One night at Carnegie Hall, Ron Drotos looked at his colleagues and realised something: they were living the dream of countless musicians worldwide, and only some of them were having fun.
Drotos has played at Carnegie Hall multiple times. He also conducted and played for several Broadway shows, including the Tony-nominated Swinging on a Star. He shared stages with Chris Brubeck and Giacomo Gates. Choirs in universities across the United States perform his compositions.
He still plays professionally, but now he spends part of his time helping others learn jazz improvisation through his online training at keyboardimprov.com.
Drotos says when he was a kid, he loved playing music. “It was just sort of like, the sky’s the limit. Nobody ever said, ‘You have to be great before you start this.’ We learned as we went along.”
Then, when he first broke into the New York music scene, playing with big-name musicians in big-name venues thrilled him. He remembers conducting a New Year’s dance gig for which they’d planned rock, Motown, and “a little jazz.” The drummer was Charli Persip. “I just knew him as a straight-ahead jazz player, and I was kinda wondering, what will it be like? Is he gonna like playing Beatles songs, dancing or disco?”
As it turns out, he did. Persip apparently knew how to keep his “creative spark” lit, regardless of the circumstances in which he played. “He even broke his bass drum pedal he was playing so hard, and he was just smiling the whole time. We’re playing ‘Twist and Shout’, and this guy who I just thought was maybe only into jazz was just having so much fun.”
After several years of Broadway shows, however, Drotos felt his own spark dimming. Part of the problem was the nightly grind of being a professional musician.
“Even a great Broadway show will get stale over time,” he admits.
Perfectionism was also a killjoy. “Particularly in the world of playing written music, whether it’s classical or whatever, accompanying a singer and there’s a written chart, there’s such a high pressure to play things note perfectly, that I think it can just get on people,” he says. “That’s even trickling into the jazz world too.”
We need to release our fear of mistakes, Drotos argues. He recalls an interview with Herbie Hancock in which Hancock describes how Miles Davis helped him learn the value of musical errors by incorporating them into the overall piece.
Drotos continues, “Even if you listen to a great classical pianist like Vladimir Horowitz, when he played live, he didn’t mind hitting wrong notes. He would go for it, and he hit wrong notes, because the emotion of the moment was more important than playing in a more controlled way. And nowadays, I don’t think even classical pianists are willing to do that, because they play a few wrong notes, and they’re gonna get a bad review, or people are gonna say, ‘Oh, they’re not that good.'”
In his mid-30’s, Drotos started teaching piano part-time. Many of his students were 5 or 6 years old. In addition to taking them through traditional repertoire and method books, he taught them how to improvise. Encouraging the kids to relax and play without inhibitions helped him rediscover his own childlike enthusiasm for music.
“I would go out after that and play gigs, and I found that particularly my jazz playing just took off exponentially. I got, like, 10 times better. It was like how I’d always wanted to play.”
Some professional musicians turn their noses up at teaching beginners, Drotos says, but he wonders if some of them might find it helpful.
“Sometimes, you know, I’ll be playing a gig, and somebody, you know, they’re a good player, but I could just tell they’re just a little high-strung about it, just trying to always be on all the time, and I’m thinking to myself, boy, you should try teaching five-year-olds for a year.”
Now, while working with students of any age who need loosening up, he might remind them that learning music can be like learning how to walk.
“Nobody’s gonna walk perfectly the first time. They just sort of fall down, but they don’t stop there. They don’t say, ‘Oh, well I tried to walk two times and it didn’t work, so I’m not gonna walk again.'”
He also compares music to conversation. If someone asks you for directions in a language you speak fluently, he says, there’s still a possibility you might realise mid-sentence that you said “turn right” when you meant “turn left.” As long as you correct yourself before the conversation ends, it doesn’t matter.
The important thing, Drotos says, is to “become fluent” in the language, whether it’s English or jazz. “You’re always going to make little mistakes, but I think the mark of a true professional is how they deal with those little moments.”
The combination of fluency and a willingness to make mistakes is what lets a musician tap into creative flow, Drotos says.
An awareness of stakes can get in the way. If you’re more worried about impressing an audience than the material at hand, “it’s very rare that something’s gonna be great,” Drotos says. On the other hand, he acknowledges that a certain amount of nervousness, as long as it doesn’t take over, can actually help a performance.
“That’s energy, and you can even channel that into the excitement. So, I don’t want to say it’s completely ignoring the situation you’re in, but it’s sort of merging them together so it all becomes part of the creative process.”
Featured Image: Courtesy of Ron Drotos
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