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“You’ll be able to keep the beat if you are constantly returning to it.” – Marcus Aurelius

Keeping the Beat

It’s literally impossible to “keep a beat”, but that’s exactly what all band members – and arguably all musicians – must do.  The beat of our tune is supposed to tick along at a pace of, let’s say, 120 beats per minute (bpm).  A terrible musician (especially evident when it’s a drummer) will take off at 120 bpm and stay almost perfectly there for the rest of the song.

“Almost perfectly” is a huge problem!  Keeping a pace of 120 bpm without sliding to at least 119 or 121 is a feat that even the world’s best drummer could never accomplish. But with an error margin of only 1bpm, that drummer will be off by an entire additional beat every minute.  Just one beat off is utter cacophony – no relationship to the rest of the band whatsoever.  By the time the song is done, even the world’s best drummer would be off by 4 or 5 beats, drumming in his own little, unrelated (but almost perfect) world for the vast majority of the song.

A slightly better musician will notice if, for example, by the end of the verse he’s not really with the band.  He’ll take a short pause, but long enough to hear the rest of the band instead of himself, and will resume his playing at the pace of the band.

But the rest of the band can’t “keep a beat” either, so they’re all going to fall apart long before the end of the first verse.

The better musicians check in more frequently.  It’s impossible to check in constantly; at some point, the brain also has to send signals to the body parts that make the music happen.  But we can check in every beat, and make adjustments.  Or every half a beat, or every millisecond.  The best musicians are running a program in the back of their mind that just listens to the rest of the band, checking in thousands of times in a song, and making tiny little adjustments.  The more miniscule the adjustments, the better the musician.

It’s Not That Easy

Not everyone who can hear a beat can keep a beat.  Even a talented musician who can hear that the beat is supposed to happen riiiiiiight……………NOW!  is gonna play the beat too late!  It takes time for the brain to tell the arm to move and the stick to rise and then fall again to the drum. And the sound has to travel through the air to the ears.

The goal is that the soundwaves from your instrument will line up perfectly with the beat from the rest of the band.  So “keeping a beat” means making a prediction about where the beat is going to be, planning ahead to make a sound at the point of the prediction, inevitably being slightly too early or too late, evaluating the sound, and readjusting for the next prediction.  It’s nothing but a constant string of hundreds of failed prophecies.

Handling Failure

All musicians sometimes get caught up in the notes we’re playing and forget to listen to the band. The beginners usually look quizzically at their instrument, hoping the rest of the band will also wonder what must be wrong that could force a great musician like us make a terrible sound like that!

But the best players keep playing, unsurprised and undeterred by their flawed predictions, just grateful to be sharing the stage with all the other imperfect musicians.

After all, this is art.  This is beautiful.  This is what we’re doing here.

Everyone’s a Musician

The same is true of life.  We make predictions, called “plans”, because we must!

  • I need to pick up milk today
  • I have a meeting with my boss in the morning
  • My kid is having a birthday this weekend
  • I’m booking a flight for our vacation

And then we start to feel sick.  Our car breaks down.  Our pet runs away.

Our prediction failed us!  And everything we built on it has suddenly crumbled.  In that moment, we have limited options:

  1. Fight against the failure with things like
    1. Throwing a fit
    2. Quitting
    3. Making excuses
    4. Trying to push ahead anyway
    5. Avoiding plans in the future
  2. Or we can make another inevitably flawed prediction, just grateful to be sharing the human experience with all the other imperfect prophets.

After all, this is life.  This is beautiful.  This is what we’re doing here.

So What?

First, have grace for yourself.  A person who thinks they are “dependable” is as delusional as a musician who thinks they can “keep a beat.”  You were never in control.  You never owned the beat. Don’t place your self-worth in your ability to do the impossible.

Second, check in more frequently.  The bigger the prediction, the more susceptible it is to inaccuracy.  Spend time doing the “pointless” check-ins: meditate, interact with nature, eat real food, stretch, touch your loved ones, enjoy your hobbies.  Do all the things you would do to get back into the beat if you were off.  Checking in and finding you’re on the beat in no way proves that checking in is a waste of time.  The best musicians are the ones who need to check in the least and do it the most.

Third, have grace for others.  Even when they lie and make up excuses.  Smile; don’t call them out; keep playing.  They’re learning their lesson without your ridicule.  (And remember you’ve done the same thing yourself.)

At least that’s how I currently see it.  Where could I change or improve this idea?