How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.– Dom Famularo
I am notorious for being many things, but patient, I am not. As I entered my 30’s I began the self improvement process– through which I intend to reach the upper echelon of music history as a drummer, songwriter and artist. And it has come to my attention that one always gets what one asks for, but never in the form for which we are prepared. You want to be more loving; you get the opportunity to love more. You want to be more understanding; you get the opportunity to understand. Never are we given exactly what we want per se, rather we are given the opportunity to learn to achieve or acquire it.
More recently in my life—as a result of my self improvement choices, I suspect—I have come face to face with some very harsh and unrelenting lessons. Simply put, my goals can be summed up in the same two words as my lessons: challenging and enormous. Mother Nature has this crazy mechanism called isostatic balance (equilibrium in the earth’s crust, such that the forces tending to elevate landmasses balance the forces tending to depress landmasses). Fifteen years out of high school and I finally get to use that word in a sentence! Think of isostatic balance as a 200 pound man, such as myself, sitting at the back of a boat. My weight will cause the front to slightly rise up just enough to balance out the displacement, and I still remain afloat. Voila, isostatic balance!
Let’s consider this situation the moment when I began the adventure of self improvement and percussive enlightenment as a drummer. As I sit my butt in the sea of opportunity, good old Mother Nature has my back and makes sure I ease into the situation without going overboard. Bon voyage! However, if I am going to grow to become as good a player as Terry Bozzio, you can bet that the lessons will no doubt match the growth, and in the beginning the lessons will far outweigh the gains. Enter the elephant (aka the lessons). Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, places the elephant exactly where it needs to be: in the front of my boat. Now that the S.S. Mitchell is top-heavy, it would appear that, in order for me to level out and continue along my merry way, I need to either add more weight to my end or take away from Dumbo’s end. Either way I gotta eat me some pacaderm!
Eating the elephant is simple; it’s having the patience to finish that which is the hard part. The bigger the goals, the bigger the elephant: That’s the rules, my friends. And the only way to effectively take in all the lessons is one bite at a time. Recently I began working with a Latin/reggae artist and encountered some serious helpings of humility. Not only are my Latin chops rusty after years of atrophy, but, as the date for the first show was fast approaching, my practice time was limited. It is completely my pattern to want to know everything overnight and have it all aced yesterday. Of course that has always worked so well for me (insert sarcastic tone here). I began to chart out certain sections and started working strictly on the stuff that caused me the most grief. As I plowed my way through helping after helping of modesty, I began to develop some skills that I was not consciously aware of until very recently.
It is important to any musician to be fully aware of their learning process. For if you do not know how you achieved success in the past, how on earth are you going to repeat it in the future? In eating this elephant I did two things that would contribute greatly to my success. First, I began to manage my activities rather than my time. Time is unstoppable; it is what you do within an hour that counts for more than the hour itself. Second, I applied this simple formula: a lot of a little is better than a little of a lot. I began to practice in ten-minute increments, allotting just ten minutes per each grief-causing section. In total I had between two to three hours of practice time per day, therefore allowing myself ample time to go over all the pesky parts. Of those two to three hours, I allowed a half hour of maintenance at the end of my practice routine and ran through the parts I already knew—in order to create the neural pathways that make things like playing a paradiddle second nature.
Ten minutes does not seem like a lot, but over the course of a week that is seventy minutes on each section. I actually wasn’t grasping these concepts right off the hop. After the first scaled-down session, I was still very much unrehearsed. However, I was also armed with the wisdom my friend and Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge bestowed upon me as well: When you begin a task, or try to recall an event or a name, your brain will begin a tireless process that will inevitably come up with the correct answer, perhaps a day or two later at two in the morning but, eureka, it will come. This is the job of the brain.
As a result I’ve uncovered my process for learning and how I effectively learn. Gone are the days when I work for hours on one vexing fill or groove. I now take any groove, concept, fill, or what have you, and apply it to the kit for ten minutes. If I don’t have it down I move on—regardless. Then I tackle it again the next day for another ten and again the next day. By the second or third day I am generally in the ball park, and I can begin effectively polishing the rough edges. For instance, in the case of my new gig I had not only learned and musically understood these parts, but I was able to develop the muscle memory necessary for my growth as a player.
As you progress along your path, you will inevitably encounter your own elephants— some big, some not so big. Whether you want to learn to play flamadiddles at 130 bpm or become the next throne bearer for the Smashing Pumpkins, it really doesn’t matter what your goals are. Big or small, they are all valuable. In the beginning it will be easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the lesson we are faced with, but always remember that the lesson has appeared in order for you to grow to become as big as the goal you set out to accomplish. In the end, to achieve more than you have, you have to be more than you are. So grab a plate and dig in; greatness awaits. Bon appetite!
Sean Mitchell is a drummer/artist, songwriter and the creator of Drum Geek.