Letting go

Mick Goodrick, guitarist and author

The sound of great playing is the sound of the musician’s pure, uninhibited emotional intent. As listeners, it’s the musician’s emotion that draws us in. As players, our insecurity, self-doubt and fear separate us from our listeners. Becoming aware of your insecurity is the first step to overcoming it.

20 years ago, my friend Brian Roessler, even then a great bass player, handed me a book: The Advancing Guitarist, by Mick Goodrick. I read the title, looked back at Brian, and just as I was going to ask him why he wanted me, a drummer, to read a guitar technique book he said, “Just read it.”

So I did, and after that my life as a drummer changed. Goodrick’s book is remarkable because in addition to dealing with matters of strict technique – theory and exercises – he also discusses the role our mind plays in becoming a better, more satisfied musician. Among the book’s priceless lessons was this one:

“Students tend to think that eventually, after they learn whatever it is that they think they need to know (or can do whatever it is that they think they need to be able to do), they won’t feel insecure anymore. This thinking amounts to wishing you didn’t like your playing so much.…Well as good as it sounds on paper, it seldom (if ever) happens. In fact, it tends to get worse.”

Goodrick goes on to explain how our judgments about our own playing can have both positive and negative effects. He points out that we improve by observing our performance under a microscope. As we listen closer and closer to what we are doing, we iron out kinks and evolve as musicians. On the other hand, constant focused self-examination can lead us to lose perspective on our playing. We can become fixated on a few things while neglecting our performance as a whole. Eventually, out of control self-critique can cause our to playing to become choked by our fear that we might make a mistake. As a result the music suffers and worse, we’ve stopped having fun.

For me this lesson was transformative. At the time I read Goodrick’s words, I was practicing four to six hours a day and was so aware of my limitations that I stopped taking risks in performance. I didn’t like how self-critical I was, but I believed that if I mastered just one more technique book I’d reach a skill level that would somehow move me beyond self-judgment. Of course I was wrong. The better I got, the deeper I dug, and the more I managed to find wrong about my playing.

The quality that separates truly great playing from mere proficiency is a fearless, childlike approach to the instrument. This quality originates not from mastering sophisticated theory or acquiring flashy chops, but in a different wisdom. It is about bringing a peace of mind to your playing in each moment of the music. Players with this quality don’t worry about the next transition, or even the next bar. They listen to the other musicians, to the song, and just play now. You can hear it – it sounds like confidence. It’s acceptance. It’s letting go. These masters are not worried about messing up, not because they think they won’t, but because they know it doesn’t matter if they do. They consider their playing a natural act – like breathing or eating or walking.

Try this: walk. Find a long sidewalk and just start walking. Listen to the sound your steps make. Notice the regular pendular motion of your arms. Feel how easily your body moves its weight in an easy rhythm. You’re not even thinking about tempo, yet your gate is so steady it’s like a metronome. And you could keep this up, seemingly, forever.

Now, if you were to trip on a crack in the sidewalk you wouldn’t think to yourself, “Oh no!  Maybe I’m not a good walker after all? I wonder if I can make that turn up there?” No. What you would tell yourself is, “Ah, how silly of me,” and you move on. You’d soon completely forget you stumbled at all.

When I spent two months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, drumming with an escola de samba, I learned that drumming is not a rare gift of a few. It is universal, just like walking. From birth, Brazilians are surrounded by family members playing live music, so Brazilian children grow up taking their own potential to play for granted. In the months before Carnaval, every Brazilian is a drummer and every object is a potential drum. I’ll never forget a shirtless and barefoot four year-old boy playing beautiful and steady samba beats on a Coke can. And his older brothers, about eight and ten – man, those kids could fly! These youngsters weren’t “schooled” musicians. They were just average kids. How is this possible? How could they play so beautifully?

The biggest impediments to doing anything, most of all anything expressive, are fear and doubt. But for these young Brazilians, fear and doubt never enter their musical minds because such emotions aren’t part of their learning process. These kids don’t worry about messing up because no one tells them they should worry. They don’t think of playing as being difficult simply because they haven’t learned to do it yet. And just like you never think, “Okay, I’m going to work hard to walk perfectly,” those Brazilian kids would never think about trying to drum perfectly. They just drum, so that what comes out is steady, pure and beautiful, unspoiled by performance anxiety. For them “playing” is just that: play, not work. Music, not math.

The difference between these Brazilian kids and a lot of us is the mindset we developed as we learned our instrument. In part, this difference in mindset is cultural. Most of us grew up playing music in societies that promote competition between musicians and value a hierarchy of artistic achievement. Brazilian kids, on the other hand, grow up playing music in a society that sees music primarily as a force of social cohesion, a common language uniting everyone.  Music is the air they breathe. In Western society today, musicians tend to view themselves as islands fighting for resources. Brazilians tend to view their country as a musical oasis where almost everyone, old and young, has something musical to contribute.

No doubt our drive to compete has both led to the advancement of technique and contributed to our worldwide dominance in the business of commercial music. Nevertheless, this same drive can lead us into a mindset that cripples our performance as players. Ironically our impatient drive to achieve can hold us back. We’re so afraid of the consequences of screwing up.

When the skill of a virtuoso and the inhibition of a child come together in a drummer the result is, well, you’ve heard the result. Elvin Jones, John Bonham, Clyde Stubblefield, John Jabo Starks, Steward Copeland, Keith Moon, Zigaboo Modeliste, Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood, Joey Baron, Billy Martin, Steve Gadd, and I can’t forget Stevie Wonder. These are a few on my list. You have your own list. It’s the drummers with the ability to make the beat sing that we love. These players are not always the fanciest, though some are fancy. Not always the cleanest, though some are clean. These players have varying individual styles. But whether they use many notes or few, their groove has momentum. They sound freed-up, relaxed both in the studio and on stage. They’re playful and unselfconscious. They are musical, appropriate, and have the confidence to play simply. And when they let loose, they really go for it. You hear their emotion in their playing. If you listen closely, you might even hear them screw up. They heard it too – and then they let it go.

The sound of great drumming is the sound of the player’s pure, uninhibited emotional intent. As listeners, it’s the musician’s emotion that draws us in. As players, our insecurity, self-doubt and fear separate us from our listeners. Becoming aware of your insecurity is the first step to overcoming it. And the more performance experience you acquire, the more you will trust your ability, and the more you will put your insecurity behind you.

Reading The Advancing Guitarist marked the beginning of a new mindset for me. It was like a dam broke. I realized that the knot I felt in my stomach after every show was limiting my playing. And I knew that I, and only I, could do something about it.

The result of this re-thinking was tangible. As my focus widened I started hearing my whole band rather than just my own playing. My groove deepened, my feel improved, and, most importantly, I was having more fun.

Unfortunately, self-doubt is something few of us will ever overcome completely, and from time to time we need a reminder to keep it in check. My favorite reminder? A memory of a hot February day Rio, on an Ipanema street corner where a scrawny gap-toothed kid with an empty Coke can is making me dance.

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