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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while then you know I’m a wannabe musician who doesn’t really like to practice. I heard a saying from Bob, the new harmonica player in the band, about the differences between rock musicians and jazz musicians. Jazz musician like to practice, but don’t like to rehearse; rock musicians like to rehearse, but don’t like to practice. Then there’s me. Weeks go by when I don’t want to practice or rehearse. This is the odd paradox of my creative life: I like having created something, but I’m lazy about creating it.
It’s a miracle that I got this far being a drummer when my tendency in life is to be inertial. I wrote once that I would rather be sitting on a the couch with a box of donuts than be at a gig. So, I’m surprised when I actually do practice. You know, get out the practice pad, find the drumsticks, take out the metronome, get some practice books out, and sit there and do exercises. That’s practice. That’s boring practice. I managed to progress as a drummer initially because I had so much training as a child and I just learned how to practice. I knew that it was largely about repetition. Repeating something until it sounds right or is done right. In the end, it is this understanding of “practice” that makes me hate to do it. I hate doing it because it’s dull, but experience told me (tells me still) that it pays off. Gigs sounds better, performances are smoother, and in the moment of playing on stage the body, which has its own kind of memory, can kick in and do things that your mind is too slow to think of. I practice knowing its good for me, but not really liking it.
So it was a complete surprise for me tonight when I practiced and it was different. I liked it. I cannot tell you how or why it was different, but it was. Something shifted and instead of playing with my brain, the part of me that says “this is good for you, so do it,” I practiced with my body, the muscles, which say instead “man, this feels good.” And for the first time in my life, it was different. I fell into grooves and stroke patterns that I can’t play usually and played them better.
The blues pattern, for instance, has always been hard for me, but I could have played it all night. That triplet feel, that ONE-trip-let, TWO-trip-let, THREE-trip-let, Four-trip-let felt more real than it ever had. I heard the beat in my head, and then I heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf jamming on the top. For the first time ever, I got it. Eyes closed, sticks moving in rhythm, my lips humming the melody, I finally felt that blues thing, that feeling.
And after twenty minutes, the spell was broken. My arms got tired. I got bored again. I started wondering if I could play other beats I couldn’t play before. Ten minutes later I was sitting in the rocking chair not practicing. Those moments are fleeting — those it’s-so-effortless moments come and go. Even on stage, you can never count on it. Adrenaline helps, makes you think it’s all that easy, but we know in our heads if we have had that moment.
I wish I knew what made tonight different. Is it because I’ve been sick for the last month with the flu and a respiratory infection? Was I too tired to be intellectual about practice? Is it because I painted my office yellow and moved the buddha statue to the east wall?
I don’t know. But, I hope that practice will become easier — something I want to do if only to see if I can capture that moment again. That moment when being a drummer is mostly easy and not mostly hard.
We find inspiration wherever we can get it. And sometimes when we’re not even looking, really great inspiration comes into your boring job, sits right down, inspires you, goes to lunch with you, inspires you some more, goes home, and then friends you on Facebook. This is what happened to me this week — another busy week — when I wasn’t looking for inspiration. Inspiration walked in called herself “Laurie Lindeen” (http://laurielindeen.com/) and proceeded to remind me why playing music is still worth doing even when I haven’t touched a drumstick in four weeks.
One of the bonuses of being a teacher is that we have a venue for sharing and exposing other artists’ work to the college and to students. It was Brian’s idea (not mine) to invite Laurie to speak at the school; he had been an admirer of Laurie’s band Zuzu’s Petals in the 1990s. She had recently published a memoir about her experiences titled Petal Pusher and Brian had loved it. I had no idea who she was. But, dutifully, I supported Brian and assigned an excerpt of her memoir about playing in a rock band to my students. This was facilitated by Brian who handed me a copy of a chapter and an assignment and said, “Here, have your students read this.”
And I did. The chapter I read could have been a posting on chickdrummer. In it Lindeen writes about the aftereffects of gigging, the adrenaline that races through your veins the next morning, the hangover that comes not just from alcohol, but from the experience.
“It’s difficult returning to your normal life the morning after a gig. I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed newlywed with an afterglow. More like a haggard mental patient following shock treatment: After all that adrenaline leaves your body, you are left with a ferocous hangover. The counterchemical is as down as the adrenaline is up. Antiadrenaline is the darkest shade of navy blue; it brings a sort of postcoital depression.”
I read that in my office preparing for class, but I felt like the proselyte of a new religion who had just heard holy words from an oracle. You said it, girl. I had always wondered what that was. That funk, that weirdness I felt the morning after gigs. The first two years of gigging I rode the adrenaline high for two days after the show, but as I get older I want off the ride the faster. Roller coasters are great, but who wants to live on one? So, I had to develop a new after-show routine. We leave the club as soon as we can, no hanging out to talk with other musicians, we come home, unload the gear with the precision of a S.W.A.T team, and I shower, I eat something light and healthy — grains, vegetables, tofu, fruit — I do yoga to stretch the worn-out muscles, and I try to be in bed before 2 am (reasonably early for musicians), and the next morning I try to get up at the same time I always do instead of sleeping late. I learned to do this out of my own sense of self-preservation. I’m 40 years-old, not twenty, and the physical strain of shows takes a toll on me that it doesn’t on some young thing.
And that was what was so inspiring about Laurie. She writes about and talks about what gigging and being a “rock star” (in quotes because the term is relative) really means. It means you can still suck at your instruments and still record and gig, it means you don’t have to be a virtuoso, it means you can do it just for fun, and here’s the inspirational part: it means you can be woman. And she also speaks from the perspective of a woman who has matured and reflected on what the years in a rock band in her twenties means for her now and how it influences her writing. “I write listening to the backbeat; I hear how the vocal sits on top,” she said. That too, I think, is also the benefit of music outside of music. It changes our understanding of other arts.
There aren’t a lot of books by female musicians that tell you what’s like for us. There’s umpteen million books about male musicians, their gear, their groupies, their drug problems, but there aren’t many written by women. The other inspiration in Laurie’s public appearance is that I could see how she inspired the young women in the audience. I could see it in their eyes and the way they looked at her with one question beaming from their faces: How did you do it? In the end, it doesn’t matter that you or I may have not heard of Laurie Lindeen or Zuzu’s Petals. What matters for some of the women (young or old) in the audience is that there was another one out there who tried to live life on her own terms.