A Year of Living Aimlessly

(or Five Things I Learned About my Creative Life After 20 months in the Practice Room with No Real Agenda)

Words by Teresa Esguerra

Photo by Eric Pilgram

The very afternoon that I became band-less, I drove to the local music store and bought a shiny new ride cymbal.  This hardly seemed reasonable, considering I had no gigs or rehearsals, no real music obligations on the calendar for the foreseeable future. I had a practice room and … time.

For most of my adult life, I’ve played in bands and plugged into a local circuit. And like most bands, they dissolved for all the usual reasons. As I approached the latest break up, I contemplated my usual post-band course of action (home-recording project? Talk about music but not play? Avoid music altogether?)

But this go around, I made a conscious, curiosity-driven decision to keep playing drums, even if there were no tangible means-to-an-end in sight.  To play for playing’s sake. To practice because it seemed a more productive option than not practicing.

In this Course of Aimless Band-less Practice, I discovered five aspects of my creative life unknown to me until I committed to this exploration.

#1 I could no longer hide from my weaknesses

In band situations, practice is likely only used in reference to the unit. I rarely practiced drums, but I did go to Band Practice to join the collective and execute the songs as a unit. In years past, I may have devoted an hour or two per month to practicing a particular part. Yet, solo time in my creative woodshed was either devoted to songwriting or jamming or office-time to further the collective’s agenda.

With no collective in mind, I went in to face all the creaky aspects of my drumming. I knew I couldn’t execute a shuffle. I knew I had likely 3-4 different fills available and then my rhythmic vocabulary was exhausted. I knew I couldn’t readily play along with a metronome for longer than 10 seconds or shift a subdivision mid-measure. I didn’t really understand time signatures. I knew I could not read or write a simple drum chart. So, what to do when you don’t have a band other than confront all the shitty parts of your playing head on. There was no one to hear me, no one to impress, no excuses. I had freedom to be ugly, get mad, be simple, and slow things down to the speed of dripping molasses. By embracing the student role, I was finally free to ask for help, receive constructive criticism, and uncover as many weak links as I could find. 

#2 I Can’t Not Play  

Band life is like being in a posse in a frontier time. I imagine Bonnie and Clyde hitting the open road, madly in love and armed to the teeth, hopping from town to town (except bands wield instruments and ride into town in a shitty van).

Yet, I suspect Clyde Barrow would have remained in trouble and on the lam without the love of Bonnie or any other. This is what I discovered in the practice room. Without a band, I was still fond of drumming and music. I still enjoyed the discoveries of the limb independence to play seemingly impossible patterns. I enjoyed the ergonomic and spatial challenges of setting up my drums and cymbals in optimal positioning. I still squealed at the faint sounds of tape hiss and behind the studio squeaks and clicks on my favorite recordings. Clyde Barrow would have met his fate just the same – it’s just who he was, with or without the posse.

#3 My head came out of the creative sand 

When not in a band advancing an agenda, I suddenly found myself out of the Mousewheel of Booking-Promoting-Gigging. In the past, I knew that the goings-on with other successful local/regional bands usually elicited anxiety regarding all that I wasn’t getting done for my band or my individual musicianship.

Not every artist is like this, but with the compression of time and resources of my day+music job and family/personal relationships, I had little wiggle room to process my anxiety in a healthy way. I did not have (or did not make) the time to see what other bands and songwriters were up to in town, unless we shared a bill. I saw my gigging life as a two-fer, fulfilling the creative obligations mixed with social benefits/hobnobbin’ with fellow musicians for that night.

Sans band, I suddenly had time to explore the goings-on with the various scenes.  Worlds opened up beyond music, into art openings and theater. I could stop and take in a band or artist without pangs of “I should/would/could/need to…”  I could observe drummers without feeling shitty about my own playing, and instead simply be inspired to take ideas back to the Aimless Practice Space. I suddenly had a sense of what was going on around me and exactly how much inspiration was to be found if I opened my eyes, ears, and heart.

By embracing the student role, I was finally free to ask for help, receive constructive criticism, and uncover as many weak links as I could find.

#4 I became a better band member 

It’s quite annoying to say, but bands are like romantic relationships in many respects.  I’ve contended with my own magical thinking regarding falling in love, only to discover that it’s necessary to have my own personal shit attended to before being a somewhat functional romantic partner.  At the start of this period of Aimless Bandless Practice, it was simply about using spare time to explore and play around with concepts, ideas, and technique on the drumset. Yet when I actually attended to practice, I inadvertently developed skills like better organization with both time and material, patience, problem solving, taking creative risks, and having a sense of humor.  And magically, these attributes have transferred quite nicely to subsequent band situations (and a few extra technical skills on the instrument to boot!). I have since gained a sense of exploration within a collective and have also learned the value of communication and middle ground. I have a better sense of the areas of my life (including a personal drum practice) that I protect so I come back to bandlife fresh and ready to contribute.

#5 I found my real audience

I once spoke with my mom about the logistics of a recent road trip and the anticipated stops on the way to my destination. I could hear tension in her voice, as she is never quite fond of me traveling solo.  “Well…you’ll be ok I think…” she said, attempting to reassure herself more than anyone, “Maybe take your guitar…that way you can stop and play to make yourself feel better.”

She seemed to perfectly capture an understanding that maybe I didn’t have until the time of Aimless Bandless Practice. With consistent practice, the real audience emerged.  Family and partner, friends and colleagues acknowledge that I’m a drumming fool and general musical being. They know I troll music stores and Craigslist weekly to gawk at used gear. They don’t flinch when I miss their call and text that I’ll call them back in an hour after I’m done with studio time. They withstand my finger drumming at restaurants, and they also let me work on rhythmic patterns with hands on lap in the passenger seat on the drive home. They never ask why I do it or if they can hear something I’m working on.  They just know it’s what I do and it makes me an increasingly good-humored, more tolerant, and less lonesome person.

Yet when I actually attended to practice, I inadvertently developed skills like better organization with both time and material, patience, problem solving, taking creative risks, and having a sense of humor

I don’t mean to make myself sound all misanthropic (please refer back to #4), but I now know why mom recommended the guitar come with me on that road trip. Most of my years have been injected with music making of some sort. The loneliest times for me have been extended periods of not making music, not necessarily being band-less. Mom wanted to make sure that my most trusted friend is along for the ride to take me where I need to go.

Teresa Esguerra is the drummer for Prism Bitch, and will be drumming in Built To Spill’s upcoming tour.


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