Playing At A Very High Level: Why Simply Playing Your Part Is Not Enough


In my last post, I talked about one of my rules for my students that I use to get past their fear of making mistakes. Ultimately, it’s about having your priorities straight and playing at a very high level. I’m going to talk about what ‘playing at a high level’ means to me in this post–it means putting in your time on the ‘grunt work’.

When it comes to playing music at a high level, I think the big idea is that it’s not enough to know how to do something. If you want to be at your best, you must know much, much more that what appears on the surface. You must go deeper to truly understand what you’re doing at a very deep level (this might seem obvious, but read on).

Here’s the example from drumming: I have lots of students who can play a Rock beat. This would be a beat that could be used in any number of popular songs. But, just because they know how to play a beat, doesn’t mean that they can play effectively in a band and make the band sound great. In order to do that, you must master a number of things including:

  • Can you play the beat consistently, with a metronome for at least one minute?
  • Can you play that beat well while more than 50% of your listening attention is on other things in the band (i.e. the bass player, the vocalist…whatever your listening cue might be)
  • Can you effectively navigate the band through any transitions in the music (i.e. going from the verse to the chorus, playing the beat into and out of fills, ensemble figures, etc.)
  • Can you “EQ” yourself as the song or genre may need (changing the volume of certain instrument voices on the drum kit, i.e. make  the hi-hat cymbal volume softer and louder as needed without changing the volume of the other voices, etc.)
  • Can you respond to problems/challenges that might occur during a performance of the song without letting the song suffer? (The vocalist wants the song slower/faster, you can’t hear the bass and that’s your listening cue, etc.)

Here’s the tough part about all of these things I just listed—they’re important, but they’re not ‘sexy’ are they? They don’t draw attention to you, and there’s no one watching who will think of you as a ‘Drum God’ as a result of doing these things well. All of this is, sadly, true. 😉

But here’s the deal—if you want to play your instrument at a high level, you have to do all of this hard work (none of the things I listed in the bullets above is easy) or it will be tough to find bands that will want to play with you. At least bands that play at a high level. Your have to put in your time on the ‘grunt work’.

So thinking about this is areas outside of music, here are some thoughts:


In parenting it’s like someone who reads all the great books about how to be a good parent, but fails to do the ‘grunt’ work. The grunt work in this case could mean (among other things):

  • Showing up for your kids events when it’s incredibly hard to do so with your work schedule
  • Having the courage to show vulnerability when your kids are having a tough time
  • Letting your kids needs take priority over your own personal priorities

There is a big difference between a parent that can talk a good game, having read the books, etc. It’s much harder to actually put in the time and do the grunt work. And that grunt work is what will change you from a well-read parent to a great parent.

At Work

In the workplace it’s about knowing more that just the task that is in front of you. Performing at a high level on the job could mean:

  • Deeply understanding not only what your competitors and current/potential clients are doing currently, but also in terms of their vision and aspirations–where do they see the business going?
  • Learning about the history of your industry: who were the big players that led to the development of the industry, what were the big successes, what were the big failures, what are the challenges being faced moving forward, etc.
  • Continue to educate yourself and keep your skills sharp
    • This could mean evening college courses
    • Doing something similar to ‘informational interviews’ with the movers and shakers in your industry
    • Going to important industry conferences on a regular basis to stay current

So, I guess the big idea here is that you have to put in your time on the less-than-sexy, ‘grunt work’ in order to do anything at a high level. there’s just no getting around it. And, you have to put in a lot (a LOT) of hours to be at your best and perform at a high level. (Think of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour calculation in his book “Outliers” and you’re in the ballpark.)

In fact, one big difference between those who are the best at what they do and other folks is simply that–they’ve put in amazing amounts of time on the grunt work, they’ve put in their 10,000 hours and counting. And you know what–those people who are doing what they were put here on earth to do (people seeking what Paulo Coehlo termed their ‘personal legend’) put in all this work without it feeling like work.

But that’s a whole other blog post/book/lifetime endeavor. 🙂

And, yes there are many of us who can be effective–on their instrument, as a parent, at their job–without doing the grunt work. But, I don’t think of that as being at your best, and operating at a high level.

(In fact something like this is related to my next blog topic. “How NOT embracing the grunt work made me realize that I wasn’t in the right job.”)

Thanks for reading…

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