Success. What does it mean? I’ve become fascinated with how drummers define it and how they pursue it. There are so many versions of success. So, let’s look at some of the ways that drummers visualize and measure it.
Is it About Money?
The most common way to look at success, of course, is money. Many drummers who seek to play professionally consider earnings first and foremost. It’s not a surprising view. However, it can be problematic.
Why? Because earning money as a musician is difficult. If you’re not playing with the elite level of original artists on tour or in the studio, scraping together a living can be tricky. In fact, even if you are playing with an elite artist, there is no guarantee of a long-term employment.
So, if money is your only defining variable, you might be putting yourself into a difficult position.
Ultimately, I would like to play with some massive original artists. That is my personal goal. Happily, if I achieve that desired level (Sting, John Mayer, Lady Gaga level) the pay should be good.
Why Money Isn’t Always The Answer
There was a point where I believed that as long as I was playing the drums and getting paid, then I was successful. I no longer think that way. There were two types of jobs I pursued that made me change my thinking.
I found myself pursuing certain types of drumming work that I later realized I didn’t enjoy. For example, at one point, I looked into playing weddings. There is a decent amount of work a drummer can get doing this. I was able to land some of this work. And guess what? I hated it! The music I was playing was not to my liking at all and the people in the band were treated like servants. The money was OK and sure, I could have included that work in the circle of drumming jobs I could do to earn a living, but at what cost?
A second type of job I looked into was playing theater. After all, I live in NYC and this is the world’s headquarters for musical theater. But I worked on subbing for a show, and I found I didn’t like that either. The music, at least for the show I was learning in order to sub, was not enjoyable–it had a real “oom-pah” quality to it. There was no enjoyable grooving involved. In fact, frequently speeding up and slowing down was required. Ugh!
I have friends drumming on Broadway and playing weddings, and I have great respect for their abilities and the fact that they can earn money in those ways. It’s just not my thing. So please understand that I’m not judging anyone who defines success differently than I do. I’m simply trying to stay in touch with the reasons I began to play drums in the first place.
You know why I started playing drums in the first place? Pleasure.
One View: Success is Making Art and Enjoying That Experience
Drumming (and creating art in general) is supposed to be pleasant experience.
I’ve tried to honor that the experience of playing drums is supposed to fun and even euphoric. With that in mind, why take drumming jobs that are not fun? I might as well just get any job that paid me rather than play drums for money in a situation that I dislike in order to get paid.
This journey eventually found me realizing that making money playing drums in musical situations that I enjoy is what makes me happy. Beyond that, I discovered that earning money with something drum-related (like teaching) was OK if it was enjoyable.
Another View: Making a Business from Your Art Equals Success
So, fast forward to me starting a teaching business. I began ten years ago and now I’m earning money this way, and I like it. There is a great satisfaction in sharing the knowledge of drumming with people who want to learn. As I write this, BANG! The Drum School is almost 10 years old and I only teach a small amount myself; our teaching staff does most of the day-to-day teaching at our studio. That’s exciting to me because I have time to figure out how to reach more people who want to learn to play drums. I also pursue only gigs that I like or my big picture dream drumming jobs now.
Is It About Ability?
Another way to think about success is to consider your abilities as a drummer. We all think about this. It’s natural to compare ourselves to other drummers. You might look at how you line up as a player with drummers who are in your circle of friends, or drummers in the town you live in or the school you go to, or even with the famous drummers that you look up to as heroes.
Although it’s a normal consideration, try not to get too hung up on this. You will never really sound like someone else, no matter how much of their vocabulary or ideas you learn. That’s OK. You don’t want to sound like anyone else anyway. Think about trying to be someone who other people want to sound like. The way to do that is to sound unique.
If possible, let those you admire inspire you but not depress you! “Oh, I’ll never play like that,” or “I’ll never be that good,” are not helpful ways of thinking. Aspire to a high level of ability, but if you’re not as good as Buddy Rich or Vinnie Colaiuta or one of those greats, don’t beat yourself up. What matters is that you’re good enough to enjoy yourself, and if you are pursuing drumming professionally, it matters that you’re good enough to get hired.
Define Your Own Success!
The big picture is that success takes many forms.
You might find yourself just happy that you can play drums at all. Or perhaps it’s exciting to you as you find that the practicing you are doing is helping you get better behind the kit. There is great satisfaction in knowing you are getting better.
My point here is that success shouldn’t be defined by other people’s notions or by typical societal ideas or pressures. Nor should it be defined by comparing yourself to the greatest drummers on the planet. Sure, you may want to earn a living doing what you love, but keep in mind why you began to make art in the first place, and be true to that as you measure success. In most cases, I would advise against playing in situations you hate just to make money.
It’s possible that you are actually successful, right now, at this very moment. Consider that. And if you don’t think that you are, make sure you have clear goals, and move towards them methodically. And have fun. Because that’s why you started to play drums in the first place.