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Graduating in time

Randall F. Clemens

I have played a musical instrument nearly everyday since the time I was in elementary school. In reality, the first four—clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and guitar—were in preparation to play the last one, the drums. My mom would rather listen to a squeaky clarinet or out-of-tune guitar than a loud drum set. But, as it turned out, I was much more persistent than she anticipated and, after years of pleading and playing other instruments, she and my dad begrudgingly bought me a drum set for Christmas. As most musicians will tell you, they were born for a specific instrument. I was born for the drums.

When I moved from DC to LA, I did not bring my beautiful tangerine dream sparkle-covered drum set. I figured my neighbors in the apartment complex—for the same reasons my mom protested for years—would not appreciate the joys of acoustic drumming. For the first year in LA, I went without drumming and then I could go no longer. I purchased an electronic drum set—something I swore I would never do—and started taking lessons.

When I first met my drum instructor, I explained my situation. I was a Ph.D. student with little spare time, but I was also a musician who needed some sort of artistic outlet. In turn, he was clear about his expectations: I needed to practice everyday even if it was only for five minutes. We scheduled our lessons for Saturday nights; that was the time I could rationalize in my brain for allowing myself a ninety-minute break from reading or writing.

During that first lesson, and for a month afterwards, my instructor would not let me practice on the drum set. I practiced using two sticks and a practice pad, just like my dad taught me when I was eight. After I met my instructor’s rudimental benchmarks, I moved on to the drum set. I have progressed similarly over the past three years. He has set goals, and I have met them. He has given unclear assignments and, even when I was not sure of the point, I completed them. The process has not been without hurdles. My instructor has not been shy about critiquing me when I have not met expectations. Those moments have been defeating, and also motiving.

Since our first meeting I have tried to practice every day and make a lesson at least every other week. Sometimes my schedule has not permitted, but most times I have made it. Even on my second date with the woman whom I am going to marry in a few weeks, I left early to go to drum practice. To which, she replied, “Who goes to a drum lesson on a Saturday night!?!” Fortunately, she agreed to a third date. 

As a result of my lessons, I am a vastly improved musician today compared to when I started three years ago.

What is the point? The relationship between a music instructor and student is much like the relationship between an advisor and an advisee. That is something I gathered early on. Both assign tasks. Both set high expectations. Sometimes they set them knowing you will fail. Sometimes expectations only become clear after a lot of struggling. But always, they set incrementally higher benchmarks in order for you to succeed in the long-term. 

The relationship, at its core, is built on trust. A student gives up a lot of himself or herself in the belief that all of the hardship will lead to his or her betterment. That is a lesson I learned from my advisor and, as a result, I am a better for it.