Part II: How Drummers Can Relieve Anxiety and Build Self Confidence

PART II: Identify the pulse, guard the groove, and your anxiety will vanish

Recap of Part I

Master drummer Nick Costa finds the groove

Nick Costa drumming: energy, calm, solidity

I’d like to give thanks go to a fine drummer, Nick Costa, who suggested that I was, perhaps, over intellectualizing the whole performance anxiety issue; that I was “thinking too much” and thus contributing to the problem. What can I say? Costa is correct: I do think too much. Nick continued his well-meaning critique with a summary of the musical components that ought to be objects of our attentions—melody, harmony, form. My only rebuttal is on behalf of those who, like me, can’t turn it off at will, at least for those reasons and who need desperately a new target for their considerable, hitherto wasted energies. Meanwhile, it’s good to meet up with major forces like Nick Costa, who has furnished musical examples to bolster his argument. You hear Nick play and you watch him and you see energy and calm.

Last time out, I suggested that the key to overcoming anxiety, stage fright, and the crippling fear of inevitable screw-ups (these are not mutually exclusive categories!) is to concentrate on the thing that runs through each of us, irrespective of culture, geographical location, and musical genre: the pulse.

I posited that if we were to abandon doing math on stage—measuring our attainment according to inappropriate standards and erroneous assumptions regarding our role as drummers—we will feel a weight lifted.

We will find relief from anxiety, including stage fright, low self esteem, and even self loathing, by giving it up. That’s right: giving it up to what we see, what we hear, and what we know lurks behind the scenes. If we watch other musicians, noting how they tap or move to the music, and listen to where they place notes, keeping melodic lines and harmonic content in mind, we will identify the pulse, not score some drum beat. We will be as one with the line that runs through all musical forms and, hopefully, performances.

Everybody Feels the Pulse, Right?

Perhaps. But as drummers, once we feel/locate the pulse, we must guard it. To do so, we must apply every ounce of focus, energy, and control to maintaining it from start to end…of a composition, of a concert, of a life. If we’re successful, we’ve created a groove—an unstoppable, natural flow, like waves hitting the shore.

Trust me in this: to spot the location of the pulse and bolster it to the point that it’s undeniable, there is no time for panic, failed fills, performance anxiety and the lot. There’s no time to sit around measuring whether we’re sounding like Travis or Tony, or whether the tom pass into the chorus is definable as grandiose. Our mission wipes away petty artifacts of the mind the deeper we sink into the deepest trench of them all: the groove.

I’ve discovered this and rid myself of a life long self-induced terror. Now that I’m focusing on the deeper thing, sure I may miss a stop—but nobody dies, nobody cares, and nobody’s smirking, simply because I have not sacrificed the important aspect—that which makes listeners tap in sync. I’ve made it, somehow, so that their foot movements, or their body motions, or however they express their reaction to music, do not falter. No longer are there little suspensions of disbelief, no hiccups, lurches…no speed bumps in the musical path. It’s no easy thing to keep that momentum over a seven minute track. When we devote mind and body to that higher end, there is no time for performance anxiety or self doubt.

I’ve learned to do this, not always successfully in a musical sense but always in terms of ridding myself of anxiety. It’s down to a relationship between me and something, some power greater than me. It’s that intimate and, despite the social underpinnings of making music, that solitary. The moment of truth. It’s like you’re standing in the middle of 7th Ave at the corner of 23rd Street, to name one occasion dear to me, in the path of a cab. The last thing you think about is, Am I gonna blow that tom fill?

That’s fluff. I have witnessed life end, literally held hands of loved ones as they passed. And I alone have been at the brink, face to face with the Creator, the Other Side, or however you term it, in an automobile at high speed and otherwise. I assure you, at such moments there is no frivolous fretting. There is calm. When you experience the sort of crippling performance anxiety and self doubt in question, you are, in fact, in a fight or flight situation. If you’ve experienced what I’m describing, you know very well what I mean. And you know that if you continue drumming in this mode, you will lose all love of the instrument—or you’ll have a stroke, heart attack, or soil your trousers.

Ground Control Calling Major Tom: Can You Hear Me…?

The T in Bruce Wittet is for Tom, by the way. How does Tom get back to planet earth, having entertained the romantic notions expressed above without doing hippie rituals, ingesting peyote, or losing touch all together? Well, one thing you gotta do is listen. To really listen is a big deal. Many drummers claim they listen to music but do not. They listen to other drummers. You mention the modulation to the last verse and they react like a deer in the headlights. Huh? They hadn’t noticed. But they did notice the cool tom fill and how the grace notes shifted to accommodate the backbeat.

So we ought to listen to music, adopting the perspective of the listener, not the performer; of the non-musician, perhaps. We ought to dig the music.

I contend that as drummers, however, we need to identify that place where people’s bodies move naturally and take measures immediately to preserve that pulse. If we simply paste a drum beat into the A section of a tune, we’re neglecting our responsibilities.

Unconvinced? You’re telling me that you feel the pulse and it’s implicit in your drumming. I respond that it’s one thing to feel the pulse and allude to it. Your job is to safeguard it throughout the song without relinquishing it, allowing it to slip through your fingers.

When you guard the pulse unshakably, such that nothing can stop you—a fire alarm, a bottle flying past, a police raid, a next of hornets—the pulse hangs tight. It gathers momentum. It becomes unstoppable. The pulse becomes the groove.

You are going through nine levels of hell—all this horrible anxiety—because you let the groove lapse. You sacrifice it to parachute in a fill you heard from Mike Portnoy or a beat you heard from Neal Peart, forgetting that both of these guys listen to songs to the point at which they are one with the music. Their fills are not so much fills but part of the compositions. It’s the same with those creative drum beats. They don’t fall from the sky; they arise from the musical form, and that includes the lyrics, which most drummers (songwriters tell me) ignore. I admit, at various points I have been critical of prog, specifically Mike Portnoy. One event changed my view. I drove to Woodstock one steaming hot day—I remember it clearly because the air conditioning blew on my white Ford Taurus and the six hour drive was a sauna. I arrived at the hill top studio where Hudson Video was producing the acclaimed Portnoy DVD, what with his new white drum kit. I was skeptical, old fart that I am, but was determined to do a good job capturing excess in motion, grace under pleasure. What I realized within an hour at most was that this guy Portnoy was a real deal drummer playing music. He cares deeply and he feels it close to the bone. He doesn’t dream up wizardly fills; he composes them, this following a juncture at which he feels them as integral to creating an unbroken, forward moving line. I never thought I’d say those words but this Portnoy guy is a musician, a drummer, and he listens deep.

A more concrete example from a sadly deceased drummer and very much alive track you can listen to here. Imagine that: we’re talking about drum performances and we haven’t yet leaned on note for note transcriptions. Love it!

It’s a track called “Memories” from a Bill Laswell/Material album, sung by the then relatively unknown Whitney Houston. Tony Thompson is on drums. The whole thing gives me shivers.

The drums are tacet in the intro. We don’t wait too long for action. Laswell (on bass) plucks a harmonic on the 1 of the fourth measure. It lingers precisely as long as necessary to foster the transition from the beat of the intro to the adjusted beat of the verse. Right away, we’re not talking notes or beats; we’re talking groove.

The haunting mood are, of course, in part due to the dead effective lyrics, “I know, I cannot leave this place, full of memories….” Please, go and listen to it. Follow the link. Even if you don’t return here you will be richer for the experience. While you’re gone, do the drummer thing and check what Tony’s doing in his inimitable way, which, by the way, is not rocket science. You can play his part. Thing is, you didn’t play it. And you haven’t been playing it. You’ve been diddling your drums. And that’s why you’ve been so anxious. You were worried that, were you to do what Tony did in its simplicity, you might not have scored high on the Travis Barker scale. You were engaging in a stressful competition, you against you relative to a straw man, and paying no attention to the song at hand.

Why Drum Beats Don’t Necessarily Define Pulse and Groove

There are different ways to skin a cat. Most everyone feels the pulse but it is the drummer who ought to feel it and express it most emphatically. That is why, for example, Rick Marotta’s version of Steely Dan’s “Peg” made it to the final album, while Jim Keltner’s remains in the can. We can assume safely that Keltner’s “Peg” was vibrant and exciting. But the Marotta groove aligned with what the songwriters were feeling at the time.

Marotta happened to tap into some musical line that resounded with listeners/composers. His part observed what I call the “what is sacred” component of the tune. Each tune, judged in its stylistic context, reveals at least one “sacred” aspect that must be observed if there is to be some semblance of credibility and groove. In this instance, it is an upbeat, shaker-like, repetitive hi-hat rhythm. All Rick’s parts are cool but this “sacred” one is unflinching in its accuracy and unfailing in its ostinato. It does not budge. We can tap along and our foot does not question; it grooves! Furthermore, his “shaker hi-hat” part reinforces the uplifting upbeat in an otherwise solid downbeat groove.

The point is not that Rick did it while Jim didn’t. The point is that we are unique in our expressions of this predominate pulse. But we’re not always equal. Maybe Rick heard something, in this instance, that worked with what Becker and Fagan heard. Who knows? The mandate to work at this is the essential drummers’ mandate, not the devising of clever feels. Ultimately our uniqueness will come out in our touch and our feel when rendering ostensibly the same pulse as the next guy. I love a good fill, don’t get me wrong. But I realize nowadays that nothing hinges on a fill.

Go listen, right now if you can, to the Paul Simon track “God Bless the Absentee” and admit to me, or yourself preferably, what you might have played on drumset in response to those lyrics, melody, and changes and at that tempo. Tap your foot and let it go; see what it does naturally. Contrast this with what Steve Gadd is doing on the track. You’ll get what I’m saying; I’m sure of it. Listen and do what you would have done according to your nature. Revealing isn’t it? Not that there’s any one answer, as it were. It’s all good, provided you’re listening deeply.

I’ve worked occasionally with Eddie Bimm, a monstrous keyboard player whose sense of time and pulse are infallible. In the words of Randy Newman, in any fair world, Eddie would prosper and thrive. Alas, Eddie is unsung. I used to be at odds with Eddie, simply because he seemed to be locking into something I didn’t get. I’d be enormously fearful of missing what I was aiming to express and that he might perceive and scorn my piddling attempts, meanwhile maintaining his painfully slow, dead accurate grooves. Nowadays, I have no ulterior motives when I play with him. I’m seeking simply to identify that deeper thing he’s hearing, and that perhaps I ought to have been listening to, and settle on it in my own way.

When I do that, it’s impossible for me to get nervous, anxious, fearful, or otherwise stricken by performance issues. I’ve taken the high road, the greater mission.

On Time, Tempo, Clicks, and Groove

When a click track is doing its clicking, the groove may not reside in the metronomic ticking but elsewhere. That poses a grand challenge: you must serve two masters. You’ve got to follow the click yet allude firmly that that other, parallel place. Meanwhile you’re punching the clock, keeping the routine. This can be torturous. But nowhere near as fraught with panic and performance anxiety as second-guessing your drum beats. Or, given you’ve practiced to click sufficiently and can state with assurance your time is solid, nowhere near as frustrating and unnerving as wondering if you’re on with the click.

It’s all there in the Shakespearean line, “I have wasted time, now time wastes me”. Time is measurable and, thus, subjects us to mathematical/empirical standards of attainment. Get into that business and you’re setting yourself up for a fall. I’m suggesting you devote practice hours to time clicking in the background, indeed, but forget about it on stage and serve the higher ends: pulse/groove.

What’s the difference, you ask? I’ve mentioned that I’ve had the good fortune to converse over the phone with (the late) Jeff Porcaro and pick his brains on studio matters. I’ve kept my notes in my diary, soon open (in part) to you, I’m hoping. On one occasion, as I reported elsewhere on this website, we were discussing his treatment of the song “I Love LA”. Jeff seemed genuinely amazed I’d noticed the glitches in the intro. He’s actually not glitching when he’s totally off with the click. He’s assertive in finding the groove and holding it…in some parallel place relative to the click! You can hear the click at the top of the tune; Jeff had it loud I his headphone mix. So loud it leaked into the overhead mics and made it to tape. In those days there was no Pro Tools and it may have been easier to have left the trace of click on tape instead of editing it out. At any rate, it’s audible during Jeff’s sparse entrance, during which he’s grabbing cymbals and punctuating. And he’s left the click behind, or perhaps ahead. Point is, he knows where he is and what he must do as dictated by the pulse he needs to create and observe. His basic simplicity and refusal to measure up exactly to the click is the sign of a mature musician whose sense of purpose transcends popular drum beats of the day. Oh yeah, baby, what a groove Jeff creates! As a consequence, “I Love LA” is timeless.

Adhering to What is Sacred Means Leaving Secular Anxieties in the Dust

Get it straight and you may discover calm sooner than you think. As I’ve been repeating, under different cloak, it’s not entirely up to you to control the time.

I urge you to control, however, this other thing you may have neglected: the groove. When you do, you’ve placed yourself so far beyond measuring sticks and clocks and what other drummers might do, you’ll be clear headed and soothed and, not surprisingly, you’ll execute figures you never thought possible. Relaxed you’ll find that sort of thing easier.

What is Sacred? This is a topic for another article and sounds heady but is deceivingly simple. And central. Each musical form suggests a prevailing, all important pulse, whether it’s on the beat, as in disco, or off the beat as in reggae. There’s much more to the “what is sacred” concept but hopefully you get the point (I’m still working on it myself, but it holds meaning by the bucket, as I’m discovering).

When you zone in on what’s sacred to a particular song or style of music, you leave the trivial stuff far behind. Licks come and go; the pulse is here to stay. So why are you sweating the licks. This is where the modern drummer falls apart and becomes increasingly nervous and frustrated. It’s as if you’re worried about high sticking while playing football.

Without getting into “what is sacred” to the extent it deserves, let me give you an example. I used to teach a bit; I still do. One of my students was interested in what fascinated me: jazz. His name was Ian Froman. He left town for New York, where he’s a cutting edge jazz drummer, whose played with all the greats; he’s also an educator. And he’s become, by any way you want to slice it, better than me…especially as a jazz drummer.

The first time he returned to town following schooling and road gigs with the likes of Miroslav Vitous and Gary Burton, he listened to me play my jazz. I can’t remember his exact remarks but what they amounted to was that, yes, I’d listened all my life to contemporary jazz but I hadn’t heard.

My jazz playing often left me confused, puzzled, and anxious—strange since at age 16 I was at peace with it. Subsequent to that, however, I’d endured a few master lessons here and there, which encouraged me to expand my vocabulary of “alternate ride rhythms” and “left hand freedom”. Unfortunately, the result was diversity without direction. I learned alternatives but came nowhere near Jack DeJohnette. Varying the basic ride cymbal rhythm, I learned, is more than varying the ride cymbal rhythm. It’s not ornamentation, I realized. It’s phrasing, vocabulary, alternate means of expression, as opposed to simply mucking up a rhythm for the hell of it.

Ian sat down and played my way and then his, demonstrating how my cymbal beat was inconsistent and busy in all the wrong places. Furthermore, he pointed out that I’d given short shrift to the all important (to post-swing jazz) upbeat. For drummers this means the “middle note” or “skip beat” of the traditional ride cymbal pattern.

I’d lapsed into a rut of playing lip service to the jazz ride rhythm, meanwhile exhibiting the tendency of accentuating 2 and 4 (or, ecch, 1 and 3) on ride and sloughing off, or bouncing inconsistently, the skip beat. I was guilty of sacrificing the essence of contemporary jazz feel. Ian told me that when he played with Dave Liebmann, the saxophonist often admonished the band loudly, as per, “play the upbeat, the upbeat….” Once you discover that the upbeat is the sacred part of contemporary jazz and strive to keep it alive, it becomes almost impossible to accent in the wrong places.

This is trivializing an enormously complicated discipline but it lends a palpable example to my thesis about nailing the pulse, which is contextual. Nailing it in jazz may vary from the way you nail it in salsa. That’s where true listening, for enjoyment, research, and in performance, comes into play and saves you from injecting your little jazz beat—meaning oftentimes fancy comping with left hand against ostinato right hand ride and too loud bombs on bass drum, all seeming arbitrary and, thus, disturbing your peace.

Jazz will leave many of you cold, so let’s talk rock. Test yourself among kindred musicians and have them launch into “Black Hole Sun”. Go ahead: attempt to implement some frail, funky beat and see how far you get. Then go back and listen to the original track. It’s so beautifully soulful and heavy—and the pulse is so predominate and undeniable—we forget about all those bars that venture out of comfortable 4/4. Everything flows naturally. Now that’s a real groove and that’s what pulse is all about. Mind you, it takes listening, research, practice, and playing with other musicians to make it happen—and what happens is relative to “Black Hole Sun” and not “Footprints”. And that’s the beauty of it. You’re playing something with history and rendering it—giving it an original touch, not copping Carter Beauford.

Jeez, who wants to cop Carter Beauford: that’s like asking for performance anxiety! Am I making sense about the source of your panic, stage fright, and fears of failure? I hope so. When you play beats, you get judged by your ability to nail beats. And when you hear, as you expect to hear when you’re doing something way off point, hey, man, clever. Something didn’t feel good, though, the anxiety, sweats, frights, and ulcers mount.

Consequence of Error

So what if you did blow a fill or play through a stop whilst guarding the pulse effectively? Nobody is going to care one little bit…providing they feel the groove.

If you disrupt groove with some lame creation, everybody’s going to care. And quite rightfully they’ll zone in on you, because you messed up not only the song but the flow of the river that runs, or ought to run, through everything of nature and humanity. Sound hyped up? I dare you, then, to disprove me. Next practice or gig think of nothing but identify, flagging, rendering, and maintaining the pulse. If the band doesn’t smile spontaneously, reflecting gratitude to this sudden turn around in your behavior, I’m wrong. Even if you play simple quarter-notes on closed hats in a place where previously you played some clever drum part. The more you try what I’m suggesting, the more you’ll get it.

Give it up, the beats, the measuring, the math, and the bogus science. Stop it, already. I did. It took forty years of playing drums—precisely what I did, by the way. I played drums. I didn’t play the music.

I used to get shaky, tremble, get dizzy, almost have blackouts, worry like crazy…and this extended into the studio, where, unless we were doing a two or three day session, I’d rarely relax and let it flow as it should have; most of the time nobody noticed. But I did and the self-criticism became a health issue proportionate to the increasing tremors. It got so bad I tried Beta Blockers, which, I supposed, moderately suppressed the tremors but did nothing for the terrors! Then came Southern Comfort, the milkshake of hard liquor, and on to Scotch and substances arguably far worse and addictive. I called out for help and sought assistance from things and in places that caused nothing but further grief.

I played a gig yesterday at noon with two world class guitarists, no bass, for an audience of music faculty and students, noon hour at Carleton University. The room, their Studio A, was so “loud”, I resorted to sticks for but one eight-bar passage and this was pushing it. This was a quiet, quiet gig. A pin dropped, you heard it and could pitch it.

In past, when I was preoccupied with getting the right drum part and nailing “my sound” for the snare backbeat and so on, I’d have collapsed. For one thing, my trembling used to be such that it’d have been impossible to play quietly—quietly meaning pp, not just p. How do you play a gentle open roll when you’re shaking? It’s comical!

Yesterday the time signatures were all out there—bars of four seguing to bars of three and five, with punches to catch and full ensemble stops. Guess what? I thought about one thing: listening to Roddy and to Wayne and watching them and attempting to reconcile their parts with what I perceived to be the dominant pulse in each of the varied sections of each difficult composition.

I blew a stop. I glitched on a bar of 5/4 that, as I recall, should have been 4/4. But you know it, with the pulse as solid as it was, a function of me listening and doing what it took to capture and harness that pulse for good not evil, I was unfazed by nervous ticks or frights and the difference between the new me and that other hideous charicature was night and day. Literally. It’s now sunnier.

Do it please, for me. And for you. It takes nothing. Just find the pulse and do the absolute minimum…that is, at least until you get it, feel it, and present it so effectively that your fellow musicians and audience feels it. Otherwise, you’re going to go on and on torturing yourself for all the wrong reasons.

Last musical example and this time one anyone can understand: Sing “Row, row, row your boat” right now, seriously! Okay, as you vocalize, tap your foot where it feels right. Go ahead. Now play closed hats with a drumstick—probably one drumstick is all you’ll need—in unison with your foot tapping.

That’s it. That’s all it takes. You are free.

Tap your feet, maybe click your heels and you’re home.

There’s no place like home.