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.