A great player, Joe Crabtree (and an excellent teacher) posted a nice piece on his blog called, “You Can Do It,” on learning and staying focused, which I encourage everyone to read. The topics of motivation, practice, and learning new techniques are covered ad nauseum in drumming magazines and instructional videos, but what I like about Joe’s piece is that he gets into why and how we learn, and what makes us really “want” to do something. He hits upon the dreaded “nature v. nature” debate and basically concludes that any genetic or “natural” advantages:
don’t begin to make a difference until you’re getting to a level that only the great drummers would even appreciate
Now, I agree-ish (if you’ll permit me to weasel out of that a bit). I know that “nature v. nurture” comes up anytime anyone discussing anything to do with learning or behaviour; however, I’m part of what’s now an old trend which thinks that even saying “nature v. nurture” is to frame the question falsely. This isn’t the forum to debate this type of stuff (or maybe it is?), but suffice it to say, I believe the “nature v. nurture” is not so much a “debate” but a turf war between two academic factions. The real debate, IMO, is not which “side” is more responsible, but how the two play off one another to make us who we are, and in my case and possibly yours, how can we become better at what we do knowing that we control only one variable, ourselves. I’ll get back to how this relates to drumming in a second, but first, I would also strongly encourage anyone who’s interested in this “nature/nature” thing to check out a book by Matt Ridley called “Nature via Nurture.” This book has very little drumming in it 🙁 but a lot of great, easy-to-understand, science 🙂 which is cool if you’re into that sort of thing…OK, back to drumming…
The question, nay, the statement I get when people ask for lessons or just ask me about drumming in general is “I have no rhythm,’ hence the title of this post. I get this 99% of the time. Actually, I probably get this 100%, but I’m trying to give myself some margin for error. I get this even after I ask if they’ve ever tried playing the drums before to which their answer is always “no.” Based on this, I always want to know how they know for sure having never done the thing that they’re now claiming they’re no good at. By the way, this is usually the time in the conversation where I get to ask them if they really expected to be good at anything having never tried the thing before. After a couple of beats, I usually get a smile or a shoulder shrug or their Starbucks order is ready, so they now get to extract themselves from our conversation without having to answer the question completely. Now, my guess is that the problem is twofold: we live in a world that sets an expectation of immediate gratification combined with a “you’re the best” no matter what you do attitude–the latter is what I like to call the participation trophy problem, and the former is probably just a consequence of the information-at-our-fingertips age, which I personally think is a good thing, but you have to remember that learning to play well doesn’t come as easily or quickly as a google search for “how to play well.” I think, then, that the “I have no rhythm” mantra comes from an innate honesty when individuals pumped up on “you’re the best,” and “give me what I want now!” crashes straight into reality whenever they listen to music or watch a band live or a see a music video or try to dance at an office party!
What I like about Joe’s piece is that he talks about expectations, which I believe are the key to any sort of success. If your expectation is to be as good as Vinnie Colaiuta (just google or Youtube anything he does, and you’ll know what I mean) right out of the gate then your expectations are set a little too high. This doesn’t mean that setting a goal to play something “like” Vinnie is misguided, far from it. Goals are necessary, and achieving them incrementally really is the key to improvement. On the flip side, if you go in with the attitude that “I have no rhythm” without having actually been taught anything, then what you’re really telling me is that you’ve never tried something that you’re pretty sure other people can do better, so it must be that you just can’t do it. Now, you’re probably saying that that makes no sense, and that’s the point. It makes no sense at all.
As I tell people all the time, sense of rhythm is as natural as walking and talking, and like walking and talking, some are better, some are worse, and most fall somewhere in between; however, playing drums is to rhythm as writing is to speaking, or the 100 metre dash is to walking: these endeavors require training, and the more training you have and the more you practice, the better you’ll be as compared to whom? You! You’ll be better than you were a few days, weeks, months, etc., and that’s all that matters. You’re assessment of your abilities should never be a comparison with someone else, but a comparison of where you were before you started training. Now, it’s inevitable that you’ll compare yourself to others, and in my case, other players, but you have to remember that there’s always going to be someone better, always–there’s always a bigger fish, as they say, so why bother. Listen, watch, and use other people not as comparisons but as inspiration. I never watch say, Benny Greb, for example, and say “I’ll never be that good.” Instead, I watch him, and think, “Wow, that’s cool. I want to do that,” so what would the steps be for me to get there.
Now, the more astute readers might start chirping that I ranted against the “best no matter what” attitude and then proceeded to declare that you should only compare yourself to you, and you’d be correct-ish. What I need to make clear is that I’m not railing against self comparison, but against the word, “best.” I think we need to get away from “best” as an artistic concept, and settle for “better” or “worse” with a giant spectrum in between. It’d be plausibly correct to argue that Buddy Rich was “the best” drummer who ever lived. In fact, I would subscribed to that argument; however, what we’re really saying is that he’s the best we’ve seen yet, and that word “yet” IS the operative word. My point is this: if you declare everything as “best” then you end up with this sort of imprecise “best vs. worst,” list, which is about as useful as the “nature vs. nurture” thing. Forget concepts like best/worst, don’t worry about “natural rhythm” or who’s “the best,” but see other players as opportunities–people giving you great ideas for free (unless you’re paying your teacher, like me, in which case think of it as getting great ideas at a bargain!). You can use these ideas to set new goals and then copy and use them not to be better than they are or to be “the best,” but to make yourself better…