Don’t Ask HOW Without Also Asking WHY!


The subject of this post is my own response — or lesson learned — regarding a mistake I made many times in my youth: I always wanted to know how, but I never bothered to ask why…and the answer to “why”, as I discovered, is far more educational. Please allow me to explain — and as usual, I’ll pull from my history as a drummer and then parlay this lesson over to the world of voice.

During my first two decades as a drummer, I spent nearly all my energy focusing on learning very specific techniques — all the things that answered the question “How?” that I thought I’d need in order to be ‘great’ (whatever that meant), and man, I learned quite a few of them! Beats, fills, solo ideas, even entire songs! But it wasn’t until I began to try and “force-fit” all these cool new techniques into my own performances that I realized I was missing a huge part of the picture: simply having an ability isn’t enough…I needed understanding as well. This is when I began trying to figure out “why” a drummer did a particular thing rather than just “how” he or she did it.

“Why did that drum groove work so well in that particular song?” Or, “Why did the drummer play that fill (as opposed to some other fill)?” Or maybe , “Why DIDN’T the drummer play a cool, big fill in a particular spot?” These and many other questions like them soon became the focus of my studies. I mean, seriously, what’s the use of having a bunch of techniques at my disposal if I don’t understand WHY they should be used (or not used)? Just because I CAN doesn’t mean I SHOULD…know what I mean? And lemme tell you, for me this was a hard lesson learned — more than once, unfortunately. Usually, it would come from an artist or producer who would tell me something like, “That doesn’t really fit”, or “That’s too busy”, or “That doesn’t feel right (or feel good)”, or any number of other such statements indicating that I hadn’t a clue WHY I was doing whatever it was I was doing.

As a drum teacher, I see it frequently in my students: they can play all kinds of wonderful techniques, but often don’t know WHY these techniques will or won’t work in a particular setting — thus, they don’t know when to use them and when not to.

Nowadays in the voice world, I’m able to short-cut my learning curve since I’m no longer asking how without also asking why. For example, if I learn a new vocal technique, I’m careful not to use it ‘just because I can’. If the director calls for it, great — but if not, then I’ll use whatever techniques make sense for the part. And asking “why” helps me figure all that stuff out.

In conclusion, let me offer you one last tidbit: don’t worry if you can’t actually ask a person “why”. Maybe they’ve passed on (as many of my heroes have) and it’s no longer a possibility — or maybe there are other reasons you cannot go directly to the source for the answer. Don’t worry about this. Often, the answer to “why” will come to you if you dive into their world completely — studying their every move. (More on this topic in my previous blog “The Secret to Becoming Great“) When you do this, things begin to make sense to you in ways you might not have discovered on your own. Good teachers will have you do these kinds of things for just such reasons.

I hope this helps someone out there — it certainly worked for me. I just wish I would’ve figured it out a lot sooner!

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-Tom

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