Hard Work and Re-Inventing Myself, For Myself

Dan Baby Drum Trash Can 2px - Spring 1966
Trash can drumming: Spring of 1966

Music has always played a major role in my life. I started showing an interest in drumming at around 18 months. In grade school, I played trumpet and later switched to drums when I moved to a new school that had school-owned drums. I bought a guitar with my lunch money and painfully taught myself.

And since we did not have a piano at home, I would leave a window unlocked in the school band room so that I could break in after-hours and teach myself piano, as my flashlight shone upon the keyboard.

That was just a sample of my dedication.

I marched in State Fair the summer after graduation, before going to college. After all of the state competitions and various bands in school, I ventured to LA in 1986 to become a pro musician. Drumming in a rock band was what I had wanted to do since I was old enough to speak the words.

1987 Home
On my own: My first apartment, and finally, my own drums [1987].
For a while, I did not even own any instruments. I’d still get gigs, by using drums at rehearsal halls. For gigs, I would rent drums from the band before or after us, giving them my pay. Later, I would ask the club owner if I could sweep floors for a few bucks or  a sandwich.

 

I relied on the kindness of others, which did not always work out. Sometimes I was homeless and would have to sleep behind dumpsters.

On the toughest of nights, I would be sleeping behind a dumpster, crying myself to sleep because I was hungry and the pain was unbearable. People who are not driven do not put themselves through this.

I was in a strange city that was not welcoming, two thousand miles from what used to be “home.” That was the power of the pull my dreams had.

I had prepared for my entire life to do this. I took every chance I could. I worked hard. I struggled and made things happen. After giving it my all, I would push to give a bit more.

steel panther.jpg
The expectations of 80s rock stars were so bad that making fun of it is now big business.

I almost got signed once. For every band in which I played, there were dozens of bands that rejected me, for reasons that had nothing to do with music.

 

I didn’t have the right “look,” which was often times things like not having “metal hair,” or not having a buff physique.

These attributes eventually became more important than the music itself, which had become generic, homogenized, and lame. There was nothing rebellious or driving about it.

In order to survive, I adapted my outlook.

My original goal was to make a living with music. I didn’t need fame, and had no interest in being a rock star. I just wanted to make music.

Adapting meant joining the work force, which did not really pay all that well. I was working 40 hours per week, my roommate was working 40 hours per week as well. We had nothing, and sometimes found ourselves being so hungry that we’d to go McDonald’s to eat out of trash cans. Other times, we’d ask for ketchup packets and take it home.

ADDING INSULT TO INJURY
On occasion, I would tell my story to someone who claimed to be interested. The most common responses that I got were upsetting, as well as insulting. When they said these things, they did not realize that they were declaring me a loser to my face. With most other scenarios, this would never happen. Somehow, when discussing music career pursuits, it’s a different story.

“Obviously, you did not try hard enough.” My experience tells a different story. There’s really not much else that I can add to this, beyond what I’ve already written.

“You weren’t good enough.” I actually did believe this for a while, until I met other incredible musicians who also did not get anywhere in the music business, or who got ripped off, exploited, or unceremoniously dumped into the cultural garbage bin.

Today, many of the acts that are a big deal in the industry involve those who have no musical talent, which is another discussion.

“You’re making excuses.” This usually comes from people who buy into the junk psychology that self-help motivational speakers spew out. “If you work hard enough, then you can achieve anything.” What this phrase does not tell you is that it is very possible to work really hard and then NOT get anywhere.

I could point to the vast array of great musicians who have also gotten nowhere, as well as those who were once celebrated and are now forgotten. To get ridiculous about it, I could ask how well Beethoven or Vivaldi are selling these days.

But you can also look to other industries. A former co-worker started a restaurant with his husband in West Hollywood about ten years ago. We would cross paths from time to time, and he would talk about how difficult it was.

He had no idea how hard it would be to get a restaurant off the ground. And I know how much passion he puts into his work, because we worked together for a few years.

Close to 60% of restaurants fail within their first year. The popular sentiment is that 90-95% fail. 60% is the correction in publications, so I’m putting my bet on it being somewhere between these two numbers.

A WORD ON FAILURE
Of course, I did fail in some instances. There were some auditions where I did not live up to expectations. No excuses there! In fact, I am still very capable of failing today, and I expect that I will be failing a lot more in the future.

The point is to do it, and to find out.

Putting all of the blame on other things, other people, or situations, would be unreasonable, unrealistic, and immature. While I accepted my failures and learned from them, I also had to accept the hard reality of the overall situation.

ACCEPTING REALITY
Hindsight is 20/20 in this case. MTV had changed what people expected in music. It is romantic to think that if I had started my pursuits ten years earlier [were I born ten years earlier], that I would have had a better time of it. However, reading about musicians from the late 60s and early 70s has me convinced that this would probably not have been the case.

Making excuses involves complaining or being down about it. That’s not what I’m doing here, in case anyone is not getting my point. I wouldn’t blame you for not getting it, because you cannot see me while I’m writing, and cannot hear my voice.

I’m not complaining. I’m accepting the reality of the situation.

If I had to find one thing to complain about, it’s the people who tell me to my face that I didn’t work hard enough, or that I didn’t want it enough. Their ignorance of the big picture is staggering, which is why their negativity does not stick with me. I forgive them, for they know not of which they speak.

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LIMES
This is when you take those limes and search for some tequila. That is exactly what I did, after one band rejected me, citing that I “looked too much like Pee-Wee Herman.”

IMG_0250I then spent six months studying the character, learning the voice, mannerisms, and behaviors. I learned to think like the characters so that I could improvise. I learned magic tricks and made up games. And with that, I started working for myself as a professional Pee-Wee Herman impersonator.

Like most other entertainment ventures, it was a seasonal thing. Nobody would be hiring me around Christmas. But when spring and summer birthdays were happening, I was in demand.

I got so popular that a business used a photo of me in their pizza shop, which was posted in a story in The Israeli Shelanu, with a caption that roughly translates to “Pee-Wee loves Picasso Pizza.”

This resulted in my receiving an angry call from his lawyers. That’s how you know when you’ve made a name for yourself. I let them know that I was there for a party, I had no idea what they were doing, and I did not read that paper. Still, they gave me a big list of things that I was not allowed to do.

peewee-shelanu.jpg
I see why Mr. Reubens’ lawyers were not happy about this. I had no idea this was happening.

Their list would turn out to be rather ironic, because my business came to a crashing halt due to the scandal, where Mr. Reubens was caught masturbating in an adult movie theatre. Really, what do they expect people do in these venues? But I digress.

After this happened, I called his lawyers back, and let them know that I was put out of business by their client. It was a brief call. I closed with, “Maybe you should have given your own client a list, too.”

The business died, and it was not because I was not working hard. In this case, I worked very hard, and got some reward, for a little bit. Sometimes things sort of work out.

A RETURN TO MUSIC
After that went away, I returned to music as a songwriter. I had co-written a musical in 1987, which is still in production today [2018], so why not?

Viewing myself not as a star, but as a support player, I found a singer and wrote an album for her. Below is a clip of us having our first run-through of the flagship song from that album. Half-way through the two-minute clip, the audio switches from first-run demo to finished product.

This did not get anywhere, even though we had incredible financial backing. Ultimately, the singer ran off with the master tapes, returning to The Philippines. Lesson learned. At least it didn’t fail because I did not work hard.

I did get some solid studio experience from it, working with a great producer and solid studio musicians. There is always something to learn in the studio, even if you’ve done it before. The experience was not a total loss. More about that idea later.

Sosband1BACK TO DRUMMING
I made a return to drumming with a band in the late 1990s, and kept on through today. Almost all of the bands I was involved with worked hard. The ones that did not work hard were unable to keep me around for long.

However, something was different this time around. I wasn’t struggling to “make it” in the music business anymore. I wasn’t relying on music for money.

Instead, I was back to a place where I had once started, where my love for music, and what music gave me in return, was in play.

It felt great.

labrum tearMY LATEST ACTS OF RE-INVENTION
In March of 2014, I had a labrum tear in my right shoulder. The pain was unbearable, so much that I could not lay down to sleep for a month. Thanks to physical therapy and lots of work, I was able to mostly recover within a few years.

Of course, this meant that I could not play drums for quite some time. Being a drummer, lugging lots of gear is required. I could not even do this.

The band I joined in 2003, Noodle Muffin, had stopped gigging in 2009. I kept playing drums, fretless bass, guitar, keyboard, and any other instrument they wanted me to play on their recordings. This inspired me to beef up my own home recording studio, so that I could do more.

MD02 AKAI Professional MPD18I found value in the art of finger drumming, using the AKAI MPD18 with Addictive Drums [in Reaper] as a way of getting drums that sound more played than programmed.

When I got my home studio to a certain point, I started taking guitar lessons with my guitar consultant. He had sold me almost all of my guitars. He knew what I had and what might be a good addition to my collection.

He also knew what kind of music I liked. We worked on the basics for a while, until I hit a wall. It was through no fault of his, and ended up being an issue that I did not even know that I had.

A LATE DIAGNOSIS OF ASPERGER’S
I stopped taking lessons from him, while recommending to others that they study with him, since he’s a really good teacher.

I did not yet know if the problem was with him or me.

I had to find out what was wrong, so I went to get help. I agreed to a battery of intelligence and psychological tests. At the same time, I had started studying with another guitar instructor.

The IQ test results were very good. But the other tests concluded that I had Asperger’s, which is on the Autism spectrum and is classified as an Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]. While there is no cure for this, there are ways to work around at least some of the issues.

I let my new instructor know about this. So far, we have been able to work around or through some of my issues. He has a better understanding of my issues than most people, which has turned out to be helpful.

WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?
Someone close to me, whom I will not name, asked me why I was taking guitar lessons, and what I was going to do with my guitar lessons. In their mode of literal thought, the natural progression is to get paid to play guitar in a band, or something along these lines. As someone with Asperger’s, I can relate to literal thought.

Through these lessons, I’m learning lots of new things. I’m taking on some difficult challenges as well.

Learning new things keeps a person’s brain active and engaged. It sparks creativity, opening the mind up to new ideas. It’s a way to keep growing. It’s making me a better musician overall. It’s making me a better guitar player, for nobody else but me.

I’m doing it for me, and I cannot think of a better person or a better reason.

MORE ABOUT MY ASPERGER’S DIAGNOSIS
It was hard to accept at first, especially when I learned that there is no cure for it. What made it difficult was seeing the horrible attitudes that others have about Asperger’s, as well as Autism in general.

Autistic Guitar Reddit.jpg
This message courtesy of the sensitive people on Reddit.

Looking back, I could see the impact that this had on my life. There were things that would happen, and I would always wonder why.

Sure, one cannot change the past. The good news was that parts of my past made sense. The bad news was that I was unclear about what this would mean about my future. Was there anything I could do about this?

The answer to this riddle certainly seemed bigger than sprouting an impressive mane of hair or turning into Pee-Wee Herman.

A BIG DECISION TO MAKE
At first, I felt devastated, as if my life was over. I’d been dealt a bad hand, and now I have to suffer it until I die. Maybe I should re-invent myself again, but this time do it for me.

The big trick to re-inventing one’s self is that it gets more difficult as you get older. Society expects people in their 50s to know what they’re doing, to be established, and to be settled. This is not how my life worked out. I know why, and I have accepted it.

EMBRACING THE NEWS
I could easily get depressed about this news, feel badly about it, or even use it as an excuse. For me, it’s more of an explanation than an excuse, even though it is the reason for some of the things that have happened to me in the past. Viewing it as an explanation was a good start.

Then I decided to not feel badly about it, and instead try to figure out how it worked for me. I have since learned that this is how I am able to memorize music and retain it. It’s how I can learn and memorize songs that are linear, and not modular. It’s also how I can do the same thing over and over and over again without getting bored by it. Instrument rehearsal involves a great deal of repetition.

As for those who are derogatory toward those who have Asperger’s or other types of Autism, I had to deal with that. The first thing is to understand that they’re ill-informed, and are broadcasting their ignorance the world. This allows me to have a laugh at their ignorance; an issue that can actually be fixed.

Dan Fender Autistic Telecaster.jpg

In a symbolic act of acceptance, I went out and got myself one of those “Autistic” guitars: A 2015 Fender Limited Edition American Standard Butterscotch Blonde Double-Cut Telecaster.

Only 500 of these were manufactured during the Fender “10 for ’15” campaign, so they’re actually difficult to find. Out of the ten different guitars that Fender made for this promotion, Vice President of Fender Product Marketing Justin Norvell said this particular model is, “quirky,” as well as “off-beat” and “a guaranteed collector’s item.”

It sounds and plays like a dream. I suspect that I love this guitar because of this, but also because it gets made fun of online. I’ve been made fun of online in the past. We relate to each other.

COPING WITH BAD ATTITUDES
You can stay positive about yourself all the live-long day. But when others take a bad attitude toward you, then simply staying positive is not enough.

You have to also be able to cope with people who have bad attitudes and what they have to say about you. Whether it’s indirect, such as the Reddit post, or pointed directly at me, it can have an impact.

Whether a person speaks in a hurtful way out of ignorance, or out of malice, I cannot control what they say. What I can do is control whether or not I will react to it. Reacting is emotional. Sometimes reactions can be overly-inflated in proportion to what is being said and who is saying it.

I have the power to respond to it, when appropriate, and to ignore it when it is not important. Who is the person saying these things? Are they important to me? Are they making a good, useful point? As my grandmother said, “Consider the source, and then ignore it.”

Refusing to let others ruin my day is the best thing for me to do.

TO SUMMARIZE
I could have ended up bitter about my lack of commercial and financial success in my attempts to get into the mainstream industrial music business in the mid-1980s. Instead, I accepted the reality of the situation. I also accepted my own failures, learned from them, and grew as a person.

I could have given up, put away my instruments, and moved on. Instead, I made adjustments to my life and my goals after accepting the reality of it all. In the chaos, I remembered that music was always an important part of my life. I am fortunate to not have lost that.

I could have quit when I had my labrum tear in early 2014. Instead, I modified my focus and adjusted what I was doing, so that I could keep music in my life.

I could have become stagnant with my music. Instead, I sought out instruction and knowledge, and worked to improve for myself.

Life is work. It’s a struggle. It will always be difficult for almost everyone. Re-inventing one’s own self after age 50 is a daunting task. The way I see it, I’m here, and I get the opportunity to do this.

I got to give my dreams a shot. I can look in the mirror and say that I did my best. I also learned how important music is to me, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.

As a result, I still have music in my life, and I have no regrets about what happened or how it all ended up.

IN THE END
Not only do I accept the hard work that I put into life, as well as into re-inventing myself, but I am proud of it.

Just as there are those who will say that I did not work hard enough, there are also those who will suggest that “the universe has a plan” for me. I do not buy this, for if the universe had a plan for me, then I’d not have to work hard or re-invent myself. Instead, I could sit back and enjoy the plan. At the very least, it would be good if the universe would tell me about this plan. That’s why I do not buy into this idea.

But if the universe were an actual being that was focusing its intelligence and plans for me, I would tell the universe to not waste its time. I would ask it to instead focus on the other people in the world who have very difficult lives. People who are sick, injured, or in really bad situations that are bleak.

Do not help me, universe. I’m doing fine and I have a good life. There is a long list of others who need the help way more than I do.

Now let’s go see what today has in store for us.

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Stories From the Big Stage [and how to prepare]

cowboy bob.pngIn 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.

Grandstand-Indiana-State-Fair
Indiana State Fair Grandstands – Capacity: 13,921

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.

riverfront stadium
Riverfront Stadium – Capacity = 40,007

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.

Dan Pee Wee Motorcycle Retail Slut
As Pee-Wee Herman, in front of Retail Slut on Melrose. Photo by James Mares of Ron Smith Celebrity Look-A-Likes

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.” 

IMG_0250.JPGShortly 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!

Hollywood Bowl From Stage
View from the stage of The Hollywood Bowl [Capacity = 17,500]
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!”

hollywood bowl aerial.jpg
Aerial shot of The Hollywood Bowl

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.

Mission accomplished.

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.

international myeloma foundation.png

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.

00 Set List.jpg
The set list for the evening.

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?”

Fred Willard Wilshire Ebell Rehearsal.png
Stage rehearsal for the show. My kit is a TJS Custom Maple.

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.

Fred Willard Drum Head - Routine Notes
Joke references written in order on drum head. 

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.”

HA!

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.

dan and fred 2
Performing with the great Fred Willard, Wilshire Ebell Theatre, November 7, 2009.

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.

Give me a stage, and I’ll take it.

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Performing at a clothing store with Karma McCartney, October 19, 2008.