I felt the stress completely crushing me, weighing down on my shoulders and paralyzing me. I had no idea what to do or what decision to make, and every option felt equally discouraging. I was at a crossroads, having to decide whether or not to pursue a major life path…. and it was only Wednesday of my first week of school.
I was crazy enough to go to music school in college and major in percussion performance. I had no actual percussion experience, I’d never played in band or orchestra, and I’d never played drumset in jazz band. But I wanted to take on a challenge and do it all for the first time since I knew I wanted to do music for a living after school.
Monday afternoon of that first week of school was wind ensemble rehearsal. I went to a school that had what you could probably call a “regionally renowned” wind ensemble. The group played very well, performed at prestigious events, and put on fantastic concerts every semester. The group’s director was also pretty well known in the band directing world, and he was one of the most intense conductors out there. Needless to say, I was going to my first rehearsal with this high level ensemble directed by an expert conductor who means business…and I’d never played in a group like this or read sheet music like this…ever.
You may be wondering… Stephen, if you had zero experience then how’d you get accepted into the program to begin with?
Well… I had a really good drumset teacher in high school who also happened to be a percussion expert. He gave me a crash course in timpani and 4-mallet marimba and vibraphone so that I could learn a few audition pieces that would get me past the judges. I practiced a ton and worked really hard at 4 mallets senior year of high school so that I could go play college auditions 4 months later. The practicing paid off, and I was accepted to every school I auditioned at. I had my playing together, but real world ensemble experience is another animal…
So I’m at that first wind ensemble rehearsal Monday afternoon, and I’m handed a piece of music. I think it was a crash cymbal part…or maybe a suspended cymbal part. Either way, the part was very simple. But knowing WHEN to play the parts was the challenge. I realized I had no earthly idea how to follow this conductor. I could count decently, counting the 14 bars before the first cymbal swell began, but every time I looked up at the conductor I totally lost my place.
Unfortunately this didn’t just happen to me on this first piece. The same thing happened on the second, third, fourth, and fifth tunes we were rehearsing. I couldn’t keep up with the conductor for the life of me. After all, I was a drumset player used to setting the time myself. I’d never had to follow someone before, let alone someone waving a baton in random patterns. How is this making sense to everyone else in the room…but not to me? It was like they were all fluent in another language, and I was a complete foreigner who knew absolutely nothing.
I left that rehearsal frustrated, but I figured I’d do better at the next one on Wednesday. It can’t be any worse, right?
On top of the shell-shock of a disastrous rehearsal, I had also just started music theory and ear training classes that morning. Talk about another language… I was lost, and I quickly knew that I was years behind everyone else in my class. All these other students had taken AP theory in high school, and they’d played in band and orchestra for years. Nothing was new to them. But for me - a drumset and piano player who had never played in any sort of large ensemble - this felt like a war zone of total confusion.
I went to the second wind ensemble rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon, hoping for things to suddenly click. But they didn’t.
This rehearsal was equally disastrous. I was missing cues, struggling to keep up, and feeling an overwhelming sense of being lost and alone. I left that day feeling 10x as frustrated as I was Monday, and I knew I had a hard decision to make.
I remember sitting on my bed in my dorm room early that Wednesday evening, trying to decide what I should change my major to. First I’ll call my drum teacher from high school to see what he thinks… then I’ll call my parents… then I’ll go talk to the dean of the school tomorrow. I was trying to come up with some sort of plan to get out of this mess I’d gotten myself into.
Then my roommate walked in. He and I had just met the weekend before, but we instantly connected and got along just fine. He was a voice major in the music program, so we were both equally into music.
Now I’m the type to hide emotions pretty well. I’ll deal with things internally until I get over them. But for some reason in that moment I decided to just spill everything to my new roommate who I’d met 4 days ago and see if he had any advice for me. Once I had finished describing to him all my frustration, defeat, helplessness, failure, you name it, he just said one thing.
You can do it, man. You’ll be fine.
Come on, man. That’s all you got for me? I thought. But he went on to offer some of the best encouragement I’d ever gotten. I wish I could remember everything he said now, because his words ended up having a huge impact on my outlook on music school in that moment. We talked for a bit and hung out, then went and grabbed dinner in the dining hall. My mind was made up. I would stick with it, and figure out how to do this some way or another.
I now had a fierce determination like I’d never had before. I studied like I’d never studied before, practiced like I’d never practiced before, and I decided I would do whatever it took to catch up to all these students who were years ahead of me.
I spent hours each night in the music building practicing my wind ensemble parts. I would even find recordings of the pieces we were playing and practice along to them. I even spent hours “practicing” music theory. I would write out things we were working on and practice drawing the circle of fifths over and over. I practiced ear training a ton, working to clearly identify chord types, intervals, and scales. I had to work really hard at my “sight singing,” which was the most dreaded part of the class.
I got over my pride, and I asked for help on things. I learned to let loose a little, be honest with folks, and admit that I didn't know what I was doing. Other students gladly helped me understand conducting better so that I could actually follow our director, and my percussion teacher worked with me on my wind ensemble parts in my lessons. That was huge, and that alone took a load off my shoulders.
I hunkered down and worked harder at music than I’d ever worked before. When my dorm mates were going out to Waffle House on Thursday night, I was going to the practice room. When other music students were hanging out in the halls between classes, I was working on theory homework. Some would say I had no life, but this kind of schedule and work ethic really started to pay off soon.
When the music theory midterm rolled around, I scored a 112%. I didn’t miss anything on the test, plus I answered some extra credit questions.
When the fall wind ensemble concert rolled around, I played a challenging auxiliary percussion part for a piece called “Angels in the Architecture.” I counted well, nailed my parts, and even followed the conductor. By the end of the first semester I felt a huge sense of accomplishment as if I had graduated. I survived the first semester of music school! I can make it, and I can do this.
Within about 3 months, I felt like I had finally reached the level I was “supposed to be at.” I was no longer drowning and struggling to get a breath. I could now at least feel a little bit comfortable and actually have fun. And that’s exactly what happened - I could now start really enjoying all the music stuff I was doing, which caused me to continue to grow more naturally. Wind ensemble was a blast, and so was every other ensemble. I ended up loving music theory, and it was the class I missed the most when it ended four semesters later. I ended up doing really well as a music student because I made the decision to work really hard at it.
Have you seen the Pixar movie, Monsters University? It’s the sequel to Monsters Inc., and it’s the story about how underdog “scarer” Mike Wazowski goes to school to learn how to scare. This has become one of my all time favorite movies because I can relate to Mike so well. He has to work extra hard the first semester of school just to stay afloat and compete with fellow students. I won’t say anything else about the movie in case you haven’t seen it, but it’s a great story of failure resulting in hard work. I like stories like that.
My point in sharing my long story today is this:
Anything worth doing probably won’t be easy.
If you’re just starting out on the drums, you’re watching all the insane skills out there from drummers on youtube and instagram. You’re probably getting discouraged since you feel like they’re all lightyears ahead of you. But here’s the deal: If you want to get really good at something, get really good at something! What’s stopping you? Put your nose to the grindstone and start working. You may have to work harder than other folks, or certain skills may come easier to you. Either way, you have to make the decision to actually put in the hours to grow your skills. That’s something nobody else can do for you. We teachers can try to motivate you and show you certain things…But it all comes down to you making the decision to work like crazy and actually get really good at what you do.
Your challenge for this week?
Set some clear goals for things you want to work on and learn this year. Aim high, and hold yourself to them. Put in the work and don’t give up. You’re capable of more than you think.
P.S. - Thanks for sticking with me through this record-setting long email. ;) I honestly believe that if you read this the whole way down, you have the focus and patience to get really good at the drums, no joke! Keep up the practicing!