Last week, I celebrated 19 years of living and working in Atlanta, Georgia. For me to simply state that “Moving to Atlanta was a great choice” is probably a gross understatement. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some great musicians, both live and in the studio. So many of them have been genuinely encouraging and, they continue to inspire me to always do my best work. [Thank you all, BTW!] So, to celebrate my 19 years in Atlanta AND having my best career year to-date, I decided to buy a snare drum… but not just any snare drum.
In 1996, about 6 or 8 months after settling in Atlanta, I went into the studio for my very first “Big City” recording session. Sadly, although I owned some great cymbals and a decent drum set, I only possessed two snare drums and honestly, they both sucked. I think one was a 6.5” x 14” Pearl Export steel snare drum (which came with the very first drum set I ever owned) and the other was an old Premier 5” x 14” steel snare drum from the 70’s (total garage sale fodder). Luckily, Craig (my roommate at the time) had a couple of really good snares that he was more-than-happy to let me borrow for the day in exchange for a case of beer.
Now, anybody that truly knows me at all also knows that, since I was a teenager, Vinnie Colaiuta has been my favorite drummer. I used to play his Zildjian-branded signature drumsticks and purchased every album that I could find on which Vinnie had played drums. While other teenage guys had posters of Morgan Fairchild or Heather Locklear on their bedroom walls, I had a few posters of Vinnie in my room, and yes, I often wore one of those Zildjian drumsticks t-shirts with Vin’s face emblazoned on the front. [Stop laughing. If you’re a drummer over the age of 34, you probably did too.] One might say that I had a severe “Dude Crush” on Vinnie and that hero worship was a regular pastime for me. But especially at that young age, having heroes that one looks up to for inspiration is incredibly important. In these formative stages of life, the people we select for our internal pedestals have a huge bearing on the specific course that each of our lives eventually take.
Looking back on it now, spying that Yamaha / Vinnie Colaiuta Signature snare drum in my then-roommate Craig’s collection was pure providence. There was no other choice for me for this upcoming studio session. So, a 24-year old Brian went in and recorded his first Big City recording session armed with one of the world’s most coveted snare drums. In preparation to write this article, I listened back to that 1996 CD today. My drumming on those recordings is marginal at best, but that drum… oh, that drum sounds like a Million bucks.
Eventually, Craig moved out and took that coveted drum with him, never to be seen again. For the next 18+ years, I have wanted one of those Vinnie Colaiuta snare drums almost as much as I wanted to take my next breath. Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool “Gretsch guy”, that Vinnie snare drum has long since held the top spot on my list of Must Have’s. In the years following that particular recording session, I have only seen two or three of these snare drums that were both: 1) in excellent condition and 2) for sale. As fate would have it, I was completely broke every single time. There wasn’t even a remote possibility of buying my own Vinnie snare… until now.
I woke up sometime during the first week of September 2014 thinking about the upcoming anniversary of my migration to Atlanta. I began reviewing my 19 year-long progress, looked forward to my list of future plans, and was trying to think of some way to bookmark this exact moment in time. I had been saving up a little Mad Money from my more recent recording sessions and thought, as a start, I should try my luck with a quick search online. About 7.5 seconds later, I was staring at an auction for the one piece of drum equipment that I have wanted above all else for almost 20 years. In front of my eyes was a Yamaha Vinnie Colaiuta Signature snare in excellent condition! The description said that this specific drum “was used in the studio only and is like a brand new drum, even though it is 20-years old”.
I think it took me another 3.5 seconds to enter the very first bid for this drum. My mind didn’t have to ponder this decision at all. Now, all I had to do was wait to see if I had won the object of my long-standing desire… for seven very long, torturous days. I think Vinnie would be quite amused to know that I then waited anxiously to the tune of that perfect, mental soundtrack supplied by one of the coolest Sting song’s ever. [“Seven Days”, for you uninformed few, is a song on which Vinnie played drums.] Looking back now, it does seem rather cinematic… but I digress
Even though my first bid was for only a few hundred dollars, in my mind, I had already decided to pay whatever price that was required to own this particular Vinnie snare drum. I don’t know if it was those pictures that had been posted in the auction listing, or the fact that I was currently caught up on all my household bills, or the thought that I had actually worked hard enough to sock away a significant surplus of cash, but I was determined that this snare drum, the one that I was now staring fervently at, was already on its way to my house. I already knew it and soon, all those other guys bidding for the same prize would know this outcome as well.
While we’re waiting for this auction to end, let me digress into a parallel story. I said earlier that, as a kid, heroes are important to our growth and development. I also believe that heroes are important to us as adults for very similar reasons. As kids, we idolize certain people and imagine ourselves as those folks, doing what they do, seeing what they see. As a teen, I surrounded myself with the music and the other assorted trappings of many of my drum heroes, Vinnie Colaiuta being the biggest one. I now believe those were a driving force behind building the life and career I have now. I have yet to learn to play drums as well as my heroes, but their fingerprints are all over my life and musical faculties. As adults, we tend to abandon hero worship, but I believe that we should not let go of this practice. We should, instead, shape that energy into something more useful and pragmatic.
All too often, individuals building a career as creative professionals are guilty of trying to completely “reinvent the wheel”. In planning their career paths and making decisions about their futures, creative people put a lot of undue pressure on themselves to create something that doesn’t yet exist as if conjuring a material object from some formless ether. They spend (and worse, waste) large amounts of time and energy trying to synthesize outcomes or create tangible results that are completely original or without equal. But as creative humans, we are formed and shaped by things that are anything but original. We speak a language that existed before we first uttered its sounds. We learn skills that are rooted in principles which were in place long before we took interest in them. We are informed by the context of the creative work that others have already completed and left for us to appreciate, dissect, and/or study.
In that sense, nothing is ever truly original. If it were, our human minds would not have the context or informed point of view to understand it. Many times, the general public will reject new art or other creative endeavors simply because it lacks the sense of context that something familiar provides… I could talk for hours on that topic, but for now, let’s stay focused on this one.
In putting together a direction for my own career development or musical growth, I often use what used to be thought of as “hero worship” as a guide for constructing my plans and strategies. In doing so, I use the examples of successful people who came before me as a template or blueprint for my own endeavors. By combining the blueprints of a select handful of successful creative artists and businesspeople, sifting out the most salient, applicable points that resonate with me, and reassembling those puzzle pieces into a picture that makes sense for my own career, I find that I am able to begin constructing steps and actions that are rooted in tried and true methodology. This all then becomes the framework onto which I start crafting and pinning my own creative ideas. In doing this for more than 20 years, I have found that many of my creative ideas and far more of my business decisions turn out successful. My batting average is far from flawless but I have gotten “on base” far more times that I have “stuck out swinging”.
In more recent years, one of my musician templates has been an LA-based drummer named Russ Miller. I have been a long-time fan of Russ’s recorded work, an admirer of his educational endeavors, and an owner of several products that he has created (including Yamaha’s SubKick bass drum “microphone”). With the help of a couple of local drummer friends, I spent some time a few years ago dissecting Russ’ career trajectory and have used a lot of what I learned in crafting the specifics of my career plans for the next 5-10 years. Though the specifics of my plans are very different from what you will find in Russ’s history, many of the general qualities and earmarks of his past work are a part of my own current career blueprint.
To further extend this case study, almost 8 weeks ago, I took the natural “Next Step” of enrolling in Russ’s new online video instruction and mentoring program (which can be found at www.DrumAndPercussionUniversity.com). I am happy to report that those video lessons are terrific. The information in the 50+ hours of instructional videos that I’ve already downloaded and sifted thorough contain the kind of practical knowledge that every drummer needs to learn to become a high skilled, musically centered professional musician. I would recommend this course to any drummer, no matter what his or her level technical skill or tangible career success.
This process of “Templating” has been an incredible tool in my personal musical growth and professional business development. Over the past 20+ years, it has generated all sorts of supercharged, kinetic energy that, in turn, bring interesting situations and lucrative opportunities directly to my doorstep. As you are about to see, this in-depth examination of exceptional professionals like Russ Miller is also a great catalyst for some unique and happy “accidents”.
So, fast-forward seven days and you will find me entering a final bid in the auction for that Vinnie Colaiuta Signature snare drum. With less than 120 seconds left on the clock, I am contemplating the outcomes of hitting “ENTER” on a bid that is almost three times that of my initial offering. Thoughts like, “Am I making the right decision?”, “I could buy several other items with this amount of money.”, “Am I going to regret this purchase tomorrow?”, and (my personal favorite directly from my harshest internal critic) “You already have 40 snare drums in the other room. Is this one drum really all that important?!” are just a few of the things darting through my mind. With 45 seconds left in the auction, I take a deep breath and pound the computer keyboard’s ENTER button with enough force to keep me from changing my mind in mid-push…. then, I wait the longest 42 seconds of my 42-year-old life.
I have never been so relieved to see the words “You Won!” flash up onto my computer screen. But, that’s not the end of the story… not by a long shot.
Wishing to ‘seal this deal’ and move on with my life, I immediately paid for the snare drum and switched over to my email window for some sense of emotional closure about this impersonal transaction. What comes next was the kind of reaffirming coincidence that always lets me know when I have just made the “right” decision. I looked at the receipt for my snare purchase and, at the top, read the name “Russell Miller, Jr.” along with his Chatsworth, CA address. Seeing Russ’s email address (which I was already familiar with from purchasing those aforementioned video lessons) confirmed that I had bought this coveted snare drum from the same in-demand drummer, music educator, and drum product developer whose career I had been dissecting and studying for years. My satisfaction that came from the fulfillment of a 20 year-long desire had just doubled!
Now, I will openly admit that the Fan Boy in me came out for a brief moment as I then decided to send Russ a quick email about this whole transaction. [And no, I didn’t send him anything close to the 2800 word diatribe that you’re reading now. Just a brief note… 4 paragraphs at best.]
Ten days later, I am standing in my studio over the box containing this snare drum that has been so desirable to me, yet so unattainable, for so long. You would think that this story couldn’t get any better until I opened that box. Sitting on top of the snare drum was a handwritten note from Russ Miller himself along with a copy of his last CD, entitled “The Arrival”! [I think I had a frame and a spot on my office wall all picked out for that note even before I actually read it.] It would be embarrassing to fully describe the Victory Dance that I then did in the middle of my studio’s Control Room… so I won’t.
Let me say here publically that there is a reason, beyond being a great and gifted musician, that guys like Russ Miller rise to a Top Shelf status in this business. He didn’t have to put that extra little touch into this transaction. Russ could have simply replied to my email with a simple “That’s cool” or, like many incredibly busy people, he could have done absolutely nothing at all. The black and white part of transaction had been completed: I purchased the snare drum. Russ was only required to pack the drum up and send it to me. Everything that happened after the “business part” of this transaction just speaks to the quality and intentions of both people involved in this particular transaction.
Unlike many other industries, the Music Business is not just a 1-for-1, cut-and-dried exchange sort of business. The “real” music industry is a business of people, personalities, and the nurturing of relationships between everyday, hard working human beings. I am sure that this extra little touch of a simple, handwritten note is the sort of gesture that Russ Miller does for many of the people that he comes in contact with on a daily basis. In my own career, I know I most certainly try to do the same sort of thing for all of those people that I come in contact with. In being mentored virtually through this method of “Templating” that I use, this is the kind of intrinsically motivated quality presents itself organically when you are looking beyond the more obvious signposts.
I understand that we all get busy. We all juggle a thousand thoughts at once. We all exhaust ourselves with multi-tasking, networking, and To-Do lists. But, while inside the swirl of your everyday life, you should never forget the power that comes from slowing down long enough to put your own personal stamp on every single interaction that happens in the course of your day. A thoughtful added touch is the very thing that turns a simple purchase or transaction into an experience. It becomes the sort of thing that the recipient will probably remember for a lifetime […or at the very least, write an 2800 word essay about].
So, to wrap this all up with a nice, tidy bow: Russ Miller, thank you for an amazing exchange! I learned a lot about the way you do business through it. And thanks to everyone who rings my phone or writes an email that eventually sends real-world, paying work to my doorstep. Ultimately, your patronage and support make situations and stories like this one possible. It brings an enrichment to my life that goes beyond words!