I won’t forget the moment I stopped thinking and started doing. It was 1975, and I was practicing in the percussion lab at Chicago Musical College, then a part of Roosevelt University, right in the heart of The Loop. My dormitory connected to the school via a couple of strategic walkthroughs, and I often padded over in my socks late at night, even in the middle of snowstorms, while most other folks weren’t around.
The drum room was part sanctuary, part playground. I locked myself in among sets of marimbas, xylophones, chimes, gongs, timpani, and drums of all types. I would always practice mallets first, then move on to the school’s remarkably sonorous (and now vintage) Ludwig drum kit to play for another hour or so. It was mostly unstructured – just soloing, working on timekeeping, trying new grooves, whatever came to mind.
One night I was wailing with eyes closed, enjoying the rhythms and the pulse and the sounds of the moment, when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d stopped thinking about what my hands and feet were doing. I was just playing.
It was liberating. I wasn’t counting. I wasn’t plotting my next fill. I was just drumming freely, using muscle memory, with limbs moving together, yet independently. I snapped out of that gauzy zone long enough to realize that I’d just improvised some pretty cool and unexpected stuff. I swore to play drums like that from then on.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. With minor exceptions, most bands I’ve played with since then weren’t interested in freeform drumming. They’ve wanted me to execute well-established parts that best complemented the arrangement, and I never complained. I was happy to be playing drums professionally.
But an interesting thing happened from time to time. I’d be onstage playing my memorized parts when I suddenly voiced a fill differently, or inadvertently changed my bass drum pattern, or hit an unexpected splash, or any number of other possible unintended detours.
At first such slips shook my sense of equilibrium. I thought I had to play precisely that part at exactly that moment to properly interpret that particular song. But I was wrong, and have since re-embraced the lesson learned late that night in Roosevelt’s downtown Chicago practice room.
Self-imposed rules don’t mean much within the bigger context of music making. So don’t freak out the next time you accidentally veer from the playbook. Call it a happy mistake. Make it work. You could become a better drummer for it.