Getting Unstuck by Roy Burns

I have a few students who are accomplished, professional drummers. I always ask them, “Why are you here? You play well and you’re working. How can I help you?” In almost every case, the response is, “I just feel stuck. I feel as though I’ve stopped improving. I feel as though I’m up against a brick wall and can’t get past it.”

My understanding of this predicament is that, sooner or later, we all seem to have a dry spell. This is because the ideas that help us get to a certain point in our careers become obsolete. Practicing from books that we have been through many times usually doesn’t help much. Reviewing old warm-up exercises or “going back” to the rudiments is not effective. A new approach is needed.

A wise man once said, “A person who helps you is usually one who shows you a new way to look at the problem.” I believe this to be true. Some changes in viewpoint are needed to stimulate your mind and get the creative juices flowing again.

After watching and listening to the student play, I analyze the areas that need improvement. For example, the person might have a great feel but need improvement in technique. In this case, I suggest exercises designed to improve the student’s control of the instrument.

In some cases, the student may not be able to read music. By developing and/or improving reading skills, as student’s understanding of rhythms can be explained. Learning new rhythms gives the student the foundation for developing new ideas. Rhythmic combinations are endless. New ones can inspire the student to begin creating again.

Playing with the same group for a number of years can also be a problem. You see, hear and perform with the same people day after day, week after week, and year after year. This can be a good experience because great rapport can be developed amongst the players in the group. But it can also make you stale.

One way out of this situation is to play with other people. Go to a club or rehearsal and sit in. Play some different music with different people. There are many ways to play music and man ways to play the same style of music. Each person has something special. If you don’t believe this, think about what happens when your group gets a new bass player. One person can have a powerful effect (good or bad) on any group.

Some players get stuck in a style. If all you are playing is rock (or jazz, or Top-40), you are probably playing the same stuff over and over. Even if the music is great, it may not stimulate you as it once did. In this case, I recommend listening to some different music. Buy some big band records from the 1940’s and listen to the older drummers. Listen to drummers from Brazil, from India or from Africa. Those players will inspire you. Buy a record of the Swiss rudimental drummers; they will surprise you. Let some new music into your mind; it will be like a breath of fresh air.

Go to clubs and listen to other drummers in person. You can learn from anyone and everyone. Each successful drummer does something that is unique. Enjoy the differences in style; it’s great fun.

Most of my students are working, professional drummers. Sometimes, just sitting and talking is the most productive part of the lesson. Finding out that you are not the only one who gets stuck from time to time is usually comforting. It’s something we all go through.

If you are traveling, seek out some of the well known teachers in each city and take a lesson. Sometimes you’ll pick up some really great ideas; sometimes you may just spend an interesting hour. You also may be disappointed but you’ll never know unless you try. In the long run, you will benefit just by picking up some new ideas.

Another way to look at the problem of continuing your growth as a player (and as a person) is to “update your ideas” from time to time. Sit down and evaluate yourself. Make a list of your goals and then make a list of what you are or are not doing to accomplish them. Discover the areas in which you need to improve. Then make a list of ways in which you may be able to bring about improvement. I’ve offered some suggestions but there are many ways to look at the problem and many ways to improve the situation in which you find yourself.

Most people, when they find themselves stuck, will continue to do the same things but will work harder at them. This usually yields few, if any, positive results. If you are stuck, try something different. You have nothing to lose but your old ideas.

I’ve had the experience of meeting old friends after ten years or so. If they are still talking about the same things, doing the same things and playing the same things, I feel for them. They are the same as before, only older. I find this to be sad, because it indicates a lack of growth. Learning, growing and developing do not have to be agonizing and painful experiences. Just get some new ideas, stimulate yourself, have some fun and get “unstuck.” Go around, through, or over that brick wall. It’s up to you