Finding Your Musical Identity

Inspiration vs Saturation

This is going to show my age, but I remember a time when, as a very young boy learning to play the drums, one of my biggest treats was being allowed to stay up late and watch Buddy Rich on The Johnny Carson Show. It was so exciting and inspirational to get a glimpse of one of my idols; this was ramped up even further on those few occasions when I had the joy of seeing Buddy and his band live – truly a life-changing experience!

We now live in amazing times. Through the magic of the internet, we can access almost any information we want, whenever we want. In addition to streaming our favourite music or watching an inspirational performance on YouTube or elsewhere, we can also search for specific instructional content (much of it by iconic drummers) designed to help us take our playing to the next level. The reservoir of online content to be explored is like outer space; vast, endless and getting bigger every day.

While there are obvious benefits to having such quick and easy access to music and related content, there may also be some potential concerns or problems. Ironically, our 24-7 access to unlimited content (even if it is used for inspiration and learning) has the potential to fill us with a sense of unease. How do we begin the daunting task of curating this content to align with our creative and professional ambitions? Because it is so readily available, does content (however amazing) become so normalised that it loses its magic and ceases to inspire us in the same way? And finally, does the enormity of the information available have the potential to make you feel that you might be jumping from one topic to the next without fully
absorbing anything?

These are difficult questions to answer, and any response is purely subjective. However, as we recognise the potential problems that information overload can create, it’s possible that we might obtain the most success, satisfaction and clarity from our consumption and study of music when we have ascertained what our musical identity is (or will be)

Defining musical identity

While our quest to define our musical identity can help us to be more focused in our consumption of content, we also want to avoid being too simplistic or reductionist in our judgements. For many of us, the ‘self concept’ is constantly changing as we grow older, depending on where we live, the people we interact with, our connection and identification with the zeitgeist of our times (or other times) and many other factors. Similarly, we often evolve in our musical tastes and endeavours; what we are interested in and passionate about today may not be the same as it was 10 years ago. Things always change and we do not live indefinitely in creative stasis.

And yet, despite all of these considerations, we can usually see clear patterns emerge over time regarding how we engage with the creation, performance, listening and appreciation of music. These observations can help us (and others) to put some sort of label on the totality of our musical expression. For example, if we come back to the force of nature that was Buddy Rich, we know that his virtuosity was predominantly contextualised into the genre of jazz. Therefore, in addition to Buddy being one of the greatest drummers of all time, he is also (rightly or wrongly) labelled as a “jazz drummer”. And while there are limitations to this label and it doesn’t fully encompass his prodigious skills and achievements, it is not without merit or substance. Additionally, it conforms to a collective opinion.

Freedom in knowing

Therefore, if we can make an assessment of our own musical identity (which should be based not only on our convictions but in consultation with those who know us) and embrace this, it follows that we may be far more able to distil our focus towards music that can enhance our existing skills and ambitions. We can be more laser-focused towards the type of content that will keep us inspired and not overwhelmed. Admittedly, there is a tension here between the potential benefits we’ve just mentioned and closing yourself off unnecessarily to new ideas and influences. Regarding the latter, we should avoid becoming blinkered in our views and limiting our chances to explore new concepts that may enhance our musical identity. For example, Omar Hakim may not be thought of (or think of himself) as a “reggae drummer” in the same way as Carlton Barrett, who was an iconic drummer within the genre. However, Omar embraces reggae into his playing in ways that are congruent with his complex and multi-faceted musical identity, producing a stylised approach that is wonderful element of his identifiable sound.

Determining your musical identity

Unless you are an extremely rare human being (e.g. Vinnie Colaiuta), you will eventually specialise to some extent in your creative and professional musical activities. Just like the medical profession, it’s impossible to learn it all. Depending on the demands of a person’s health, an entire team of practitioners may be involved; nutritionists, oncologists, endocrinologists, surgeons, etc. All of these practitioners are crucial to restoring wellness to their patients, and therefore none can be ranked more highly than the other in their skills or knowledge.

The determination of your own musical identity is about looking at yourself honestly, embracing who you are, and knowing that it’s something to be celebrated. While not an exhaustive list, here are some things you might do or consider:

  • Pay close attention to your own ‘inner compass’ with regards to your musical interests, i.e. what do you gravitate towards with regards to listening, performing or creating?
  • Once you’ve determined the above, do a ‘deep-dive’ on the things that interest you. For example, absorb an entire album, not just individual tracks – see how this resonates with your musical universe.
  • Consult with your peers/colleagues/family/friends – what do they think you are characterised by?
  • What instruments do you own? How do you set up when you perform?
  • If you’re looking for musical inspiration, where do you go?


Without forgetting some of the potential risks, I believe a thoughtful attempt at defining our musical identity (which may evolve over time) has the potential to make us more comfortable with who we are as musicians and can increase our enjoyment and success. Though it might seem a vague and esoteric concept, be a patient observer of your inner life and where it leads you in your musical journey. Everyone’s path is different; there are no absolutes, and comparisons are usually not helpful. We all have something of value to offer to the world if we remember that music is a gift that enriches the soul and not an athletic competition


Mr. Goyle by Stefan Redtenbacher: Click the image to hear the song!

It could be argued that the unsung hero of any successful musical performance is the person (or persons) who have arranged the music. No matter how good a song or the performance is, its arrangement is critical to the listener fully connecting with it. With some bands, an arrangement is often a collaborative process, requiring countless hours in a rehearsal room jamming, experimenting, compromising, cajoling or even shouting! Patience and a thick skin are often required to come up with anything worthwhile, and in many cases it’s the one who has written the song (or who has the biggest mouth) that has the most influence.

But what happens when it simply isn’t possible, practical or viable to gather everyone in the room who will be performing the arrangement to comment on its content? Or the composer of the song can’t be consulted for whatever reason? At these times, you need a person who can sit quietly on their own and conceptualise an arrangement that optimises what an ensemble can offer – orchestration, harmony, dynamics, structure and many other factors are to be considered. It’s a huge responsibility that requires the vision of an artist, the strategic nous of general and (at times) the persuasiveness of good salesman. Good arrangers see the bigger picture and understand how to bring a song to life, giving it their own unique interpretation as they do so.

I’ve had the pleasure to play so many great arrangements over the years and sometimes (to my shame) I can take them for granted. A great arrangement will galvanise an otherwise disparate group of musicians into a unified force that produces something almost transcendent – it’s like a miracle when you think about it! For that reason, I wanted to take the time to focus on the work of two amazing arrangers who make these “mini-miracles” happen on a regular basis. They do this not by relying on their existing talent or resting on their previous accomplishments. Instead, they continue to push the envelope with a tenacious commitment to improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains.

Dan Bonsanti leading The 14 Jazz Orchestra

Dan Bonsanti is currently leading his own band The 14 Jazz Orchestra. His career has spanned five decades, beginning with The Atlantean Driftwood Band (which featured bass legend Jaco Pastorius). Dan went on to do further work with Jaco (and his collaborator Larry Warrilow) and was influenced by their method of using unusual combinations of instruments and avoiding (when possible) the traditional “section writing” often heard in large ensembles. That approach has been continually refined and crafted by Dan over the years and is now exemplified in his work with The 14. To that end, he says this:

One of the great advantages of recording one’s work is the opportunity to self-evaluate. I felt my arranging in the debut album was much too cluttered, overwritten. So one of goals for our second album, The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be, was to create more space while increasing the variety of colours and timbres. I’m continuing on that path with my current work, emphasizing more combinations of woodwinds and brass mutes, and continuing to use the guitar as an ensemble instrument. My experience with recording the debut album made the tune selection, recording, and mixing processes much easier and more efficient in planning things out in advance. The available data with regards to radio spins and streaming gave me an in-depth view of the band’s audience including which types of tunes attracted the greatest number of listeners. Since audiences were no longer purchasing CD’s, but preferring to stream individual songs, I abandoned the album concept of the past and chose to produce tracks individually, not thematically, for a wide assortment of both consistent and occasional jazz listeners. At the same time, I reserved a couple of tracks to arrange specifically for the purpose of self-growth.”

Stefan Redtenbacher

The second arranger I would like to mention with similar super-powers is Stefan Redtenbacher. In addition to being a world-class bass player, his work as a composer, arranger and bandleader is well-known. He has released a number of albums under his own name over the past 25 years that incorporate a wide variety of instrumentalists and vocalists, creating a sound that is often diverse but still uniquely his own. Of his own journey composing and arranging he says this:

 “Even though the bass is my main instrument, I wouldn’t consider my music to be ‘bass-centric’! Over time, my focus has been on different instruments and combinations. As I continue to grow as a writer/arranger I think I’m starting to get a better handle on the overall picture and can be more deliberate with the multitude of choices.

The musicians I’ve worked with have a large part to play as far as influence is concerned. Viewing the bass as a contextual instrument greatly affects what I’m going to do on bass and also what I am writing. When I’m writing for a specific ensemble I’m trying to write for the specific players – imagining what they would do with my ideas. The audience at a live venue also influences my writing; when there are musical moments to which the audience seems to have a particularly strong reaction, I may try to capture this in my writing. I often write new pieces after exciting concerts as I like to capture that energy.

What all of the latest Funkestra records (“Big Funk Band”, “The Hang”, “The String Sessions” and “The Masterlink Sessions”) have in common is that there is strong “branching out”’ occurring which includes even more varied collaborative work with musicians and artists from different genres, although all related.”

Mike Sturgis (Drums) and Mike Outram (Guitar) performing with Redtenbacher’s Funkestra

To summarise, what these two great musicians seem to have in common (and we can all learn from) is their unwavering commitment to the process of creating their work, acquiring the sort of atomic habits that enable them to make small but significant gains over a prolonged period of time. Their identity and habits have a reciprocal relationship that create a cycle of refinement and continuous improvement that produces work of the highest quality.

Looking forward to hearing more amazing music from both of these legends!

Life Lessons From Legends

Mike Sturgis

Ageing is unavoidable.

And when I say this, I don’t just mean the chronological passing of time relative to our own existence.  I mean the physical and mental changes that occur as we age; changes to our cognition, health, looks, strength, perspective, etc. It’s these changes (specifically those perceived as deterioration) that we can find difficult, unpleasant or even frightening. Our culture’s idolisation of youth with its inherent subtle pessimism about aging make it all the harder. Vanity and the desire to feel well often incentivises us to do whatever we can to mitigate the aging process. This may slip us into a resistance to the reality that the passing of time is unstoppable and make it difficult to experience our aging with acceptance. And yet, there are shining examples of people who show us how to do this with consummate professionalism, humour and dignity. I’ve had the good fortune of being in close proximity to two of them lately and I would like to share them with you now.

Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) is a true music legend and the original Soul Man. I had the privilege of performing with him recently as part of The Staks Band at the Cornbury Festival near Oxford, England. Sam is circa 83 years old and is a force of nature. He may not be busting the same moves he once did or even going for all of the jaw-dropping soulful high notes that he is so famous for, but his performance held thousands of people spellbound. Prior to the event, he took time out to rehearse with the band one afternoon where we were able to get to know him a bit. It was clear that his passion for music (and for songs he’s sung for 50+ years) was undiminished, often going into specific detail about how he wanted things to sound. He was a willing raconteur, generously sharing many a funny and fascinating story.

Sam Moore

On the same bill as us was The Beach Boys led by co-founding member Mike Love. If I’m not mistaken, Mike is 78 years old. I watched the entire set from out front with Mike leading an incredible band, playing hit after hit after hit. He was up there standing, moving, singing and being the de facto emcee for over an hour and a half. His musicality and showmanship were flawless, and without the slightest hint that he, like Sam, has been singing many of those songs for over half a century.

Mike Love

What have I learned from these living legends? I’ll try to sum it up here in a few points in no particular order.

Keep your sense of humour – Sam was cracking jokes all the time when we were with him and Mike had a wicked, dry sense of humour that he employed when introducing tunes or band members. Both of them kept me laughing!

Don’t stop moving – even at their advanced ages, both of these men came over from the US to do gigs in England. They are not just hunkering down and living off their royalties.

  • Stay energised – these two guys have literally seen and done it all but are still approaching their work with enthusiasm.
  • Extend to others – both of these men were fun to work with and be around as evidenced by their levels of interaction with people both on and off the stage.
  • Pay attention to detail – both men made sure that in musical sense the bands they worked with did things accurately and authentically. Each of their performances was characterised by the aggregation of marginal gains.

Sam and Mike have nothing to prove to anyone and their places in music history are assured. However, they are still out there giving performances that are inspirational and entertaining – long may it last!

Groove, Pocket and Feel

Mike Sturgis at British Grove Studios with the Stacks Band

The vernacular of a musician (or those discussing music) is sometimes a bit mysterious, weird, comedic or just generally inaccessible to the ‘layman’. On one hand, there are terms like accelerando or many others that are part of widely accepted musical lexicon that have clear, textbook definitions. But there are other words or phrases that are less conventional and are open to an element of interpretation, even amongst hipsters in the music community. With this in mind, I would like to take on a challenge that makes solving the debacle of Brexit seem lightweight in comparison; that is, to look at the frequently used terms of groove, pocket and feel and to try to understand their full meaning.

For example, how many times you have you heard someone say something like this:

“He/she has a killer groove.”

“Man, that’s grooving like mother*%\$@!”

“That guy/girl was so in the pocket.”

“He/she has an unbelievable feel.”

I’ll put it out there at this point that I believe there is some subjectivity involved in what is meant by these terms and I’m not sure that there actually are universally accepted definitions. However, the brief bit of research I’ve done suggests that there is some common thinking; in my quest to decode and demystify ‘groove language’ I’ve done some interesting reading and have also had the opportunity to ask some great musicians what they think.

To define all things relating to groove I went straight to someone who seems to have stood in line at least twice when it was being allocated by a Higher Power. Van Romaine is one of my favourite drummers and is widely known for recording and touring as a drummer and musical director with amazing artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Steve Morse, Nena and many others. Here’s his take on what these three terms mean:

“From my years of experience, groove and pocket are general terms for playing in time along with the other musicians and/or tracks. “Make sure you play in the groove” or “he/she has a great groove/pocket” would tend to mean the musician plays in time, for the song and doesn’t overplay. Feel, on the other hand (in my eyes) relates specifically to the one-of-a-kind stamp and personality of a musician’s groove or pocket. It’s a view into their soul as well, from my experience. While drummers Steve Jordan and Stewart Copeland both have an amazing groove and pocket, their feels are drastically different. Also, from what I see the musicians who focus on these three things tend to be the people playing on the most records and tours.”

Van Romaine

Van Romaine

Another heavyweight musician I’ve consulted, one who has a deep understanding these concepts from the perspective of someone outside of the rhythm section, is composer, arranger and lead trumpet extraordinaire Kevin Robinson (Simply Red, Incognito, Tom Jones). When asked about this subject, Kevin responded with the following:

“I think maybe with the exception of ‘groove’ there isn’t one single definition or easy explanation to what these terms actually mean. The reason I say this is because I think they mean different things to different people and can be applied to several situations, which also means they are all intrinsically part of the same fabric of music production.”

“Groove for example can be straightforwardly defined as a rhythmic pattern, be it sourced entirely from a percussive instrument (e.g. drums) or as a collective entity, the result of several musicians all playing together.”

“That being said, it’s still not a simple case of a rhythmic/chordal pattern being played ‘in time’…there are subtleties of execution involved that link ‘groove’ to feel…e.g. a simple slight displacement of part of the rhythm that takes it away from the metronome that will result in the music being played ‘loosely’- but it can still groove.”

“Pocket is a little more difficult for me to define because for me it is based almost entirely on feeling…also, I think that tempo plays a very important role in determining pocket…certain songs, grooves etc work best at certain tempos, causing them to sit ‘in the pocket’. Of course, individuals can also be attributed as playing ‘in the pocket’ and it’s obvious when they’re not. So basically, there is a lot of subjectivity involved largely based on skill, experience and emotional maturity.”

Kevin Robinson

Kevin Robinson

Neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin is the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, a book which analyses how our brains interpret music and the subsequent neural impulses that result when listening to it. When Levitin talks about groove in his book, he aligns with Van and Kevin but also blurs a little bit into that loosely defined area of ‘feel’:

“Groove has to do with a particular performer or particular performance, not with what is written on paper. Groove can be a subtle aspect of performance that comes and goes from one day to another, even with the same group of musicians.

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machine-like. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines, the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.”

Daniel Levitin

Daniel Levitin

Hearing from these experts has been helpful for me, and I’m pleased to say that my own thinking on this subject is fairly aligned with their opinions. For me, the terms ‘groove’ (when used as a noun) and ‘pocket’ are usually referring to the quality and consistency of someone’s timekeeping (both as an individual and/or in the context of an ensemble) and are virtually interchangeable in their usage. Therefore, we can say, “They have a great groove/pocket” and be fairly confident that this refers to their ability to play in time, both on their own and with others. However, a great groove/pocket can also be a collective experience (or ‘entity’, as Kevin Robinson suggested) that is created from an ensemble, usually from individual musicians who all have this quality in abundance. Strangely, we often use the term ‘groove’ as a verb but never so with ‘pocket’ (e.g. “Man, that was really pocketing!”)

That brings me to ‘feel’, which as described above seems to be an even larger concept than groove or pocket, although I still believe the terms are inextricably linked. When we talk about someone’s feel, it’s almost like we are using one small word to encapsulate the totality of their playing. While there may be more, here’s a few of the areas that I believe comprise a musician’s feel:

  • Timing (hence the overlap with groove and pocket)
  • Execution (the level of technique and the ability to actually play what is required, with pin-point accuracy not necessarily being better depending on the genre)
  • Dynamics (as appropriate for the chosen genre)
  • Content (the ability to play appropriately as each musical context requires)
  • Sound/Timbre (which includes tuning)
  • Intuition (the ability to respond appropriately to the music and other musicians)

I’ve just come up with DISCET as a mnemonic but I’m sure that there must be a better one!

There has been a lot more written on this subject that you can check out if you’re interested. As a starting point, I would like to recommend the following:

What is groove? (Ethan Hein)

Playing in the Pocket (Dave Martin)

Push, Drag and Center: What is Playing in the Pocket, Anyway? (Mike Emiliani)

Thinking and Intuition

One of the things that constantly inspires me as I work in the UK Higher Education sector is remembering my own student experience at the University of Miami, which is now unbelievably (to me, anyway) over 30 years ago. Even though so many years have passed, I still feel the benefits of my time there. This is due not only to the things I experienced and learned while I was a student but also in the rich friendships I have been able to maintain with former classmates and teachers over the years. It’s great to see how many of them have carved out incredible careers in the music industry and it’s a privilege to be part of this very special community.

Four years at UM taught me a lot and provided me with some essential tools to follow my dreams and ambitions.  And while sometimes it’s hard to remember some of the specifics of all of the information I took in, there are two seemingly contradictory pithy maxims that have been virtually tattooed in my grey matter. They have helped me through many different personal and professional scenarios when I’ve had the wisdom to apply them as the situation demands. And because you’re taking the time to read this, I would like to share them with you now in the hopes that they will enrich your life.

Are you ready? Drum roll, please – here’s the distillation of my four years of degree studies:

Pithy maxim #1 – THINK, DON’T STINK!

Pithy maxim #2 – JUST PLAY, MAN!

N.B. Despite the use of ‘man’ this phrase is meant to be gender-neutral!

I’ll explain more about these one by one:

Think, Don’t Stink (TDS) was a mantra I heard countless times in my rehearsals with UM’s Concert Jazz Band by director Whit Sidener. Whit was an inspirational and formidable band leader who made the guy in the movie Whiplash look wimpish in comparison! His main reason for invoking TDS was usually for anyone who was making errors in their chart reading. Bear in mind that these charts were usually 3-4 page handwritten epics that might contain a wide range of dynamics, rhythmic figures, styles, time signature changes and a fairly complicated ‘road map’. Whit knew that just being creative and technically proficient on your instrument wasn’t enough; you needed to be fully focused on the notation at all times and not let your concentration wander. Otherwise, no matter how good of a player you were, mistakes would happen in these complex arrangements. Therefore, thinking (and the ability to bring your concentration back to the task at hand) in this context was critical.

Conversely, Just Play, Man (JPM) was an additional theme in CJB rehearsals and also an admonition that I heard more frequently from other great teachers at UM including Steve Rucker, Dan Bonsanti and Ron Miller to name just a few. JPM encouraged you to not overthink music but to become totally immersed in it and trust your intuition. For example, if you become too fixated on the minutiae of your technique during a performance, this ‘overthinking’ might make the overall quality of the music suffer. Sometimes in music or sport you might hear an outstanding performance described as someone playing ‘out of their mind’. In other words, there were aspects of the performance that went beyond thought; the activity itself became one that flowed intuitively and was not limited by mechanistic cognition. And so that was the goal; to play and communicate music in an almost Zen-like state that was on another level of consciousness.

I believe TDS and JPM are parallel truths that must be applied in equal measure in a performance and the best musicians are able to do this. Without question, a good musical performance requires focus and concentration; equally, it’s often when we are able to go beyond mere thinking and channel our intuitive creative energy into a ‘flow’ activity that the moments of magic occur. I wish you well with discovering and maintaining the balance between these two mindsets in your music and in other areas of your life where they might apply – the possibilities are endless.

Tiger’s Performance Mentality

I’m not a golfer, but like millions of others I was totally engrossed in the final day of the 2019 Masters tournament. It was an amazing thing to see Tiger Woods emerge victorious, a feat now widely regarded as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sport. As he was being interviewed in Augusta’s Butler Cabin directly after winning, I expected Tiger to talk extensively about his strategic approach for the final round and how he would need to play his “A-game” to win. Instead, he said this:

“I was just trying to plod my way around the golf course all day; just plod my way around…”(0.29)

I wouldn’t usually describe the talent, power and determination of Tiger Woods as “plodding”. When I think of plodding, it usually conjures up images of fatigue, lethargy, apathy or even incompetence.

In fact, a quick look at for plod (verb) gave me the following definition:

  • to walk heavily or move laboriously; trudge:to plod under the weight of a burden.
  • to proceed in a tediously slow manner: The play just plodded along in the second act.
  • to work with constant and monotonous perseverance; drudge.

If you saw the round, it was clear that Tiger was not trudging or moving laboriously, though one could certainly argue that he had constant and monotonous perseverance. However, I believe the “Tiger-plod” is actually more than that.

To be succinct, it is about being fully present with the process. He managed to stay completely in the moment throughout the round and was not distracted by what others were doing or what the eventual outcome would be. His round became its own universe, having nothing to do with his own expectations or those of others. Instead, his focus was on each step, each swing, each putt. Regardless of how good or bad each one was, there was no inner celebration, self-criticism or judgement. Instead, there was only acceptance of each moment as it unfolded. The only time when he may have been thinking ahead was when it was necessary to plan the next shot. By being in this Zen-like mindset, he was able to alleviate some (probably not all) of the pressure of the occasion and create a relaxed, inner stillness that made him feel like he was not working excessively hard either physically or mentally; only plodding.

In a fascinating interview where he discusses the 2019 Premiership title race, renowned sports psychologist Professor Steve Peters makes some observations that align well with Tiger’s plod mentality. He says this:

“For most people in sports psychology, we’d advise that you actually focus on just the process of what you are doing rather than an outcome and whether you are going to win or lose.

“That is the ideal because your maximum chance of getting somewhere is to just focus on the process and not the consequences.”

This mentality can be applied to many things, but one area where it has a direct parallel is in mitigating the potential anxiety of a musical performance. Making the assumption that you are fully prepared for the music you’re playing in a technical sense (which is of course essential), it’s often our “mental static” that can get in the way of performing at our highest level. We sometimes place huge expectations on ourselves, worry about what others might think and receive a battering from what can be the harshest and most destructive voice of all, the inner critic. We perhaps could alleviate much of this by not thinking too far ahead and staying completely in the moment of our performances, focusing on the process and not the outcome. In this way, we may see more of our inner Tiger emerge and have performances that are less anxious and are more consistent in producing our optimum level.

A Music Degree – Really?

Are music degrees worth the time, effort and money? It’s a big question that there is no definitive answer for but certainly provides a big platform for discussion and debate.

For me, undertaking a music degree was no less of a conundrum when I was studying 30 years ago than it is for many now. I had been playing music constantly since age 10 and was in no doubt that it was where my heart was; however, being a young pragmatist from a small town in the midwestern US I made a ‘head over heart’ decision and felt it was far better to obtain a ‘safe’ degree in business administration than to hurl myself into the mysterious and precarious wilderness known as the music industry. Eventually, I gathered enough courage to switch my major to music and also managed to get the opportunity to do this at the University of Miami. This pivotal decision changed my life and has subsequently provided me with countless experiences that have been hugely rewarding and fulfilling, all of which I would have missed had I not undertaken a music degree. Now working in higher education with DIME ONLINE, it’s been a privilege to be able to help students who are in the same situation that I was make that important decision as to whether a music degree is the right thing for them.

Ultimately, I studied music because I was compelled to – it literally floats my proverbial boat! While studying, I only thought of my degree in relation to how it prepared me for life as a music professional. And while it did this in ways that I couldn’t have done on my own due to the incredible learning experience I had there, I did not foresee that the wider skills I was developing (in addition to subject-specific skills) were preparing me for my parallel career in music education and other working.

The concept of a ‘portfolio career’ for a musician is not new – these days most musicians go into their professional life knowing that they will need to be versatile and bring together a number of different income streams to make a living. These activities may be directly related to their specialism or may see them branching off into potentially unforeseen areas. And because musicians are creative people with a real passion for learning, it is the transferable skills that they acquire (almost under the radar) that can prepare them for many opportunities in life.

And what might these additional skills/superpowers be? Well, anyone working in a music ensemble needs to learn about communication and be good at it – preferably with a blend of diplomacy and assertiveness as the situation requires. Most of all, being someone who can self-manage – you must be very wise with your time/activities and be reliable when you are called to be somewhere and/or do something. Understanding teamwork and the subtle dynamics of this is crucial, in addition to your capacity and willingness to take on additional areas of responsibility when needed, even if they fall out of your comfort zone. The ability to work with people, manage a potential wide range of opinions (some very emotional) with equanimity and be a good listener are all skills that employers and co-workers will value highly. On balance, a music degree offers challenges that are both creative and academic, requiring you to be organised and methodical in your working but also able to be expressive and innovative – a unique proposition that facilitates holistic learning and thinking.

Perhaps the biggest reason to embark on a music degree is the idea that you should choose an area of study that you truly love. If you are truly passionate about music, then don’t underestimate or undervalue a music degree. Do the thing that makes your heart beat faster and see it (and the possibilities it may create for you) in its broadest context; it’s far better to do this and get a good degree than to do something that you feel is a more conventional/employable option and do it half-heartedly. Additionally, I advise finding a school that prioritises ‘real-world’ working in the industry as well as the option of more esoteric creative projects. The staff should strongly reflect this ethos and be working professionals with significant (and ongoing) experience as music professionals. Inextricably linked with this is the curriculum, which should prepare students in practical ways for a myriad of professional opportunities and maintains currency with the industry.

I wish you well in your journey!

Conquering the Russian Dragon



After playing drums for over 40 years, I would like to give you what is ultimately my most important piece of advice distilled into one pithy statement. Here it is.


You must keep good time, and keeping good time is difficult.


Yep, from my point of view, that’s pretty much what it boils down to. This is probably true for most if not all musicians, but for a drummer it is non-negotiable. If you can’t play in time, nothing will really sound good, even if there are many other positive attributes to your playing. And unless you run your own band, you’re unlikely to be doing many gigs as other musicians are relying on you to be the expert when it comes to accurate timekeeping.

We must face the Russian Dragon (referring to our propensity to be either rushing or dragging!) squarely in the eye and emerge victorious. This is not easy, and the degree of difficulty can depend on a variety of factors. These include, but are not limited to:


  1. Tempo
  2. Style
  3. Dynamics
  4. Other musicians
  5. Transitions
  6. Fills
  7. Fatigue
  8. Technique
  9. Equipment
  10. Concentration

For example, you timekeeping may be solid and consistent at medium tempos like 100-120 bpm, but playing something really slow (40-60 bpm) may become much more difficult. This is due to the vast space between the notes creating much room for error. Conversely, you may be playing a fast tempo, but your technique may be inadequate and eventually you start slowing down (dragging). Or maybe you’re just tired, and having trouble focusing – your capacity to remain consistent and accurately monitor, assess and correct errors in your playing can be affected. The opposite of that is being ‘pumped up’, and your adrenaline is racing – when this happens, you have a tendency to play things much faster.

When you really start to think about all the factors that can undermine your capacity to keep good time, the task can seem pretty daunting. If this is a problem for you, I would like to suggest a few ways you can increase your consistency (and although I’m predominantly speaking to drummers here, this applies to other musicians too).

Get the most out of your metronome.

This might include changing how you ‘hear’ the click. For example, you might just have the click on beats one and three, or two and four. Or maybe just the first beat of the bar. You may even want to move away from the downbeat completely, and perceive the click on the ‘and’ of each beat, or even the 2nd or 4th partial of the beat (assuming 16th note subdivision). There’s lot’s of different things you can try that will challenge your timekeeping and enable you to strengthen the inner clock.


Record yourself, and map this against the metronome.

If you have a metronome with a tap feature, you can tap with the recording and find out the tempo. Let the metronome run at this tempo across the recording and note where things may be speeding up or slowing down.

Take time in rehearsal to play with the metronome.

This could be through the PA if you want everyone to hear, or just in the drummer’s headphones if appropriate. By playing with the metronome, you’ll hear immediately where the tempo varies and you’ll begin to form a clear image of all the sections of the song being played in time. When you take the metronome away, you’ll be used to how it feels and be in a much better position to keep things consistent.

Learn to hear (and sing) subdivisions

This is particularly valuable at slower tempos. If you are only thinking about each downbeat, there is a relatively large gap between each of these that creates plenty of room for error. However, if you start to internalize eighth notes or even sixteenth notes, you’ve chopped up each beat into smaller components that are easier to deal with. Conversely, faster tempos can be made to feel much more relaxed if you don’t focus on subdivision – it may be more manageable to think of the tempo in half time. If you are ‘hearing’ these subdivisions in your head that’s great, but being able to ‘sing’ them (even if very quietly) can be a fantastic way of reinforcing the time. Also, many metronomes have the capacity to play the subdivisions of each beat, like 16th notes or 1/8th note triplets. Introducing a fuller representation of the subdivisions can really help refine your timing.

For a more detailed look at these concepts, I really recommend Billy Ward’s Big Time DVD. He talks about these concepts in detail, and also provides lots of other useful tips. I wish you well with you battle against the Russian Dragon – keep fighting the good fight!

Weather Report


Call me reductionist or judgmental, but I tend to inwardly wince when someone tells me about a ‘fusion’ (jazz) recording they are checking out and how killing the playing is. My first thought is that it is probably a sad, self-indulgent effort in musical masturbation performed by a group of talented but condescending musos who wouldn’t really know a good groove if it hit them between the eyes. Does that sound a little cynical?


Well, I have a little confession to make. Against the odds, I’m turning my ear again to music that would probably have the ‘fusion’ label. Specifically, I’m rediscovering a band that was a big musical influence on me in my formative years – Weather Report. Their music defies description – is it jazz, fusion, ‘world music’ (a description that in itself is inherently flawed) or something else?


If you were trying to create instrumental music that had no limits (stylistically, harmonically, rhythmically, etc) you could do worse than starting with the formidable partnership of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Both are unbelievable musicians – technically brilliant, amazing improvisers and legendary composers. Add to that the influence of Miles Davis, and you have a perfect blend of components to create an approach to music that hadn’t been done before and in many respects hasn’t been equaled since.


The personnel that have been in the band over the years are literally ridiculous. And like Miles Davis (or a good football manager) the band members changed periodically to accommodate and/or reinvigorate the direction of the music.

For this and other reasons, the music of Weather Report has a timeless quality; it almost impossible to overstate its depth, in both the compositional and the performance aspects.



If you’re new to the band, you might want to start with Heavy Weather, which features the band’s ‘hit’ Birdland. However, the album has much more to offer than that – for example, I’m moved every time I hear A Remark You Made, which for me is one of the most beautiful tunes every written.



And, if you’re looking for a current band that is following in the footsteps of these legends, try listening to Snarky Puppy, specifically their Tell Your Friends CD. Absolutely stunning musicianship combined with compositions that are fresh, intrepid and endlessly creative. Or check out the music of Janek Gwidala ( who is fast becoming one of the leading lights on the jazz scene today.


Changes, challenges and new opportunities

Hey, where did 2012 go? It seemed to fly by, partly because there seemed to be so much going on (the phrase ‘never a dull moment’ springs to mind). Some of the personal highlights for me (in no particular order) were as follows:

  • Lots of gigs with Redtenbacher’s Funkestra (the most we’ve done in one year)
  • Gigs with The Staxs that have featured Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce, the latter being the loudest bass player I’ve worked with by a country mile!
  • Forming with long time friend and colleague Ian Edwards
  • Giving several masterclasses and lots of private lessons
  • Filming several tuition videos
  • A fantastic trip back to Wisconsin to reconnect with family and old friends
  • Joining the staff of The Institute ( as a programme leader
  • A trip to Seoul, South Korea with The Institute (doing several gigs and masterclasses)
  • A positive resolution to a stressful legal battle
  • A definite increase in my knowledge and involvement with social media (although that really isn’t saying much!)

With a couple of exceptions, most of the things on this list are things that I never would have expected to happen when the year started. It just goes to show you that life can change quickly and unexpectedly, but if you stay focused and open to new possibilities then amazing things can happen. I feel one of the big challenges for me now is not to say ‘yes’ to more things than I can do effectively. Being fully present and at ease with each thing that you do is vital in order to do it with quality and integrity. It’s a difficult balance to reach, and often I don’t know where the line is until I’ve crossed it – which seems to be fairly regularly.  However, I feel lucky to have a few choices – roll on 2013.