The Percussionist’s Dilemma: Do It All, or Focus on One “Strength?”

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The subject of this blog is not only a question, but in reality a riddle.  It doesn’t really have an answer.  I feel that this ‘dilemma’ is one of my greatest strengths, yet it is one of my worst nightmares all at the same time.  It’s been great fodder for conversation with many friends of mine.  It’s a constant “monkey on my back.”

(The following is a somewhat fictional conversation)  Guy 1:  “Chris Patterson…he’s a pan player, right?”  Guy 2: “No, I just did a gig with him and he played percussion.”  Guy 3: “Yeah he’s an auxiliary percussionist from what I’ve heard.”  Guy 4:  “Wait, you mean ‘Krushar?’  Guys 1-3: “Yeah” Guy 4: “No, man – just saw him the other night playing drum kit….what’s a pan player?!?”

I jest…yet I think that (in fact would be willing to bet) this conversation has actually occurred.  In fact I know that it has happened to other people as well.  Dr. Michael Carney from Long Beach State has told me this happens to him.  Tom Miller and I just discussed this situation awhile back; he goes through it too.  I have lots of Nashville friends that go through the same thing all the time.

So let’s get a couple of things out of the way.  If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s the ‘dilemma…’  Normally when you get a music degree (as a percussionist) at any respected college you’ll have to be proficient at ALL areas of percussion.  You don’t have to be a virtuoso, just be able to play not only drums, but mallet instruments (like marimba/xylophone), timpani, hand percussion, and in some places world percussion is becoming a more dominant force in the curriculum.  All in all, this is done because it absolutely does one thing essentially:  it makes you a better musician, a better percussionist.  period.  end of discussion.

So if you are a college student or even a high school student reading this blog stop right here and go practice.  Then practice some more.  Learn everything that you can about drums and percussion and being the best percussionist and musician that you can be.  Worry about everything else I’m about to write about later in life.  Right now be a sponge and absorb as much information as you can!

OK – now for you “lifers” let’s get into it…

So what’s the problem?  Let’s look at the good side of it.  I 100% believe that any success that I’ve had so far is because I’m pretty well rounded.  Because of my love for the steel pan, I understand music theory really well and have developed keen listening ears, being able to recognize not only cadence points in songs (in other words, knowing when a verse/chorus/or bridge is coming to an end and moving to the next part of the song) but melodies, harmonies, and motifs and phrasing.  All of this, I believe, helps me to have ‘big ears’ on stage (there will be a blog dedicated to this later) which I know for a fact has not only helped me get more work, but has helped me through some tough moments (like when I get a last minute call for a gig with no rehearsal time and either sketchy or non-existent charts).  In addition, probably the greatest benefit of “doing it all” is quite simply staying busy!  The phone rings when you increase your marketability.  I have certain guys/groups that call me often to do percussion gigs.  I have a steady stream of steel pan work.  I have a few guys that call me for drum set work.  If I only did one of these things, I would automatically take 2/3 of my work load away.  In this sense – it’s a no brainer.  Win win for me.  Finally, let’s face it; it keeps me from getting bored.  There have been many weeks throughout my professional career that will look a lot like this:

Wed: Songwriter gig (cajon/percussion)

Thur: Steel Pan gig

Friday: Percussion gig (congas, tambo, etc.)

Saturday: early steel pan gig, drum set later at a club

Sunday: Church orchestra gig (bells, chimes, etc.)

Now obviously not every week has been like this (boy I wish it were true!)  but there certainly have been a lot of times that it’s similar to that schedule.  I love it!  I like the challenge of putting a different hat on every night; it keeps my mind engaged and focused on what’s going on.  Not only that but all of this continues to help me become an overall better musician, which is really the whole point.

One other important thing on the positive side of “doing it all” is the groove factor.  Nine times out of ten, the best percussionists out there either play drum kit at least decently or even great, or maybe even can play bass guitar.  It’s a fact.  I can tell when a percussionist can’t play himself out of a wet paper bag sitting behind a kit.  There’s something innate and organic between the relationship of playing percussion and playing drum kit.  It is truly essential and I truly believe that if you want to be the greatest conga player ever, you HAVE to do other things besides just playing congas.  Go ahead and test Giovanni Hidalgo and see if he knows his rudiments…or consider Alex Acuña, Sheila E., the list goes on.

OK so now let’s look at the negative side.  You know the old saying: “Jack of all trades, master of none?”

…and now a moment of silence please…

Yeah – that’s me.  That’s so close to home some times that it hurts.  The irony of me ‘not wanting to be bored’ is that in actuality sometimes I spread myself a little thin.  How many times have I been on a gig where as I’m playing congas, I’d wish that I had more time to work on my conga chops.  Then the next night I’m complaining to myself that I need to work on my pan chops a bit more.  Then the next time I’m almost apologizing to the bass player to somehow make myself feel better for not playing drum kit more.  Is it just me being too hard on myself?  More than likely.  However, there’s a little legitimacy to it as well.  It’s just basic logic; the more you do, the less time you have to focus on one thing.  Let’s take Kenny G for example (wow he went there, didn’t he??!!?).  Love him or hate him, he picked ONE thing and focused intensely on it.  Now he’s playing celebrity golf tournaments and not worried about the next charts for the weekend wedding band.  Something to ponder, indeed.

I guess that this would be the point that you have to ask yourself exactly what is it that you want to do?  Do you want to stay busy? Or are you OK with maybe working a little less and just doing what you love the most?  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  I know some guys that feel this way.  They play one instrument very well and that’s all they do; that’s all they want to do.  Kudos to them; sometimes truly knowing who you are and being comfortable in your skin is what it’s all about.  Perhaps you’re like me and you’re just as comfortable trying to “do it all?”  Now you can see how this riddle really has no proper solution…

In spite of that, I say continue to do it all… I wouldn’t take anything back.  As time goes on I plan on trying to focus more intensely on steel pan.  But in the meantime, I’ll continue to try and be the best musician possible (notice I didn’t say percussionist).  If you’re a good or great musician for that matter, you’ll work – I guarantee it.  Be solid at what you do.  I take pride in the fact that when you do hire me for a gig, I’m going to come in and be professional and solid and in the pocket.  I take the negatives of “doing it all” with a grain of salt and keep moving forward.  That’s really the only viable solution that I see.

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3 Responses to "The Percussionist’s Dilemma: Do It All, or Focus on One “Strength?”"
  1. 12/01/2011 22:53

    Chris O'Hare

    Aw son you know I love you. Seriously, nice writing. But that thing you said about hats? Son I ain’t seen you in a hat since I worked with you at Pearl, and Kenny G – really? I thought them guys in SlipKnot ran over him. Actually I dated a woman once who asked me to take her to go see KG – that alone should’ve been all the hint I needed to do a 180 from ‘er, but sadly, it wasn’t. Bored me to tears that show did. Actually I loved reading this piece Chris – nice job. Peace, & God bless!

  2. 17/01/2011 07:59

    Travis Aldridge

    Kenny G walks into an elevator and says………………..this place rocks…

    Being well rounded is often the thing that makes the difference between a percussionist or any instrumentalist, and a musician. I just don’t see any downside to learning something new.

    You can be a great drummer and never learn anything about theory…..but at some point it is going to be frustrating for you or the people you are working with that you are unable to speak the language of music with them.

    • 23/01/2011 14:30

      admin

      Very well put! Sweet Kenny G joke too – they never get old!!! hahaha

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