Baseball & Music
(Photo: 1939. My Father at 17 years old with two of his Reds heroes after game ended)
When I was nine years old, I got out of First Grade to attend the World Series with my Dad. It was 1961 and the Yankees were playing the Reds. My Reds got mauled by a Yankee team enjoying benchmark seasons from Roger Maris, (61 home runs), Mickey Mantle (56 dingers) not to mention Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and more. The Yankees were Rock Stars. I wanted to be a baseball player and a drummer. I started my drum lessons with Jack Volk at 9 years and continued with him through tenth grade in high school. (Mr. Volk was the ONLY teacher I had until my 17 year old one off lesson with Elvin plus then a couple-a-music schools). The grip that I learned from Jack Volk and the ensuing rudiments are still with me with no variation. Talk about good luck!!
Meanwhile, back in Little League ball, the pitchers began throwing curve balls to offset their fastballs. This is when I realized I had very limited ability in baseball. I walked onto the practice field and told my manager I was quitting. I was a drummer now. (I’m sure he was upset… Not. I was horrible)
I was two years into my drumming at twelve years old and playing in several bands. What I remember the most are two of them. “The Lonely Ones” (high schoolers playing songs like Wipe Out, Devil With a Blue Dress and Glad All Over) was my first gig. Paid 10 bucks. The other was the YMCA Concert band, which two years later led to a YMCA National Concert Band that went to the ’68 Worlds Fair in Montreal. I was so shy I didn’t even know how to spell the word, but managed to kiss a pretty clarinetist on the bus coming home.
I strayed away from baseball after the Big Red Machine days in the mid 70s but as my career in music unfolded I began noticing the Zen-like abilities of baseball players. Watching Jose Altuve bat for the Astros in this current World Series is not unlike seeing Vinnie Colaiuta play with Herbie Hancock. Vinnie is a perfect example so I’m going with it. Both Jose and Vinnie are well trained, with so many gears of auto responses studied and embedded into their bodies, hearts and minds. Baseball has more rules about “what ifs” than any sport. It is a game of anticipation, not action. When the pitcher holds the ball (and the first baseman “adjusts himself”) the music is about to begin. The pitcher winds up and throws a small round ball and, if performed beautifully, the defense becomes a moving ballet – all dependent upon what the batter does when he swings. Ball hit to the infield? The catcher runs to back up first base as the right fielder also runs forward in case the ball gets loose. There’s a million things happening and you can’t see it all on TV. You have to be there.
Have you heard of the phrase “The Inside Job?” Athletic coaches and pro scouts have spoken of this in rating their players’ skills. The Inside Job is about things other than how fast, how athletic the player is, it is about the other half of what turns a gifted player into an All Star like Jose Altuve.
Do you acknowledge the inside job while playing in a band or a recording session, a rehearsal or jam session? It’s always there. Empathy will help get you there. The outer journey, the people you meet – the successes and the failures all contribute to you being you. The inner journey, how you feel as you travel through these experiences and how you integrate your lessons, contributes to your Inner Game. Being an All-Star depends on maintaining an active connection, or conduit, between all that you know and the ability to let go of all that same knowledge for that one moment when NOW is happening on the bandstand or on the playing field. When you hit the stage, you are in the batter’s box about to do a very difficult thing. Baseball fans watching this World Series have fallen in love with Jose Altuve, all 5’6” of him. He wasn’t a valued prospect. Scouts looked at his physical skills and undervalued him because he was undersized, but he has become one of the great ones. He may well win the league’s Most Valuable Player award, which is a stepping-stone to the Hall Of Fame! Altuve goes on the playing field and all that he knows and has done is in his back pocket, but he remains empty, waiting for the pitch to hit, or the ball to field. He spits out sunflower seeds constantly, no doubt one of his mechanisms to remain in the moment and keep his brain from thinking. Yes, the mind can be a terrible thing. That very moment of anticipation is where the gold is. Vinnie flies into a town, says hi to Herbie Hancock and they hit the stage. Brian Blade does the same with Wayne Shorter. This is no time to think. It is time to react and react honestly, as you.
If you’ve ever done a big gig, whether it’s that first gig or playing at Wembley, you should understand the nervous challenge that awaits you. Is Jose Altuve nervous in the World Series? Yes he probably is sort of, but he, Vinnie and other great ones have ways to turn that fear of failure into excitement, which creates greater awareness and alertness. Have you heard the story about Steve Gadd waiting to go on at a Modern Drummer Festival? Most of the drummers performing that day were preparing for their performance by doing exercises on their practice pads and getting loose. Working on relaxing. I’m told that Steve was standing off stage next to a rear curtain and snapping his fingers for the longest time. He was just working on the perfect tempo. He already had everything he needed to play well, he only need the tempo. That is one display of understanding the Inside Job.
If you can find a way to pursue all the knowledge that interests you and study hard, then you are heading to that place where these influences will end up being like clothes in your suitcase. Then, if you choose to, you can open them up and wear them.
Who are you listening to and how are they influencing you?
How does one practice for a future creative moment? This is one of my favorite topics that I discuss in lessons and I have a concept or two that helps you get there. I’m nervous and uncertain I can do it justice with only written words but I will try in future blogs. Let’s see how I feel next week, maybe it starts then. I await your reactions and comments to this.