Time Keeps You Humble

When You Think You Know It All, Thing Again

by Russ Miller

You’ve probably seen this month’s quote by the English novelist Thomas Hardy, which is sometimes shortened to “time changes everything.” I have a slight adjustment to it: Time changes approach. Your approach to all aspects of life changes with time. This month’s discussion is about remaining humble in your playing, attitude, and career.

I was recently on tour in the United States and Asia. Between shows, I did some master classes at universities and a few music stores. During classes like this, I usually have several attendees come up and play with a minus-drums track, and then I comment on the performance. Often I’ll demonstrate certain ideas back to them.

At the university events, the students came up and played what was asked. They took direction, asked questions, and went back to their seats. At two of the music store events, attendees walked up to the drums and began to adjust everything from the seat height to the cymbal positions. One person even started retuning the kit! That was when I busted out my “you’re sitting in, not moving in” speech.

The music store drummers played very aggressively. They played much more than what was asked and added several busy fills. And they didn’t particularly like getting constructive comments about what had just transpired.

This struck me as interesting. Why didn’t the university students take this approach? They were much better players overall, so they could’ve had bigger egos. Also, the school students were much younger in age. These playing demonstrations quickly reminded me that time changes approach.

When I say time, I don’t mean age. If that were the case, the older drummers at the music stores would have been far more mature in their playing. Rather, I’m saying that it was the time these different drummers had spent understanding the craft of their instrument that led to their different approaches to the situation.

After a bit of probing into the players at the music stores, I discovered that they didn’t take lessons, couldn’t read music, and had learned by watching videos and playing with other drummers. I’m not saying their playing was completely wrong, but there was a certain arrogance to their “dig me” display. A lot of drummers these days seem to have a similar attitude.

Of course, there’s not just one way to do something. I know great musicians who never took lessons and can’t read music, and I also know PhDs of music who can’t play a nice-feeling groove or keep solid time. My comments here are more in relation to what happens to your attitude and approach when you start to gain information about the craft of drumming.

With Understanding Comes Humility

I believe you need to present your playing in a humble way. If not, you’ll end up with a lot of drumming and not a lot of music making. At each of my master classes, I emphasized the difference between a great drummer and a great musician who plays drums. The latter is the one who works the most, whether it’s making records, doing TV shows, recording soundtracks and commercials, playing musicals, or touring.

Early in your playing career, there are more obvious things to learn. In the beginning of study, you need to figure out how to hold the sticks correctly, use the proper movements, read music, keep basic time, and so on. These things are easy to recognize when they’re not done correctly. The longer you play music, the more parts of the puzzle you acquire, and the things that are missing become much less obvious. Slightly wavering subdivisions, tone inconsistency, lack of dynamic control…these are issues that aren’t as blatant, but they’re no less important. Being able to recognize the missing pieces in your puzzle is the key. This is why mature players often say that the more they learn, the less they know. It’s these little areas of development that make the difference between good and great. I have two sayings written on the front of my lesson notebook in regard to this, which I’d like to share.

Ignorance Is the Prime Ingredient of Arrogance

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen less-experienced players have serious egos. I think this comes from two things. First, it stems from ignorance about what they don’t know. Once you begin to understand how much information is out there, as well as the diligence required to attain it, thoughts that you know everything start to subside. Secondly, when less-experienced musicians see the big pieces of their playing puzzle coming together, they often start to think, I’m really getting this. They’re correct: They’re mastering the big, obvious things. But that just means it’s time to get down to the real business of discovering what it takes to become a great player.

With experienced players, ego can manifest itself slightly differently, in an “I should get more respect” attitude. Here’s where ignorance plays into the scenario: You might think things about yourself that not everybody else does. And not everybody can know everything about you. Proper marketing, documentation of your playing, and visibility all play a role in the things that people know about you. (See my previous articles for more on those topics.) But there are problems with the “don’t you know who I am?” mentality. If you were that big a deal, people would already know about you. It’s always best to assume that the listener or observer knows nothing about your history. You need to win over your audience every time you play.

Humility Is a By-Product of True Wisdom

This saying is similar to the first one but with a few unique elements. When you understand the difficulty in gaining high execution levels and knowledge within a certain field, you stand in reverence of it. Also, there’s a realization of the fact that when you think you know everything, you stop reaching for more information. There are a lot of players who haven’t progressed in their craft because they stopped searching for new ideas years ago.

Humility in your playing also stems from gaining musical wisdom. As you grow as a player, you become more articulate and make more mature decisions. This may be interpreted as slowing down, but that’s not necessarily the case. To mature players, it’s not always about playing less. It’s just a different musical understanding and delivery.

Everyone needs to take a litmus test of his or her playing periodically. Spend an hour or two reviewing videos or audio recordings from a few periods in your past. Do you see a difference in your approach to something in your playing between then and now? Is there a step up in overall ability? Are you seeing and hearing your short-term musical goals being met, or are you at least moving toward meeting them? Are you progressing toward your long-term goals? What new things do you see that you can be working on next?

Keep a running tab of what you need to improve, and create a list of things you’d like to start doing. When I hear a great performance on a recording, I take a second to write down in my lesson notebook a few notes about what I liked. Keeping a long list of things you can’t do is a great way to stay humble.

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