Taking baby steps to stretch yourself

I recently took a gig with Pat Wilder who’s a funk/blues artist (http://www.patwilderlive.com/home.html). Originals and some covers. The interesting thing about working with her is that, at first glance, it’s not something that plays to my strengths. But, because of that very fact, it’s stretched my abilities and I’ve grown a bit just in the few weeks I’ve been working with her.

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Part of the deal that goes with being a song drummer like me is the fact that songs have structures and that tends to be the area I am most creative in and also the most comfortable in—working within the structure of the song. This means I usually have some time to figure out what it is that I will play for a certain songs—a few days in some situations, but at least a few minutes in a rehearsal or a recording session. However, with gigs like Pats it’s very much about spontaneity and improvisation and less so about having structures to work within (although there are certainly still structures in there, you just get much, much less time to figure out what you’re going to play).

So to give you a quick idea what it’s like to work with Pat, here goes: first off, there tends to not be any rehearsal 🙂 You show up at the gig in and we don’t even talk about songs or structures or set lists. She doesn’t even call out the names of the tunes–once we’re ready to play she starts a groove on her guitar and the rest of us in the band just kind of fall in behind her.

On one hand it sounds easy—no prep work needed, you just use your ears and play what you feel is the right thing at that moment. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a challenge: there are definitely structures and you have to be listening like a thief to anticipate them or at least catch them when they come around. Then, once you figure out what the structure is you have to decide what you should or should not be playing in that moment. But quickly—we’re talking 10th’s or 100th’s of a second here. Fun, but not easy 🙂

So for someone like me who’s all about songs and deciding what the drums do and orchestrating each of the different parts of the song, it’s challenging. Challenging because I usually get at least a few minutes to figure out what I want to play, but with Pat, I have to make those decisions instantaneously. Which is good for me, but it’s definitely, DEFINITELY a stretch.

And so, net-net, it’s been a really good, growing experience for me.

Now here’s an important thing—to someone from the outside who’s not a working musician, it may not seem like the two things I’m talking about here are not all that different. And on one hand, they’re not—I’m still working in popular song forms (in this case blues, funk and R&B). It’s not like I went into a totally improvised, free jazz situation (that would be an even bigger stretch for me).

So I guess that’s the big take away here — stretch yourself, but within reason. Pick something that’s definitely related to what you do or the field of endeavor you work in. Maybe even pick something that’s related in at least one major area (in this case for me, popular song forms) and then stretch yourself that way. It doesn’t have to be a whole wildly different thing (which in my case should be that total improv jazzy thing), but just something related that stretches you in a healthy way.

And it’s not to say that something that’s totally UN-related wouldn’t be good for you too, this is just one way to manage a situation that stretches your abilities and makes it more achievable. Sort of like taking baby steps to stretching yourself I suppose 🙂

Another example from my work life is this: I had a rhythm & percussion curriculum for my lower-functioning special needs clients, and last year I decided to stretch that and create something for my higher functioning special needs clients. For this, I went from a method that taught basic life skills to a class that evolved into a performance ensemble (the FHAR Special Needs Drumline). There were common elements to both (special needs clients, rhythm and percussion), but the drumline was a definite stretch for me, and there were LOTS of things that needed to be figure out as we went along in the process. Maybe not the biggest stretch in the world, but still a good stretch and way, way rewarding for me!

So, what is an area in your life where could you stretch yourself, but in a way that is related to something that you are more comfortable with?

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