Mark Danger Powers

drummer • educator • author

Tuning and Calibration: for music and life

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It was a Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis. Charlie Waymire and I were in a studio at college, tuning up his monster double-bass drumset for his band’s recording session later that day. Or maybe should I say trying to tune his drumset. Taking turns wielding the drumkey while the other played, nothing either of us did seemed to get both bass drums to sound the same. All we got were these loud, sonically unmatched thuds.

I would sit down and play: BUHguh-BUHguh-BUHguh-BUHguh
Charlie would take a stab at it: BUHguh-BUHguh-BUHguh-BUHguh

Horrible sounding . . . frustrating.

Gordy Knudtson (director of the school’s percussion program) wasn’t on tour with the Steve Miller Band at the time, so he was teaching private lessons in a room around the corner. We caught him between a couple and begged his assistance in tweaking the sound of the drums. He graciously obliged us. A few minutes later, Gordy came rushing into the room with only a few minutes to spare before his next student arrived. He grabbed a pair of sticks, jumped onto the kit, wowed us with a brief display of his technical prowess and then turned his focus to the two big bass drums.

“Let’s check these out,” he said.
Without touching a drumkey or changing anything, he began to play:
BUHguh-BUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUHBUH . . . . .

All of a sudden, they sounded perfect! I couldn’t believe my ears! What had happened? He didn’t adjust a thing! Before we could even ask, he stood up, said, “sounds great guys,” set the sticks down and was out the door.

I can’t remember whether it was Charlie or myself that raced to the drum throne to sit down and play next. All I recall is hearing: BUHguh-BUHguh-BUHguh-BUHguh

Aaaaaaaaagh!!

—–

What had happened? It wasn’t until some time later that we had a chance to corner Gordy again and inquire about what exactly had went down that day. His response was that, throughout your years of performing, you’re going to play on some great drumsets, some absolutely horrendous ones, and some that are just plain different than what you’re accustomed to. No matter what you find yourself sitting behind on any given occasion, you’re going to have to immediately calibrate your body to it. There may not be anything you can change about the kit you’re playing; or no time to do it anyway. You are on stage! In order to do what has to be done at that moment, it will be you that has to change. That may mean altering the way you strike each drum and cymbal, where you strike them, or maybe the entire approach you would normally play with.

A popular quote from jazz legend Art Blakey echoed in my ears: I am the instrument.”

Essentially what Gordy was telling us is that the show must go on. Don’t expect to alter the circumstances at hand (and I’ve found on many a gig, you often can’t).
Instead: suck it up, adjust, and deal with it.

—–

That lesson has stuck with me for over a decade and a half, and impacted much more than my drumming. It has influenced the way I look at nearly everything I encounter in life.

When crap happens (and we all know it does), I can waste my time and energy complaining about what went wrong, who else is to blame (because it certainly wasn’t my fault) and all of the things that should be fixed. Or . . . I can calibrate myself to the environment, the situation and the people involved, suck it up, adjust, and deal with it. One of the above options allows me to keep my life moving forward, making progress. The other gets me nowhere.

Really? Just deal with it?” you ask. “But my situation is different. You don’t understand what I’m dealing with here. Isn’t that rather unsympathetic and ruthless?” I agree . . . some may think so. In the end, it’s your choice.

But if we hadn’t learned to simply get over it and move on, Charlie and I would very likely still be sitting there at that drumset today.

—–

Have an example of a time that you’ve had to calibrate yourself to a particular situation?
Please share it in a comment below!

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