Perspective: Of Sticks, Stones, and Glass Houses

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 12, 2015

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Mike Lawson (c) Sterling OrtizThis issue of SBO combines our College Search and Career Guide, along with our annual focus on percussion. I interviewed a lot of great musicians who went pro in a major way, including Narada Michael Walden (a former star drum major) and marching band madman Chad Smith, both featured herein.

I had to cut two others for space this issue, but they will appear very soon in coming issues. One was with one of the piano players from The Wrecking Crew named Don Randi, whose exemplary support in public education music programs along with extensive private lessons led him to a career where he would become one of the most recorded piano players in Los Angeles, playing on amazing albums such as Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, and whose discography I can’t even begin to list in this opening editorial. 

Additionally, I interviewed Liberty Devitto. I really look forward to sharing with you in a coming issue this feature story about a man who had a thirty-plus year run as the drummer for Billy Joel, who recorded with Paul McCartney, whose band The Beatles would inspire a young Liberty to pickup the drums again after a comment made by a band director about his future as a drummer hit him in a way that he carries it with him to this day.  “I couldn’t do the buzz roll for the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ in the sixth grade. The teacher said, Put the sticks down, DeVitto. You’ll never do anything with your drums.’” said Liberty, in that interview. “It seemed like he based all drumming on that buzz roll.”

He was taken off the snare and moved to the bass drum, which for him, as a twelve-year-old kid at the time, was something he felt demoralized by, as though he’d been sent out into left field, where the ball is rarely hit. For two more years, he made his way through school band, but he didn’t really decide he would try his hand at being a “drummer” again until that pivotal moment so many his age had in February, 1964 when The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan program. Said Devitto, “I saw what Ringo was doing, and I said, “You know what? I think I’m gonna forget the buzz roll. I want to do what that guy is doing.”

As we got further into this interview with one of the most amazing drummers the U.S. has ever produced, a man who has been called “America’s Ringo” by his professional peers, a common theme rang true. The crushing words of his band director suggesting he put down the sticks because he’ll never do anything with the drums have stayed with him now for over fifty years. When he hears other drummers like Dave Weckl, for instance, he listens to them in awe and doesn’t think of himself as a drummer. In the back of his mind for half a century, this man who has toured the world a zillion times over and played on hit record after hit record, always carried with him in the back of his mind that he was “less than” because of the scar he has from that band director’s comment. Half a century. Think about it. 

While I found his whole story, his successes, his support of music education programs today and the work he does for them to be genuinely inspiring, I couldn’t help but remember how those words stung a little boy who wanted one thing in the world, and that was to be a real “drummer.” 

Your students have aspirations. Sure those change over time, and at five they may want to drive a fire truck, be a police officer, or ride the back of a garbage truck because it looks fun, but some will come to you with a fire burning inside of them to make music. I am pre-sharing this bit about Liberty Devitto’s story because this College and Career Guide special is designed to pass along to your students who want to be involved in music as a vocation, perhaps even as a passionate calling. You, as their teacher, have more sway over them and their future than you can possibly imagine, and encouragement (or discouragement) makes an indelible mark. 

When you’re having a bad day, or your student is struggling, think about whether you want your student to have a Liberty experience memory of you fifty years from now. Your words are powerful. As hard as it might be to tell with a teenager, they are listening, closer than you may think sometimes. Of that old incorrect saying “sticks and stones”… words can absolutely hurt.

 Mike Lawson

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