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?

The Long Game

I love the expression “overnight success takes a decade.”

The creatives we admire most, many of whom appear to explode onto the scene, have almost always been at it a long time. Outside of our line of sight, those success stories have been grinding it out to get where they are. Lizzo is a perfect example of this – just check out her Wiki.

But this applies to way more than breakout stars. All of the best musicians you know have been putting in work. Whether it’s in the practice room, networking, taking on gigs that were outside of their comfort zone, learning about the industry, experimenting… Time spent in service of the craft is essential, especially when it’s tough.

Every gig is important, every rehearsal is important, every bit of time we spend developing skill and studying adds up – and thinking about it in that way keeps me gritty.

…And if things aren’t going particularly well, the only way to get to greener pastures is to keep on going. This art thing is a long game, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. It’s not just about creating when you’re inspired, it’s also about perservering when you aren’t.

Practice Works

This is a point I belabor – and with good reason.

If you work at something, you get better at it. If you work at things you’re not good at, fighting through frustration and doubt and disappointment, you also build resilience. Growth comes with discomfort, and building your resilience allows you to keep on growing.

Practice is also about consistency, which means sacrificing the other ways you could spend your time in service of your craft. This too is a gritty proposition. It’s not easy to tell your friends you’re staying in, to build an agreement with your significant other about locking yourself in the garage for an hour a day… It’s not easy to break out the metronome and do the monotonous work that moves you, inch by inch, toward your true potential…

But again, it WORKS.

I have seen firsthand the fruits of my labor, and I’m not even that disciplined about it. By simply reminding myself, day in and day out, that dedicating time and energy to drummy things will inch me toward my goals, I find the strength to get some practice in – even when my “present” mind doesn’t really want to.

…And by doing so, I’ve come a long way in a few years. Everyone else can do the same, but it’s going to take some grit.

As I’ve discovered, though, those bits of success are invigorating. It’s tough to find the grit at the beginning, but once you get moving, it develops right alongside whatever you’re working on. Watching yourself grow functions as motivation to keep going.

They Can’t All Be Bangers

Sometimes shows suck. Sometimes your computer crashes and you lose recordings. Gear can fail, you can have off nights, you can play to dead rooms or unresponsive crowds. You can have vehicle trouble and bad weather and shady promoters and illnesses and all of that stuff…

There are factors that can take this thing we love to do and, well, make it shitty.

Don’t let it stop you (the gritty sure don’t). We have a saying in our crew: “they can’t all be bangers.

Right now, more than half a year into pandemic-driven, gigless uncertainty, this couldn’t be more true. This whole YEAR has been a blow to forward momentum, particularly as it relates to performance, for musicians of every kind. This is an exceptional test of grit – not just a rough day or a bad gig, but a mountain obstacles to climb.

It’s not going to be easy, and it hasn’t been for a while now… But when you think about the long game, the crawling, step by step by step journey from a bird’s eye view, the only option is to lean into your grit and try to make the most of it.

No performances means more time for songwriting. Furloughed, laid off, or working remotely means sneaking in a few more minutes of practice each day. The trend toward livestreaming is a reason to get your technology and related skills in order.

Existential dread in the face of global crisis? That one’s a little tougher to crack, but I promise that investing in your personal development will make you feel a little better about it.

 

These are gritty times, friends, and just like everything else, grit develops with use. Let me know what I can do to help you keep pushing forward.

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.

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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.

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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.

I intend to broach some of these topics as best I can, even though I don’t feel terribly qualified to do so, and to continue as time goes on. Still, if I can offer any insights, or just start some conversations, I’ll feel positive about my contributions. 

So, here are a few ideas for what to do with your newfound free time. 

Practice

You knew this one was coming. If your gigs are canceled, you can’t write or rehearse with your band, and there aren’t performances on the horizon to prep for, it’s time to dig back into PRACTICE. 

A lot of the people I know are pretty good about practicing, but even more of them are not. They make excuses, can’t find the time, build themselves mental roadblocks for why they can’t… But most of those have disintegrated right along with the gig schedule.

Real practice is ugly. It’s often repetitive, sounds bad, and comes with a tremendous amount of frustration. Great, that means it’s working. If you aren’t already a diligent practicer, start small… Just carve out a few minutes a day. Pick one thing to truly work at. It’ll occupy some time, provide a small sense of accomplishment, and add a few bricks to the tower of skill you already have. 

Try New Things

Being a creative person (and I believe that inherently, we all are – or can be) doesn’t necessarily have a singular medium. If you’re a drummer like me, maybe try your hand at some drawing or graphic design (Canva is a good way to dabble). If you’re a singer/songwriter, maybe it’s time to work on some leads on your normally accompanying instrument. Try to make some beats, experiment in the kitchen, write a story… The point is to do something with your brain that’s outside the norm.

Is it going to be great your first try? Doubtful!

But that too is part of the point. Let yourself suck at something new, tap into creative thinking that isn’t tied to your instrument or medium of choice, and pass the time exercising your imagination in a novel way. 

Get Your House In Order 

I mean this both literally and figuratively. I’m terribly guilty of letting myself live in a “messy” space, not spending the time to take care of it, and letting the physical clutter translate into mental clutter… Maybe you do this too. Now’s the time to clean, to organize, to tackle some of those backburner projects that never seem to be a priority in “normal” life.

This is true for things beyond your physical space as well. Maybe you need to take care of some accounting, update a website, fix a piece of gear… Maybe it’s time to change those heads or strings.

Not only will the sense of accomplishment make you feel nice, you’ll also build some momentum for anything else you may want to tackle. Maybe you don’t have a kit at home, but you still have hands and knees… You have YouTube for theory lessons… You can use Google’s metronome to ear-train for new groupings or subdivisions…

You can use this time to clean up just about anything.

No Seriously, Practice

We may not be able to get on stage, or even get together with our musical collaborators, but we can ALWAYS chip away at the lifelong pursuit of skill development, period.

Take Care of Yourself

Shit’s weird… And no matter who you are, that does something to your brain. We all handle things differently, and are going through all kinds of individual struggles. This isn’t necessarily an excuse to indulge in bad habits (though I’ve certainly been doing my fair share of that), but it is a reminder that feeling listless, lonely, afraid, unmotivated, and a litany of other emotions is okay… 

While these bizarre times are an opportunity to use quarantine for creativity and development, they’re also taking a toll on our collective psyche. Be good to yourself, and if you’re feeling fragile, don’t fret about a lack of productivity. 

Remote Collaborations

I plan to tackle this more deeply in a future post, but it’s worth mentioning here. If you have a smartphone, you can make digital content. It might not be fantastic quality, but it’s still something. You don’t have to be an expert to experiment, so hit up your friends and see what you can make together without being in the same room. 

 

Most of this is pretty common sense, but because I’m also doing my best to stay creative, writing it out feels good – and maybe that’s the bigger point. With so many things on pause, our future uncertain, it’s seems necessary to partake in activities that both a: provide some normalcy, and b: help us fight back against the dread hanging in the air.

Make stuff. Learn stuff. It’s good for you. 

Hustle Culture

Look… I’m a “busy” dude. I have a job, I have bands, I have the ocassional freelance project… I’ve got relationships and booking and practice to tend to. I also waste plenty of time on Netflix and bullshitting over a pint.

When I talk to people casually (like strangers or loose acqauintances), the subject inevitably comes up. They see me gigging and making stuff like this, lunchbreak videos and the day job… And at some point the topic turns to time, motivation, productivity, and all that zeitgeisty jazz.

Some folks ask for advice, other “hustlers” offer it, and everybody talks about how they just don’t have time to do all the things they want to. I commiserate.

Why do we do it?

In short, it’s because of hustle culture.

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Fighting Through The Slumps

Perpetual positivity is a myth. The reality of humanity is steeped in peaks and valleys – good days and bad. This is as true for diets as it is conversations with your spouse… Dayjob performance or sleep cycles.

Sometimes the downs are brief, fleeting even. Other times they persist.

As artists and musicmakers, these pendulum swings can be even more extreme. Work you’re proud of; work you hate. Periods of fiery inspiration, and bouts of doubt so thick, you consider burning your instrument…

So, what can we do when the chips are down? When the gigs suck and we feel stuck and the whole thing feels like a chore?

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Grind With What You’ve Got

This is as much for me as it is for you (as usual)…

If you want to do something, anything really, you gotta go for it in whatever ways you can. This isn’t one of those “get out of town or you’ll never make it” posts, or advice about dropping everything else in your life to chase your passions (well maybe a little).

It is, however, a reminder to stay vigilant, to be aware of – and focused on – what you can be doing RIGHT NOW to get closer to where you want to be, wherever that may be.

There’s a big difference between excuses and legitimate reasons. We don’t always get to choose our lot in life. We do, however, get to choose what we do with it…

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I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

So… I know a few things, but only kind of.

Broadly, though, I don’t have a god damn clue what I’m doing – on stage, at work, booking shows, teaching lessons, simply existing as a human being… It’s a work in progress at every single point, and likely always will be.

The good news is, depsite what anyone may tell you, it’s that way for everyone.

Total confidence is a spectre, and vague notion on the wind – and we should all embrace that.

Almost every day, I experience unfamiliarity, but with the right approach, it’s an adventure – a chance to refine what little information I have into something a little more actionable – or in some cases, the barely-informed actions present bits of wisdom I can add to my growing (but forever incomplete) body of knowledge.

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Falling In Love: Reconnecting With Your Instrument

I love music, I love learning about it, I love digging into the craft, studying, challenging myself, practicing and performing as much as I can… I’m pretty certifiably obsessed.

Smitten.

I’m proud of it, honestly. I kind of relish the weird comments or disbelief that I try to do as much drumming as possible. It’s part of my identity, both internally and externally.

Plenty of people don’t have that, though… A relationship with music/an instrument that helps define them. Or maybe they did, and lost it somewhere along the road.

For those of us even a little serious about musicmaking, finding and honing our creative voices, I think we have to love what we do. We should be thinking about it waiting in line or sitting on the bus…

Infatuation with your instrument and the music it makes is (or at least should be) part of the process.

Balance is important of course, but I’m looking right at those folks who play… Who want to play… But always seem to find other things to occupy their attention.

If you don’t find yourself in my camp of “I want to do this ALL THE TIME” – how can you get there?

Or, a bit more practically, how can you stoke the fires of musical passion to make time to practice (which we all know is important), to put forth more effort than you currently are – because you want to.

How do you fall back in love with your instrument?

Continue reading Falling In Love: Reconnecting With Your Instrument