There Is No Substitute For Experience by Roy Burns

I have several students who are quite frustrated with their playing and their careers, even though they are very talented. They have all the tools, but their own playing is still disappointing to them.

I have also received a number of letters that echo the same sense of frustration. It seems, at times, that your own playing just doesn’t sound good to you, while so many other players seem to sound better than you do.

For all of you young drummers out there who are experiencing this feeling—take heart! All young drummers must pass through this stage at some point. You do not have serious flaw; you simply lack experience.

When I was a young drummer in New York City, I found that the most difficult thing for me to achieve was consistency. I would play very well one night but a night or two later I just wouldn’t be able to get going. The feel had mysteriously left me. What was so easy a couple of nights earlier now seemed to be completely lost.

Fortunately, I was working with many older players and I sought their advice. “What is wrong with me?” I asked. In most cases, the response was, “Relax! You just need to play more.”

The answer, although sincere, seemed too simple. I was looking for some secret formula that would have dramatic effect on me and my playing. I was disappointed that no one had given me a little more to go on. “You just need to play more!” didn’t seem to be enough.

Looking back, that advice couldn’t have been better. I kept playing at every possible opportunity. I would go to rehearsals just to play with a big band. I would attend jam sessions and go to nightclubs where I could sit in. I took every type of job—no matter what type of music or what sort of money (if any) was involved. Then I began to understand. “There is no substitute for experience.”

One of my students recently decided to enter a drum solo contest at a large music store in California, at his next lesson he said to me, “I totally choked. I stared to play and I got so nervous that I did everything I didn’t want to do. I really played badly.” He was devastated and his confidence was at a real low.

Basically his mistake was that he tried to play everything he knew if five minutes—and he really botched it all up. Fortunately, there was another contest in about for weeks. So the fires thing I did was to put the contest into perspective. “A five minute drum solo, no matter how you play, is not going to make or break your career. Let’s regroup and decide how to approach the next contest.”

I told him, “To begin with, you now have some experience with the situation. That is a benefit. Now let’s figure out a solo that has some form but still leaves room for improvisation. Select some of your best grooves and don’t try to play everything you know. Picture ahead of time what you are generally going to do. Play the solo in your mind. Don’t memorize it—just play within the form you have set up for yourself. And most of all go have some fun! It’s not the end of the world.”

Well, I am pleased to say that he actually won the next contest. He also won the following contest and later this year will perform in the “finals” for some big prizes.

The point of the story is that all experience, whether positive or negative, can be helpful—if you learn something from it. However, if you are too frustrated or discouraged to try, no learning is possible.

You really can’t practice playing. The only way to improve your playing is by playing. This is why some drummers play well even though they have had very little training. Contrary to some people’s opinions. It is not the lack of drum lessons that make them good. It is all the playing they have done. Now, if you have both studied and done a lot of playing, chances are that you will be an even better player. Naturally, we don’t all have the same amount of talent or the same opportunities to study, play and learn. But in order to play well, you simply must do a lot of playing. This is the only way to break through the frustration phase that all young drummers go through. If you do not get—or create—the opportunity to play a lot during this phase, the chances are that you will never reach your potential.

The key word is “experience.” You must get out of the house and play. You must get out and hear other players. Practicing and taking lessons are great ways to learn but you must play in order to develop your skills. Remember, “There is no substitute for experience.” Go for it!