Time to Find Your Zen Center… Again

Meaning Of Life.jpgThere 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.

EXTERNAL FORCES
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.

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The Psychology of Music and Self-Perception

“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.

DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
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.

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
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:

  1. Dunning-Kruger: Believing you’re the best, when you’re the worst.
  2. 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.

brucelee.jpg“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

The “No True Scotsman” of Music

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.
Therefore:
(3) Angus is not a (true) Scotsman.
Therefore:
(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.
Therefore:
(3) Joe is not a (true) guitarist.
Therefore:
(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??

Dan Baby Drum Trash Can 2px - Spring 1966
Me, drumming on a trash can at 18 months old [Summer 1966]
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.

Kindergarten Report Card 1.jpg
Kindergarten report card from 1970-71. The “S-” grade in Music was due to my difficult with the social aspects of music. Kindergarten was my introduction to doing things with other kids.

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.

Dan Lapel Talent Show late 80s
High school talent show, playing Ozzy’s new hit, “Goodbye To Romance” [late 1981]
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.

1977 Bedroom
Making do with what I had [1977]
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.

NMBar

Anecdotes and Tips of The Zen Musician

When I was young, I had my share of competitions for marching band, soloist performances, and so on. As an adult, I participated in the unnecessarily-competitive nature of music in Los Angeles.

These days, I spend my time doing battle against my true competition: Myself.

This is something that I have in common with my guitar mentor; a man who has the most intense self-battle of all time. He’s the kind of musician who writes and records something. Then, by the time it’s mixed and ready to hear, he already does not like it, because that was last month, and now this month he is a markedly better player.

No doubt this can be a driving force in a musician’s quest to become better, especially when it’s long after they’ve been way better than good enough. After all, when you write, record, and release a song, absolutely NOBODY cares how fast you can play a scale, or whether or not your decision to use Dorian mode for the solo was a good idea, so long as it sounds good.

At the end of it all, a song is a song, and all that matters is your ability to play the song.

Dan Baby Drum Trash Can 2px - Spring 1966
Deciding that I love drums [Spring 1966]
The background of my life is filled with various stages of music. Discovery of music, exploration of instruments, natural talents, study, practice, writing, performing, and recording are the basic ingredients that exist in every musician’s life-long recipe.

Every minute, every drop of sweat, and every dollar spent contributes to your future, your worth, and your abilities as a musician. Forget record sales, because that’s mostly bullshit. What you do with your time holds infinitely more weight.

THINGS TO MEASURE: CATEGORIES
The time is not obvious to the average person. Even if you tell them that you started playing at the age of 4, they still cannot envision how many hours you’ve spent working to get where you are now.

Sweat is also not so obvious, mainly because they weren’t there when you had to practice furiously for your lessons, or the practice that you put into your ISSMA solo competition piece, or the marching band camp, or any other related activity.

Money is the most deceptive of all, for even the parents of a child for whom they are paying lessons will tend to lose track. The cost of instruments, heads/strings/replaceable things, lessons, competition fees, sheet music, various education pursuits add up. Later, you can tack on things like rehearsal rooms or lock-outs, shows, promotions, recording, production, and a variety of other expenses.

Never remove education from the list. Even if you’re not paying someone, there is still always something to learn. This is a good example of how these items criss-cross and affect each other.

GETTING MORE GRANULAR: SUBJECTS
Breaking these things down further amounts to the break-down of all of the above items into smaller components. This can be things like how time is spent [rehearsal, lessons, studies, etc.], what makes you sweat [practice, performing, etc.], and how money is spent [lessons, instruments, replaceables, space, recording, production]. Every aspect of music fits into a category, by subject.

MY ZEN APPROACH TO IT ALL
I’m not the kind of person who is going to tell you that my Zen approach is better than yours, because I can sit with my legs crossed for 12 hours, while you only do 11.

One could take each of these Categories, get granular with Subjects, and then pain-stakingly apply an amount of time to each one of these items. Then they could stick to a spreadsheet.

These tools are supposed to work for you and me, and not the other way around. I refuse to be stuck to what is listed on a spreadsheet schedule. There is a better approach to it. The short answer is below.

Consistency.

Consistency is something that can be measured, by applying the measures to the three Categories. The measures are units that would be used, by category. Here’s an example of how they would look.

TIME [minutes/hours] [Minimums. Feel free to extend, if necessary.]

  • Guitar practice: 20 minutes per day.
  • Drum pad practice: 15 minutes per day.
  • Band practice: 6 hours 2×3 hours per week.
  • Guitar lessons: 2 hours per month [bi-weekly].

SWEAT [effort]

The things to be measured here can vary, based on what challenges you or brings about discomfort. For example, going to the streets with fliers can be an intimidating, time-consuming, and sometimes demoralizing thing.

In this example, we’ll assume that promoting is something that gives you some difficulty, since it is not an easy thing to do.

Think about promoting. How have the shows been lately? Not getting numbers? Need to promote for? Keep track of the time you spend on it, and increase it by an hour.

Be sure to sweat every day! Did you practice today? No? Don’t sweat it, but be sure to practice tomorrow. You want to practice every day. 20 minutes per day is better than 140 minutes on the weekend.

MONEY [your currency] [various]

  • Cost of lessons: $10/session [$20/month]
  • Cost of rehearsal: $15/hour [$180/month]
  • Est. for gear that needs replacing: $50 [2 cables]
  • Cost for replaceables: $80 [3 guitar string sets, 2 drum heads].
  • Cost for flyers and promo expenses: $80 per gig [~$160/month].
  • Expenses, such as gas and food: $40 per gig [~$80/month].
  • Estimate for this month: $570

The above numbers were fabricated for this demo. If you are a musician, then you need a budget for the tools of your trade, or hobby.

ROUTINE
This is the final element. One could combine this with another and have CONSISTENT ROUTINE. That’s almost a final assessment of what this is, and what it is all about.

Get a routine that is consistent. Practice your guitar every day. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, or can only do 15 minutes instead of 20. Maybe you can do 30 tomorrow. Nobody is going to die if you miss something. Still, do not make excuses.

Build that consistent routine, so that it becomes a habit and you enjoy it. When you don’t have to think about doing it, that gives you more energy for doing it. For me, I find something comforting in the idea that I have an expected routine about my music.

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE?
Years ago, my old band WHIPLADS had a show with another band called THOMAS’ APARTMENT. Neither of these bands exists today, but everybody’s cool and all that.

I’m really looking forward to this show. Their drummer at the time had to go out of town for work, and they were going to be keeping him for an extended period of time.

Thomas called me to let me know that they could not get a replacement drummer, because it would be impossible to find a replacement in a few short days.

My response to that was to ask him to bring me his CD and a set list. He rushed it right over, we booked rehearsal time for the next late morning, and I got to work. I have a process where I listen to a song several times in a row, making note of different aspects with each pass. I get tempos established and other details. I even learn lyrics.

After several passes, I have a one-page quick-notes guide that is good enough to make connections in my brain, so that I can get through the song. Getting one page takes about 45 uninterrupted minutes, and I made ten pages. It was a long night.

I show up the next day and we get started. The bass player is a bit skeptical of the idea that anyone could learn their entire album in one night, and then play it well for the first time with the band. Yes, I was working on notes the night before, but I had NO opportunity to get behind a drum kit until then.

This was do-or-die.

Instead of just running songs, I asked that we run the show. We did, and it was an incredible experience. I was happy, Thomas was happy, and even the bass player was happy. Someone asked him if he was happy because I could play the songs. He says, “Yea, there’s that, but you were SINGING along, too!!”

The guys asked me how long I worked on the show. I told them, “Eight hours.”

They were impressed. The bass player says, “You really learned our entire album and show in eight hours?”

“Well, I did not say that. I said that I worked on it for about 8 hours. As for how long it took me to learn your entire album and show, the answer to THAT question is different. I took me my entire life.”

Had I not worked the way that I did with music, building up a consistent routine, and pushing for results, then I would not have been prepared to take on that challenge in that moment.

Even if I could teach you my quick-notes method [which I seriously doubt], you’re still going to need to work for a really long time before you can get a comprehensive one-pager for a song in 45 minutes.

When You Do What You Do

How to Become a Better Drummer

vatos.jpgI was watching Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, of Oingo Boingo, on a drumming channel, when he said something about how drummers who are “only drummers” are annoying.

To take this a step further, I would suggest that a drummer who only plays drums might very well be lacking in the musical language required to develop creative drum parts that serve a song.

Whether you’re a person who plays drums, or someone who creates beats with drum samples, having an ear for the music is key. Today, I’m going to be focusing solely on the live and studio drummer; a person who actually swings sticks.

In today’s blog, I will give you some pointers on what you can do to become a more interesting and effective drummer, and what will increase your chances of getting hired over someone else. This won’t be about auditions, or how to behave [be personable!], or how to dress, but rather about talents and abilities that YOU can bring to the table in order to be a more valuable player.

 

Dan Noodle Muffin Banjo 150808
Laying down a banjo track for Noodle Muffin’s upcoming 2018 release, “Meatbowl and His Donut Throne.”

LEARN HOW TO PLAY ANOTHER INSTRUMENT
Yes, that’s me playing the banjo on a recording. I’m not a great banjo player. We were recording, and during playback I heard a part in my head. So I picked up a banjo, found some notes, and practiced playing them in a way that I felt would sound good. After five minutes of practice, I got on the microphone and performed the part.

 

With Noodle Muffin, I started out as being their gig drummer in 2002. Since then, I’ve laid down tracks in Noodle Muffin sessions for drums, fretless bass, guitar, keyboard, trombone, banjo, percussion, vocals, voice acting, foley art, and more.

When I went to Ball State University to study Percussion Arts, my musical world has to be expanded beyond drums, and included music theory, ear training, and composition. It also involved developing a level of proficiency and understanding of other instruments, such as piano, marimba, and string bass.

If you are a drummer, and do not play another instrument, then I would encourage you to pick up another instrument and start learning. You DO NOT have to become a great player, or even a virtuoso. What you DO need to do is play the instrument, get comfortable with it, and then gain an understanding of the sounds that this instrument makes, and how they fit with the landscape and mix of the song.

This understanding will be followed by an internal question: How do my drums fit within the landscape and mix of the song?

This is where you figure out how to make others sound good in the song, which in turn makes you look fantastic.

 

tabb
The Andrea Ballard Band [TABB]
LEARN HOW TO PLAY FOR THE SONG
During my years in The Andrea Ballard Band, I found myself stepping outside of my pop/rock comfort zone, into a world that had more jazz and funk elements.

 

In this world, I knew that it would not be acceptable to simply lay down a 2-4 pattern.

Unfortunately, this band never recorded an album, at least not in this configuration, because the music was very interesting. There was an open element about it, where you’d have to let certain vocals “breathe” a bit. This was achieved by laying back on the snare and toms, releasing flourishes on the hi-hats, and providing some groove with the bass drum.

Each song got its own special treatment, which is how it should be, regardless of the style you are playing. Some songs may require a driving drum beat, and that’s fine. Other songs may require something different. That “something different” can be found within the context of the song.

AverageJoes02LEARN HOW TO SING WHILE PLAYING
This may seem like an impossible feat. You might be wondering how you add singing on top of your playing, because you perceive the situation to be a case where you are employing “limb independence.”

The truth is that drumming is all about rhythmic interdependence, or note relationships. For example, you can be playing 8th notes on your hi-hat. When you strike a snare or kick the bass, this is not accomplished by independently moving your wrist or foot. Instead, your snare or bass notes have a relationship with your hi-hat notes.

The best way to get started is to start singing! Learn how to sing a song that you know how to play on drums. Then, start putting the two together. It might be rough at first, and it could be rough for a while.

In the end, you’ll have two things on your mind. One is the rhythm/time/drum parts, and the other is the pitch and tone of your voice.

INTEGRATE MIDI, SEQUENCERS, AND SAMPLERS
Sometimes, having two things on your mind just isn’t enough. When I was drumming live with Noodle Muffin, I couldn’t just play drums. I also had electronic triggers on the drums. These were set up in a way where each acoustic drum also produced a unique electronic sound, depending on what was needed for the song.

A live Noodle Muffin show in the early 2000s was something to behold. With the exception of the bass player, everyone else had at least one other instrument. The violinist had a keyboard and sampler, the second guitarist had a keyboard and sampler and sang backups. The front man played guitar and sang, and sometimes moved to keyboards. My responsibilities were no exception.

My pads were set up in an interesting way. One of the brains was a Roland SPD-20. One of the guys also provided a sampler, as well as a sequencer. The brand names escape me, since this was around 2002-2003. There was also a Roland TMC-6, which could serve as a station to re-direct signals delivered from certain triggers or pads.

With them, there were moments on stage where I was drumming, setting off the sampler, setting off the sequencer, playing melodic notes on the SPD-20, and singing backup vocals.

Obviously, drumming and singing were part of rehearsals. But so was striking trigger pads and changing programs for each song, which called for its own set of unique instruments, voices, samples, and loops.

Rehearsal also involved practicing set-up and tear-down of the gear, which took significantly longer.

The more you can bring to the table, the higher your value becomes.

EXPAND YOUR HORIZONS
Do you have a tight focus on a specific genre? There is nothing wrong with this, except that it will limit your possibilities and opportunities.

When you have some solo time to play your instrument, as part of your practice routine, try integrating one song that is outside of your norm, and play that song for 15 minutes. Loop it 4-5 times, and play it. If it feels weird and uncomfortable, then keep it in your practice routine until it feels more natural.

When it feels more natural, replace it.

Do you play a shuffle beat? I rarely do. But when it comes up, I have to put additional focus on the act of simply playing a shuffle for a while and getting re-acquainted with it.

SET SOME GOALS
Take some of these suggestions and set goals for yourself, based on what you want to do. Don’t try to achieve all of it at once. It takes a long time to build your abilities to the point where you can do some of these things seamlessly.

Some things, like singing while drumming, is easy. You can sit at your desk and tap your hands while singing the song in your head. Doing this can help you find the rhythmic relationships of the notes that you’ll need to sing.

Other aspects, such as integrating samplers and sequencers, can take more time and technical experimentation.

Don’t be that drummer who only knows drums, and who can only keep a beat. Be something more. Be a musician!

If you need consultation on anything noted here, including gear tips, set-up tips, and more, then please consider contacting me via my website. I offer a variety of services, and fees can be set based on need, time, and budget considerations. First email is free.