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When You're this Good They Call You Mister

Article by Jillian Mitchell // November 10 2007
When You're this Good They Call You Mister

Like the assembly of anticipation surrounding myself, I, too, awaited his greatness. Myself, and the countless other fanatics, each spanning multiple generations and hierarchy, simultaneously buzzed with speculations of the evening’s events. Regardless of who we were or why we were there, the topic of every conversation rested on the lone and lustrous red kit glistening on the vacant stage. It was this particular kit that concealed the unforeseen secrets of its owner and the evening to come.

At the moment I felt my anxiety reach its peak, the M.C swaggered onstage and eagerly greeted the theatre’s patrons with the anticipated “thanks so much for coming.” He then followed up with these six magical words that I will remember always: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Dennis Chambers!” Without delay, the house erupted in a grandiose ovation fit for a king, as I sat upright in my seat, straining to catch a glimpse of the virtuoso.

From the back of the theatre, stepped a man of confidence, grace, and colossal determination. Entourage by his side, Mr. Chambers sauntered down the long aisle to the pulse of the vibrant crowd’s uproar and continued all the way to his throne. Naturally, the moment Dennis reached his throne was marked with absolute silence as a hush fell over his disciples respectively. It was then that he grabbed his sticks and began to play.

Retrospectively, I’ll admit I found myself dumbstruck and astonished by his mere presence let alone his extremely accurate and inspirational performance. I couldn’t help it! No one in the theatre could. It was unmistakably Dennis Chambers, the Dennis Chambers, and yet I found myself needing to analyze his every move just to confirm that, in fact, it was Dennis—drummer extraordinaire for Steely Dan, John Scofield, George Clinton, and most recently Carlos Santana—in session before me. It was his strict and controlled composure while at the kit that first confirmed my suspicions, and then when he hit us with his signature warp-speed tom rolls (with his eyes closed, I might add) I was a believer. All I can say is, wow!

We have all experienced times like these that are so mind-blowing and surreal, and it is these moments that are some of the most intimidating and valuable learning experiences that you will have to go through as a musician. So many emotions in such a short period of time. For your reading pleasure, I have devised three categories through which I hope to explain my own experience at a Dennis clinic. Enjoy!

Phase One, The Flabbergasted Phase: Your initial reaction when coming face to face with an inspirational legend is as follows. You find yourself absolutely amazed by said player—your eyes are wide, your jaw dropped, and perhaps there’s even a little trickle of drool running down your chin. Not pretty, but hey…it happens!

Phase Two, The Self-Evaluation Phase: This is the turning point when you collect yourself and begin a self-reflecting, maybe self-bashing, “I’m not as good as” phase. This is the hardest part of the experience, and self-esteem can get pretty low at times. Intimidation rules in this phase.

Phase Three, The Cop-out Phase: Lastly, you go through Phase 3, which is what I like to refer to as the Cop-out Phase, and it goes a little something like this: “Alright, I think I’ve got it! I’ve discovered his secret…it’s the gum. It has to be! I mean he doesn’t play a beat without it. I don’t know, maybe I’m reaching, but it just doesn’t seem real. He must be superhuman!” Indeed, every great musician has his or her own ritual, whether it’s wearing lucky socks, practicing religious rituals, or sippin’ on gin and juice. However, I don’t think it is enough to add “other-worldly” aspects to their playing (as, deep down, I think you already know). To me, the real reason we reach the Cop-out Phase is that we adopt Phase 2 (the Self-Evaluation Phase) in a negative way. Sure, there may be some forms of our playing that are not in line with what we want, but why does the acknowledgment of these short-comings have to be negative? Couldn’t this experience be viewed as a positive one, since you are becoming consciously aware of techniques you can upgrade to establish yourself as a better player?

Referring back to my own experience, these phases were quite relevant. As Mr. Chambers dazzled his audience with rhythm and meter (for over an hour, I’d like to add), I began to self-evaluate my own musicianship. Yes, I too uncovered a few things I didn’t like. Am I the best musician that I can be, or should I be pushing harder? Will I ever get to this level?...and so forth. We all go through this at one point in our career. Even Dennis, who hasn’t practised since the age of 18, admitted to his audience that now it was time to arrange practice times into his busy schedule. Wow! Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about myself. I guess you just have to keep reminding yourself that life is a continuous learning experience, and we are always learning and growing in our craft. And, sure, you may find out things that can really bum you out at times, but in the end, it can be empowering once you overcome said feat.

Needless to say, this month I encourage you to attend even one drum clinic. Follow up on your idols for that necessary ego-check, and strive to be the player you desire to be. Plus, imagine what you’ll learn from the experience. I mean, look at me! I got all of this inspiration and an article out of my experience, and all for just 10 bucks! Why not, right?

Dennis used the new Pearl Master’s Custom kit in a Red Glass finish contrary to his standard yellow finish; tom configuration was 10, 12, 13; floor toms 14, 16 and 18; 20in gong drum; 14 in MCX snare; and his signature 14 in Dennis Chambers snare.



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About the Author
Jillian Mitchell

As a professional vocalist (and self-professed grammar nerd), Jill brings a fresh perspective to The Black Page. In addition to earning a B.A. in music, creative writing and English, Jill has also studied vocals with Philadelphia-based vocal coach Owen Brown, known for his work with Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, and Wyclef Jean. Jill makes up the other half of world soul group The Mitchells, alongside Black Page creator, Sean Mitchell.

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