“Shedding,” what does it mean? / The comeback of George Foreman.

Posted on August 24, 2011

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In the last installment of this blog I wrote about how recording in the studio can be an opportunity to really examine the precision, or lack of, in your playing. Over the past few weeks I have been doing a lot of recording work, with ALO and other artists, and added recording to my practice regimen, which has helped me to hone in on timing and improving the feel of what I am intending to play.

That word, “intention,” keeps coming up for me. As I listen back to recordings of my performances, I often hear a slight difference between how I intended something to sound, and how it actually came out- usually in the areas of timing and feel. That conundrum was the subject of my last article. Breaking down the offending beat or lick and closely examining what-went-wrong-where helps remedy the problem, and I think that this form of deconstructive analysis is the core of any practice, musical or otherwise.

I am amazed at how the process of this intensive practice, which I thought would be primarily additive, has ended up becoming mostly subtractive. This is predicted by Kenny Werner in his book Effortless Mastery when he instructs the reader to take an honest inventory of what he knows and doesn’t know “as dispassionately as if checking on our supply of groceries or toilet paper.” How does intention relate to effortlessness? When musical intentions overshoot an effortless performance, the end result suffers.

I saw a fellow drummer a couple of weeks ago at a festival we were both playing. He is hip to my “masters project” and asked me how the “shedding” was going. He obviously meant “woodshedding,” musician jargon for intense and focused practice. But I’ve been so immersed in the discipline of “shedding” stuff I don’t really “own” as a player that I really had to do a mental double take to understand his question. I think that means I’m on the right track. And sure enough, the less I play (and it feels like I’m barely playing anything at times) the more people seem to have a positive reaction to my performance.

Entropy is a concept that lends itself to this practice. In its strict form entropy is a term from thermodynamics that refers to the loss of energy in the transference of heat. But it also describes the tendency for things in nature to move from organized composition to a disorganized state, and similarly, the fact that structures tend to break down over time. Think of an old car that starts to rust. At the mercy of the natural elements, the tight physical structure of the steel that forms the body of the car slowly loosens and eventually disintegrates into less composed matter.

Over the years something similar has happened with the structure of my drumming. When I listen back to recordings from my early days I recognize that, while my vocabulary might not have been as sophisticated back then, my feel seems more natural. Notes used to just fall in the right places. There was never much effort involved- I could play quickly when I needed to, etc. But as years have passed the amount of useful effort in the total energy I’m putting out has lessened. More and more rust has risen to the surface of my sound. This partly due to the fact that my muscles are simply less efficient as they were 20 years ago. But right along with that is 20 years of half-practiced licks and certain skills so taken for granted that they haven’t been maintained, as they should. Moving forward basically means undertaking a restoration project. And so, as I look to the future completion of my 10,000 hours, I also look back to reclaim the solidity of my old self. Instead of “This Old House,” it’s “This Old Drummer.” My master teachers and I are going to fill some cracks in the foundation, spray some insulation in the walls and put some solar panels on the roof of this mutha!

Many performers, whether artistic or athletic, have managed to recreate themselves after the age of 40. The one that sticks out most in my memory far above the rest, because I just happened to see his comeback match, is the boxer George Foreman.

When Forman was in his 20’s he was a very feared fighter. He was so strong that one well-landed punch could be devastating. He took the belt away from Joe Frazier, only to lose it shortly after to Muhammad Ali who, cocky as hell all the way to the end of the match, was actually terrified to get in the ring with Foreman. Many have forgotten that the cherub-like, gregarious George we now associate with his eponymous electric grill was once an aloof, emotionless slugger with little discernable personality.

Forman ended his first boxing career in his late 20’s as a legend- one of the greatest fighters of all time. Afterwards he became more personal. A near death experience had made him a religious man. He opened a youth center and had settled into a new career as an ordained minister. But at the age of 38, he started to stage a comeback, partly to raise money for his youth center but also to prove that the age of 40 was, in his words, “not a death sentence.” Although, he contradicted that by stating his intention to eventually get in the ring with Mike Tyson, who was by this time what Foreman was 15 years earlier, the hardest hitting boxer in the world.

As Forman started the slow, methodical process of working his way back up to a championship bout many fight fans noticed that, although the bruiser was certainly not in the same physical shape of his earlier years, he seemed to have increased stamina in later rounds, a problem that had always plagued him early on. He attributed this to a more relaxed fighting style, stating that his previous lack of stamina came from fighting with “nervous tension.” Now, he was fighting for different reasons. He didn’t really need to win a fight, but maybe he could. He could take it or leave it. He had already proven himself in other arenas. It’s a classic “life begins at 40” situation.

In 1994 Forman challenged Michael Moorer, who had taken the IBF and WBA titles away from Evander Holyfield earlier in the year. For the fight he wore the same red trunks he appeared in 20 years earlier in his LOSS to Ali. How’s that for nothing to lose! Foreman knocked out Moorer in the tenth round and, at the age of 45, became the oldest boxer to ever hold the heavyweight title, won in a fight with the largest age spread in boxing history.

I remember watching that fight, at the age of 25, and being amazed. 45 seemed ancient to me then, and certainly in the sport of boxing- it was! Forman was clearly as astounded by the victory as those watching. Even someone like me, who didn’t follow boxing too closely, could tell it was a special moment in the timeline of the sport.

Anyway, the restoration project, the post-retirement comeback, the life-begins-at-40 endeavor, they are all opportunities to apply the wisdom of experience to what you have always been in order to create something more transcendent than what existed before. If you’ve made it to mid-life still alive you’ve already been a success. Let the nervous tension melt away. Perfect a style with staying power. Take inventory and honestly assess the situation. You’re older now- you can be honest. Strip away the rust, pull out the Bondo and look forward to the new finish on an old surface. Not to regain an old glory but to simply become the best you can possibly be for the rest of your life.

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Wow, I just got an image of like, a Cialis commercial. A montage series of fuzzy shots of older, middle class, men doing things like- walking on the beach with the wifey, playing catch with the grandkid, and one guy has just put the last coat of paint on his ’69 Camero in the garage, while the voice-over says, “don’t take Cialis if you have a history of certain kinds of heart disease. Cialis may cause a condition called Privation. If you experience an erection lasting more than 4 hours …you’re back, bro!”