This is the first in a three-part series calling attention to influences and patterns of thinking that stop us from pursuing our musical goals to the fullest. In this post we look at how for too many musicians, a desire to make music with other people, to perform live, or to stretch in a different musical direction is beset by an irrational fear that they are “not ready” to do so.
I’m on the road a lot, and wherever I am in the world, I talk to fans and total strangers alike about their city’s music scene. Often I’ll ask them if they play an instrument themselves. The response I get is predictable – they tell me either that they used to play an instrument but got discouraged and quit, or that they do play an instrument but don’t believe they are good enough yet to play with others, much less to perform in front of an audience.
In the next three posts, we’ll look at the all-too-common state of mind that stops musicians from pursuing their musical ambitions to the fullest, and causes people to believe that their music-making is unfit for ears other than their own. Along the way we’ll examine institutions and attitudes that contribute to this state of mind. My hope is that by understanding the various forces that dissuade us from achieving our musical goals we can then begin to ignore them and get on with our creative lives.
Dave’s “Not Ready” State Of Mind
About eight years ago I placed a classified ad in Minneapolis’s biggest newspaper reading, “Area drummer available to give lessons,” and so I began my first serious foray into teaching. The same week I received a call from a forty-something, over-achieving vice-president of a major U.S. corporation. His name, we’ll say, was Dave. On the phone, Dave told me, “my goal is to form a band and perform live, but even though I’ve been practicing and playing along with my favorite records for about ten years, I’m still not ready to play out yet. Can you help me?” I told him I could. As it turned out, I was wrong.
Contrary to what he thought about his playing, Dave was a really good, self-taught rock drummer – solid, tasteful, confident, and he had a natural musical ear. I was eager to get this corporate head-banger onto a stage, and I gave Dave regular lessons at his nice suburban home for more than a year. Every month he improved, and every month I asked him, “Have you started putting your band together yet?” His reply was always the same. “Man, I just don’t feel quite ready.”
There was nothing more I could do. Here was a great rock drummer ready to go, wanting to go, and something inside would not allow him to get out there and just do it.
The Cost Of Feeling “Not Ready”
For those of you who hesitate when you are faced with an exciting but intimidating musical opportunity, try this on: just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean you’re not ready to do it. If it’s a passion of yours and you’ve been practicing for this moment, it probably meanS that you think you’re not ready to do it. There’s a big difference. In reality, it’s rare that an opportunity will arise for a musician who isn’t up for the challenge – there’s usually a good reason why the opportunity came to that player rather than to someone else. On the other hand, it is common for a player to stress out about a challenging job or even turn an opportunity down because he doesn’t think he is up for it.
When we turn our back on a big break that we know is important for our growth, we have to consider the consequence of what we’re doing, which is handing over all that we would have learned from the experience in exchange for the assurance that we’ll avoid brief embarrassment if we, by slim chance, don’t measure up. My strong opinion is that the cost of constantly dodging these unlikely moments of discomfort is too great: a life of asking oneself, “What if?” As the incomparable hockey legend, Wayne Gretzky, so wisely said, “You miss one-hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”
The Unwitting Promoters Of The “Not Ready” State Of Mind
No one is more responsible than ourselves for the opportunities we let slip by. Still, discouragement and intimidation are also the unintended byproducts of images and messages we absorb from the world we live in and, at times, from our peers. Below are a few potential sources of discouragement from within the music industry. In the next post we’ll look at other sources.
Music Industry Marketing
Every record label has a marketing department. Their job, in short, is to take good bands and recast them in the image of superhuman heroes, and these departments do their jobs very well. As fans, we get off seeing our idols enlarged twenty times on billboards, and leading glamorous (though make-believe) lives in music videos. However, the larger-than-life depiction of our favorite musicians, and the idealization of the world in which they live, creates a harmful psychological barrier between players who’ve “made it” and the millions more who still live anonymous lives. For musicians who believe that these inflated images represent reality, this barrier makes it much more difficult to begin to imagine themselves living out the same sort of success. Ultimately, it may lead them to question why they should even try.
Artist Trade Magazines
Musician magazines, like all trade magazines geared toward artists, do a great job of keeping us up to date on virtually all areas of our craft. For geeks like me and my band mates in Spymob, it’s awesome to get monthly updates on our favorite players, to read the technique lessons and to check out new gear that we might find useful.
Now, selling magazines is a cut-throat business – particularly drumming magazines for which the readership is relatively small – so every magazine must work hard to present the most dazzling layout and the most upbeat, inspirational stories. Meanwhile, all the advertisers placing ads in these magazines naturally produce the most flattering layouts possible for their products, showing the world’s best-known drummers using their creations in gleaming, touched-up photos.
For musician magazines, the unfortunate, though probably unavoidable, result of these market realities is hyped-up content that doesn’t reflect the day-to-day realities of most working musicians. It’s not that these magazines are saying things that are untrue – they’re not. It’s just that, taken together, the glowing musician biographies, the seductive ads, and the fancy fonts create an idealistic image of the music business that appears quite foreign to, say, a young drummer in a small Iowa town. At least this is how it once looked to me. Seeing little relationship between the extraordinary events detailed every month in the drumming magazine that came to my doorstep, and my own, well, hum drum scene, I tended to view the world inside those glossy pages as unattainable, a reality built for someone else.
Music Production Techniques
Thanks to the ease of digital editing and to ever-higher production standards, the drumming on many of today’s records sounds inhumanly good – because it is. On today’s commercial records, it’s now standard practice for the performances of not just drummers but of all the band members to be cut apart on a computer and then stitched together to sound much tighter than they were originally played. Artistically, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach to recording – it’s simply the way people expect things to sound these days. However, an unwitting drummer listening to these recordings is likely to hear his own playing as comparatively undisciplined and wimpy. For sure, there are plenty of amazing drummers making today’s popular music who are worthy of admiration. But equally certain is that the surgery which most of today’s recordings undergo promotes an artificial and intimidating divide between drummers with big recording budgets and drummers considering stepping out of their practice room for the first time.
Dave Get’s Ready
Whatever their reason may be, untold numbers of great-but-unknown musicians have lived their entire musical lives locked in their practice rooms, never revealing their extraordinary talents to the world. For some, the reason is simply that a private creative life is sufficiently satisfying. For too many others, however, a desire to make music with other people, to perform live, or to stretch in a different musical direction is beset by an irrational fear that they are not yet technically ready to do so. The truth is, the more you get out there, the more you’ll find there’s rarely a challenge you’re not up for. And whether or not great music is made in the process, it is when we push ourselves to create outside of our comfort zone that we learn the most.
Which brings me to the end of my story about Dave. Today, even though I no longer give him lessons, Dave is a good friend of mine, and I’ve introduced him to a bunch of great musicians here in Minneapolis. One of these musicians, Matt, is the drummer for a really popular rock band in town, and recently Matt pulled Dave up on stage in front of hundreds of screaming fans to sit-in on a song. Dave claims he was very nervous, but he looked completely at peace up there, and his performance was strong. He said he played things he’d never played before. He was high for weeks. And with any luck, soon there will be a classified ad in Minneapolis’s biggest newspaper reading, “Area drummer seeks guitar and bass to complete rock band.”
[Update: Since this post was written, Dave has played with several bands and has performed live countless times, all the while maintaining his crazy schedule as a successful business leader. Nice.]