but replay it in my mind. When I do that, it replays at its original tempo, which is around 110BPM.
So when I have a song name on the set list, followed by the name of a song that I know, all I have to do is think of that song and I instantly have the tempo, or I’m at least really close to it.
Purple Haze, by Jimi Hendrix, is 110BPM.
Feel Good Inc., by The Gorillaz, is 140BPM.
What songs do YOU have in your head? If you’re a musician, you can use these songs to your advantage. And remember, EVERYONE is responsible for having good, developed time. Not just the drummer.
IN THE END
My drum teacher throughout high school and college, Mr. Richard Paul, was very rough on his students when it came to tempo, among other things. His attitude was what earned him the nick-name King Richard. While the movie was not about him, WHIPLASH had a rather accurate portrayal of him.
The only difference was that he never threw anything or hit anyone, but you could get the sense that he wanted to do it. I’d like to think that if he ever did such things, that he did them in perfect time.
INTRODUCTION TO THE “NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY” To understand my point, one must first understand what is known as The No True Scotsman Fallacy. An example of this “circular” type of argument from the link is below.
(1) Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
(2) No (true) Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
(3) Angus is not a (true) Scotsman.
(4) Angus is not a counter-example to the claim that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
This fallacy can be employed and served as an attempt to refute someone’s point in an argument.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MUSIC?
I have met many, many musicians over the course of my lifetime. Some of them are good at what they do, and they have a good deal of confidence in what they do.
But then there are others who have been sold a bill of goods, typically by other people, regardless of whether or not they’re a musician. I consider it to be psychological abuse, because it can be paralyzing to a person who is maybe lacking in confidence.
In keeping with the format of the example above:
(1) Joe is a guitarist, but cannot sweep pick.
(2) No (true) guitarist is lacking in sweep pick abilities.
(3) Joe is not a (true) guitarist.
(4) Joe is not a counter-example to the claim that no guitarist is lacking in sweep pick abilities.
In other words: Steve Vai shreds on guitar, and you’re not a real guitarist until you can play like him.
This can be done with any instrument. Just take someone who is highly-talented, use them as the benchmark, and then proceed to insult and belittle.
If you’re feeling like your not a real musician, then please read on, because I do have some good news for you.
WHAT IS THE BENCHMARK?
Is Steve Vai the benchmark of guitar? What about Andres Segovia? Certainly, they are masters at what they do. But they are not the benchmark for what makes a musician, even though they are/were highly incredible players. Declaring them to be the benchmark is dishonest, discouraging, and ignorant.
It’s also not a healthy way to think about it.
What is fair to say about the likes of Vai or Segovia, is that they are inspirations. Also, they are aspirations. It is healthy and realistic to say that you’d like to play like them one day, or to be as good as them one day.
The fact that you might not yet be there does not mean that you are not a musician.
A POPULAR DRUMMER ARGUMENT
One I’ve encountered is that “Ringo is a horrible drummer, because of how simple he plays.” The idea here is that Ringo stinks as a drummer, or may not even be a “true drummer,” because he’s not shredding the kit like Buddy Rich.
The video is a clue into why this argument is fallacious.
Indeed, playing for the song and the genre is what makes Ringo a great musician. Now, if he wanted to play drums for a speed metal band, then he’d have a complete host of problems, as well as a ton of work ahead of him. He’d have to dedicate years, or maybe even a decade or more, to be able to do this.
Does Ringo suck because he cannot play speed metal? Of course not.
THAT’S NOT WHAT I PLAY
This is the best response to give to someone who has this type of criticism about your playing. It’s one thing for them to note that you need work on timing, or maybe you need to be more smooth. But it’s another to say that you “suck” or are not a “real musician” because you can’t do a certain trick on the instrument.
That’s not what I play.
WHO SAYS THESE THINGS
You can encounter them at a music store, or maybe at a club. It’s usually someone who cannot yet do the things they’re laying at your feet. In that case, they’re trying to compensate for their own bad feelings about themselves.
If they can play like that, and have this attitude, then they’re just being a jerk about it.
WHO DOES NOT SAY THESE THINGS
I used to go to this open jam, where you sign up on the list, and then get called up to play a few songs when it’s your turn. Sometimes I’d sign up for drums. On a few occasions, when lots of drummers showed up, I’d sign up to play fretless bass.
These people are world-class musicians who are confident in their abilities. Sometimes they make mistakes. But they are always having fun. That’s why they do it.
It’s a community activity, and not a competition. Nobody there ever talked about how they were better than this other guy. Ever.
WHEN DID I BECOME A MUSICIAN?
This is something that I’ve thought about while writing this. Did I become a musician when I moved to LA to play on historic stages in the mid-1980s? Did I become a musician when I recorded my first tracks in 1978? Did I become a musician when I joined the school band in 1971?
We can go deeper. Did I become a musician when I could sight-read? Did I become a musician when I was first introduced to Music Theory in 1983? Did I become a musician when I could finally play my first song?
Have I not yet become a real musician??
One might suggest that I became a musician when I first showed interest in playing music.
THE ANSWER REVEALED Since I first showed interest when I was 18 months old, I would say that at this stage I was emulating my uncle’s band drummer, while showing a high level of interest and aptitude.
I actually became a musician when I was four years old, because this was when I became a student.
My uncle, who played guitar in his band, sat me down and wrote out how to play an F Major scale on the guitar. He did this when the band was on break. After he wrote this, he left me with his guitar and the paper, while he went outside to hang with the band.
I looked at the paper, looked at the guitar, and started trying to play it. It was pain-stakingly horrible. My fingers were too little. I did not yet have technique of any kind.
However, I was trying, and I was learning. This is what music students do.
Once you are a student of music, you have become a musician.
WHO IS A STUDENT? In the past, I’ve studied with many music teachers. Since that day with my uncle, and subsequent days with him, I studied with various grade school and high school band directors. I studied drums with John W. McMahan, author of “Readin’, Ritin’, and Rudiments: A Collection of Studies for the Beginning Snare Drummer.” I continued drum studies in junior high with Richard Paul, who would later be my professor at Ball State University.
After that, I kept on taking lessons whenever I could. I took some private drum lessons with Chad Wackerman, and also paid attention and learned from every musician I have ever met.
Lately, I have been taking guitar lessons from a professional guitarist. While I keep his name private for security reasons, and out of respect for his privacy, he has made a name in the music industry, and has contributed to albums that will truly stand the test of time.
He has been playing guitar for over 50 years, and yet [according to him], he has not yet mastered the guitar. Adding to this, he says that he never will master the guitar, as there is not enough time in anyone’s life to actually do this. The guitar is an Infinite Instrument, because you have a complete small orchestra at your fingertips.
Imagine how things would be if he could not call himself a musician until he’s mastered his instrument. There would be no point to any of it.
He got good at his genre-of-focus [and others], at songwriting, and other abilities. Then, he started branching out to discover other aspects of guitar, such as classical playing. While there are still things that he does not know [because knowing it all would be impossible], or has not yet conquered, he is farther along than I can ever get, even if I practiced 5 hours per day every day for the rest of my life.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
My perspective of his playing is that he’s a genius and a major talent. To himself, it’s a different story. He’s never happy with anything that he’s ever done. He writes something and records it. Then, by the time it is mixed, mastered, and released, he’s already moved on. He’s already moved forward. That song he recorded in the past is now “old hat,” and not representative of what he can do now.
Some of that could be real. Some of it could be psychological. I think that GREAT musicians are never satisfied with where they are. This is how they become great.
When I told the guys in my band that I was taking guitar lessons, they were curious. “Why are you taking lessons? You’re already a great guitarist.”
From my perspective, I am not, which is why I am taking lessons and learning. I will be learning until the day I die, or the day that I move on. I haven’t moved on from music in 53 years, so I have doubts that it will happen.
When I was young, I was in awe of punk rockers who painfully pushed out three chords on the guitar, with each chord the result of a down-stroke in 8th notes.
Players like that sold more guitars than shredders, because what they played was more accessible. But I digress. The point is, I’m not going to say that this is NOT music, because it’s too simple or easy, or any other reason. Even if I did not like it at all, saying it stinks does not mean that it’s not music, or that they are not musicians.
They’re a different type of musician.
GET ON A PATH
What you have to do is choose a path.
In my guitar lessons, I’ve been diving into music theory and various concepts that apply specifically to the guitar. I could easily get drowned in music theory. It did happen once, and I actually panicked.
Now that I have these concepts in my lap, I have to work on them every day for years to get to a point where I can effective utilize them in my playing and songwriting.
Now, I have to decide where I want to go with it. I’m thinking of tasty blues-style lead playing. This is a good example of where I’d like to go.
I’m choosing this style, not because it’s easy. In fact, it’s far from easy. However, it is spacious and open. I do not feel the need to fill every single beat of the music with as many notes as humanly possible.
My first goal is to get to a place where I can improvise something interesting and musical. Should I happen to build speed, which could happen since I work with a click track or backing tracks, then that will be a bonus.
The reason why I have to choose a path is simply because life is too short. If I try to learn as much as possible about guitar, and I don’t make music, then there might be little point to it all, beyond accomplishing things for my own growth.
Supposing that I go with the path of a tasty blues-style lead player, I can focus on the aspects of that particular style. I don’t have to sit and spend time on Classical playing, or metal shredding, and similar things. There are an infinite amount of paths to take.
That’s not to say that I could not later wish to focus on those and add aspects of it to my own path and style.
The point is to get good at what you want to play.
HOW TO BE A GOOD STUDENT
Communicate with your teacher/mentor about your goals and challenges. Do your homework. Practice every single day. 20 minutes per day, every day, is by far better than a few hours during the weekend. Building synaptic connections in your brain, and having those work in conjunction with your muscles, is the goal with daily practice.
Ask questions. Talk about what’s not yet working for you, and why. Be open to critiques about your playing, as well as your technique.
Being interested, curious, and willing to learn, are good attributes for any student.
Remember to have fun and enjoy it.
For me, outside of a brief period in my relatively recent past, where I had some anxiety related to learning music theory, I’ve truly enjoyed every minute that I’ve ever spent with an instrument.
That difficulty I had there is not the first time that I’ve encountered difficulty. It’s also not the first time that I’ve had some anxiety. Sometimes it can happen.
When it does happen, it’s important to stop, breathe, and put it all into perspective.
You’re learning how to do something that will ultimately be fun. Try to relax, and enjoy the learning process, as well as the horrible sounds that you’ll make at first. There is work to be done, but the results are worth it all.
NOW ACCEPTING STUDENTS
I am in a place where I am accepting entry-level music students. If you are interested, then please consider visiting my website for more info, and then contacting me if you have any questions. You can also leave comment questions on this blog.
So whenever someone says that you’re “not a musician” because you can’t do something, remember that they might be a jerk, or they could be insecure. “You’re right. I cannot play that. Yet.”
For almost 50 years, I have enjoyed being a student of music. I am looking forward to the continuation of this journey. I’m excited to find out what will happen next.
In the summer of 1970, my family went to the Indiana State Fair for the rides, cotton candy, and the usual things that are to be expected. What was not expected was that I’d get to meet Cowboy Bob. Cowboy Bob, portrayed by the late Bob Glaze, had a kids’ show, where he’d play cartoons and entertain between them.
Bob was an animal activist and preservationist, so he always had animals in his show. At one point in his show, he has a guy bring out a boa constrictor that had to be close to 10 feet long, and he called for kid volunteers who wanted to “come on up and check out the snake.” I wanted to volunteer.
There was one problem with all of this. I’d have to climb some stairs and get on a STAGE, not only in front of a BUNCH of people, but this was also being broadcast on television.
It was the ultimate battle in a kid’s head, over which was stronger: My fear of the stage, or my desire to check out this boa constrictor. Ultimately, the snake was just too damned awesome.
Someone walked me over to some steps, and I had to climb the steps to get on the stage.
There I was, on an elevated stage, in front of a bunch of people, on television, with Cowboy Bob himself, and the most awesome snake anyone has ever seen.
The stage was positioned on the dirt track in front of the grandstands, which were not being used at that time of day, for this event.
It was fun to meet Cowboy Bob, as well as get to pick up a huge snake. However, I had no idea that in just ten short years, I’d be returning, with a snare drum.
1980: INDIANA STATE FAIR [Capacity = 13,921]
This was my first true experience on a big stage, as a musician. I was only 15, and was performing with my high school marching band. We had a good drum line during the 1979-1980 school year.
However, just about everyone in the drum line was a senior. They graduated at the beginning of summer, and had no desire to go to band camp, let alone march in the Indiana State Fair. Other segments of the band lost people, as well.
This meant two things, with the first being that we would be the smallest band marching at Band Day. Other schools had 200-350+ members in their marching band. My marching band, including color guard, had a grand total of 27 people.
There was one more thing. I’d be the only snare drummer. I would not have the luxury of a snare line, with other players to lean on or rely on, should I drop a stick or mess up. I’d also not have the luxury of marching toms or other things. We had a bass drum player, a cymbal player, and me.
And almost 14,000 people in the grandstand. This was not a Cowboy Bob show, where only the little kids cared. This was a major competition, and parents and family members of every band member from every school were packing those stands to the gills.
It was a full house, and the performance was a success. If you’re wondering what a marching band with only one snare drummer sounds like at the Indiana State Fair, then today you’re in luck.
After this experience, I decided to go to band camp and march at State Fair in the summer of 1983, just a few months after graduation, in order to show support. I would also return in the summer of 1984 as a camp counselor and drum line instructor.
1983: Riverfront Stadium[Capacity = 40,007]
I performed a show here with the first-ever Cincinnati Reds High School Honors Band. I got to meet Pete Rose and Johnny Bench during rehearsal break, which was cool.
With this particular marching band, roughly 14,000 people auditioned for a spot. They selected 124 people. I was the leader of the drum line.
This was a very fast-paced gig. Sheet music was sent to us in advance. However, I also had to write an intro cadence, a drum break, and an outro cadence. This involved quickly writing parts for all of the drummers, getting the other drummers in a circle, and distributing the parts. We ran through them twice before the show.
As for the show, we ran through that twice as well.
Everything was so big, that it almost felt like nobody was there, even though the stadium was full.
I’ve not been able to find any photos or videos of this. Should you find a video of this performance, you can find me easily, as I am the ONLY person wearing a cape.
1993: The Hollywood Bowl[Capacity = 17,500]
This was a different type of gig for me. I was not a musician this time, and I was a solo improv act. I had been doing some work in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a Pee-Wee Herman impersonator.
Everything about that came a rather abrupt end in 1991, after the real Pee-Wee got arrested. But I would be pulled out of forced retirement in April 1993, after the Stage Manager at The Hollywood Bowl called me.
Every year, the great Henry Mancini would perform at The Hollywood Bowl, conducting a full orchestra, for his birthday. This was always a huge sold-out event. The staff at The Hollywood Bowl would always “prank” him whenever he started conducting “The Pink Panther Theme.”
Shortly after the song starts, someone in a Pink Panther outfit would go out and interrupt the performance. They’d get on a microphone, greet Mr. Mancini, hand him a rose, and wish him a happy birthday. They’d close by expressing how they hope he can come back next year.
That’s basically what I would be doing, except I’d be dressed as Pee-Wee Herman, and I’d be on the historic stage of The Hollywood Bowl in front of 17,500 people. No pressure.
When I get there, I am sent backstage to get ready. The backstage area was packed to the gills with a who’s-who of just about every big-name celebrity you could ever imagine.
I had a long conversation with Kris Kristofferson, who had been in Big Top Pee-Wee about five years prior to our meeting. He complimented my outfit and my presentation, which I considered to be high praise, considering that he’d worked with Paul Reubens.
A stage manager comes to get me. It’s about time for The Pink Panther Theme. Let’s get pumped!
They take me to the edge of the stage, give me a red rose to put in my pocket, and leave me there with a security guard. However, the security guard did not know who I was or why I was there, which was strange, so he was not going to let me do my schtick. I had to get someone to inform him. The night was almost ruined!
The song starts, and I’m in position like a track runner. I pick my moment and run up on the stage. I’m doing the Pee-Wee Tequila! dance behind his back, shifting every time he looks so he cannot see me.
Then I run through the ranks, yelling at the orchestra players to shut up. Someone from the side of the stage hands me a microphone.
I run to the front of the stage and put my hands up. The sound of 17,500 people screaming came back at me. I was almost blown over. I look over to Mr. Mancini, and he’s smiling because he knows exactly what is going on.
I raise the microphone and tell the audience, “Ssshhhhhhh…. this is kinda important, so please don’t be rude and shut up. HA-HA!”
Then I go over to Mr. Mancini, hand him a rose, and address him. “Mr. Mancini, on behalf of The Hollywood Bowl, its staff, everyone here… and ME… I’d like to wish you a very happy birthday, and we hope that you’ll come back next year.”
We shake hands, and the crowd goes nuts. Of course, I don’t walk off the stage without going to the front one more time and raising my arms up to welcome one last round of incredible applause.
I go backstage, and Kris Kristofferson was the first person to greet me. I was getting big pats on the back. Considering that I did this in exchange for two free tickets, I took that as payment. It’s something that nobody can ever take away from me.
My mother was there that night, in the nosebleed section. I changed backstage and then made my way up to the top of the audience area. People couldn’t stop talking to me. Mom tried to take pictures, but it was night time and she was really far away from the stage.
That was my final performance as Pee-Wee Herman. As for Henry Mancini, unfortunately he was too sick to return and died the next year. However, I did meet his widow, Ginny, in 2003 when I was working at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles. She told me that he truly enjoyed my performance, and that they had talked about it when they got home later that night.
2009 & 2016: Wilshire Ebell Theatre[Capacity = 1,270]
While this is the smallest venue of them all, the audience was full of big names. The event is an annual fundraiser for the Peter Boyle Research Fund and the International Myeloma Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising funding for research for a cure for Multiple Myeloma. Sadly, Mr. Boyle passed away from this in 2006.
With my experience at The Hollywood Bowl, there were a ton of celebrities backstage. However, with THIS event, the entire audience is comprised mostly of celebrities.
Ray Romano is the Emcee, and everyone from Everybody Loves Raymond was there, as well as a variety of acts. I would be performing with the comedy great, Fred Willard.
Our act was relatively simple and short. In 2009, we were the openers, and we moved up a few spots in 2016.
In our act, Fred portrays the late Elvis Presley from a different timeline, where Elvis took up comedy instead of music. Fred delivered the jokes as “Laffest Presley,” and I delivered the rim shots.
It wasn’t as simple as using a generic rim shot. We had jokes that were bad on purpose, so they’d get a different rim shot. There were also jokes where he’d say, “alternate punch line,” and then I’d have to grade those punchlines and give them a more exciting rim shot if they were better.
In this gig, I got to see what stage managers do. It’s so insane, that they’ll reach out to anyone to try to get answers. I was walking down the hall, when I got asked, “Do you know who this Bill Burr guy is? Because he wants a microphone with a cable, so we gotta set that up. Do you know what he does?”
I said, “I don’t know, he’s a comedian. He might swing the microphone around like a windmill or something.”
There were lots of fun acts. In 2009, Tenacious D was the closer. But in 2016, it was Michael McKean and his wife, Annette. He played guitar and sang. Forget the Spinal Tap persona, he’s truly a guitarist and a respectable musician.
Before we went on, I was talking to Michael about his guitar and music. It was about time for Fred and me to take the stage. I tell him, “I’m scared, Michael! I’m a drummer and I might explode! What do I do?!?!?!”
He replies, “Calm down. You don’t have a contract. You’ll be fine.”
When I got on the stage, the very first thing I noticed was the audience. The audience here was significantly smaller, when compared to the bigger venues. This meant that I could see everyone’s faces. I’d have questions in my head, such as, “Why are Joe Walsh and Jeff Lynne sitting together?” I’d later learn they were working on a project.
The jokes were great, although I’m sure that you could find at least a billion people on Twitter who would be offended and outraged by them. Context is everything! My job that night was to match the power of the rim shot with the power of the joke.
The evening was a big success. Maybe we’ll do it again this year.
HOW TO GET PREPARED
I chose these scenarios because they each contain different elements, from expectations, to execution, and even preparation.
Preparation can often times help you cope with the possibility of stage fright. Below is a high-level of what was involved in those three performances.
For the State Fair performance, there were months of preparation. I spent hours after school, crafting the drum parts to make the best use of 3 players. I also worked with the band director, Greg Scott, on the marching patterns and timing. Tons of music rehearsal, after school marching rehearsal, band camp for a week. Lots of work went into this 5-minute performance.
Riverfront Stadium was a fast-paced situation, where there was almost NO time to learn. I got the sheet music ahead of time, but had to do some last-minute writing for the drum line. Memorizing the sheet music helped, as did being the one who wrote all of the cadences. It was a case of learn fast and hope for the best. I had to lean on my years of experience as a marching band drummer.
The Hollywood Bowl Pee-Wee gig was mostly improv, outside of the primary goals [interrupt show, present rose, happy birthday]. In the late 80s, I’d spent about 3 months studying the character and crafting my own act. I’d also put in countless performance hours at private parties. The framework of the character provided a great safety net. “What would Pee-Wee do or say?”
At the Wilshire Ebell Theatre gig, we had one writing session at Mr. Willard’s home, and had never actually practiced at all. He got his parts down. I learned his routine and wrote parts based on the script, and put notes on my drum head as a back-up. Writing, mental practice, and cheat notes were all essential.
As you can see, there are some subtle difference in preparation. Most of it is about knowing the material, or knowing the behaviors of a character.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that you can freeze up. The best way to deal with stage fright is to face your fear by getting on a stage. I’ve played all of the relevant stages on The Sunset Strip in Hollywood, as a drummer, guitarist, bassist, and keyboard player. There were times when I would be in two or three bands, and we’d all have gigs every week.
The more time you spend on a stage, the more comfortable it gets. Building up your abilities as a player or performer can improve confidence. Confidence can crush stage fright.
WHAT ABOUT SMALL STAGES?
While I did focus primarily on the big stage, there is something to be said for the small stage.
On a big stage, there is a sea of people out there. On the stage, you typically have bright lights shining, so you can’t really see the people. This is rather helpful.
But on a small stage, you might be playing for 10 people, there might be 3-5, or there could be just one person standing there, looking at you and listening. You can see their face, and whether or not they like what you are doing. This can have a special kind of impact on what you’re doing. It can also be more intimidating.
There are big stages everywhere, but there are way more small stages. The small stage can be where you work things out, and get yourself ready for a bigger stage. If nothing else, this is where you gain stage experience.
Even with my first high school marching band performance in 1980, in front of almost 14,000 people, I had performed music recitals at school since first grade. Experience is experience, and it’s helpful.
The small stage is most definitely your friend. It can be rough, but it can also prepare for something greater down the line.
IN THE END
I’ve discussed just some the biggest stages on which I’ve performed. But what is the smallest stage on which I’ve performed? I once played in a clothing store, next to a clothes rack.