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.

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. 

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

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…

Continue reading Grind With What You’ve Got

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

The Confidence/Knowledge Paradox

Confidence is a strange beast. Some seem to possess it inherently, others seem to fight to find it their entire lives. Musicians are notorious for this dichotomy, many acting as their “own worst critics” or constantly chasing some sense of artistic achievement that’s always out of reach.

The mighty Beethoven, a true master by all accounts, once wrote in a letter to a young admirer:

“The true artist is not proud, he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.”

Even a man of his tremendous achievement is plagued by doubt, disheartened by some goal that always seems just over the horizon. Maybe it’s just part of being an artist…

But it’s also just part of being a human.

Continue reading The Confidence/Knowledge Paradox

A Clinic With Derico Watson

I hail from a small(ish) town called Muskegon, Michigan. We’ve got a few “claims to fame,” but for the drumming community, one of the proudest is being the hometown of Derico Watson.

Derico is a powerhouse of a player with plenty of chops and super deep pocket, but even more importantly, he just exudes joy and passion when he plays. He’s passionate about many things actually, he is a natural medicine advocate, and talks to everyone who will listen about the benefits of alternative medicine over conventional. Not many people consider alternatives when they get sick, but many that have been around him do now because of the wealth of knowledge he has on the subject. If you want to look into this further you can go here to check out alternative medicine.

Perhaps best known for his work with Victor Wooten, Derico has had a huge impact on the drummers hailing from this part of the world, myself included. Even though I missed the opportunity to study with him when I was younger, products of his education exist across our local scene – and his influence (in my humble opinion) has raised the bar for the drummers of West Michigan.

Continue reading A Clinic With Derico Watson

The Death of Boredom

I’ve got something of a mantra: BOREDOM IS A MYTH.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that people can’t be bored… Rather that they shouldn’t be. This also doesn’t mean that there’s no value in downtime, just relaxing, idle chat with friends, or an aimless wander through nature.

No, I’m aimed at the “ugh, there’s nothing to do!” kind of boredom – sitting around uncomfortable, focused on your lack of options. Daydreaming is not boredom. Scrolling through Facebook, barely even reading anything, is. Straight up killing time with a vague awareness “I’m bored” and little else is, well, bullshit.

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So, You’re an Old Dog Drummer… Want Some New Tricks?

Habits are hard as hell to break… Especially when you’ve been reinforcing them year after year, gig after gig, to the point they’re no longer just habits – they are parts of your personality.

As drummers, this isn’t an entirely bad thing. Our go-to grooves, the way we tune our toms, even the way we setup our kits is part of our signature, our individual musical identity. Even beyond “what you’re used to,” personality plays a big role in the gear we choose, the sound we hear in our head, the styles we choose to play, and on and on…

But what if you want to learn something new? Or… What if your setup, your gear, your grooves aren’t the product of conscious choices or a personal aesthetic… But just habit – the way you’ve settled into doing things?

Continue reading So, You’re an Old Dog Drummer… Want Some New Tricks?

The Twofold Path – Part 4: Application

Over the last three entries on this here blog, I’ve been trying to cover my current (loose) approach to learning and developing my skillset on the drums. I’m calling it “The Twofold Path” because there are, well, two primary elements – exactly what I looked in Parts 2 and 3 – “chops” and “groove.”

Surely there are plenty of other things to consider in this vast world of percussive music making, but for me… Right now… This is where my head’s at.

In Part 2, the focus was chops and technical facility on the kit, and that should be a pretty major part of everyone’s practice. Really, this side of the coin can be expanded into anything technically oriented – speed, independence, pattern memorization, technique…

The other side (covered in Part 3) can be expanded into everything musical and practical – including things that require the ability and facility mentioned above.

Where one side is physical, the other is mostly mental.

Continue reading The Twofold Path – Part 4: Application