By Danny Stephens
Three Decembers ago, I was playing a Christmas gig in a beautiful, big, red, hundred-year-old barn in the boondocks of North Carolina. The band playing with me consisted of my children. My teenage son and daughter were on guitar and bass. My ten-year-old son was on drums. Another daughter joined in on vocals.
It was truly an enchanting experience. The building was full to capacity as the audience spilled out into the barnyard. The aromas of hot cocoa and cider were doing their Christmas best to mask the everyday smells that come with horses and cattle. Not that anyone really minded anyway. There’s something people seem to enjoy about a farm smelling like a farm.
Smiling faces caroled along with my kids and me as we shared some of our favorites. All was well. That is until we launched into a modern arrangement of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
I laid down a simple piano part, light and pulsing, over which a softly driving drum and bass groove were supposed to appear just a few measures later. And appear they did, as scheduled, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. The drums entered somewhat awkwardly. It didn’t seem noticeable to our listeners, but I could tell something was bothering my little drummer boy. I glanced back at him and caught a look of confusion and despair in his wide eyes. It wasn’t panic. He was in control. But I could tell something was amiss. I felt all we could do was to soldier on, so we finished the song, and the rest of the concert, with no further alarms.
As we began breaking down and packing up our gear, I asked my youngest what had happened at the beginning of Hark. At this point, I should explain that he’d been wearing earbuds during the set that allowed him to hear a “click” in his ears all night. As many of you know, using a metronome allows the drummer to both set and keep proper tempos for each song. This is so we don’t play them too fast or slow in the moment based on how much coffee or fruitcake we’ve had pre-concert. In our case, we absolutely had to stay locked in with this click, because it was also synced to some pre-recorded Christmas bells and whistles (literally) that were being triggered from the same laptop. No problem. Nothing new. We’ve done that as a family band many times.
However, due to the challenges of having limited audio equipment available in the barn that night, only the drummer was able to hear said click. I’d realized during soundcheck earlier in the day that this would be the case. I’d hoped it wouldn’t be a problem.
As we rolled cables and cased up our instruments post facto, my boy recounted the painful details. Apparently, shortly after he’d pressed the laptop key that began the click and bells for Hark, he also began hearing a completely different song in his earbuds, not instead of what he’d anticipated hearing, but in addition to it. That’s right. He was hearing two completely different songs at once – different tempos, different keys, different everything.
Here was his dilemma. The band was already well into Hark the Herald Angels Sing. He was the only one with earbuds, and thus the only one who knew there was a problem. But, if he took his earbuds out, he’d lose the click and we’d then all be out of sync with the aforementioned pre-recorded Christmas bells, leading to what musicians call a train wreck. So, what did he do?
Amazingly…he played on. How? I do not know. As a musician who has played publicly for decades, I don’t understand how a drummer could keep a whole band together under duress while hearing both the correct and incorrect tempo at the same time. Much less a ten-year-old drummer. Of course, I’m a proud and biased dad. That said, objectively, wow.
I love this story. It isn’t just that I’m proud of him for having saved the day, or at least the song. Of course I am. But this story points to a much bigger part of our story as a family.
I’ve always taught my mini-bandmates that any stage time is worthwhile time because it teaches you something. Besides the family gigs, I’ve been a part of a touring band for decades, Smalltown Poets. I’ve been onstage thousands of times and have learned through this what Bill Gates and Yoda have been trying to tell us for years. There’s a lot to learn from trying and failing.
The stage is a great teacher. You can rehearse all you want, but once you get up on stage to do it “for real,” all kinds of growth opportunities arise. And, if the stage is where you’re supposed to be, then the sooner you can learn to handle all the curve balls of stage life with confidence and aplomb, the better.
Obviously, we shouldn’t force our kids into artistic pursuits that we love but they hate, push them too hard, or intentionally set them up for moments that will tear them down. I’m also not advocating that we put our kids onstage before they’re ready, just because we think they’re the cutest and most talented kids ever.
What I’m offering up is the notion of recognizing passions in our kids and freeing them to fly. Not only that, but setting them up for growth and success within their giftings, by allowing them to learn things early on that will serve them well in adulthood.
Does the “learning through failure” analogy break down here? I mean, my son didn’t fail. The song was saved. The audience was blessed. For that matter, I’d have been just as proud of him if he’d had to bail, had to throw up his hands in the moment, stop the song, and insist we start over. Heck, in his shoes, I’d have done that. I wouldn’t have counted that a failure, but an unfortunate circumstance.
Regardless, he was in a position to fail. He was on that stage, in position to learn from whatever went right or wrong. And he’s been on stages like it all over the country since he was very small. Why? Because at age nine, he was begging me for stage time. And he was good. And he was ready. And we needed a drummer. And because there was so much for him to learn. Such as, how to save a Christmas carol in a country barn against all odds.