Peter Erskine Interview

Learning from the greatest

Peter Erskine shares his thoughts on the mental side of music in Part 3 of The Psychology Of Drumming:

Have you ever suffered from fear or insecurity?
Beginning from when I was a young drummer being asked to perform for relatives every time they would visit our home, I have not been a fan of having to play drum solos in front of an “expectant audience” (or other drummers); I sensed an expectation that was extra-musical, not part of the naturally-occurring musical arc, and so didn’t like having to play “drumically.” I was more of a “I just want to play in the band” kind of drummer. (I over-compensated for a while, playing some loud and long-winded solos, and have been trying to atone for these musical sins ever since!).

One time when I was told that I would have to follow the then new-on-the-scene and very hot Dennis Chambers at a drum festival (in solo performance), I expressed my reluctance about playing at this festival to my wife. She asked my why, and I said that “I’ll be following Dennis Chambers’ performance,” and she asked “So?” I replied “So, he is so strong …” To which she wisely countered: “Hmm … use his strength to your advantage.” And so, after Dennis’ amazing performance, I started my 1 hour presentation by simply playing the brushes, and then I let the music take me to where it was going. This involves truly LISTENING to the music ~ even when it’s just yourself; the sound of the drums and the sound of the room and the motifs that you play and the variations that you can come up with are all interconnected, and if you connect these things to your imagination, then there’s no time or reason to experience fear or insecurity.


How do you handle nerves?
I don’t get nervous so often when I play. Performing is not usually an issue for me (“live” performance); I’ve been doing this a long time. When I was young, I would get nervous…I’d handle that by throwing up! Experience helps.

Steve Gadd once paid me a left-handed compliment at a Zildjian Cymbal Company-sponsored tribute to Roy Haynes, Louie Bellson and Earl Palmer during a music trade show. Most every drummer in attendance at the NAMM convention was there. The drums were sounding good, the band was sounding good, and I was sounding good and having a good time. So, during a break when some of us were having our photographs taken, Steve said: I gotta hand it to you. You’ve got a lot of balls to get up there and play in front of all these guys.” I asked what he meant, and he continued “All these drummers out there …” and I replied “Hey, it’s a gig … F**k it, I don’t care.” After a pause, he commented: “… the size of coconuts.” Funny guy.

How do you prepare mentally for a big performance?
I will spend a lot of time aurally “imaging” the music that I’m going to play, especially if it involves written notation, as in when I am playing with an orchestra (I get called to play a number of contemporary pieces that call for drumset soloist with orchestra). I do my homework. So, there’s not a whole lot to get nervous about. Kind of like a downhill racer on a ski course. There’s plenty of improvisation along the way, but you know the way because you’re prepared.

How do you stay motivated and inspired?
By looking at my wife’s beautiful smile, or being with or thinking about our two children, or thinking about some of the great musicians I have been blessed enough to work with. Also, the music itself keeps me motivated. I love the sensation of the stick tips touching the cymbals and drums, and I love the 3-D real-time architecture of playing the drums; composing as I play, in other words. It’s like musical Sudoku, only better.

Have you picked up any tools over the years that have really helped you perform better?
Yes … the art of surrender. I’m also really enjoying the instrument more and more now. There’s so much to discover. It’s quite fun.

Interview taken from The Psychology Of Drumming.

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