There’s nothing like stacking yourself up next to a heavyweight to remind you where you’re at on the totem pole! Over the years, I have had several opportunities to study and/or make music with some of the world’s best musicians. In many of those interactions, I have met the challenge and performed quite well, if I do say so myself. On the other hand, I’ve also had some encounters that have downright put me in my place.
- I was so ready for my first lesson with Paul Wertico. My girlfriend drove the hour-long trip from Cary, IL to Chicago that morning, so that I could focus on warming up on my practice pad. Man, my hands were smokin’! After introductions and a bit of chit-chat, we began by listening to McCoy Tyner’s ‘Sahara.’ An enormous LP collection nearly covered one wall of the living room, interrupted only by a fireplace and mantel, adorned by seven dust-covered Grammy awards. Time to play! We headed down to the basement and got set on a little Remo Legato kit at the bottom of the stairs. My first question was in regards to technique, and how he played some of his fast, incessant ride cymbal patterns with the Pat Metheny Group. “Go ahead and play me a double-stroke roll there on the rim of the snare drum,” Paul said. About as warmed-up as a guy could be, I was ready, and pumped out probably the meanest, fastest double-strokes I’d ever played. I stopped after a few seconds, and looked up to see how impressed Paul was with my “chops.” Instead, I was met with the most genuinely puzzled, bewildered face you could ever imagine! “Really?” he asked. “That’s all the faster you can do it?” He was honestly perplexed. I was floored. Embarrassed. The ensuing lesson was amazing. As weakness after weakness were exposed, Paul shared valuable methods of strengthening them. I got my butt whooped that day . . . and loved it!
- Jump forward a few years. I’m in a classroom at the New England Conservatory in Boston with the artful ‘Rakalam’ Bob Moses. His index fingers are plunking through a piano melody Lionel Hampton-style, while I accompany on drumset. He turns mid-tune and motions for me to take a solo. He watches, listens, and then resumes playing piano. When we end the song, Rakalam closes his eyes and takes a few moments to collect his thoughts. He spins toward me and, with intense eye contact, says, “you have lots of great ideas. But you didn’t commit to any one of them.” Then he proceeded to explain how that was most likely a reflection of what I was like “off the bandstand.” Great ideas. No commitment. And he was right. Another serious butt whooping.
Such experiences can seem demoralizing and completely devastating at the time they’re taking place. But in hindsight, I’ve learned that these often turn out to be some of the most pivotal points in my development. Instead of being negative and letting yourself become deflated, steer those emotions in a positive direction.
Lessons learned . . . from Wertico: humility . . . from Rakalam: intent (deciding on a path, dedicating to it, developing an idea and following it through to the bitter end). A few of the many lessons that have ultimately reshaped my life’s direction.
Refocus. Get motivated. Reignite the fire that made you want to improve and grow when you first began this journey (musical, or otherwise). Get mad. Get practicing!