Doing the Opposite

Growing up, I knew I wanted to write music for a living. I loved (and still love) writing songs. In high school, I wrote lots of cheesy songs on my guitar, about girls I liked and girls I hope liked me back. Those were my punk rock days. I listened to bands like Saves the Day, and started my own punk band with some friends of mine. We played loud and fast, and it was FUN.

Songwriting and playing punk rock was an outlet for me, and something I lived for. While my high school peers were up late playing video games, I remember staying up late writing tunes on my guitar… (and occasionally playing video games).

Mid way through high school I learned how to play marimba, and fell in love with the instrument. It replaced guitar as my favorite thing, and I discovered that my style of writing tunes could apply to marimba. So, I started dabbling in “composing” on marimba; really just songwriting on a different, much bigger instrument.

When it came time to go to college, there wasn’t a college that specialized in “pop marimba” songwriting… So I decided to pursue classical percussion, and ended up at Eastman studying with John Beck.

And wow I was lucky to have Mr. Beck as a teacher. More on that in a bit.

Eastman is a classical music school; like any classical music school, there are common expectations about what you’re suppose to do there. Etudes / excerpts / standard repertoire / orchestra / etc. etc. etc. I dealt with these expectations, (sometimes begrudgingly), but I never wanted to let go of who I was; a songwriter and a rock drummer.

While my classmates were practicing Porgy and Bess and Beethoven 9, I was secretly writing music. My first “official” piece, Memento for solo marimba, was written in the basement practice rooms at Eastman. Of course, I practiced the standard stuff, but my heart was in writing music. I also co-founded a band called Break of Reality at Eastman, where I got to play loud rock drums. It was awesome. I was writing music and playing rock drums. The only problem was, I wasn’t technically “supposed” to be doing either…

While writing Memento, I remember being very hesitant in approaching Mr. Beck about my writing. I was worried he would be upset that I was spending too much time writing music and not enough time doing the stuff I was supposed to be doing.

I’ll never forget talking with Mr. Beck in a lesson one day, and confessing to him that I was spending a ton of time writing music. And I’ll never forget the sense of relief I felt when he said, “GREAT! Let me hear what you’re working on. Maybe I can help.”

So I played through fragments of what would turn into Memento, and he gave me comments. Great comments. About my score, about flow, about dynamics. It was awesome. So the rest of that year, me and Mr. Beck worked on my writing. It was the happiest I had ever felt at Eastman, and I was so excited for each lesson, so excited to be doing what I loved the most.

Throughout undergrad, I was asked time and time again “What do you want to do after college?” My response was always the same: “Play rock music and write music for percussion instruments.” Everyone thought I was crazy: “there’s no money in writing music for percussion”, “there’s no money in playing rock drums”, blah blah blah.

I’m happy I didn’t listen. Today I play loud rock drums (Break of Reality is still going strong) and I write percussion music. It’s awesome. I’m doing what I love and I’m so happy.

College is a scary place for finding yourself and finding out what you want to do. If you’re in college now, you’re probably surrounded by A LOT of people telling you what you should do, and what you shouldn’t do. It’s scary.

My take: don’t lose sight of what you love.

If you love something, it probably means you’re going to want to do it a lot, and learn to do it well. And sometimes, doing what you love means doing the opposite of what you’re supposed to do.

And that’s okay.

Going back to Mr. Beck.

He taught classical percussion at Eastman for over 40 years. During this time, he taught the likes of Steve Gadd, Gordon Stout, Chris Lamb, Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Leigh Stevens, Michael Burritt, John Parks, Peyton Macdonald, and the list goes on and on and on.

When you step back and take a look at Mr. Beck’s output of percussionists, it’s just incredible. The most amazing thing to me is the diversity of each student he’s taught.

Looking at the names above, each player is completely different from the other. Some compose, some play drum set, some are fantastic educators, some are soloist, some are orchestral musicians, and some are a little bit of everything.

Imagine if Mr. Beck did what he was “supposed” to do. What if he was strict with his teaching? Classical in his approach? What if he didn’t allow creative freedom and input from his students?

The percussion world would be a much different place…

Thanks for doing the opposite JB.

Today, I continue to “do the opposite”, and as I pursue my new interest in blogging, I’m sure this theme will resurface in many facets. Thanks for reading 🙂


p.s. speaking of doing the opposite, check out Amanda Palmer’s latest TED talk. Love her or hate her, you gotta respect her “opposite” approach.