What’s in a name

Age 13, powered by tube socks, rocking out for 100s of partying bicyclists overnighting in my hometown, my first gig ever on drums. Despite the applause, I felt like an impostor on the instrument.

You can’t succeed at something if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. There’s something about naming a thing that tells the mind, “Go.” A name endows a thing with meaning and a mission. By bravely titling ourselves our passion, even long before we think we deserve to, we take ownership of our art.


I started drumming at the age of seven when my dad bought me a drum set for Christmas.  For years I played nearly every day by myself, rockin’ along with my favorite records cranked in my headphones. Then in 7th grade I formed a power trio, Outrage, with two friends who were brothers. Outrage performed continuously for six years (a long time for a group at any level), and disbanded only when college ambitions separated us. My passion for my band was equalled only by my passion for drums and drumming, and, like many young musicians, I dreamed of being a rock star someday.

Outrage’s business card. We were serious, indeed. Me, far right.

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Yet in spite of my love for drumming and my commitment to my band, it was years after Outrage split up when I finally mustered the guts to tell people, “Yeah, I’m a drummer.” “Drummer” was such an intimidating title to me that I was afraid of applying it to myself. Owning the word felt like an obligation I wasn’t sure I was good for. I thought calling myself a drummer meant I had to live up to intimidating expectations, both my own and those of others, of what a drummer was.

It was only after college, when I leaped off the face of Mt. Security and devoted myself to music and my new band, Spymob, that I finally started calling myself a drummer. At first it was awkward; when someone would ask me what I did for a living, I’d out myself with a forced confidence, and then await their judgment. Do I measure up?  Do I look the part? Of course the judgment was only in my head. And I quickly learned that people love meeting people who call themselves drummers! So after years of avoiding the title altogether, it took me about 5 minutes of trying it on to embrace it wholeheartedly. And ever since I’ve been proud to call myself, above all else, a drummer.

The funny thing is, once I finally adopted the drummer title, it quickly lost its intimidating punch. Like almost everything we fear, the title stopped being scary when I finally embraced it and ascribed my own meaning to it. For years I’d been afraid that labeling myself “drummer” meant that I had to live up to some idea of what it was to be John, or Neil, or Elvin, or Zigaboo, my childhood idols who gave “drummer” so much significance to me growing up. I had no idea how I could ever BE those guys. “Drummer,” I finally realized, can represent something other than some old ideal I had in my head, an ideal I could never embody now matter how hard I tried, because it wasn’t who I am. “Drummer,” I realized, can also represent ME and my own particular reasons for hitting the skins.

During all the years I resisted the drummer title, it never crossed my mind that other drummers were resisting it, too. But once I got over my hang-up, I began to hear other players hedging. I also began hearing friends who were writers and painters and dancers deny themselves their rightful titles. I realized I wasn’t alone.

But so what? Does it matter what we call ourselves? I used to think it doesn’t. But I learned that it does.

There’s something about naming a thing that tells the mind, “Go.” A name endows a thing with meaning and a mission. A name is a commitment to realizing a thing’s potential. We name schools before they open their doors, we name children just as they’re taking their first breaths, and we name ships before they set off to sea.

Naming a thing that we love can be hard to do if we’re afraid it won’t succeed.  (Oh how disappointed we’ll be if we take it seriously and it doesn’t work out!) Ironically, though, it’s by naming a thing that we increase its chance of success. Naming a thing enables us to make it our own, to make it what we want it to be, and to define exactly what success looks like.

A title means something different to everyone who claims it. And this is as it should be, because, as I realized, everyone who calls himself a drummer has their own peculiar relationship to the drums, and their own reason for playing them.

I Know Drummers

I know all kinds of drummers. In my thirty-five years of playing, I’ve learned that no two drummers relate to the instrument the same way.

I know drummers who are gear heads. My friend, Chris, is one of them. Chris is a good drummer, but I’ve never been convinced that he loves to play the drums more than he loves to play WITH them. Chris relates to his drums the way he relates to his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle – a car that Chris spent ten years of his life restoring to it’s original condition. Chris’s passion for vintage drum sets is an extension of his love for reviving the beauty of old things. Chris currently owns fourteen drum sets in various conditions, and he spends entire days on his computer tracking down old tension rods, hoops, and lugs, hoping to revive the past glory of each kit.

I know drummers who are technicians, like my old drum tech, Matt. Matt has little interest for being in a band. He’s not a big fan of collaborating with humans. He’s also not much into performing. But Matt is one of the most technically proficient drummers I’ve ever known, and a brilliant music reader. Matt was a state-champion snare drummer in his high school marching band, and he’s applied that same military rigor to executing the most intricate rhythms on the drum set. Matt has no ambition for stardom. Nor does he seem to have any practical goal as a musician. Matt is perfectly happy being a closet genius. For him, heaven is five free hours on a Saturday and a brand new book on “Advanced Latin Technique.”

I know drummers who are giggers. Peter’s a gigger, dividing his time between six or eight groups at a time. Peter’s too impatient to devote himself to just one band. But he loves to perform, and he’s great at it. Bands and solo artists gladly bend to Pete’s hectic performance schedule because, in spite of his well-known disdain for rehearsing, he’s a joy to work with and has incredible energy on stage. Pete’s no technician, but he is a natural, musical drummer. His passion for playing is all about connecting with an audience and elevating the performances of everyone on stage, and at that he’s a master.

Let Love Rule

There are many reasons we do our art, but usually there’s one thing that drives us to do it that trumps all others.  Among drummers, some are drawn most to gear, some to technique, some to performing. Before I owned the title of drummer for myself, I felt like I had to love and master all these aspects of drumming, and more. Surprisingly, once I allowed myself to join the drummer club, I realized that not only did I not have to think like other drummers about the instrument, but that it was better for me not to try. I realized being the best drummer I could be meant viewing the instrument through my own eyes and approaching it in my own way.

I love the physicality of drumming, I love the feeling and sound of performing a simple groove, I love the challenge of arranging the right drum part for a song, and I love performing, too. But over time I learned that the thing that has kept me interested in playing the drums for so long is the challenge and enjoyment of collaborating with others to build something really cool together. Once I learned that, I stopped kicking myself for not being the flashiest player in the world. I stopped kicking myself for not keeping up with all the latest gear. I could finally focus my energy on what I loved most and was best at – uniting a band around a common purpose – and leave things I didn’t really care about to my drumming comrades.

For years I believed that if I started calling myself a drummer, I’d be crippled by the pressure of living up to the title. Additionally, I believed that by avoiding the title, I would also avoid the possibility of failing at what I loved to do most in the world.  Because, the logic goes, if I don’t think of myself as a drummer, then I can never truly fail at it, right?

You can’t succeed at something if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. By bravely calling ourselves drummers, even long before we think we deserve to, we take ownership of our art. Committing to our art in this way pushes us to more quickly define what it is we love most, and how we should spend our precious time, pursuing it. Knowing these two things, we can decide what success means to us, and then finally get down to the business of achieving it.

5 Responses to “What’s in a name”

      • DawnSeeker

        :)) I like what you’re doing here. All the arts are tied in. My Dad was Fox Orchestra studio musician and Bandleader at Disneyland — back in the day. He and his musician friends had the greatest sense of humor! And so talented. I grew up on Trancas Beach, Malibu, 50s and 60s. Music is at my roots!

  1. Graham

    Again, another feature that could’ve been written expressly for me, Eric. Very inspiring. It struck a deeper chord outside of my experience as a drummer, because by day, I’m a journalist. There, I said it.

    Because for years I never said that when people asked what I did for a living.

    I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m in the print.’

    ‘So, you’re a printer?’

    ‘Well, not quite. I write and sub features in magazines.’

    ‘So, you’re a journalist then?’

    ‘Erm, yeah. Kind of.’

    I was always embarrassed, because, you know, we’re not talking Hunter S Thompson here. I work for cheap and cheerful TV magazines. And, you know, I’m good at it, and they sell well.

    So, there you go. I know exactly where you’re coming from as a drummer (there I said that, too) and as – yes – a journalist.

    Ha. Now I’m worried I’ve committed some dreadful grammatical error before I post this. (‘Call yourself a sub-editor?’)

    Reply

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