Drumming Stories

First Gig

“Summer lovin’ had me a blast …”

I sat there, palms sweaty, clutching my pristine new sticks.

“Summer lovin’ happened so fast …”

I sat there, almost wishing I was somewhere – anywhere – else. [Almost].

My first gig as a drummer was an abridged version of ‘Grease’ somewhere in Winchester. I’m 15, and have only been playing for a few weeks.

“Well-ah well-ah well-ah HUH!”

And with that ‘Huh!’, I’m off on a 30 year journey as a drummer.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that there are two types of nerves. The first are to do with how prepared we are. They second, how much we care.

When it comes to preparedness, we can work on it. Not at the moment we have to deliver – by then it’s too late – we just have to get on with the task at hand. But these are nerves we can learn from. They are a sign that we need to practice – to improve our skills, whether at drumming, writing, listening, whatever. By being more prepared, next time we can reduce these nerves.

The second type of nerves tell us how much we care. We get them because we want to do a good job – and we don’t want to lose these nerves – they help keep us sharp. If we don’t get these nerves at an important moment, what does that say? Perhaps it’s a sign we need to be braver – to move forwards?

Nerves tell us whether we are prepared, and whether we care. Both are useful – and important – things to know.

First Summer Season

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…”

I sat there, as the curtains opened on my first professional show.

“But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…”

I sat there, and my journey as a professional musician began.

My first summer season included a wartime nostalgia show, the musical ‘The King and I’, and a summer variety show. I remember very little about the shows themselves – but can clearly recall the people I worked with, and the bond we had.

Where did that bond come from?

It came from agreeing on one simple thing: let’s make the shows the best they can be.

Many of us were young with no real interest in a wartime nostalgia show, and I suspect I’m not the only one who hasn’t listened to ‘The King and I’ since that summer. But that didn’t matter. We didn’t need to like all the songs in order to make the show good. The pride we took came from the finished product – not the component parts.

And that shared pride in what we were creating led to something more.

Connection.

It was nearly 30 years ago now, but we still get together every couple of years. The bond is still there.

The connection is what I remember, not the drum part to “The Siedfried Line”.

Working With A Legend

“So tired, tired of waiting …”

I sat there, listening as the audience cheered.

“Tired of waiting for you …”

I sat there, watching a legend at work.

I worked with Ray Davies for several months at the end of 2008, and it was the undoubted highlight of my drumming career. He had written a musical loosely based on his childhood, and Ray was the overall creative lead – effectively the CEO. He was an exceptional leader. He trusted us to do our jobs and allowed us to make suggestions – but never at the expense of his overall vision, which was crystal clear.

Ray also noticed things. He didn’t rant and rave, or make big speeches. Instead, he would discreetly find you, and say “Nice playing today,” or “I’m not sure about the ride cymbal there – maybe try the hi-hats instead?” This attention to detail was important for two reasons.

First, it kept us at our best. Ray was watching, and we knew it.

Second, it showed he cared. And because he cared, we did too.

Last Drum Lesson?

“Play that one more time for me.”

I sat there, and correctly played the final exercise in the book.

“This will be your last lesson with me – I’ve got nothing else to teach you.”

I sat there, and thought I was done with learning.

My first drum teacher was excellent – methodical, and with a sharp eye for detail. For 18 months, he took me through a sequence of drumming books, never letting me slack off, and giving me all the basic skills a young drummer needs.

Unfortunately, when he said “I’ve got nothing else to teach you,” 17-year-old me thought that meant “You’ve got nothing else to learn.” Which obviously wasn’t true. It was a classic example of Dunning-Kruger – I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

[In my defence, I probably wasn’t the first 17-year-old boy to think he knew it all…]

For a couple of years I was in blissful ignorance – gigging, and thinking that playing Wembley was just a matter of time.

Then I went to university, where I quickly realised something. Not only was I not the best drummer there – which I had honestly expected to be, I was in fact one of the worst. I gave up, and returned to the comfort of being a big fish in a small pond.

There are two forces at play here – being bold enough to say “Yep, I can do this”, and the humility to also say “And I know I can improve”.

At 17, I had the first – but not the second.

Bold humility. It’s a tricky path to walk – but an important one.

Going Back To Lessons

“OK. Play something. Anything you want.”

I sat there, and pulled out my best licks.

“What’s going on with your right foot?”

I sat there, and realised I had work to do.

In my 30s, I decided to go and get drum lessons again. I’d been playing for 20 years, and was in a rut. While I knew ‘enough’, I also knew there were gaps in my knowledge and understanding of drumming.

What I didn’t expect was to tear down and rebuild everything. The physical foundations of the way I played. My mental decisions about what to play and when. And the spiritual progression from drummer to musician to artist. It took years – and even though I’m not playing much these days, that process is still going on in my head.

There’s no obligation for any of us to keep learning and improving our skills. It’s absolutely possible to reach a point of ‘good enough’. I was in that space for years, and that’s OK.

[For now?]

But if we make that choice, we can’t expect to move forwards. If we want to be more, we have to do more.

It takes patience. There’s also an element of timing. Part of me regrets not going for those lessons in my 20s, but then I recall an ancient Chinese proverb –

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

What are you ready for?

The Best Band I Worked With

“Lord Almighty, I feel my temperature risin’…”

I sat there, watching as the crowd moved to the dance floor.

“Higher higher , it’s burnin’ through to my soul…”

I sat there, looking round at the best band I was ever in.

‘Joey and the Jivers’ [the ‘Joey’ wasn’t me by the way – I was one of the Jivers] played authentic 50s rock’n’roll, at clubs and weekenders across the UK – and occasionally beyond.

‘Best’ is subjective – particularly in music. Some fans of the Jivers believed that no good music had been made before 1946 or after 1959 – except maybe Elvis after his comeback [although opinions were divided there]. I’m not going to say those fans were ‘wrong’, but most people would likely agree that both Beethoven and The Beatles made some decent music outside of those dates!

There are two reasons I describe the Jivers as ‘the best band I was in’. The first is that they were utterly professional. The band was impeccably managed, knew how to behave, and always gave 100%. In eight years of traipsing up and down motorways in the dead of night, we never had a bad word between us.

The second is that we were more than the sum of our parts. Being in a band is the very definition of teamwork. In a successful band, each person has a specific role, with clearly defined responsibilities and expectations – and it’s more than just “I play the drums.” It’s also who runs the website, talks to promoters, books the ferry, organises rehearsals, and a multitude of other jobs.

And we held each other accountable. Nobody wanted to let the team down. Individually, we weren’t the most gifted musicians – but collectively – collaboratively – we became one of the most highly regarded and respected bands on the circuit.

Teamwork makes teams work.

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