As a professional drummer – I call myself that – I often have significant arguments with myself about what a professional drummer actually is or should be. This is also coupled with the overwhelming pressure of trying to live up to what a successful drummer is or should be. What the heck is going on here?
As a student, I idolised my teachers. They were the people I was trying to be; the drummers that played with everybody and guys that could cut both the rock world as well as the jazz world. They could play in any situation. I wanted to be a drummer that could do the same – be gigging all week with different bands and artists. In my mind, to be a successful drummer, I would need to be the guy playing on TV with the latest and greatest person, but I would also need to be doing the super creative jazz gig at clubs in the city with the best players.
As I started to progress on the instrument, gigging (any gig) was really the only way to be able to hone my skills, so I took anything I could get – shows, weddings, parties, free gigs – anything. This process also allowed me to network and learn to be able to finally move into the ‘big’ gigs later on. Every day there was the hope to be able to play with the biggest artist, do the big gigs and tours. This was always in the back of my mind and I wasn’t a successful drummer until I was doing so.
As time progressed on, the big gigs didn’t really happen as fast as I would have liked. As it turned out, the stuff I really concentrated on in my practice – the fast licks and chops for example – weren’t the fundamental things that the gigs required. Most of us understand this. I learned this the hard way when I was asked to fill in for a well-known drummer. My timing was all over the place when some charts were thrown in front of me. The pressure of the gig really got to me and my confidence levels plummeted. I then tried my best to correct my timing and worked with a metronome when I could. Live and learn, still not successful.
Over the years, I did eventually get some good gigs and was fortunate enough to work with some big artists. I was able to tour with Leo Sayer and record three successful albums with Russell Morris among others. These were milestones for me as a player, but... Did I tour with world with Prince? No. Did I ever become the awesome jazz drummer that played with the super Jazz cats? No. Am I knocking back gigs every weekend because I’m so busy and rich? No. Are my circumstances different? Do I have a family and other commitments too? Yes. The real questions aim back to the original. Was I ever really successful? Am I still a success? The answers to these questions are still yes.
Starting out as a drummer, the pressure to succeed in the scene is immense. There’s the real disheartening feeling that comes when you lose a gig to another drummer or you see those players that are clearly more advanced than you on the instrument cutting your lunch. The thing is, for me, I do a lot of weddings. I try to play with people that are awesome and who inspire me to be a better player and I admit to myself that as long as I’m on the drums I’m ok. Those weddings pay bills, are fun and the bride and groom leave very happy. Yes, I’d like to play the massive, massive gigs all the time but I need to also remind myself that no matter how small the gig, if there’s some self-satisfaction that comes out of it, it’s a good gig and I’m being successful playing the instrument. I’m also able to be at home too.
The grass isn’t always greener. I know now, that even though I love Jazz, my heart was somewhere else. I just thought I had to be a Jazz drummer to be accepted. The last point I’d like to make is that sometimes, the grass isn’t always greener. Try not to strive to be the kind of drummer that dwells on being accepted. This is just me however, and I can be very self doubting. I still have to encourage myself. Everyone is different here. If there’s anything I can say from experience, it’s that the gigs tended to come and I was most content as a player when I was on top of my game – my game, not everyone else’s. Now, go enjoy yourself.