Sometimes all it takes is hearing the right message. The right collection of words at the right time can coalesce with existing experiences and unarticulated thoughts…
This is the stuff real inspiration is made of.
Totally new ideas take time to sink in, have to contend with existing worldview, hurdle psychological barriers.
But the right statement in the right context can bring nebulous ideas close to a pinpoint – and I recently had one of those moments.
I was recently listening to an episode of the Drum Gab Podcast. If you’re not familiar, it’s one of my favorites – not just in the drumming world, but in a general way.
The host, Seamus, has a knack for selecting guests with rich philisophical ideas, with things to say about music, sure, but more importantly, about how we exist in the world – about what music has to offer.
This particular episode was a conversation with Jeremy Shulz, who I didn’t know anything about prior to listening. I won’t retell his story – you can listen (and should) check out the podcast for that…
Instead, let’s get right to thing that hit me so hard.
The quote is:
“When we’re on stage, a lot of times we get caught up on the me trip, on the ego trip – like I need the biggest fucking show… We’re fixers, man. We are proprietors of making people feel good. And if you mess up and you don’t play a song perfect or whatever, that’s not the point. The point is your intent of stepping out on stage… If this person only has 30 minutes of feeling good… That’s 30 minutes of healing for that person. We are healers for everybody… Us as drummers, as musicians.”
He’s right. He’s more than right.
The technical stuff is definitely important, and so is the personal stuff. Writing songs you care about, practicing, being consistent, harnessing creativity, finding self-expression… That’s all well and good, but what are we REALLY doing when we step onto the stage?
We’re providing joy for people. We are embodying passion and bringing people together. We are paving an avenue away from drudgery. We are manifesting sound waves and bombarding people with a chance at escape – even if for a fleeting moment.
He goes on to say something I’ve held true for a long time: if there are 3 people in the club, play the same as you would for 10,000. From a sweaty basement to Carnegie Hall, the purpose of performance is the same.
Every single individual you can affect in a positive way is worth every ounce of effort you put into the craft – and more importantly, that is the real payoff. Music making is a noble act of compassion, and yes, of healing.
And I won’t pretend to be all “woo woo” about it. I’m not being metaphysical here. There’s something special – and human – about live music.
We know this to be true of our own musical experiences, of our favorite concerts and albums… The sonic arts are magical, and we are the sorcerers.
This idea implies a few pretty heavy lessons.
Freedom to Just Play
Just as Jeremy says, most of the people who come to see any music performance are there for their own reasons – not yours.
Maybe they’re other musicians, maybe they’ll be critical and scrutinize every note… But really, they are there to be moved, to be healed… Or if you want to distill it all the way down to simple literalism, they just want to enjoy some tunes.
That means that all you have to do is play authentically. Little mistakes are no big deal. You don’t have to be anyone you’re not, and you don’t have to freak out about not being good enough.
That includes not worrying about the gigs you don’t have, the licks you can’t play, what anyone and everyone else might be doing… It doesn’t matter if there’s only one person in the room paying attention. Serenade them with your entire heart, and put all of your focus into the sheer privilege it is to be on a stage of any size.
If you’re just starting out, who cares? Play the songs you’ve written (or learned) to the best of your ability. If you’ve been studying for decades, the audience doesn’t really care – or if they do, and they’re in the building to be wowed by your mastery, they still don’t perceive your performance the way you do. They are about the whole thing, the way it makes them feel… Not worrying about that one backbeat that wasn’t as solid as the one before, or the tiny shift in tempo after a fill.
This means that when you hit the bandstand, remember it’s for THEM. The point is to be authentic, put on a good show, and provide an emotionally powerful experience. Just play, man… Just play.
Think as a Non-Musician
This might be tough, since so many of us (myself included) have this musician thing embedded into our identity. It’s tough to be at a show without noticing the little nuances, cues, mistakes, gear, and all the other shit we tend to obsess over…
Still, think about the vast majority of the people you’ll play for over your entire career… Most of them don’t do what we do. That’s not a dig at the nonplayers. Instead, it’s a reminder to let that ego business fall by the wayside, and look for people’s raw reactions.
If they’re dancing, you’re doing your job (whatever version of dancing qualifies for the style of music you’re playing).
It’s less about the notes, and more about the vibe.
Be Powerful, Be Responsible
There is power in being on stage, no matter what the stage is. By stepping into the “arena” as it were, you harness something arcane. People tend to pay attention, and because they know what music can do for them, they’re counting on you.
This is a double edged sword, though. It’s not a reason to be arrogant or impersonal – in fact, it’s the opposite. Think about Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben here…
The relationship between artist and audience is one of balance – when you give, they’ll give back, and that makes everyone’s time better. Just as you’re providing an escape or experience for them, they are providing a platform for you. This should not be taken lightly.
Sure, we may be in a position of power, but that power doesn’t just come from instruments and a sound system. It is ratified… Validated by the people who choose to pay attention. You owe it to them to perform with authenticity and conviction, while worrying more about how you make them feel than how they make you feel.
This idea pretty easily wanders off into the weeds, and I think that’s okay. It’s plenty nuanced, and there’s more to musicmaking than performing, of course.
It’s also personal, vulnerable at times, and the product of years of work.
I doubt we can truly separate something as personal as performance from our egos entirely… But still, with these concepts in mind, maybe we can further plant ourselves in roles of service…
The overall point to remember is simple: performances are mostly for other people.
We have the privilege, the honor of people’s time and attention when we’re on stage, and each one of them deserves our heartfelt dedication.
This idea is still nebulous… It isn’t (and shouldn’t be) universally true for every instance of musicmaking for an audience.
Not every gig is the same, nor is every band, style of music, even headspace for a given musical situation. Still, this is one of those principles that we can plant in our minds to keep us in check, to remind us of what we’re doing – and more importantly, what we’re working for.
When you step on to the stage, ask yourself if you’re coming from a place of service, or from a place of ego and self-servitude. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but if you play primarily from the position of healer, of public servant, you’ll help create a very real – and incredibly important – connection with the audience…
And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.