Playing without Ego
“Okay, I’ll listen to the recording of your songs, but under the following condition: I’m going to be completely honest about what I hear and what I think about it. If you are looking for someone to stroke your ego or only tell you how good your music is, you might want to consider whether you really want me to listen to your songs or not,” the artist I played drums for was saying to a fan who had asked for feedback and advice about the prospects of pursuing a musical career. As a national recording artist who’d had chart-topping songs, my friend sometimes fielded requests like this. But it was his next kind words to the young, aspiring artist that have stuck in my memory for years, “No matter what I have to say about your music after I listen, I want to encourage you now— not everyone is destined to have a national audience, but don’t let that discourage you. Find YOUR audience and perform for them. It might be national—or local or regional, or even just an extension of your current circle of friends, but YOU have something to share. So I’d encourage you— start where you are to find your audience and give them the best your gifts and talents can offer.”
From the Spotlight
If I learned 1 essential thing playing behind this exceptionally talented and honest singer/songwriter, night after night: it wouldn’t matter whether we played to an audience of 20 people, 200 people, 2,000 people, or 20,000 people—without ego, his commitment to the songs, to giving a dynamic, inspired, and heartfelt performance would always be the same. Regardless of the size of the audience he found himself in front of, and regardless of their response, he always gave each song the performance that it deserved—bringing the best of his voice, his enthusiasm, and his passion. In the years since our tours together, my friend gained an even wider audience. I believe it is not just his talent but the spirit he brings to the delivery of songs that is his gift, and as the proverb says, “A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before great men.”
From the Shadows
More recently, I went to a concert where one of my favorite drummers happened to be playing, and a most exceptional thing happened: I forgot about him. I always watch drummers during concerts, but this evening I found myself enjoying the songs, the artist, the performance of the band, background vocalists, keyboards and guitarists, the beautiful arrangements, paying attention to everyone in turn, until at one point there came the perfect moment for the drums to fill. Well, not just to fill— but to take over. And—Oh My Goodness, did the drummer deliver! I knew he was good, but I didn’t have a clue he had chops like that!
In that moment, I realized that the real grace of this musician’s talent was not in the licks he could play, but in his commitment to give each song just what it called for. In retrospect, he’d been creating space for the other players to shine all night, giving the songs an uncluttered rhythmic drive, himself leading the dynamic momentum, and establishing a groove for the whole crowd with precise reliability. The audience had swayed to his steady beats and sang along with the words and all the familiar riffs they knew from recordings. In essence, he gave the songs–and his audience, exactly what they needed. When a song begged to whisper, he whispered with it. When a song needed to explode, he detonated the beat right on time. He knew how to be transparent. And when it was his time to shine, he was ready for that, too. This is playing without ego. Like my gifted friend from the spotlight, this too is simply giving each song the performance it deserves.
From Your Stage
Now of course, some songs are custom-made to feature their players’ abilities. Indeed, some bands are built around technical showmanship—and I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with a sheer display of talent. It’s entertaining! If that’s what your gift is and what your audience expects from you, bring it! But most often, we drummers find ourselves in the supportive role of a sideman, servants to the song itself, and a collaborative team-player. The view from the spotlight is the same as it is from the back of the stage—skill and tastefulness, and dedication to the performance show themselves from both locations. Whether it means inconspicuously laying down the most simple beat, or when called for, stepping to the forefront and cooking up a ‘special sauce’ that will define a song’s rhythmic hook, you’ll find your own audience by doing your best to give each song just what it needs—the performance the song deserves.
by Ric Simenson