Several years ago, I was playing a regular jazz gig every Tuesday night at a local music venue in San Diego. After many weeks playing at this venue, I had really gotten into a nice routine… I knew exactly when to leave the house, I knew where to park, I knew which doors to use, I knew where to set up the drums, I knew where I’d put the cases, etc. I knew that arriving 30 minutes before the gig gave me about 20 minutes to set up and some extra time to hang out before playing the first song.
One particular night, I arrived 30 minutes prior to the gig, just as I had done every week prior. I set up my drums. I placed the bags in the corner. I said hi to the band / staff, and ordered a pre-show cocktail. When it was time to play, I sat behind the drums and right as the band leader was counting the first tune off, my heart skipped a beat as I looked down to see that something was really, really wrong.. my stick bag was nowhere to be found!
You see, I had always had my stick bag attached to my cymbal bag... but the night before, I played a gig which required me to use a different set of cymbals… hence, a different cymbal bag. I had forgotten to re-pack the stick bag. I was screwed!
I realized at that moment that I 1) had no drum sticks 2) had no time to fix the problem, 3) was about to play a 2 hour jazz gig.
What did I do? As the band leader counted off the tune I started by playing the snare drum with my hands like a hand drum. I used my hands to sweep across the drums. I would crash on the ride cymbal with my hands, or flick the bell to create accents. I used the hi-hats in ways other than just keeping the pulse. I was exploring all sorts of new sounds… clapping, body percussion, vocal percussion, you name it! All because I did the most embarrassing thing a drummer can do: forget to bring their drum sticks to the gig.
To my surprise, however, not having sticks that night did a LOT of things: I was forced to play much more creatively, we all interacted with each other on a deeper level (everybody could now hear each other much clearer with a lower volume), and it caused us to play our tunes with a completely different feel. Everyone stretched out and took more chances. It all felt fresh. The band even complimented me on my sonic choices as if I had CHOSEN not to use sticks that night!
What a valuable lesson I learned. When things don’t go as planned, you have two choices: You give up or you MAKE IT HAPPEN.
The reason I share this story is that when you get out of the practice room and onto the stage (in music or in life), you learn something very quickly: rarely do things happen exactly how we plan. Rarely are conditions ideal. Because of this, we must learn to adapt on the fly.
When do we have to MAKE IT HAPPEN? We’ve all had our own variation of one of these experiences: The sound on stage is horrible and you play the show with a bad mix, the guitarist breaks a string and you need to fill time while he changes the string, your stick breaks during the song, a drumhead breaks at the beginning of the show, the kick drum starts sliding, you have to sit in on someone else’s drum kit, the stage lights are blinding, you’re playing in less-than-ideal weather conditions, a fight breaks out in the crowd, the venue cuts your set short and you have to change the setlist on the fly, you're dealing with drunk fans, or… in my case, when you forget your drum sticks… there’s just so many things that can happen unexpectedly!
If we know that things will never completely go as planned, how can we better prepare ourselves for these situations?
YOUR ACTION STEPS THIS WEEK:
The answer is to start becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. How do we do that? By actually PRACTICING the unknown!
Here’s some exercises you can try on the drum kit:
1) Regularly tear down / set up your practice kit. Each time you do, change something in the way you set up.
2) Change the angles/heights of your hardware. Move a tom inconveniently out of the way. Move a cymbal stand much too high. etc.
2) Regularly sit in on someone else’s drum kit. Make it a challenge to play without adjusting anything (something you should generally do anyway)
3) Change the height of your throne (this simple tweak will make your whole kit feel different!)
4) Practice with the lights off.
5) Practice a groove at one tempo while listening to something with a completely different tempo.
6) Remove all cymbals from your kit.
7) Remove all toms from your kit.
8) Remove the snare drum from your kit.
9) Remove all foot pedals from your kit.
Hopefully you’re seeing the big picture here… intentionally change things up as much as possible… practice adapting to INCONSISTENCY rather than only practicing in ideal conditions. If we train this muscle, things like breaking a stick during a show will not stress us out at all because we’ve already practiced how to MAKE IT HAPPEN.
The musicians I admire the most seem to be able to do this seamlessly. They can play an amazing show in almost any environment and under any condition. They don’t seem frazzled by technical problems or less-than-ideal conditions. They know how to MAKE IT HAPPEN.
THE NEXT LEVEL
The need to MAKE IT HAPPEN is around us constantly. When life hands you a lemon, do you give up or do you make a lemonade out of it?
There’s so many applications for MAKING IT HAPPEN beyond the kit and into our every day lives: MAKING IT HAPPEN is what causes a quarterback to get the first down after being rushed by the defense, what causes a safe driver to avoid accidents, what causes a traveler to be able to navigate in a foreign country, what allows us to complete a project at work by the deadline, or what allows us to come up with solutions to the problems we face in life.
Begin regularly practicing things that make you uncomfortable. You’ll develop new layers of confidence, agility, quick-thinking, and adaptability.
With all of this said… whenever possible…. ALWAYS remember to bring your drumsticks to the gig! :)
ABOUT COREY CHRISTIANSEN
Thank you to Corey Christiansen for offering his 3 words of advice (MAKE IT HAPPEN) and for inspiring me to write this week's article!
Corey is becoming recognized as one of the preeminent jazz guitarists in the world. A recording artist, writer, educator and performer, he has played and taught in literally every type of situation around the globe for the last decade.
“Awakening,” Corey’s first CD as a leader, was the initial release on Mel Bay Records in 2004 and received critical acclaim throughout the jazz community. MB3: Jazz Hits Vol. 1 marked a great leap in his national and international visibility as a player and producer. Jazz Hits Vol. 1 spent three weeks as the No. 1 jazz recording on North American jazz radio.His first performance DVD – “Vic Juris & Corey Christiansen: Live at the Smithsonian Jazz Café” – was released in July 2006. Jazzwise-reviewer Mike Flynn gave the recording four stars, noting that “…Christiansen is well versed in the guitar’s sonic heritage and his judicious sense of phrasing finds him light-fingered even on the densest of changes and positively euphoric on his ballad work.”
Corey has written several method books for Mel Bay Publications as well as articles for many of the major guitar magazines and Downbeat Magazine. Corey currently teaches at Utah State University and the famed Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. He is also an artist-in-residence at Atlanta Institute of Music (Atlanta, GA), and Broadway Music School (Denver, CO)
His latest record, Factory Girl (Origin Records) will drop on June 17, 2016