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.
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Jay fenichel says
Hey Mark, Great post! I remember having a conversation with an amazing Jazz organist that I went to school with, Jerry Z. (He plays with the Head Hunters and Oz Noy.) He said his criteria for taking a gig hinged on three conditions. 1. The Music inspired him 2. The musicians were great to play with 3. The pay was good. …As long as 2 out 3 of those criteria were met, he’d take the gig. It’s actually a pretty good formula. lol
Mark Feldman says
Hi Jay –
I like it! I’ve heard that formula before from other musicians. I think it makes sense. Jerry Z is a great player. Thanks for chiming in about this.
Great article Mark! For me success is making good music. Whether in the studio or playing a show, it’s all about listening and feel and expression. The atmosphere of darkened venues, party people or a focused audience, or the creative space of the studio where effects, mic placement, new ideas, concepts & albums can be imagined. Money never enters my mind usually, except when it costs money to play. I usually ask for at least transportation costs for live shows. But I’m not a career drummer, I have a job I love & make music nights & weekends. Making money as a musician is tough- I think merchandise (T-shirts, vinyl or usb releases, touring) is usually a key component. T-shirts! The sweetest plum. It helps also I think to build a folklore or legend around your music, that builds a kind of cult or a deeper following. Beatles had their death clues, Black Sabbath had an occult thing going on.. even just a meaningful reason for you to express yourself, because that’s what people want- to feel something. If you immerse yourself deeply in music, working al the time in it’s most alluring & mysterious qualities, you’ll find all manner of power and magic. Once you’ve harnessed that, you have a product, & monetizing your product can be done using those good ol’ business books (mailing lists, advertising, know your audience, supply/demand, packaging, etc)
Mark Feldman says
Hi Jake – thank you for your thoughts. I agree that music and creating is magical. That’s what got me into this in the first place. Yes, making good music with good players is paramount.
This article brings up a few interesting things to think about as a musician.
I have been fortunate enough in my short career as a drummer to have many opportunities to make money with my skill set.
I have also found that my most rewarding experiences have been when I am doing music and movement workshops with schools for severely and multiple disabled children. I get to go to schools and engage with kids that have a hard time focusing for a minute, yet I can have their attention for as long as I am allowed.
I do teach at a private music school, and I regularly perform with several bands that i have started (jam, classic blues, Johnny Cash cover band, and a group with songwriters with Grammy awards,) but to be able to connect with kids I have never met before and to be able to have a rhythmic conversation with them is priceless. My soul is happy for months after.
I do appreciate that I get paid as well, but I would do it for free if I could, but since my full time job is drumming, I have to get paid.
Mark Feldman says
Hi Nathan –
Good to hear. I’m glad that you get to play and teach and get paid to do so. And I agree that teaching can be a very satisfying endeavor. When I have a student and I see progress and positive motion in their development, it makes me very happy and satisfied. Thanks for letting us know about your experiences.
Lisa Valentino says
Hi Mark: Always love your writings. They are thought provoking. As a hobbyist player, my “goals” are quite different from those of the other posters who are professional players. I gauge my success by “continuous improvement”. Kaizen, is the Japanese business term for this. Am I getting even just a little bit better every time I practice? For me, drumming is sometimes not pleasing. It upsets me that I never have enough time to put into practice, and also that at the rate I am going, I will most likely not get there soon. I am also trying to work on playing drums as “fun” as a goal. I forget about that sometimes. I was so excited to see Jay Fenichel posting here. I watch a lot of his Youtube videos and find him a very fine player and educator.
Mark Feldman says
Hi Lisa –
Thanks for writing. And thanks for your kind words.
I know that frustration due to feeling like you don’t have enough time. Rest assured, you are getting better. Little steps, over and over again, consistently is the key. And that’s what you’re doing!!