Photo by Miguel Monroy
Photo by Miguel Monroy


Focus on Elimination

The Key to Success

by Russ Miller

Here’s one of the topics I get asked about frequently by other players. It probably stems from my work in pressure situations. From sight-reading live on TV on American Idol to reading multi-page charts with an orchestra on a movie session, my ability to focus on the task at hand can be the difference between success and failure.

This month’s quote, by the African leadership coach Israelmore Ayivor, sums up the key to focusing. Elimination is paramount. You must eliminate what is not absolutely necessary at a given point in time. This can be used in a few different ways when it comes to our circumstances as musicians. It’s relevant in removing pressure and calming yourself. It’s also used to refine and focus the direction of your playing.

The Pressure Cooker

First let’s talk about the most obvious use of focus: to help ourselves get through a pressure-filled situation. Everybody experiences a measure of stage fright or performance anxiety. It’s just a matter of how much you let it debilitate you at crunch time. I’ve seen a lot of different manifestations of performance anxiety in my career. Some musicians don’t play the same way on stage as they do in rehearsal, and I’ve worked for artists who become a completely different person on the gig. They get visibly stressed, forget their parts, miss cues, and perform leagues below their rehearsal level. I even witnessed a string player pass out on a movie session. Her face went right into the music stand!

I’ve suffered from nerves many times, like when I had to play a ten-page chart containing eight different time signatures with an eighty-five-piece orchestra, while watching a conductor, syncing with a click track, and referring to a movie-cut playback. So how do you get through these extreme situations with your career intact? Of course, not every situation is as stressful as a Hollywood movie session. But even playing with your band at a club can really get to you, especially if you don’t learn to eliminate distractions and focus.

The key is first recognizing what’s actually requiring your attention while you perform. It’s probably not the cute guy or girl in the front row, the 10,000 people in the arena, the eyes of the producer, the camera, or the red “recording” light. What’s likely requiring your attention is the chart, the time, the dynamics, the execution of tones on the instrument, and the act of opening your ears to listen to the band and yourself. Eliminate everything else. You should play the music by yourself the same way that you do in front of 50,000 people.

I’ve played halftime shows at football bowl games and on late-night television shows with millions of viewers. If you let those facts into your focus, you’ll melt down. When the nerves start to build, stop for a second and think, What is actually requiring my focus right now? Just play your part of the music as well as you can.

Eliminate the Distractions

Have you ever been to a show and noticed that it sounds as though you’re listening to a record? I’ve been to shows and thought, I haven’t heard one thing that isn’t spot-on. When that happens, you’re witnessing musicians who’ve successfully eliminated all distractions. This takes serious maturity as a player. When something seems out of place, it usually is. Something could be flat-out wrong, like the time breaking down or a note being out of key. Or maybe the tempos are way too fast and the lyrics sound rushed. Often I hear something that was played to bring attention to the player. Sometimes it’s a crazy drum fill that’s overly busy or too loud or has no business being played at that particular moment.

I recently went to a big drum competition. Each contestant came out on stage and played for about three minutes. Collectively, in the eighteen to twenty minutes of combined drumming on display, I heard about four bars of time. The core function of the drumset—to keep time—wasn’t present in any of the performances. One of the things I noticed while watching the crowd was how everyone was longing to connect to the artist’s playing through a form of groove. If the drummer would start to play a beat, people began to bop their head. Unfortunately, all of the drummers left the groove almost instantly and moved on to fill ideas. I kept thinking, Man, you had them…and you left them hanging! The players were creating distractions from communicating with the audience.

Communicating with the band and then the audience is a primary job for every musician. The guy who played the most groove at the competition ended up winning. Why? Because he made the strongest connection with the listeners and the judges.

I feel that these competitions should require all of the contestants to perform with a click track so they are forced to play everything in time. It’s much harder to execute drumming acrobatics with a solid pulse. The event was essentially an example of what not to do if you ever want to work in the music business. This is why players who get work for playing great time are seldom the ones attempting inappropriate drumming acrobatics.

If you’re one of the drummers who feel the urge to be “impressive” by squeezing in chops and licks every chance you get, realize that the heaviest cats in the room will be moved only by moments of great musicality. Whatever you play has to be relevant to what’s currently happening in the groove and music. Sorry, but those “look at me!” moments are clear signs of immaturity. When you deliver the music respectfully and passionately, it connects with everybody in the room. The band, the listener, the producer…everybody is drawn to your performance.

How many times have you zoned out while watching someone playing? That’s a failure of the artist. You never want to lose the audience to distraction. You couldn’t take your eyes off Michael Jackson, not feel the emotion of the lyrics delivered by Frank Sinatra, or fail to connect with the rhythmic drive and energy of Elvin Jones or Buddy Rich. Focus your energy on the task at hand. If the current task requires some awesome drumming skills, great! Go for it. If that’s not the focus at that moment, don’t distract yourself and everybody else by forcing things into place.

This focus on the elimination of what is not required is one of the differences between good and great musicians. Your internal focus while playing will in turn determine the focus of the band and the audience. Keep yourself zeroed in on the important things in the music, and everybody will end up being focused on you.

Learning to eliminate distraction is the way to succeed in many things. It’s the key to effective time management, successful business decisions, keeping calm in pressure situations, and playing music at the highest level. My favorite Star Wars quote: “Your focus determines your reality.” If you focus on maintaining a high level of execution, it will become a reality. Do this through the process of elimination.

See you next month!

Russ Miller has played on recordings with combined sales of more than 26 million copies. His versatility has led him to work with a wide range of artists, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Nelly Furtado, and Andrea Bocelli. For more info, visit