Stories DO Matter

"Stories Matter." 

This was the title of the blog post that began a class I recently took at the University of Michigan, and I have to say, I entered with a certain degree of skepticism.  Not skepticism as to whether or not stories matter in a general sense, but I had reservations about the importance of the role that stories play in musical dialogue.  As a musician, I have always been a firm believer that the music should speak for itself.  For example, one of my pet peeves is when I go to a concert or recital, and the first thing that happens is someone walks on stage and starts talking.  I always think of Zappa: "Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar." 

If our goal as musicians is to communicate with our audience, shouldn't we work first to do this with our musical voice?  Shouldn't our musicianship alone be enough to bring the listener in?  

At the same time, my Netflix queue is full of documentaries, especially musical ones.  I love learning about new things, new view points, or an aspect of music making that I had never before considered.  And if I think about it, it's the stories that draw me into these films.  So how am I to reconcile these two feelings?  On the one hand, I feel that the art itself can and should be powerful enough to communicate the most profound emotions, while at the same time I know that I am deeply moved by the stories surrounding the creation of the art.  

I think that the key ingredient, and the one that I may have been missing, is the fact that stories affect us on such a deep level that they end up changing the way in which we perceive and experience things in our own lives.  As an example, let's consider a concert-goer who is not a musician.  He or she may enjoy music, and may even be a music lover, but when we tell a story that relates some sort of developmental arc, this concert-goer will hear the music from an entirely new vantage point.  This story could be a personal struggle that took place during the realization of the performance, or a historical fact that provides context for the music being heard.  In any case, it is the communication of the arc, the process, that helps the music become a relatable, tangible thing.  

With the arts and music in particular, I think it is easy for many people to see performers on a pedestal, as people with an uncanny technical ability that is unfathomable to others.  Simply the fact that musicians are able to operate the instrument with such dexterity, or to not screw up during the performance, or the ability of composers to create beautiful music from nothing other than their own creative will-- these things amaze people who are not musicians or performers.  Honestly, sometimes they still amaze me!  But stories make artists human again.  Which isn't to say that it makes artistic achievements any less remarkable; if anything it makes them more so.  The point is that stories help us to realize that these great achievements were accomplished by people just like us, driven by the need to break new ground, and show us something that we could have never imagined ourselves.  To quote John Coltrane: 

Overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe . . . That's what I would like to do.  I think that's on of the greatest things you can do in life and we all try to do it in some way.  The musician's [way] is through his music.

So, while the musician is trying to communicate something profound and beautiful through his music, sometimes this fact in itself, the story of how an individual is able to express himself so fluently through an artistic medium, is the most moving story of all.  

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Dan Piccolo

Dan Piccolo is a drummer, percussionist and composer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has performed, taught, and studied internationally during his twenty-year professional career. Dan holds both a BM in Percussion Performance and a MM in Improvisation from the University of Michigan School of Music, and he began his doctoral studies at U of M in 2012. Since 2005 he has studied tabla in intermittent trips to Varansi, India, as a disciple of Pandit Kuber Nath Mishra. Dan performs regularly throughout the US and abroad in a wide variety of settings. Dan is also an active educator, teaching a broad range of percussion instruments in private and classroom settings. He is currently the director of the World Percussion Ensemble at the University of Michigan.

Guru-ji

The first time I traveled to India was in the summer of 2005.  My destination was the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges, and I was to begin my formal studies of tabla with Pandit Kuber Nath Mishra.  

I didn't know much about Kuber-ji prior to our first meeting, so I was clinging to what little information I had gleaned from my host; he came from a family of musicians, and was therefore a very traditionally-minded musician himself.  He was one of the most prominent musicians of his generation who had been something of a child prodigy, and he was now one of the hardest working tabla players in Varanasi.  His father, Pashupati Nath Mishra, was among the most highly respected vocalists of the older generation.  

 
 

I was anxious to begin my training, but I was also excited to meet this man about whom I had heard so much.  Everyone I had met in my first two days in Varanasi seemed to know Kuber-ji, and they were all very impressed that I was to be his student.  

At our first meeting, I was instantly relieved by the casual environment at his house.  Kuber-ji was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and his children, nieces, and nephews were running all around the house, most of them curious to meet his new American student.  After some simple introductions, where my host did most of the talking as to translate for us, we were left on our own to begin our first lesson.  

I can't remember exactly how those first lessons began, but I do remember that it only took us a few days to hit a stride.  Once he realized that I had a strong background of musical training, and that I had learned a few of the fundamentals of Hindustani (North Indian) rhythm and tabla technique, he began to push me more and more in each lesson.  Besides the vastness of the musical material, my main impression of Kuber-ji from that first summer was his devotion to the music, and his unwavering respect for it.  In one of my first lessons, after we finished playing, guru-ji lightly touched the drum heads with his right hand, and then touched his forehead and his heart.   I asked him about the nature of the ritual, which he had done at the beginning and end of each lesson.  He paused before answering.  Then he looked at me and said, very slowly and deliberately, "When you play tabla, you are speaking with God."  I am not a particularly religious person, but this statement effected me deeply. It helped me realize that the sounds we create when we play a musical instrument are much bigger than ourselves.  Producing sounds with a musical intent is a magical thing, and from that moment forward I have always tried to take a moment to acknowledge that mystery whenever I practice or perform.  It also reminded me that the dedication required to gain technical proficiency on an instrument is nothing short of spiritual. 

Many of my memories of guru-ji are actually from my second trip to Varanasi, in the summer of 2007.  And, despite the truly countless hours that we spent sitting together in my lessons, the most vivid memories I have are from when I was riding on the back of his motorcycle.  Varanasi isn't a practical city for cars, so most people commute using bicycles or motor bikes.  For whatever reason, Kuber-ji was much more candid during our trips around the city.

Most of these conversations were pretty benign-- talking about the way people drive in India, or the many different kind of animals that are constantly roaming the streets.  But one afternoon, when we were on the way to a concert where guru-ji would perform, he began speaking about music.  Again, I can't recall precisely what he was saying, but I do remember that at some point I offered one of the few Hindi phrases that I knew and that seemed relevant to the conversation: "Sangeet hi Jivan hai."  This translates, more or less, to "Music is Life."  Guru-ji turned around and, in the same slow and deliberate manner (despite the fact that we were weaving our way through the crowded streets of Varanasi), "Jivan hi Sangeet hai" -- "Life is Music". 

 
 

That may not sound particularly profound, but in that moment I was completely floored.  These have become words by which I strive to live: "Sangeet hi Jivan hai; Jivan hi Sangeet hai."  I think their most lasting lesson has been the way in which Kuber-ji realizes the truth of this statement in his everyday life.  Everything that he does is in service of his musicianship, and his music reflects life in its every facet.  Moreover, in order to achieve music of this quality, Guru-ji encouraged me to see the music in everyday life-- only then can we mirror the beauty of life with our art.  

Indian music, though its theory is elaborate and its technique so difficult, is not art, but life itself.
- W.B. Yeats

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Dan Piccolo

Dan Piccolo is a drummer, percussionist and composer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has performed, taught, and studied internationally during his twenty-year professional career. Dan holds both a BM in Percussion Performance and a MM in Improvisation from the University of Michigan School of Music, and he began his doctoral studies at U of M in 2012. Since 2005 he has studied tabla in intermittent trips to Varansi, India, as a disciple of Pandit Kuber Nath Mishra. Dan performs regularly throughout the US and abroad in a wide variety of settings. Dan is also an active educator, teaching a broad range of percussion instruments in private and classroom settings. He is currently the director of the World Percussion Ensemble at the University of Michigan.

What Is And What Should Never Be

I started taking percussion lessons in the fourth grade, but I didn't realize that I wanted to be a drummer until a few years later, when I discovered Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.  

I was in eighth grade when I finally convinced my parents (with a bit of help from my private teacher, Steve Curry) to buy me a drum set.  It was March of 1991, and my hometown of Rochester, New York was bracing for a massive winter storm.  My mother drove me out to the home of Phil Lake, a local drummer and a friend of Steve's who was selling his old drum set.  The drums he was selling, which I still own and play to this day, were a Yamaha Recording Custom 5-piece kit, complete with hard cases and hardware.  He was asking $1000.  My mom was hesitant to spend that much money, but I knew it was a steal.  When we walked in to his garage/drum studio we saw right away why he was selling the modestly-sized Yamaha: he had upgraded to a massive Sonor kit that must have been at least 10 pieces.  Double bass drums, tons of tom-toms, all mounted on a rack.  It looked like something right off the stage of a Rush concert.  The Yamaha seemed miniature in comparison, but I didn't care.  The moment I set eyes on them I was in love. They are a beautiful blond birch finish that has been long discontinued by Yamaha.  What's more, he had these "hydraulic" heads on them that were a rich midnight blue color.  It was the sexiest thing my 13 year-old eyes had ever seen.  

On the way home we heard on the radio that the approaching storm was going to be very serious, and that we should be prepared for possible power outages throughout the city and suburbs.  We decided to stop at Wegman's, upstate New York's premier supermarket chain, to stock up for the week, just in case.  Well, apparently we weren't the only people who had heard about the storm-- the place was a zoo.  We were there for probably two hours, and the whole time I could barely keep still.  My new drum set was waiting for me in the car, and now it was looking like school might be cancelled for at least a couple of days, maybe more.  

The Ice Storm of 1991 is now a thing of legend in Rochester, a city that is no stranger to extreme winter weather.  Power was down all over the place, but my neighborhood was fortunate.  In the end school was cancelled for the entire week.  But I managed to keep myself busy. 

I had been listening to Led Zeppelin for a while, and at some point I had been given a book containing transcriptions of John Bonham's drum parts for a number of Zeppelin tunes.  Once I got the drums set up and I had a few obligatory sessions of what must have sounded like senseless bashing, I got out the Zeppelin book.  I looked for a song that didn't seem too complicated, and that I had a recording of in my modest collection of cassette tapes. What Is And What Should Never Be seemed innocent enough, so I decided to start there.  

It's hard to understand the experience of playing Zeppelin on drums if you've never done it yourself.  It's an incredibly powerful feeling.  That band is just pure energy, and Bonham is at the core of it all.  The great thing about this tune, though, is that it accesses the extremes of their dynamic range.  The verses are incredibly intimate-- Robert Plant seems to be whispering directly in to your ear, and John Paul Jones' bass is dancing delicately all around the melody.  But at Bonham's cue, the band explodes in to the chorus.  The great thing about Bonham is that he never plays anything incredibly complicated, but everything he plays is completely authoritative and full of a pure, raw energy.  HERE IT IS.  There's no mistaking it.  When he says go, you GO.  It's almost as if you don't have a choice.  Throughout the tune they go effortlessly between these two extremes, and Bonham is at the heart of it.  Any good musician will tell you that it's not any more the drummer's responsibility to "keep the beat" than it is the other band members'.  The drummer's job is to be the volume nob, and this tune is a perfect example. 

I must have played this song 100 times during that week, and it never got old.  In hindsight, this tune taught me profound lessons about what it means to be a drummer, and those lessons have value that I have seen in countless musical situations throughout the years.  Not only that, but I am always striving to reach extremes of dynamics and other musical characteristics like timbre and note density, and these are things to which I am hyper-sensitive when listening to music.  

What Is And What Should Never Be might be a relatively straight-forward rock and roll tune, but it shows a level of musical expression that I find truly remarkable.  It's something I'm reminded of every time I hear it, but most of all I am taken back to that first week in March of 1991, when a cosmic coincidence landed me at home with no school and my brand new drum set for an entire week, and I learned what it means to be a drummer.  


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Dan Piccolo

Dan Piccolo is a drummer, percussionist and composer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has performed, taught, and studied internationally during his twenty-year professional career. Dan holds both a BM in Percussion Performance and a MM in Improvisation from the University of Michigan School of Music, and he began his doctoral studies at U of M in 2012. Since 2005 he has studied tabla in intermittent trips to Varansi, India, as a disciple of Pandit Kuber Nath Mishra. Dan performs regularly throughout the US and abroad in a wide variety of settings. Dan is also an active educator, teaching a broad range of percussion instruments in private and classroom settings. He is currently the director of the World Percussion Ensemble at the University of Michigan.

just back from colorado!

I just returned from a fabulous trip to Colorado where I taught some workshops with students of my great friend, Amanda Thompson.  Amanda is the percussion faculty at Western State College in Gunnison, CO, and the Middle School Band Director at the Crested Butte Community School.  The students were all great and very receptive to learning about Indian music. We also got three fantastic days of skiing in at Mt. Crested Butte.  Even though it was the last week of the season, there was plenty of snow fall and even some sun shine to go with it.

So now I'm home in Ann Arbor, with lots on the books for the next few months.  There are some shows coming up in April with Sum Kali, an Indian Music ensemble, at both Crazy Wisdom Tearoom and the Body-Mind-Spirit Wellness Center.  May is going to b a very exciting month, with plenty of shows with Sari Brown, The New Green, and a CD release party with Jamie Register & the Glendales.  Please check out the events page of my website for more info.

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Dan Piccolo

Dan Piccolo is a drummer, percussionist and composer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has performed, taught, and studied internationally during his twenty-year professional career. Dan holds both a BM in Percussion Performance and a MM in Improvisation from the University of Michigan School of Music, and he began his doctoral studies at U of M in 2012. Since 2005 he has studied tabla in intermittent trips to Varansi, India, as a disciple of Pandit Kuber Nath Mishra. Dan performs regularly throughout the US and abroad in a wide variety of settings. Dan is also an active educator, teaching a broad range of percussion instruments in private and classroom settings. He is currently the director of the World Percussion Ensemble at the University of Michigan.