I have a confession to make... I'm a little bit embarrassed to share the following story with you. Why? Let's just say that this story doesn't necessarily highlight one of my best moments as a musician. But it's a story worth sharing nonetheless. Here we go.
In the summer of 2008, I was selected as a member of the Disneyland All-American College Band in Anaheim, CA. The band consisted of 20 members chosen from all over the country.
Each day, the program consisted of morning workshops, masterclasses, and rehearsals with top-call LA musicians, followed by performing several sets of music around the park during the afternoon. It was my first time living out on the west coast, it was my first "legit" gig as a musician, everyone in the band was incredible, and it ended up being one of the most memorable summers of my life.
For our first set of music in the park each day, we'd perform a traditional big-band jazz set for the Disneyland guests. These big band sets were always my favorite to play because 1) I'd get to play drum set 2) They'd always include challenging, new material that we'd be sight-reading on the spot each day, and 3) We'd even get to perform on stage with the clinicians we had worked with earlier that morning.
Though the music we played during this set would likely differ each day, we'd ALWAYS begin the show with our opening chart: "The Trolly Song".
A couple of weeks into the program, our director ( Dr. Ron McCurdy ) took me aside after the set and said: "Steve... you don't need the sheet music for Trolly Song anymore... memorize the tune and ditch the chart."
My internal dialog: "Sure... but why would I want to ditch the chart? It has all the information I need to play the song right here. Why would I want to risk messing up the form? Why would I want to risk not nailing the band figures or not properly set up any important hits?"
So what did I do? I ignored Dr. McCurdy's suggestion and kept using the chart.
One day, Ron counted off the tune and we began playing "Trolly Song," just like we had every other day.
We were about 20 seconds into the chart when I noticed from the corner of my eye that Ron was walking slowly from the front of the stage over to my drums. He stopped right in front of me. I peeled my eyes off the chart as we were playing and looked up at him.
There he was, and with a look of frustration, Ron proceeded to do something I'll never forget: He grabbed the chart off the stand, threw it into the air, and let it land scattered on the floor in front of everyone while we were playing... the crowd, the band... EVERYONE! Then, he turned around and walked back to the stage.
My reaction was a beet-red-faced embarrassment followed immediately by internal panic... "I don't have the chart anymore! How am I going to get through this tune? What section comes after this one?? Everyone is relying on me... why did he do this to me???"
But then something miraculous happened.
We got through the chart. I didn't bomb. I survived.
Not only did we get through the chart, but... quite surprisingly to me, I had played the song much better than I had ever played it before. Not only this, but everyone had seemed to have noticed. I was completely dumbfounded... what had just happened?
When the song finished, Ron smiled at me and at that moment, it hit me like a brick wall.
I understood his lesson.
FOLLOW YOUR EARS.
When I was (literally) forced to rely on my ears, I suddenly became much more aware of my bandmates around me, much more aware the big picture, and I was immediately able to play much more musically. I was able to "go off-script" and just be myself.
There comes a certain point when you're just getting in your own way (in drumming or in life)... Almost always, the root cause of this stems from one thing: PLAYING IT SAFE.
When Ron threw my chart on the ground, he proved to me not only that I had actually already memorized the tune a long time ago, but that I was just using the chart as a barrier to hide behind my own fears or insecurities about my playing.
I was fortunate to learn such a valuable lesson from Ron at that time in my life. We never actually talked about what happened that day, but looking back on it, we didn't need to. He and I both knew that the experience had changed me for the good, in a way that words never could have.
YOUR ACTION STEPS THIS WEEK
This week, I'm challenging you to put yourself in a situation where you are forced to FOLLOW YOUR EARS.
Here's the challenge:
- Find a pop song that you're completely unfamiliar with.
- Listen to the song one time all the way through.
- While listening, take mental notes. Remember as much as you can about the form, style, and hits.
- Immediately after listening to the song, hop on the drums and play the song along with the music as if you were performing it in front of a large crowd. Imagine the crowd staring at you and imagine the band standing on stage with you.
- FOLLOW YOUR EARS... Just get through it! You'll be surprised at what you're capable of when you simply trust your own intuition.
THE NEXT LEVEL
How can you apply Ron's lesson to other areas of your life beyond the drums? In what areas of your life are you "playing it safe"?
What are those barriers in life that you're hiding safely behind? What would happen if you suddenly eliminated that barrier?
Please add your thoughts/answers in the comments section below!
ABOUT DR. RON MCCURDY
Dr. Ronald C. McCurdy is professor of music in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC). Prior to his appointment at USC he served as Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at USC. He has served as Professor of Music and chair of the Afro-African American Studies Department and served as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Minnesota. In 1997, Dr. McCurdy served as Visiting Professor at Maria-Sklodowska- Curie University in Lublin, Poland. In 2001 Dr. McCurdy received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Kansas.
Dr. McCurdy is a consultant to the Grammy Foundation educational programs including serving as director of the National Grammy Vocal Jazz Ensemble and Combo. He has served as a consultant for the Walt Disney All-American Summer College Jazz Ensemble since 1990. Dr. McCurdy has worked with many jazz artists including Joe Williams, Rosemary Clooney, Leslie Uggams, Dr. Billy Taylor, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Arturo Sandoval, Diane Schuur, Ramsey Lewis, Mercer Ellington, Dr. Billy Taylor, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, and Dianne Reeves.
ABOUT TOMMY GODDARD
Thank you to Tommy for offering this week's three-word rule for drummers: FOLLOW YOUR EARS! Nationally known performer, composer, and educator, Tommy Goddard has been working in the music industry since 2002. As winner of many drumset, marimba, and marching percussion awards, Goddard has worked in schools, football stadiums, and music venues all across North America. He made his Kennedy Center debut as a snare drummer in the Crossmen Drum Corps in Washington, D.C. in 2008. In 2011, he performed at the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, IN as champion of the Drumline Live! national solo competition. Goddard has worked with recording artists Shania Twain, Arturo Sandoval, John Clayton, Steve Houghton, Rick Baptist, Sal Lozano, Pop Price, Meloney Collins, Jay Leach, Jennifer Barnes, Jonelle Allen, Douglas Roegiers, Maureen Davis, Robbie Seay, Evans Blue, Kutless, Stellar Kart, Superchick, Stockton Helbing, Lincoln Brewster, and many others.