There’s probably a name for it, but I can’t conjure the word: When you’ve been doing something a long, long time, then realize you’ve pretty much been doing it all wrong. That’s the case with me and the drums – an instrument I picked up a dozen years ago but only recently have come to understand as infinitely intricate.
I can’t explain why I started playing, I got the bug when my good friend Jordan insisted I sit down and attempt to bang out a rhythm one very late night. He was re-familiarizing himself with his guitar and wanted a co-conspirator, he happened to have a kit collecting dust in his garage. I was in my mid forties and pretty lost in my career, and I had just moved to a new town. We had a blast making noise that first night – I recall the police coming after multiple complaints, and I woke up afterwards with my face stuck to the snare. After that I built a band room in an out building on my property, found some more guys to play with, and we formed what could pass for a band.
I was a terrible drummer. I took a few lessons and watched some YouTube videos, but I resolutely refused to practice. I think I knew how much I didn’t know, how much I had to learn. I mean, Lars Ulrich was a parent at my kids’ school, and there was no way I was ever going to play at his level. Anyways, I didn’t want to “get serious” – I just wanted to play. Turns out the world vanishes when you lock in with other players and everyone is chasing the flow. When that flow graces the room, damn, there’s just nothing like it. I knew there was a universe of “real drumming” that I was ignoring, but hey, I could study a beat and figure out how to mimic it, and I could (mostly) keep time. And every so often I’d surprise myself with a new riff that seemed to come out of nowhere. We were just having fun, jamming and playing covers and even penning a few originals. None of us had dreams of “playing out” or getting good enough to make a career in music.
The band room was a joyful counterbalance to the madness and exhilaration of running businesses and raising young children. It beat playing golf or going to Vegas or getting drunk in random bars. We’d all text each other on the fly – “band room!?” – and since we all lived nearby, we’d end up playing for a few hours several times a week. It was always after: After dinner, after we put the kids to bed, after the evening work emails or calls. We got good enough to draw a crowd from time to time, but I think folks came more for the vibe. The music was just an excuse for the hang, and the band room was a pretty special place to hang. We had white boards, extra instruments just in case someone showed up who actually knew how to play, and plenty of booze and weed. I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang?
Seven years in, reality intervened, some bad things happened to good people, and the band splintered. Jordan and I kept playing when we could, and a few regulars would come by from time to time, but the vibe was never really the same. I was playing far less than I’d have liked. And I wasn’t learning anything new. When the band room was in full swing, we’d push each other to learn something new, or real players would come by from time to time, and they’d push us even harder. That wasn’t happening any more.
A few years later, with two of my three kids already out of the house, the rest of my family and I moved to New York. Cleaning out the band room was one of the hardest parts of leaving California. Our bassist agreed to relocate the equipment to his garage, but I only get back there a few times a year. I did buy a new kit for my apartment in New York, but it sat there like a stack of unread New Yorkers, balefully reminding me that I wasn’t really playing anymore.
Then the pandemic came, and my wife Michelle and I moved our base to our multi-generational family homestead on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Last year, after my daughter’s high school graduation, we realized we didn’t have to stay in New York. We moved full time to the island, and, for the first time in five years, I had both the time and the space to start playing again. I built another band room in my basement, but for the first six months I only played when other players came by – and given we were new to the area, that wasn’t very often.
Early this year, however, I was hit with a major life transition. We sold the Recount in January, and for the first time in more than thirty years, I wasn’t either running a company or worrying about starting another. I promised myself and my family that, after three decades, I’d stop chasing the entrepreneurial dragon. But I needed something to chase, so I decided to get serious about the drums – to actually explore how much I didn’t know. I resolved to practice daily. I’m a lifelong maker of lists, so every day I write “practice” on my list of things to do. And every day I cross that line through. (It’s silly, but it works.) I even set up a practice kit in my office upstairs – saving the “real” kit downstairs for when friends come over to jam. I read somewhere it takes three weeks to develop a new habit, and as of today, it’s now been more than three months of realizing how little I actually know about playing the drums.
Back when I was first learning, I remember a YouTube instructor imploring his viewers to practice what are called rudiments. This are basic sticking patterns that underpin pretty much the entire vocabulary of drumming. I once asked a friend who was a “real” drummer about them, and he told me if I really wanted to get any good, I should focus on nothing but rudiments for at least a year. That struck me as insane – it was just so much fun to bang out basic beats while playing with others. Rudiments are not only boring to practice, many of them are also maddeningly hard to master. But that’s where I started in February – with thirty minutes of rudiments each day. When I get stuck, I turn back to YouTube, where you can find thousands of videos on, say, the double stroke roll or the inverted paradiddle.
I’m not even close to where I want to be, I know I’ve got months or even years of work ahead of me before I can get to the speed and musicality I know is possible once you master rudiments. Turns out I was holding the sticks wrong, I was failing to use my fingers properly, I sucked at triplets, I wasn’t playing to a metronome, I was utterly ignorant of how to play the bass pedal – nearly every day my list of things to practice grows longer. I’m wading into the sea of ignorance I had been avoiding for a dozen years. And it feels fucking awesome. I’ve noticed lately that I don’t have to push myself to sit at the kit and practice any more. I want to master the rudiments. I want to get to the next level.
I guess the lesson is this: For every field, every career, and every practice, there are rudiments – core skills that underpin everything else. I’ve found that if you’re stuck, it pays to return to them. They have more to teach us than we know.