Finding Inspiration to Practice

I got to see Fred at the Zepparella show in Brooklyn last weekend. Fred Klatz, drum teacher extraordinaire. We had a bite to eat, talked for a few hours. It’s been 16 years since I lived in New York and took lessons and there is still that old connection. I love having friends whom I can go for months without speaking with and then we just pick up right where we left off when we reconnect.

The next day, Zep had a show in Woodstock, at the Bearsville Theater on Albert Grossman’s old property. Lots of mojo there. I guess Janis’s old tour equipment is locked up in some secret place on the property. There is beautiful land and a radio station and gorgeous converted buildings that are now restaurants. I think I can attribute the free feel in my playing that night to that magic energy. Those tall wood-beamed ceilings are the best for drum sounds, and with the history and the good monitor engineer and the fantastic dinner and wonderful people, it all worked up to be one of those nice shows where I am able to open up, let the music play me. Try some new stuff on stage and have it work out.

Mostly though, I attribute the good show to my conversation with Fred. I guess that’s the sign of a great teacher, that they can inspire you while just goofing around drinking vodka tonics in a Williamsburg hipster bar in the wee hours.

That got me thinking about teachers, and how valuable they are. Often, people tell me that their son or daughter wants to play an instrument. Having taken piano lessons for 8 years as a kid, and then learning drums as an adult, I have both perspectives on learning. I think the most important thing when searching for a teacher: do you speak the same language? If you are finding a teacher for your kid, does the kid look forward to lessons? Do they want to know the teacher; are they inspired by the teacher? Do they make them laugh or do they want to be like them? If not, no big deal, just keep looking for the right one.

I bet a lot of people gave up on learning instruments because they didn’t have a connection to the teacher. My early piano lessons were given by a lady who terrified me. She was big and strange and didn’t speak my language at all. She never spoke of improvisation, and I could never quite understand what she was talking about when speaking of theory. She had one way of explaining it, and if you didn’t get it you were out of luck. Now I think, we just didn’t have the right chemistry, that free-flowing connection of a mutual language that makes learning a breeze.

At my first lesson with Fred, I think we went longer than the scheduled hour just because we were talking and didn’t want to stop, and not just about drumming. Philosophy, psychology, it’s all wrapped up in how Fred teaches. He speaks my language. I imagine his students all experience him differently, but if you’re into information, he’s got that for you in spades, and finds a way to speak each student’s special language. He told me that his big challenge for himself, with every lesson, is to teach something in a way that he has never taught before. I guess you could say that is the sign of someone who has truly found his calling; that he is inspired by his students as much as they are inspired by him. He makes teaching his own art form.

For the rest of the trip, I was excited to get home and start to practice some of the things we spoke about. I guess the whole band was feeling inspired, because at dinner with the Zep girls on the last night, we made a pact to start a 108-day practice program invented by a teacher of Angeline’s. We’ll commit to a certain amount of time each day, then check in with everyone to rate the practice and comment on how it went. We started yesterday.

I feel so fortunate to play with people who inspire me. All the girls are so committed to their instruments, and I aspire to be as focused as they are. I admire Gretchen and Angeline’s work ethic, the constant bettering of their playing, their continual conscious development as people and as players. Noelle inspires me in how she just makes music wherever she goes, how joy and goodwill and connection flows from her in this beautiful natural way. She can sit down anywhere, with anyone, and without any thought just create happiness.

I’ve never been a great practicer. In the past few years I have made more of a commitment to it, and try to get to the studio several times a week. I’ve found more fun in it these days. The great joy of drumming for me is the communication between all the instruments, not the paradiddling, but lately I’ve been enjoying just sitting down at the drum kit and not putting so much pressure on myself. I think my meditation practice has showed me how to not stress out about what I’m accomplishing. Some days I do rudiments, some days I work specifically on parts, some days I just play.

On the best days, I sit at the drum kit and then just drop into a peaceful place and let go of time, let go of thoughts of all the other things I could be doing, the energy of life outside the practice room door that entices me outside. On other days, I can’t escape the pull of the day calling me through the door, tangling my thoughts. I get frustrated with my progress then, frustrated with my ability and technique and most of all time and how some things take so long.

Then other days, for some unknown reason, the closing of the studio door is like a vault, and I am alone in an immaculate mind where time stands still. The quiet of the space extends out and I sit and begin to work in an easy, joyful way. I feel the stretch of time and when I play I get lost in the mechanics or the melody or the physical sensation and it isn’t work, it is more exploration and like a series of puzzles I get to work out. I can fall into that deep place in the center of myself and get lost in the stillness underneath the body and mind doing their work together. On those days, I look down and the clock gives me a message that takes a moment to decipher, and I often see that I have been working longer than I expected to work. I’ve found that magic place that you find with a great teacher or in a great conversation or with anything you do that you love, that place where time stands still.

8 thoughts on “Finding Inspiration to Practice”

  1. I had a similar experience learning to play acoustic guitar when I was 17 or so. I wanted to learn a few VH licks or even some Zep but it was all
    About classic music.

    If only I’d tried another teacher back then….. Good for you for championing on with your love of the drums !

  2. I love this! You inspire me!! I’m really enjoying taking piano lessons, after all these years. My teacher is wonderful, very encouraging and very supportive, while pushing me to do better. I look forward to my next lesson, and like you said, usually I don’t even notice how long I’ve been practicing. It’s wonderful to let yourself be transported in the making of music. And your advice is always good!! I bet it was fun seeing Fred. Wish I could have listened to your conversation. 😉

  3. I would think when you get really good at music that practicing would be different, more like exploring.
    I’m glad you got to spend some time with your original teacher, sounds like this was a special trip! I know you were a beginner when he taught you, but I bet one of the best things he likes about you is the way you approached it. It’s so much better when the whole student-teacher thing is a collaborative process.

  4. I am very behind on my practicing and on my Clem The Great reading. I could not have asked for a better gift then this post. Thank you very much.

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