In Search Of The The Aha Moment

Do remember when you first learned to ride a two-wheeler? Your dad spent a couple hours holding you upright on the bike while you strained to find that elusive sense of balance — always painfully out of reach. Then, joyously, almost unexpectedly, it came to you in a sudden flash of inspiration. You rode down the block with pride, you dad trailing behind, smiling broadly. From then on you were able to ride a bike.

That’s an “aha moment.” Such a breakthrough happens thousands of times in a lifetime, and plays a big role in our development as humans, as well as drummers. I bet you recall how your hands felt the day when you first played a fast single stroke role evenly. Or when you finally understood the mechanics and developed the right ear to tune a tom. I vividly remember those aha moments — where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with.

I’ll never forget the night I finally learned how to play a Texas shuffle. It was about 20 years ago, while playing onstage in San Francisco with a blues band that I had worked with for about a year — way too long to be playing a “rock shuffle.” In retrospect, I’m almost embarrassed to picture myself playing the snare on the backbeats, while struggling to play the rest of the pattern with my bass drum.

It was frustrating. Intellectually, I understood how the beat was properly played, with both hands swinging the shuffle pattern, a slight accent on the backbeat, while stomping four on the floor. I’d seen other drummers do it since I was a kid, but just couldn’t make it sit in the pocket correctly when I attempted it. I didn’t feel it in my arms and legs.

So I developed little cheats that managed to fool a couple less discerning bandleaders. But I also remember the night when Johnny Nitro — one of our local blues heroes who happened to be hanging out at a gig — said that my shuffle was “interesting.” I now know exactly what he meant. Interesting is such an interesting word.

Months later a bandleader kicked into the riff to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Cold Shot” and my hands just fell into a real shuffle groove. From then on I’ve been able to play a shuffle without any problems, and now get much better gigs because of it.

Thankfully, most drumming techniques aren’t nearly so evasive. Often, when I practiced a new rudiment or lick, I would simply start slowly on a practice pad and gradually increase the tempo until it felt natural. Bingo — it was there. But even though the skills needed to play a shuffle were as obvious as those needed to ride a bike many years before, the best I could do was to keep trying for as long as it would take.

It’s a great analogy for young drummers trying to turn pro. It can seem impossible to figure out how to break in. There is no sure set of rules to follow. So your best bet is to keep trying. Keep learning, reading, practicing, auditioning, recording, emulating the drummers you want to be like. If you have what it takes, sooner it will come to you in an aha moment. And you can’t predict when that will be.