A couple of weeks ago, the band played two nights in a row at a jewel box of a music venue in Marin County. A two-night run is wonderful for a musician. The second night feels luxurious. You get to the venue and the sound and light engineers and the stage manager feel like old friends, and your equipment is all set up and waiting for you, like a car that’s been warmed up on a freezing day.
At these shows, we had the honor of a superstar drummer attending, a friend of our guitarist’s, and she suggested we have him sit in for a couple of songs. The first night was great. We used the old, “Clementine is not well, is there anyone who knows how to play drums?” routine with the audience, as a ruse to bring him up. He played a song I always have trouble with, and it was great to see someone with his ability play it. It was a treat to hear my drums played by someone with such command.
In fact, it went so well and he had so much fun that he was going to be in the area the second night, and we all agreed that he would come play a song or two in the encore. I got to the venue, sat down at the drums with the band and ran through one or two alternate songs we were doing. I felt rested, relaxed, looking forward to another sold-out show. I looked forward to seeing this great musician play again.
A couple hours later, I sat at the drums to begin the show. The first few songs felt good, and I dropped in to that wide open no-mind space that makes music flow and makes me feel like I’m flying. My body felt strong and capable, and the songs were settled and pocketed.
Then, something happened to call my mind on to the stage. I don’t know what it was, maybe some unsteadiness in the band, maybe some equipment bite, as it often goes when you’re slamming wood on metal and fingers get in the way. Suddenly, I was questioning everything. I entered into fills and at the last minute was unsure which hand to start with, and produced a couple measures that sounded like I fell off the drum stool.
There is one pattern in particular that just decided to leave my repertoire for the rest of the set: the triplet roll around the drums that ends songs and accounts for the biggest and favorite shining moments on stage. I just could not for the life of me get any of them right. The first one failed, and then the next one, and then a fear crept in and interfered with the next one, and then shame spilled out and prevented the next one and for about 75 minutes it was agony and terrible drumming. I was getting more and more distraught, more embarrassed, and all the emotion and the thoughts spilled out on the drums and prevented any finesse.
What I started thinking was, this great accomplished drummer is in the audience, and he is hearing every last mis-stick. He is noticing it all, all the flubs and the uneven rolls and the very amateurish errors. The more I made mistakes and put myself in his ears, hearing what I was doing, judging it all from afar, the worse I played.
It threw me. I don’t know why. The superstar drummer is a generous and joyful player and I didn’t have any reason to worry about his opinion of me or think there was any competition in any way between us, as he is such a superior player. I guess it was just something for my mind to grab on to. My ego wants to rule me, wants to find ways to keep me in this reality, fearful and unsettled, and this night, it found the hook that kept me flapping around on the surface like a fish gasping for the clear air of true, unlimited consciousness.
I got off stage and wanted to immediately crawl under a rock. It’s musician etiquette that however terrible you feel about how you played, when you get off stage and interact with the people who watched the show, you never let on that you were unhappy in any way with your performance. Doing so negates the happy experience of the person who is complimenting you, so you just smile and try to pretend like everything was cool.
Tonight, it felt impossible to pretend, but I just smiled and ran away, busied myself with breaking down the drums and all of the other end-of-show duties I take care of. The other drummer, he was gracious and having a good time. I have had shows like this in the past, so I didn’t let it ruin anyone’s night but my own. Defeat just settled in the upper part of my mind and waved at me. I knew we would meet soon.
The next day, I woke and sure enough, it was the first thing that met me. I have been here before. The heavy feeling that makes me want to just never get out of bed. The grand excuses of why it happened and the conversations in my head with anyone who would tell me what they really thought of my playing that night. The flights of fantasy of what it would be like to just give up playing, give up the band, move to Minneapolis and become, I don’t know, some other person who has nothing to do with drums ever again.
I indulged all that for a little while, but I noticed that things have changed. The embarrassment was not so crippling, the negative tirades, not so sustaining. I felt drawn to go to work. I sat in meditation and invited the heavy feeling in to fully experience it. It didn’t stay long. I dropped through it, into the still, open plain where all ability exists. I realized what I wanted to do was to get to the studio and start smoothing out those troublesome patterns. I wanted to get to the drums. That desire split apart the feelings of unworthiness. I fell down again, and once again, I’m going to get back up. The drums forgive it all, once I get back to them and give them the respect and attention they require.
The negative feelings of the night became the fuel that I used to get in to the studio and just shed for hours. It felt great. On the second day, a light bulb came on about a song that I thought I would never be able to play, and I spent the last week making progress I never expected to make so quickly. Soon, I will play a song on stage that I thought may never happen. I guess I can thank the humiliation of that one night.
I have read about the theory that it is failure that causes progress, that the great innovators and other successful beings learn to use failure as a crucial part of their path. I see this now. I remember my meditation teacher saying that one day, I would look forward to the pain. I thought that was crazy talk, and yet, here I am, grateful for the lesson that came from an excruciating, humiliating night. Once again, I bow in gratitude for drums, for teachers, for these lessons on this ever-evolving path toward awakening.