Tag Archives: Drums

Chip McCraw drums

13 things being a musician has taught me about business

A lifetime of playing drums in bands and in churches has not only enriched my life beyond measure, but it’s taught me a lifetime of invaluable lessons. Lessons that apply to every other aspect of my personal and professional life. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

 1. Put in the prep time

No, practice isn’t always fun. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s exhausting. But it pays off for the ones who put the time in to be prepared. In the business world, that might take the form of education and other training, and starting your career in an entry level position and learning everything there is to know about your field.

It’s not just about how many hours you practice, but the quality of your practice. Don’t just go through the motions – strive to learn from your practice and intentionally improve your skills.

2. Check your ego at the door

This is especially important in my church gig, where the musicians take a back seat to the real purpose, which is creating an atmosphere of worship. But it applies to any musical setting, where the sum should be greater than the individual parts. Remember, the point of your being there is to give your audience (i.e. your customers) what they want, not to try to steal all the attention for yourself.

3. Don’t trash other musicians

Nothing makes you look more petty than trying to make yourself seem better than your colleagues. Nobody likes a bragger. Competition can be a great motivator, but don’t go overboard. Be happy for anybody who’s succeeding in your company and your field. If you’re good at what you do, people will know. It’s better to let someone else talk about how good you are, because that’s infinitely more credible.

4. Surround yourself with people who are better than you are

In my first few bands, I was always the youngest member. I think I subconsciously knew I always needed to prove my worth. As time passed, I wasn’t the youngest or least experienced any more. But I still remember one gig I got as a hired gun for a singer-songwriter when I was around 27 or so. I knew of the lead guitarist and bassist he’d hired because I’d seen them in a smoking hot rock band a few years earlier. These guys were head and shoulders above where I was musically, and I wasn’t sure I could hang with them. But their musicianship pushed me to try to rise to their level. I don’t know if I got all the way there, but I definitely got better.

Wherever you are in business, gravitate toward the people around you who excel. Their example is priceless.

5. Keep spares of everything you need

I’ll never forget the gig in North Myrtle Beach when I was 17. About halfway through the night my snare drum head split open and I didn’t have a replacement head. I was mortified. My bandmates suggested that I go to a neighboring nightclub and see if I could borrow a head from the drummer playing there. I went, but I couldn’t get the drummer’s attention because the band had just started their next set.

I walked back to the venue we were playing in and got a roll of duct tape to try to patch the broken head. For the rest of the night, my snare had about as much volume as a small metronome. My bandmates were not happy with me and it took forever to live that down. Since that time I’ve actually kept a second snare drum ready for action in case of emergency.

Today, if I’m producing an event or have to give a presentation, I’ve got my PowerPoint, Excel files, etc. saved on my laptop and on a flash drive. I’ve also got them all printed on paper and tucked away in my laptop bag in case the technology fails. Redundancy is your friend.

6. Study how your role models do it

Some of my early drumming idols included Butch Trucks and Jaimoe (Allman Brothers), David Garibaldi (Tower of Power), Paul T. Riddle (Marshall Tucker Band), and Steve Jordan (Blues Brothers, David Letterman Band, John Mayer Trio and many more). I shamelessly stole licks from all of my favorites and worked them into my own style of playing. Who are the “rock stars” in your profession? Study what they do and how to do it. Learn from their examples and emulate them as you develop your own identity.

7. Respect the cats who have more experience than you do

There will always be someone with better chops and more knowledge than you have. Close your mouth and listen to them when they speak, and you’ll grow. Maybe even into the next star.

8. Leave everything on the stage

Give 110% every time you perform; don’t phone your work in. The right people will notice and you’ll eventually reap the benefits. The musicians who rise to the top, be they touring musicians, regional favorites, or outright stars, didn’t get where they are by slacking off. Slackers stay in the rut they created for themselves. Whatever your job is, do it completely.

9. Always be professional

Acting like a professional immediately sets you apart from the hacks. Learn what it takes to succeed and be respected in your field, and stay focused on that. I love this quote from an Atlanta Institute of Music and Media blog:

“That person you were mean to in college could be in a position to help further your career by helping you land an awesome gig, or sign a record deal, and chances are, if you made fun of them or spoke negatively about them in the past, they will not be in such a giving mood.”

10. Your body is also your instrument – take care of yourself

Eat healthy, get exercise and rest, and keep the partying under control. See your doctor and do what you’re told to do. You need a healthy body and mind to do what you do.

11. Promote yourself (tactfully)

Every band or solo musician needs a promo kit; it’s how they present themselves to the world. In the business world, your personal brand is everything. Build your LinkedIn profile so that it showcases what you’ve accomplished and what can do. Every time you interact with colleagues and bosses, let them see the best you. Find a way, without being obnoxious, to show the value you bring to your organization.

12. Develop your network

It’s wise to build relationships with other musicians, teachers, and a personal support network. Those connections can steer you toward the next opportunity. And they can encourage you when you stumble and lose confidence. Look for ways to encourage the younger ones just getting into the business.

13. If you make a mistake, do it again so people think you meant to do it.

Okay, that one’s a joke. You might get away with that onstage if you’re improvising, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you do it in the corporate world. That said, your mistakes are your best learning opportunities and they can even open your eyes and ears to new and better ways of doing your thing.

What would you add to this list?


Mickey Roker: my moments with a drumming giant

Mickey Roker was one of my early influences, not just because he was a phenomenal drummer, but primarily due to a personal connection.

Mickey Roker w/Milt Jackson at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA 1980s
© Brian McMillen

It began around 1972 when Mickey was Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer. Dizzy’s trio had just played a matinée at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, NC, where my dad was a dean. After their performance my dad invited Dizzy and his band to our home for dinner. Surprisingly, they accepted! Dizzy Gillespie in my house!

Somewhere during conversation before dinner I asked Mickey how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better,” was his immediate reply.

It wasn’t long before he found out I was an aspiring drummer (and by aspiring, I mean I owned a set of drums; it was too soon to call me a drummer.) With a big grin on his face he said to me, “Come on, let’s go see your drums!”

Mickey followed me back to my bedroom where my Sears blue sparkle drums were set up. “Let me see you play!” he practically shouted. I banged on them the best I could; I’m sure it sucked but Mickey was nothing but enthusiastic and encouraging to me. He did, however, admonish me to practice my rudiments. Must’ve been apparent that I hadn’t been…

Several years later while I was attending NC State University, I went to see Dizzy and band at a local nightclub. During a break between sets I walked up to Mickey and, just for fun, again asked him how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better.” (I loved it, and to this day I often use his line when somebody asks me the same question.)

I then reintroduced myself, and he at least pretended to remember me. He asked if I was still playing drums; I said yes, I was playing in a southern rock band. “Ah,” he said, “lotta shuffles, right?”

Oh, yeah, lotta shuffles. As a rookie I was impressed that an old school bebop and jazz drummer was aware of a very different musical style favored by us younger musicians. But Mickey Roker was actually much more than a jazz drummer – he was a role model for a kid who wanted to play.

Mickey passed in May 2017. I wish I’d had a chance for just one more conversation with him; if I had, I would have told him I never forgot his encouragement or his incredible drumming. And I would have confessed I haven’t always practiced my rudiments like I should, but I’ve tried to honor his passion for drums.

Rest in peace, Mickey.

Photo credit: By Brianmcmillen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons