Friday, August 29, 2008

Mastery Part 4: Mental Clarity

Hey everyone, many apologies for the lack of posts recently. Today's article examines the next step in achieving Mastery: Mental Clarity.

Forewarning: this post is what some might consider 'deep'. I will talk about some eastern philosophies that might seem a little "out there". At times you may need to re-read some passages...I encourage this. I guarantee that you will not understand everything right away. This stuff is intense, but stick with it because I can say without a doubt that these concepts WILL help you become the best drummer you can be.

As you may have already gathered from my past articles on the subject, achieving Mastery requires alignment of many different variables, most of which reside in the mental space. As such, we need to free up our minds so that we can focus 100% of our concentration on realizing Mastery. This is why mental clarity is so important.

Do you think about things all the time? Do you find yourself thinking about more than one thing at a time and getting stressed as a result? Is it a challenge for you to focus on one thing for an extended period of time? Do you feel 'scattered' or 'disorganized'?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you and I have something in common: our minds have a tendency to race and we're constantly thinking too much. What I find interesting is the more I talk to people about this the more I realize that the majority of people in our society suffer from this affliction.

This is no way to live, for our lives happen right now, in the present moment.

Zen Buddhists use the term 'Mindfulness' to describe a way of life that focuses on living in the moment. The Vietnamese monk Tich Knat Hanh is one of the foremost authorities on this philosophy and I like how he explains it:

"Anyone can wash the dishes in a hurry, try this for a change:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance this might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that's precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first way is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second way is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. If while we are washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not 'washing the dishes to wash to wash the dishes.' What's more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes....If we can't washes the dishes, chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either."

If we're constantly thinking about multiple things while living out lives, we're missing out on life.

How does this affect us as drummers/musicians? I'll explain this by telling you all a little story.

There once was this young, energetic, naive, cocky drummer. He was barely 16 years old and he had been hired to play multiple percussion for a community theater production. This kid had skills and experience for someone his age. He was a great reader and knew his way around the multi-percussion set-up that surrounded him in the pit.

After several rehearsals, he had the gig nailed. Opening night went without a hitch and the show received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. Life couldn't have been better.

The next day our hero was at school and he had an altercation with one of his classmates. He was sent to the Principal's office where they called his parents and his guidance counselor. Later that day he had to meet with them all and a heated discussion regarding his recent behavior ensued. He was warned several times that if he didn't 'shape up his attitude' his future would suffer severe consequences.

Our hero spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about this meeting AND about his future. He wandered home from school completely preoccupied. The last thing on his mind was the theater gig he had that night. He got home, had a silent dinner with his parents, and then drove to the theater.

Several minutes before the hit, his mind was still far away from the music he was about to play. As the lights dimmed around the sold-out theater, the conductor raised his hands to cue the intro tympani roll that began the Overture. However, our hero wasn't paying attention. His mind was where it had been all day, recounting the tough love he received at school. The conductor waved his hands madly and our hero finally 'awoke' from his mindlessness and began to perform the overture.

Later on during the performance, our hero's mind wandered off yet again and he missed several sound effect cues. He even threw off the lead actor by missing his entrance into a song.

At the end of the night, the conductor AND director was furious at our hero. Some of the actors glared at him while he walked out of the theater. It was a bad scene all around.

This experience compounded our hero's negative and mindless state. For the rest of the production, he continued to make mistakes and his attitude went south. After the closing night he had lost the respect of his conductor and fellow musicians. Needless to say, he didn't get any future gigs from these people!

If you haven't already guessed it, the hero in this story was me. It was a tough experience but I learned a very important lesson: leave your problems at home when playing a gig. Music should be a release from them.

Relating the story to our mindfulness philosophy, I had lost the 'moment' and I was living in the past. My thoughts were consumed with something that had already happened so I couldn't focus on what was happening in the moment. As a result I made mistakes...big ones.

Why think/worry about something that's already happened? It's done, finished, over-with. Get on with life.

The other thing that happened was my mindlessness triggered a downward spiral. I had the gig nailed...Mastered even! However, after the 'unpleasantness' at school, my mind was preoccupied, causing the first bad night. Between what had happened at school and what had happened that night, my mind was overwhelmed and I never recovered. I lost the moment and the mistakes piled-up. By the end of the week-long production my attitude was terrible and everything blew up in my face.

So now that I've exemplified how bad mindlessness can be, let's talk about some techniques I use to maintain mindfulness and subsequent mental clarity. The first step is to understand and incorporate some simple philosophies into life:

1. Focus on the moment. What are you doing right now? Reading this article, right? Are you thinking about anything else? Stop!

2. Eliminate time-based thoughts. In other words, if your thoughts are on past or future events, stop and focus on the moment. This doesn't mean you can never think about something that's happened in the past; I think it's important to analyze experiences and learn from them. Thinking/planning for the future is important too. The point here is not to do this while you're busy performing a task. If you need to think about the past or future, do this, but ONLY this. Don't do it while you're playing a gig!

3. Open your mind and your heart to everything life throws at you. Acceptance is the key to happiness and mental clarity. Resistance causes mental conflict.

I combine these philosophies with 2 daily practices: meditation and exercise.

Exercise is an excellent mind-cleanser, especially highly vigorous exercise. I find that if I'm working my butt off at the gym or on a long run, I can't help but think about one thing and one thing only: getting that last rep or completing that last mile. When I'm grunting under the weight of a barbell or sucking air while in a full sprint, I am truly in the moment. I'm not thinking about my overdue car insurance bill or the bad gig I had last week or the argument I had with a friend last night.

Meditation is based more on mental clarity through relaxation, and it is something that takes time and dedication to learn properly. However, it is EXTREMELY effective and it will change your life in many ways. For more information on meditation, here are some great resources:

"The Miracle of Mindfulness" - meditation manual by Tich Nhat Hanh

Cambridge Insight Meditation Center

In closing, remember that we can never find our true potential towards Mastery without complete mental clarity. Mastery requires every bit of focus and concentration we possess. Embrace the philosophy of mindfulness, exercise regularly and practice meditation. I guarantee you'll find a deeper level of concentration, not to mention inner peace.

Until next time, I mindfully wish you Mastery!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Drumming and Athletics

You may have noticed in several of my articles how I often consider drumming to be a very athletic endeavor. Well, here's a bona fide scientific study that supports my claims:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mastery Part 3: Self Analysis

Hi everyone, today's post is part three in my 'Mastery' series: Self Analysis.

In my last post I explained how to practice mindfully in lieu of achieving Mastery. One of the themes in that article was how to develop a practice regimen. Self Analysis is an excellent and accurate method of creating and continually modifying your regimen.

Moreover, I highly recommend that you try to use the following concepts regularly in lieu of remaining on a steady path of improvement. Remember, the mindful experience of lifelong growth as a musician is what it's all about. As the old saying goes, life is a journey, not a destination.

Before I get into specific techniques for self analysis, or what I also refer to as self actualization, I want to talk a little bit about the psychology surrounding the practice. Whenever humans start to analyze themselves, this creates a mental process that can loop out of control if we're not careful. Our culture is largely based on a reactive perspective and as such I suspect that most Americans spend the majority of their time thinking in this mode. Think about it; do you know many people that spend a significant amount of time practicing techniques that help move them towards self-actualization? I don't. I see most people going through the motions of their lives, acting out their daily routine, with little or no cognizance of the experience. Years go by and they wonder where the time went.

When we enter into the realm of self actualization, we turn our focus inward, and for many people this is a very new and sometimes uncomfortable experience. It takes time to become comfortable with this way of thinking. We start to realize things about ourselves that are not often consciously considered, and usually the first things we notice aren't positive.

In my personal experience, when I started to spend significant amounts of time thinking in this manner, I eventually entered into a lengthy state of depression. I became aware of many things about my drumming that I didn't like, and I was overwhelmed with the need to make all sorts of changes immediately. The problem was, changing many of these things would take time and the prospect of having to spend a year or more working on one facet of my skill set on the drums was difficult to accept. Eventually my thoughts on the matter turned into subjective statements about my general abilities on the instrument (or lack thereof). It took me a long time to dig my way out of that hole, but I learned 2 very important lessons:

1. Always Remain Objective
2. Compartmentalize Your Analysis

In order to prevent a downward spiral, you absolutely must remain objective when in the midst of self analysis. It is much easier said than done; we're only human and as such it is impossible to completely separate emotions from experiences. There are going to be times when you're going to feel completely bummed-out. It is unavoidable. However, it is possible to keep things in perspective and remain predominantly objective.

First of all, never play the comparison game. While it is human to compare ourselves to others, there is nothing to gain from the experience. What ultimately matters is our own level of musicianship and our progress as it relates to our goals and aspirations. On an objective level, when we use others as a means to gauge our own level of proficiency, we are left with an analysis that is unrelated to said goals and aspirations. Subjectively, making statements about how superior someone's level of proficiency is to our own will only serve to deflate and defeat what confidence and motivation we possess.

Watching a master drummer can and should be an excellent source of inspiration and motivation, but I've found that this only happens when I refrain from playing the comparison game.

Another thing that helps keep things in perspective is to always remind yourself of your strengths and play to them frequently. For example, if you play a great blues shuffle, take lots of blues gigs! If you excel at playing rudiments, join a drum & bugle corps. The point is, put yourself in situations that will rely on your strengths most often. Sure, I'm a huge advocate for also putting yourself out of your comfort zone in lieu of improving, but if you do this ALL the time, you'll spend too much time on your weaknesses and you'll forget your strengths. The idea is to balance the two.

Balance equals perspective, and this will serve to keep your thoughts objective.

Compartmentalizing your analysis simply means to keep your thoughts/notes organized and to avoid making generalizations. In other words, if analysis inspires motivation to improve something specific, leave it at that. Don't allow this motivation to then inspire broad feelings of inadequacy.

Here's a more specific example. While listening to a tape of a recent performance, I noticed that my time rushed a little bit while playing a specific groove. The proper way to move forward from this is to only associate my rushing time with that specific groove and practice it accordingly. The wrong thing would be to start making generalizations about my time, i.e. saying things like 'My time sucks...I always rush'. My time doesn't always rush...only when I play that particular groove!

See my point?

In addition to the concepts discussed above, you'll find that if you follow the techniques I'm about to explain regarding specific analysis practices, these will also help you keep things objective and compartmentalized.

So just how do I analyze my performances? I use two different methods:

1. Journaling
2. Audio and Video Documentation

Keeping a detailed journal of every performance experience is absolutely paramount. Practice sessions, gigs, whatever...I journal it all. I try to include as much detail as I can recall. In this way I can document everything permanently. This offers me many advantages. First of all, as we discussed earlier, it gives me perspective. When I'm feeling crappy after a bad gig or challenging practice session, I can always go back and read about one of my better performances. My journal also provides me a way to document my progress. If I practice something consistently and mindfully and enter journal entries after each practice session, I can go back and read each entry, noting the progress made. Often times when working on difficult material progress is slow and it's tough to notice. This method helps me realize that I am making consistent progress, and it also helps me realize when I'm not, prompting me to alter my approach and try something different.

I try to format my journal entries in a specific manner so that when I go back and read past entries I can quickly find the information I'm looking for. Here's an example: a recent entry after a gig:

Wedding gig on Nantucket with Freestyle.

-Grooves were very solid; one of our singers even commented on them after the gig
-I stretched out my fills a little more than usual and still kept the feel solid.
-I tried a different stick - Vic Firth 5A Extremes. I like them more than the 5B's. They're slightly leaner making them a little lighter and the tones from the drums aren't quite so "thudy".
-I finally replaced the batter head on the kick. It has much more tone and attack and the response from the beater is livelier and easier to control during faster rhythms.

-I sweated a lot and my left pinky finger was irritated at the end of the night. Some grip analysis is needed.

I feel so much more loose these days. I think it is a combination of having my technique in better shape and approaching the gig with more of an open heart and mind.

The headings I chose aren't necessarily appropriate for you, but the idea is to orient each journal post in an organized manner. Notice that I try to include as much detail as possible, and I also include notes regarding equipment changes. Everything is important, so write it all down!

Usually when I'm refining my practice regimen, I'll look through my past journal entries and note the information under the "Lessons" heading. These are things that I feel need improvement and as such they are eventually added to my regimen.

Do yourself a favor and start a journal today. I used to keep a written journal but I recently changed over to electronic format. I created a new blog here on and set it to private. Give it a try!

The second method of analysis, audio and video documentation, will give you incredible amounts of detailed information unlike any other source. In fact, it is even more accurate than your journal since journaling relies on memory (I don't know about you but my memory sucks!). When you document you performances as they happen, everything is included.

For audio, I use an M-Audio MicroTrack:

Check out their website here.

I usually throw it behind my drumkit and hit record before each set. Or, if I'm playing a larger venue, I'll ask the FOH sound engineer if I can place it somewhere on his mixing console or on an equipment rack. Most of the time these guys are happy to run it for you, and sometimes they'll even connect it directly to the board and I'll get a nice 'board mix' recording of the concert (only do this if your drums are properly miked...otherwise you'll get a nice recording of everyone but yourself!).

For video, I use a Flip Video Ultra:

Check out their website here.

This thing is so cool!! It's the same size as a regular digicam, takes great video, and the audio quality is surprisingly good. I try to shoot gigs but it's often difficult to find a spot for the camera, so lately I've used it mostly to record my practice sessions. I'll often set it up close to my hands so I can get a real nice look at my technique.

Ok, so once you get all this audio and video, what do you do with it? The first thing is to organize it all. I always use filenames that include the date and a short description of the performance. For example, I have an audio file that's called 081008_Practice.mp3. 081008 is the date (August 10 of 2008) and 'Practice' tells me it is a recording of a practice session. For gigs, I usually name them similarly; date followed by an abbreviated band name followed by 'LIVE' or 'REH' so I know if it's a gig or a rehearsal. I use the same naming convention for videos.

Then I save them on my laptop in different folders. I have an 'audio' and a 'video' folder, and within those are sub-folders for live shows, rehearsals, and practice sessions.

Once you've organized, time to analyze!

I keep a written log of notes that I use while listening/viewing. Whenever I notice something I'll pause the recording and write down my thought along with the location of the recording. This way I can go back later and revisit to further analyze. Some of these notes serve the simple purpose of increasing my self-actualization while others can serve as a means to help refine my practice regimen.

Don't forget to have fun with all this stuff. I often catch some classic moments, especially on gigs. It's nice to have these moments documented; sometimes when I have free time I'll listen/watch and just enjoy the entertaining manner by which I've made an ass of myself onstage (it happens more than I care to admit).

To sum-up:

1. Keep your analysis within the realm of objectivity and compartmentalize your thoughts.
2. Use journaling, audio and video as a means to document your performances.
3. Keep the information you're gathering organized, and use this information to help you stay on the path towards self-actualization as well as a tool for practice regimen refinement.
4. Share the lighter moments with your bandmates!

The path to Mastery is easier to navigate when your level of self actualization is consistently high. Use these methods I have described and remember to follow a process-oriented mindset throughout.