I just read a brilliant essay called “Stick Control,” written by drummer and writer Jacob Slichter, in the Summer 2017 issue of “1966 – A Journal of Creative Nonfiction.” (https://issuu.com/1966journal/docs/1966_summer_2017_final_d/28) His insights on the connections between drumming and writing were so inspiring I started my own list of lessons learned from playing the drums. The following is a partial, random sampling:
Counting always helps. Counting in my head is how I map things out, when I’m learning a new song—it’s how I break the song into pieces, and those pieces into beats. I try to get kids I am teaching to count to themselves as they play; eventually, this should become so internalized you do it without thinking about it, like breathing, or swallowing.
This is also especially important to remember when I find myself stuck in a challenging parenting moment, unsure about what to say or do next. The only difference is that it’s best to count to five at those moments, while four is usually enough in music.
The better you feel, the better you play. An obvious one, but all too easily forgotten. Sleep, water, basic nutrition—losing sight of those things on the road can screw everything else up. Bonus lesson: clean socks and T-shirts are also powerful mood-improvers, as is a thorough flossing and brushing of your teeth.
Time can lie. There will be stretches where time seems to speed up, and there will be stretches where it seems to literally stop. The trick is to not get lost in that false sense of tempo, but to try and find your way back to Real Time. Counting can help here, too, as can closing your eyes, to keep the distractions of the world from distorting the sounds in your head.
Sometimes the only way to fix something is to get rid of it. Drum fills are those moments when the drummer departs from the beat to play an improvised transition piece—a kind of flourish, to borrow the word Jacob uses in his essay. There are times when I feel like there should be a fill in a section, but I just can’t find the right one to play. Nine times out of ten, as soon as I stop trying to force a fill, and just keep the groove going, or leave a space without drums for a beat or two, I find that fixes everything.
This lesson is crucial when writing. If a sentence or paragraph just can’t be fixed, I try deleting it. This is often the answer.
What the rest of the body does matters. It took me a while to figure out that getting my hands and feet to do exactly what isn’t enough. The rest of the body has to move in rhythm, or there is no groove.
Everyone remembers the ending. A long day in the studio feels a lot better if that last take is solid, and many a mediocre gig is saved when the last song works the way it should. And it’s a lot easier to sleep, after a long day of failing to connect to those around you, or feeling like you’re unfit to be anyone’s partner or parent or friend, if you can find just the right thing to say before the lights get turned out.