//The 50/50 Rule

The 50/50 Rule

50:50 Graphic

Hi everyone and Happy New Year! (now that it’s almost February :)) We’ve finally been able to deal with most of the snow here in DC thankfully. One of the positives about around three feet of snow accumulation was that I was able to take advantage of the downtime to watch some great videos on YouTube.

One of the channels I happened upon was Tommy Harden’s ( Tommy has been a first call Nashville session and live drummer since the mid ’90s. He’s played on a ton of recordings, and is one of an incredibly elite few drummers that still records on multiple sessions on most days of the week. He also tours with Reba McEntire. To say that Tommy is a great drummer is a huge understatement. He has an obscenely high level of tone, touch, feel, and groove; so much so that listeners don’t even realize how much technical prowess he harnesses. I’ve really dug his playing for a while, and I was even more excited to learn that several of his videos deal with the mental aspects of making music.

One video that really struck a chord with me is entitled “Your attitude will determine your altitude”. You can watch the video below.

In the video, Tommy talks about what he calls the 50/50 Rule. In Tommy’s estimation, getting and keeping work in the Nashville music scene is 50 percent about a musician’s ability, and 50 percent about a musician’s attitude. This is a rule that I’ve seen born out repeatedly in my performing career, and it’s a lesson that applies whether you’re looking to play in your local session or on stage in front of thousands of people.

The 50/50 rule is not meant to under-emphasize the importance of being the best musician you possibly can be. In a professional situation, having great technique, tone, and musical sensitivity are prerequisites. While that’s not always the case in a small local session, possessing those traits as a bodhrán player will certainly help you to add something by your presence.

I’d like to relate two anecdotes that show the 50/50 Rule in action. One is a professional situation, and one is in more of an Irish session context.

In my day job as a percussionist in the US Army Fife and Drum Corps, I hold the position of Head of Educational Programs and Recruiting. Auditioning prospective musicians who are looking to join our unit is one of the responsibilities that falls under my shop. I’ve sat on lots of audition panels over the last fourteen years, not just for drummers but also for prospective fifers and buglers. On all of our auditions, prospective musicians are put through the ringer on playing and marching. By the time a player has made it to the final round, their technical and musical abilities are beyond question. The final and most important round of our auditions though is the interview round. The specific questions the musicians are asked may vary from audition to audition, but the “big” questions that we’re always trying to answer are things like:

“Is this someone I can room with on a tour for three weeks without wanting to kill them?”

“Is this someone who will be able to succeed in rapidly changing musical situations, with little or no rehearsal?”

“Is this someone who is going to lift the other players up, or tear them down?”

“Is this person going to be able to leave their individual baggage at the door for the greater good of the ensemble?”

I’ve seen several instances where the audition panel chose not to hire someone because of the bad impression that the candidate gave the panel in their interview. And all of those candidates were fantastic players. But as Tommy relates in his video, that’s only half the game.

The second situation relates to a good friend of mine who plays bodhrán in the DC area. He is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. He’s highly enthusiastic about Irish music and about the bodhrán specifically. He’s ALWAYS improving. He’s ALWAYS listening to the players around him. His instrument ALWAYS sounds great. He’s ALWAYS on time. His technique isn’t blazingly fast or showy, but his time is solid, and he always plays within himself. When he plays, the other musicians around him SOUND BETTER for having him there. He does a lot of local session playing, and he’s recently been getting hired to do more recording and live performance work. Are there “better”, more technically proficient players in the area? Yes. But people like working with my friend because of all of the above-mentioned characteristics.

So what is the moral of all of this? In short, do everything you can to be the best musician you can be. That means lots of technique work, lots and lots of listening, and lots of SMART practicing. But remember, all of that work on playing is only 50% of the total picture. Maybe you’re naturally a positive person, or if you’re like me, positivity is something you have to constantly work on. You might need to ask yourself some hard questions like “do other people enjoy my company? Am I really adding to the musical situation? What can I do to lift up the OTHER players?” If you give it a try, I bet you’ll end up finding it rewarding, even if it’s tough at first.



  1. Fred January 31, 2016 at 4:22 pm - Reply

    Really enjoyed this blog. 50/50 I hope to eventually find some people locally to get together and play with and if I do I’ll definately take this advice with me. Like he said, it’s gotta be fun!

  2. Matthew
    Matthew January 31, 2016 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    Thanks Fred! Tommy knows what’s up! 🙂

  3. Jim Stickley February 5, 2016 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    Very cool, Matt. And so true!

  4. Randy Feener February 26, 2016 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    Not being the best percussionist out there , ( I play conventional drums, Cajon and adore the Bodhran) I always make sure that they remember WHO I was. The instruments do not talk and my body does not make the sounds. The two have work together. A nice even mix of instrument and personality I think will endure in most situations. Thanks Matt for bringing this to light again. I remember watching this a long time ago. Great to see it again.

    • Matthew
      Matthew February 29, 2016 at 6:54 pm - Reply

      Great insights, Randy! I agree 100%, and I bet Tommy does as well 😄

  5. Joseph April 3, 2016 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    I’m new to the community and catching up. This topic reminded me of a experience I had while getting back into drumming after raising five kids and not doing much playing. A chance encounter led me to become a student of Duane Thamm, Sr, a great percussionist and teacher, and always a positive, encouraging person. At Andy’s Jazz Club, he introduced me to Barrett Deems, who was then in his 80’s and still driving a big band at another Chicago club. Mr. Deems said, “Your teacher tells me you’re a drummer,” to which I replied (feeling a bit embarrassed given my rustiness on the drume) “No, I’m just trying.” Mr. Deems then said with a smile, “That’s all any of us are doing, sonny.” Hearing recordings of some drummers, I feel intimidated and wonder why I’m even trying to play. But Mr. Deems’ attitude saves the day, and I can have fun. And I’ve noticed that some, but not all, drummers’ recordings leave me encouraged and happy to be part of this. I imagine their attitude comes through their playing.
    Joe Martin

    • Matthew
      Matthew April 3, 2016 at 4:53 pm - Reply

      That’s a great story, Joe! And also a great sentiment! It’s that old adage that the more one learns, the more one realizes how much he still doesn’t know. This music thing generally, and this bodhrán thing specifically, are a lifelong journey if one really keeps pushing forward.

Leave A Comment