Learning from Rock Musicians

Classical musicians are contemplative beings. We think, over think, and think some more. My former teacher use to warn me of this, “You’re suffering from over-analysis paralysis” he would say. He was right. “How should I phrase this? Where is this musical line going? What was the composer thinking?” I would spend so much time thinking about these things, so much time figuring out the perfect way to do something, thinking more than actually doing.

Meanwhile in the rock world… musicians are asking less questions. Searching for less perfection. Wrong is accepted; Rawness is celebrated. There is a no fear mentality. Anything goes. Try it today, put it in our show tonight. I love that.

What can classical musicians learn from rock musicians? A lot I think.

Rock Musicians Play. A lot.

I travel frequently between the rock and classical worlds. I’ve met many young musicians in both genres, and the biggest difference I’ve noticed between the two sides is:

Rock musicians play out way more than classical musicians do. They play more gigs. Way more gigs.

Just look at most local rock bands. They have gig after gig after gig lined up. Every weekend, they are playing in a new bar or club. They’ve got their albums for sale, their email list out, and they are slowly but surely growing their audience. Meanwhile, classical musicians who have been playing their instrument for decades, who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their music training, don’t have this same mindset. Way too often in the classical world, musicians have no gigs lined up, with no albums and no website. How does this make any sense?

There is an obvious realization here; if your job description is MUSICIAN, that means you should be playing music. A lot. All of the time. As much as possible. You can’t be a full time musician if you’re not playing music for people on a regular basis.

Some would argue that classical musicians need to hone their craft more so than rock musicians, meaning more time in the practice room and less time on stage. I agree; practicing is an extremely important part of being successful in music, regardless of the genre you live in. But at the end of the day, musicians make a living performing for people, not in practice rooms. You can’t make a living as a professional practicer. That would be silly.

The music school landscape really doesn’t help our mentality either. In an entire year, a music student might play ONE recital, and maybe a few ensemble concerts a year.

No wonder classical musicians don’t play out enough; the culture doesn’t demand for it. Doesn’t prioritize it. And it should, especially given the decreasing number of orchestral job opportunities in the U.S. There has to be a change in our culture’s mindset in order for the job description MUSICIAN to be viable. We need to adopt a rock musician’s mentality; create, experiment, explore, and most importantly, perform.

No Fear

“You don’t know until you ask.” I love that saying. And it is so true, especially in music. Rock musicians understand it. Classical musicians sometimes don’t. A student in my music business class at Eastman once asked me how to go about booking a gig. The student asked question after question about the proper semantics to use when speaking with a presenter, the proper way to contact someone (email vs. phone), etc.

All the while, a rock musician skips the contemplation. They say “screw it”, and just walk into a venue, speak with whoever is in charge, and make something happen. That’s all it takes. Worse case, the venue says “no”. And that is part of the business. Rock musicians understand that, and don’t fear it.

Most classical musicians don’t have that mindset. Again, it’s not instilled in us. We’re contemplators. We sit on things for a long time before we take action. We’ll practice the same piece for a year before performing it. We’ll study the same 100 year old curriculum without question.

We are also fearful. We fear playing things the wrong way, and fear what our peers, teachers, and audiences will think of us. It’s probably why many of us don’t improvise. We believe there’s a perfect way to do things, and we can’t settle for less.

Well, the music business is not perfect. There’s no right way to do anything. Sure, there are some givens (having a website and email list is a good start!), but in our business, anything goes. Here are some personal anecdotes to demonstrate my point:

  • My band Break of Reality met our former manager of three years while busking in Central Park. That’s right. Playing for free on the streets. He dropped his business card in our tip jar, and we called him that night.
  • We met our current agent by, get this, sending an unsolicited email.
  • This one could be my favorite: we got our music on Pandora Radio by Google-ing “How to get your music on Pandora Radio.” Pandora has turned out to be a major tipping point for Break of Reality, providing significant exposure for my band. Thanks, Pandora (and Google)!
  • We were invited to perform at Pandora Radio’s headquarters in Oakland, CA. Here’s how; my bandmate Patrick Laird simply bought a ticket to a Pandora Showcase concert in Austin, TX, with the intention of letting Pandora know how beneficial they have been to our band. He knew absolutely NO ONE THERE. But, that didn’t stop him. He started talking to whoever would listen. Sure enough, he met someone in their marketing department. He shared Break of Reality’s story and ended up getting a business card. He followed up via email, phone, etc., and months later, we were in Oakland playing music for Pandora’s entire staff.

None of these things happened by the book. Nothing does in the music business. Things happen through persistence, and maybe a little bit of luck. In order to find that luck, you have to stick your neck out there and make something happen.

That’s why I like being in a band with Patrick. Once he sets his mind to something, he’s GOING to make it happen. It’s just the way he is. He’s persistent. Sure, some of his ideas are crazy, (like going to the subways to play music), but at least he’s thinking. He’s throwing around ideas. He’s being active. And he’s not scared to put his neck out there. He’s fearless; a rock musician at heart.

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.