What I Learned From Steve Smith – 4 Game Changing Ideas

Be in no hurry; remember it’s not a race, it’s a lifestyle.

I first met Steve Smith at KOSA 1999. I had no idea who he was, but going by the buzz and anticipation of the other attendees, this was a big deal. Steve empowered everyone there by sharing many stories and lessons from his teacher Freddie Gruber, and many other valuable insights that continue to serve me to this day. Besides having a great haircut (I had to go there), his artistry and spirit of character have had a big impact on me. Here are 4 game changing ideas that have helped me immensely.

EFFORTLESS MASTERY / RELAXED INTENSITY

To study drumming is to study movement. How you move is how you groove! Let’s work with nature, not against. As Steve expressed recently about rejoining the powerhouse group Journey after 33 years, “I left as Hulk Hogan, and came back as Bruce Lee.” To watch Steve in 1983 and then compare him playing the same songs today, the difference is profound. If Steve had continued playing like the Hulk, he wouldn’t be getting better with age, but instead be plagued with injuries. The only way to constantly improve is to work with nature, not against. As the Jedi teach, ‘Use The Force’! Play with effortless relaxed intensity. This way we will get even better as we age, not steadily worse. Steve once said, “people often ask me how I do this or that, and the answer is always the same: Effortlessly.”

STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”  Isaac Newton

To go boldly into the future, you need to have a deep understanding of the past. Questlove is a drummer that because of his encyclopedic knowledge of music (with a collection of over 60,000 records!), when he plays just simple time (boom .. schmack .. boom .. schmack) it has so much more DEPTH to it. With this spirit, Steve has taken an exhaustive journey into the history of the drumset, tracing it as far back as to the roots of African American slavery. In his DVD Jazz Legacy, he analyses playing from some of the great masters of drumming over the last century, and demonstrates how they impacted his musicality. Don’t borrow, steal from the best! Steve also consistently surrounds himself with those that push him to be the best version of himself both musically and personally, including Victor Wooten, Hiromi, Mike Stern, and many others.

DELIBERATE PRACTICE

Steve is undoubtedly a voracious practicer. There’s a great story about Stanton Moore dropping by Steve’s hotel room and was surprised to find Steve inventively practicing on a makeshift drumset using the hotel’s ironing board, playing on it with brushes! Steve has mastered the art of DELIBERATE PRACTICE. This form of practicing has 3 essential ingredients: Focus, Consistency, and Patience. One reason we all find practicing hard, is because we come face to face with what we DON’T know, and this often sends us back to playing self medicating licks that make us feel better about ourselves in the moment, while learning nothing new in the process. We need time during practice where we go to the absolute edges of our abilities, exploring and testing our limits. Scientific research shows the quality of your practice is just as important as the quantity. I have never personally seen Steve practice, but I can tell you he’s NOT checking his Twitter and Facebook feeds at the same time! Laser-like focus is essential. Slow, relaxed, and consistent repetition of flowing dance like motions on the drums, leads to effortlessness in playing. Practice the movements slowly and easily, the same way you would chant a mantra. Be in no hurry; remember it’s not a race, it’s a lifestyle. Check out the work of Anders Ericsson for more on developing the skill of deliberate practice.

This is not something that Steve merely does now and then, but more deeply it’s a way of life. Take advantage of the compound effect of habits and consistency. Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in 1 year, but underestimate what they can accomplish in 10. Stay the course, and you will be amazed at the momentum you create!

THE ETERNAL STUDENT

Masters never see themselves as masters, only as eternal students. The learning never stops! If eternal students have one thing in common, it’s that they are constantly reinventing themselves. This is the concept of Kaizen, meaning ‘constant and never ending improvement’. A good example of this is Steve’s journey of studying Indian rhythms beginning in 2002, further invigorating him with new drumset possibilities from this ancient rhythmic vocabulary. Steve, along with Dan Weiss, John McLaughlin, and many Indian drummers like Zakir Hussain, inspired me on my own path into this world, taking me all the way to India to study with the great Swapan Chaudhuri, vastly expanding my awareness of the power and depth of rhythm.

Bruce Lee used to tell his students the ancient story of an overzealous student, who when approaching his teacher to learn, spoke on and on without interruption only about himself, not listening at all to the great master. The teacher regarded him patiently while pouring the eager student a cup of tea, but continued to pour long after the cup was full, spilling tea everywhere. ‘What are you doing?’ the surprised student exclaimed, ’the cup is too full!’ ‘Ah, you are right’, the teacher replied, ‘for to taste my tea, you must first empty your own cup’. Even with Steve’s long list of accomplishments, he still has a beginner’s mind. He will be the 95 year old at the back of the room, raising his hand to ask questions!

Meeting your heroes can be daunting, as you never know what someone is really like face to face. All that inspiration can be shattered in an instant, when being snubbed by someone you look up to. The character we develop is as important as the artists we become, and I am grateful to Steve for being extremely patient and giving with his time, and for all he has taught me. As Steve now embarks on a 2 year tour with Journey, I continue to be inspired by his work and dedication to his craft. Thank you Steve!

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