It’s Neither, It’s Both, It’s All of The Above

Doing creative work is complicated, and there’s an awful lot to understand…

Anyone who thinks they already have it all figured out is, well, wrong – and probably doesn’t know enough to see how much they don’t know. How much they CAN’T know.

This is nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all learning, of course, and sorting things out as we go, which leads to plenty of questions. Whether we’re asking ourselves, our teachers, Google searches… Whether they’re specific or broad…

We all just want answers. 

If you’re part of any large communities around social media (looking at you, 50,000 members of Facebook Drummers), you see tons of questions, and as a result, the tremendous peanut gallery of responses – usually based on personal experience and taste.

It’s great for us to communicate, but there’s often a giant piece missing from the equation: nuance.

Artmaking isn’t binary, and we shouldn’t treat it that way. The more you explore, the more questions you ask, the more answers you’re going to get – and the more sources you have, the murkier the water will be…

And that can be a good thing.

What’s The Best Ride Cymbal?

A wacky heading (and some hilarious SEO) to be sure, but it’s a good microcosm of where I want to start.

To me, and likely a lot of fairly experienced players, that question is ridiculous.

First, it doesn’t include nearly enough information… (What style of music? How do you play? What room? Live? Recording?) But it is indeed the kind of question that plenty of people ask. Unfortunately, broad platforms like social media are typically littered with the same kind of response: whatever the responder’s favorite might be, whatever works for their individual, specific perspective – and nothing more.

Not only is this kind of answer unhelpful, and missing an opportunity to ask clarifying questions that actually provide guidance… It’s as ridiculous as the question. No one has played EVERY ride cymbal, and even if you had, the next person over won’t play it the same way.

The Z Heavy Power Ride might be great for a thrash band with full stacks. The Big Apple Dark Ride might be great for a moody jazz trio. In opposite applications, they’re both pretty terrible choices… And just that (subjective) dual comparison leaves out a near infinite amount of other options and factors.

Or…

You might like one more than the other, but that’s hardly a determinant of which is “best.”

The question itself is a false, oversimplified premise. There is no universal “best” anything in creativity, but by asking some deeper questions, you can get a little closer to a “right” answer for you – whether that’s about gear, what to practice, great players, and everything else under the sun.

Chops vs. Groove (and other dumb dualities)

Another silly, totally false dichotomy, this kind of question seems to be discussed endlessly, but not always with the looseness it deserves. Of course facility is important, and so is musicality – and there isn’t some invisible barrier between the two.

Eric Moore and Jim Keltner, for example, are both incredible players that might appear to be on opposing sides of this nonexistent fence, and every one of us could dedicate a lifetime of study to the way they each approach the instrument…

But that kind of misses the point.

Both of them are creating in a way that comes naturally to them. We, as lifelong students, should embrace that – learning from either, both, or neither in the way see fit… And the same goes for every other drummer you’ve ever heard.

Maybe more critical to understand: certain aspects of technique, musicianship, business, creativity, style, whatever, might be important to us at one stage of development/career/life, and totally unimportant during another. None of us are on the same path.

Reading music is good, and so is being able to play by ear. Playing with a click is important, and so is having a strong sense of time without one. Big kits are cool, and so are small kits. Wide open drums, muffled drums, and everything in between are all possibilities on a broad spectrum – not silos of right and wrong.

Clear heads or coated? It depends.

Should I play this part note for note or make it my own? It depends.

What should you practice? It depends.

Which hihats are good?

…And on and on.

To make music (or any art), you’ll need all kinds of tools – and only you can decide which tools you really need. Of course, that takes a solid amount of experimenting, wrong turns, mind changing, and so on – but it’s all part of the process, adjusting and figuring things out as you go.

You can decide to deep dive on one style, or dabble in as many as you can handle… You can spend a decade dialing in your pianissimo finesse, only to fall in love with bombastic, unbridled smashing. You can obsess over gear, or play whatever’s in front of you without a second thought.

These things aren’t opposites – they are OPTIONS. 

Funk isn’t “better” than punk, just as comedy isn’t “better” than drama. They simply exist in all of their diverse forms, and we get to decide what to do with those facts.

Taking Advice

Okay, these non-answers aren’t very helpful to beginners, or anyone looking for an easy solution to a complex problem…

Of course we can take information and advice from others. We have to.

Method books and teachers and interviews and opinions and exercises and other people’s music are all incredibly useful. They are pathways to discovery, and we all need some road signs to help us get where we want to go.

In fact, looking to those with more experience is a huge part of learning any subject. It’s why we laud experts and develop schools around particular teachers. It’s why we still utter the names of legendary masters…

But when it comes to art, we’re dealing in ideas – not stone cold facts. The masters have all kinds of wisdom to share, but that doesn’t make their words draconian rulebooks.

Even the least nuanced, non-expert opinion (“NO! Raw Bell Dry Ride is the best!”) is informative if (and only if) we look at the rest of the context: who said it, why, why they might be biased, where and how we might agree and disagree…

The less you currently know, though, the more you might accept (or present) such information at face value.

If you don’t know how to hold a stick, the first bits of technique you learn are THE answer. If you’ve been steadily learning for decades, the minutae of Moeller is something you can consider, deconstruct, and take away the specific bits you select.

The trouble starts at not graduating from “this is the only information I have” to “hmmm, what should I do with this new piece of information, and how does it fit with the rest?” – or worse, not letting other people make that decision with the ideas you might hold as gospel truth.

We can (and should) filter the advice and education we encounter through our own working knowledge of… Everything. Just like anything else, the more we do it, the better we get. Parsing out what advice you even want to take is a skill of its own (and I guess this is my advice about it – to do with as you wish).

If presented with an idea, especially one that sounds like a rule (say, “learn all your rudiments” or “always keep time with your left foot”), you get to decide whether or not you believe in its value… And you might be wrong!

Some musical tools are probably more important than others. You can gather advice about that as well, but you still have to choose what’s important to you.

You’ll probably have to make similar choices again later – hopefully armed with some new wisdom from elsewhere too.

The Answer

Here it is:

Worry less about finding the RIGHT answer, and get to work on discovering YOUR answers.

They’re probably some evolving cluster of your interests and experiences, the players you admire, the music you like and the gigs you play… And of course, what you practice. Somewhere in there is a wholly new version of the ideas you’ve accepted and rejected along the way, and it’s yours alone.

Learn from all kinds of different sources if you like, but take guidance as just that – a guide, not rote set of instructions with simple A and B answers.

Try to do the same for others too. Your favorite doesn’t equal “best,” and the thing that worked for you is great to share, but it’s not the only way.

What’s the best ride cymbal?

The answer is “yes,” but that’s not really the question at all.

 

 

 

2020 Reflections and Perspective for Next Year

Year in review articles can be pretty corny, and I’ll be the first to admit that months, dates, years are arbitrary. There’s no real reason to start a habit on January first, and the current state of the world is absolutely not going to fix itself the moment the clock strikes midnight tonight.

Still, with all the madness that 2020 has brought to bear, and my own need to decide what the hell I’m doing with this blog, here’s a post about this bizarro year, what I’ve learned, and what we can all do moving forward.

Continue reading 2020 Reflections and Perspective for Next Year

The Pandemic Persists: Are You Keeping Your Time Alive?

To say the last 6+ months have been tough is an understatement of almost hilarious proportions… It might be funny if it weren’t for people dying, massive unemployment, political chaos, and (not to be underestimated) the psychological weight borne by folks who aren’t even directly affected by those other problems.

Musicians have been hit hard, with gigs of all kinds pretty much disappearing and no reprieve in sight… But that also extends to plenty of other crafts, pursuits, and professions. If nothing else, we’ve been spending an awful lot of time cooped up and isolated from others. That takes a toll.

I’m not here (at least not at this moment) to lament the goings on in the world, but it’s important to mention them. After all, it’s the context that damn near everything has to exist within right now. We don’t have a choice in the matter.

We do, however, have a choice about how we spend these bleeding together days, how we react to the evaporation of so many things we took for granted less than a year ago. It’s a big ol’ setback – there’s no denying it – but as always, we get to pick an attitude.

Continue reading The Pandemic Persists: Are You Keeping Your Time Alive?

GRIT: The Musician’s Most Important Trait

A while back, I listened an audiobook called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist, researcher, CEO, philanthropist… The list goes on.

Not only is she shining example of “grit” herself, she’s also been studying the subject for a significant chunk of her professional career.

The topic itself is fascinating, but the whole time I was listening, as she made mention of students, military folks, classical musicians… I couldn’t stop thinking about what an integral part of ANY kind of creative pursuit this murky subject is.

Especially musicmaking…

“Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.”

Now, some of Duckworth’s work has been criticized (whose hasn’t?), but I’m not in the business of critiquing psychological research.

Instead, the concept is what’s important to me. How do we musicmakers stay the course in the face of setbacks? How can we dedicate ourselves to the long game without getting burned out? How can we cultivate grit?

Continue reading GRIT: The Musician’s Most Important Trait

Getting Back on The Horse

I haven’t written anything here since May… In fact, since I first started this blog, it has been an inconsistent outlet, almost an afterthought, that I come back to from time to time. There’s even an entry a ways back about unintentionally wandering away from it…

So here I am trying again – and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Execution is important, of course, but in most cases, effort is everything. Maybe I don’t know exactly what my intentions for this blog are, or have some master plan for audience building and monetizing… So what? I like doing it, and I’ll figure that stuff out as I go (or I won’t, and either way is fine).

To even get an inch closer to whatever this or any other project/goal/art/idea/hobby/habit is, I have to invest some time and energy into it.

Now, here’s the kicker: starting something is hard… And REstarting something can be embarrassing and demoralizing. Restarting means you stopped, means you “failed.” Dusting yourself off and climbing back into the saddle is an act of courage, and one of the single most important components of any pursuit.

I fail constantly…

Ideas don’t pan out, projects fall by the wayside, best intentions get forgotten and old (bad) habits persist. That’s okay – that’s human. I beat myself up for not exercising, for letting my wonky sleep habits get the best of me, for not writing here, for all of it…

But I have to remind myself (and maybe you too) that every day is a new day, and every little bit of effort counts.

If you haven’t been practicing like you want to, forget about the past and put in five minutes TODAY. If that doesn’t work out, forego the misery and try again tomorrow. It doesn’t have to perfect, it just has to be progress.

So that’s what I’m doing – knocking the dust off this blog and climbing back on a horse that has bucked me quite a few times. I’ll probably fall off again, and you will too, but whatever it is you’d like to be doing and aren’t – it’s gotta start (and restart) somewhere.

Hopefully more here soon.

The Content Consumption/Creation Ratio

I’ve had this topic vaguely in mind for a little while now, but after a couple months of self quarantine, it seems more appropriate than ever…

With people losing jobs, being furloughed or working reduced hours, musicians without gigs, and well, nowhere to go, it seems like plenty of folks (myself included) are consuming a LOT of media.

I don’t just mean “news media” or current events. I’m talking about all of it, from books to Netflix, video games to YouTube channels, and everything in between (yes, social media feeds too). We’re all filling our time in various ways, and when we’re mostly stuck in the house, these outlets are a great place to turn.

Not all media consumption is bad, and I don’t want to indicate as such. Hell, if we consider ourselves to be any kind of “content creators,” we want people to consume media. I want people to watch my videos and read my words, and the giant teams that make movies, series, and games certainly want us to indulge in their wares as well (more on that later).

The trouble, however, is when consumption becomes the default mode of operation – especially for we creators. If you don’t make “media” of your own, this isn’t really for you…

But for those of us that do (in any capacity, even if it’s just music to perform for others or audio-only recordings), I think it’s important – especially nowadays – to strike some kind of balance between intake and output… And if nothing else, to be mindful of how and why we’re taking this stuff into our brains.

Continue reading The Content Consumption/Creation Ratio

Bad Guy Brain: Personifying Struggles with Mental Health

Before I even dig in, how many caveats can I put at the beginning? I am undiagnosed, unmedicated, untherapized… I am not a medical professional, and I’m sure this is all woefully unscientific. I know for an absolute fact that I don’t have things half as bad as millions of people on this planet… I know the severity of my purported mental illness pales in comparison to so many others…

And yet, I have depression. I get depressed.

Not “sometimes I feel sad.” Not “sometimes my empathy gets the best of me” (though it certainly does).

I experience, at times, and continue to experience, a sensation of apathy, sadness, listlessness, pointlessness, self doubt, and downright misanthropy that is untethered to specific experiences or ideas… A weighted blanket malaise that makes it hard to care about anything, and focuses the majority of my thoughts toward some vague hopelessness that doesn’t have a single solution in sight.

This has been going on for as long as I can remember, and while sometimes it’s just a matter of wallowing in it, I’ve learned one huge mental “trick” to changing my entire outlook on this plague of my personal mental health.

Continue reading Bad Guy Brain: Personifying Struggles with Mental Health

Make Stuff, Put it Out

I started this topic well before all of the pandemic insanity, but perhaps now it’s more important than ever to flesh it out, as creative habits have been essential to my wellbeing, and a ton of us have drastically different schedules than we’re used to…

I’ve been slacking on this blog like crazy. This is only my second post since September of last year. I could give you all kinds of reasons, doing other writing, focusing on practice and booking, not making it a priority…

And while those things are true, there’s something else going on as well.

I haven’t felt very confident in my ideas for this project – or my writing about them – and that makes me hesitate. Like any other area of creativity, there’s the age-old problem of imposter syndrome, and it can leave me wondering why I’d have any authority to speak on these topics, why anyone would care what I might have to say…

But that’s only part of it. The other source of my waning confidence as a music/drumming/creativity blogger is, well, depth.

I tend to look at everything as a vastly complex nebula of ideas and sub-ideas (nerd alert). Eveything has near-infinite details that bear investigating… And I’ve accidentally convinced myself that if I can’t tackle a subject with all its myriad subtleties, then I have no business writing about it in the first place.

This post is my attempt to throw that thought in the garbage, and hopefully pull some others out of the wastebasket in the process.

Say this with me: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT. 

You can make and share work that has flaws and shortcomings, and so can I. Just because I can’t cover every nuance and chase down every angle of one topic or another, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to write about it at all… Or more accurately, fine tune it into infinity, and never actually let anyone see it.

Every piece of creative work we do is a representation of us in that moment in time. We use the skills we presently have, the headspace we’re in, and a current understanding of our ideas to make something, and the thing IS WHAT IT IS.

Continue reading Make Stuff, Put it Out

Dear Gigging Musician: Pandemic Sucks, Right?

I was supposed to be in Ohio last week. I busted my ass for just four dates out of state with Flexadecibel and The Brandino Extravaganza… Now it’s a wash. The album release show tomorrow is canceled too…

And with longer stretches of mandated distancing, the whole calendar is under threat. We’re already out three festivals and the dominos are just beginning to fall.

It sucks bigtime.

BIG OL’ CANCELED

These are hard times for performers of all stripes, especially those that make the bulk of their living that way. And while I don’t purport to offer advice about dollars (beyond some unemployment or other hustles if you can get ‘em – maybe more on that later), I do want to talk about how we now gigless players can spend this trying time for good.

Continue reading Dear Gigging Musician: Pandemic Sucks, Right?

The Fluidity of Skill

You can look at almost anything we do as a skill, from speech to tying shoes, mountain climbing to trading stocks. Broad categories like these are full of microactions, too: pronouncing certain words, getting the lace loops the right size, etc.

Consciously or not, we learn the little bits through repetition, and develop the “skill” of… Whatever. That brain process is basically the same. The more you do something, the more skillful you become.

But it isn’t reallthat simple.

People learn at different rates or excel in certain fields. Some skills are relatively permanant, like walking or wiping your ass… Others are shakier, and you run the risk of “use it or lose it.” Our bodies and minds change with age, too, and that affects deftness in its own ways, for better and worse.

Skill, then, isn’t just the ability to do something or not. It’s a spectrum, and a changing one at that. We can get a little better (or a little worse) at all kinds of things over the course of our lives – or far shorter periods of time.

This idea of fluid skill lets us off the hook a little bit. Instead of lamenting a deteriorated ability or feeling embarrassed by novicehood, we can think of many skills as “present tense.”

If skill is fluid, you can only be where you are right now.

Continue reading The Fluidity of Skill