As a gigging drummer and budding pianist in my early 40’s I’ve become more acutely aware of the fragile physical aspects of music creation. Practicing on two instruments that both require sitting for long hours, manual dexterity including repetitive motions can put strain on the body in ways one might not expect. Not to mention lugging heavy drum hardware and keyboards in and out of elevators, stairwells and onto sometimes small stages where crouching and bending is required for set-up.

There’s four areas of the body where I’ve noticed re-occurring strains and pains due to music performance and practice. I want to share with you how I mitigate the damage and have avoided tendonitis, carpal tunnel and other issues I’ve seen affect many musician friends over the years.

My personal areas of concern:

1) Forearm tendon pain

2) lower back strain / compression

3) hamstring / calf pain

4) shoulder / neck pain

Mitigating the PAIN:

Daily routines:

Full body stretching: morning and night utilizing a yoga mat

Specific hand and wrist stretches right before playing

Strengthening of core muscles (abs front and sides) with plank exercises

On the gig:

Awareness of deep breathing and staying relaxed while playing

Awareness of posture while playing – conserving energy with motion but also flowing and adjusting posture throughout the performance or practice session

Stretch during breaks between sets and practice sessions (ideally every 45 min)

Warm up on a practice pad and [try] to do light cardio before an intense set of music

Be aware of proper lifting techniques when moving gear – use legs vs back for lifting when possible and try to “load balance” right and left sides. Utilize a hand truck or dolly for long equipment hauls

If experiencing pain:

Hot baths utilizing epson salts before or after intense gigs

Alternating cold – warm – hot water on forearms before intense “chops” practice

If pain is re-occurring or “chronic” visit a registered massage therapist or chiropractor

Other considerations:

I believe it’s as important to exercise regularly off the instrument as on. My favorites that I feel directly benefit endurance on the drums include swimming, cycling and yoga. These exercises also offer myriad mental health benefits and provide a solace from “thinking about music” which can drive an artist crazy sometimes! Daily walks are also a useful free and less-intense option good for all seasons.

Choose not to drink alcohol on the gig – even if its free! DO drink plenty of water. Alcohol will slow you down, create inflammation and contribute to physical and mental stress even if you don’t notice it at the time. I’ve made the choice to avoid drinking on gigs and only occasionally reward myself with a couple drinks schedule permitting *after the show*

If sitting on the gig – stand during the break! I’ve changed my drum technique routine on the practice pad to standing only. This reduces lower back pain from sitting, driving, drumming etc…

Cheers and happy music making!

Like many music fans and songwriters alike I took the plunge and blocked off 8hrs over the holidays to take in “Get Back” the new Beatles doc on Disney+ which reveals for the first time this iconic band’s creative process as they begin to craft their masterpiece album “Let it Be”.

Two thoughts come to mind as I reflect back on this film: love and chaos. This film reminded me that songwriting in a group setting can be fun, exhilarating, challenging, easy, messy, noisy, obnoxious, daring, time consuming, emotional, exhausting, tense and even relaxing. Add to these variables technical difficulties, tough acoustic environments, pressure and 4 egos. However, I think the big take away for me is love for music and each other transcends all of these other factors and leads to beauty from chaos. The Beatles creative process might even help define the word “love” itself.

The Beatles (as captured on camera) displayed remarkable love and patience for each other as did the friends and studio crew surrounding them. This patience most importantly involved taking the time to listen to each others thoughts, ideas and musings, no matter how trivial, incomplete or off topic. When ideas weren’t respected the band threatened to “divorce” with the brief departure of George – drawing parallels to a 4 way dysfunctional marriage. Of course this relationship was carefully mended, but showed the fragility of the unwritten contract.

Refreshingly, anything and everything was fair game for a song from trashy newspaper articles to philosophy, politics, nonsense and of course … love! The Beatles spontaneously jammed on a wide range of cover tunes (often badly), swapped instruments and purposely butchered their own music (past and present) to the amusement of themselves and their intimate studio audience. It was remarkable how much [precious?] studio time they wasted completely goofing off without any condemnation from George Martin who appeared to be a very “hands off” producer, perhaps even less than a Rick Rubin.

Was there really any time wasted though considering the brilliant and diverse songs that emerged from this primordial soup? I think its time to stop taking music so seriously and Get Back to the reason we decide to create in the first place: fun.

As a pro-drummer turned pianist/songwriter I’ve had to make some serious mental adjustments in terms of the parameters of my performance standards and have often asked myself the question: When is this thing I’ve been working on for months going to be performance ready? Isn’t the point of all this practise to share my music with the world at large [via the internet in lockdown] or live for friends and family? When, if ever, am I ready? Is this good enough to livestream? Is it good enough for an “open mic”?

As a music school graduate with many years of experience playing drums for hire on recording sessions and festival stages, often with pianists and songwriters with much more experience than I, it is easy to become discouraged and think – well, I’ll NEVER be ready! There isn’t enough time in my lifetime to bring my perfomance up to this “professional level standard” on a secondary instrument. Why bother?

But wait, as I take a step back and look at the content released daily to the internet via social media, all of a sudden the playing field seems a little more level. Many people are releasing content with terrible audio, poor pitch, not great meter and seem to be oblivious to the fact that even bare minimum “professional” performance standards I was taught in college are not met.

So the question becomes, do I have the guts to just put it out there? Imperfections and all. Accept that this is where I’m at right now and I might as well share it. The internet will accomodate all levels, all styles, all audiences and ultimately doesn’t care what content goes out. There’s no “vetting process” to remove poor performances from Instagram, FB and Youtube. In this scenario its a complete free for all. Let your voice be heard! Perhaps the cream will still rise to the top…

My goal with this blog entry is to write without editing my ideas so it is not concerned with grammar. Just like improvising live. I tend to overthink some elements of art and life, and this is the antidote to that and may contain anecdotes…

So the idea for this blog came to me as I was practising Hanon exercise number 4 in the key of B major this morning. It crossed my mind that there is a slippery slope and a paradox to all technical practise on a musical instrument. The goal of practising may vary drastically from person to person. I found myself wondering “why am I practising this, wow, I’m getting better, this is easier than yesterday, hmmm, it still feels awkward though, this is a tricky key, maybe trickier than F#, why is it called chops? oh yeah early jazz trumpet – fast and loud high notes, athleticism, “wow” factor, “cutting contest” etc. etc.

The paradox of all of these thoughts as I practised was that they often distracted me from the experience of the practice itself and more than once resulted in mistakes in the excercise. Hence the “slippery slope” is sometimes thought itself. Don’t I enjoy practising to get out of my head? Isn’t this also why I enjoy live music performance? It’s a meditation and the best performances you feel “in the moment”. Then it is best to still the mind. Breath deeply. Relax. Experience the sound and feel of the instrument in the present moment. Bring your thoughts back to the feeling of playing.

SO… CHOPS. Facility? Makes it easier to play. Ahh another paradox. The easier it is to play what I’m practising, the less I have to think about what I’m doing. This allows me to [potentially] move into a state of muscle memory and engage the “autopilot” my fingers have developed. BUT once the autopilot is engaged one isn’t PRESENT with the instrument. The feel is gone. The purpose and intention of each note may become clouded by a wandering mind and before long boredom may set in.

What did I learn today? Be present. Be patient. Practise with purpose and feeling. Take breaks. Change up what you are practising if you find a lack of engagement with the task at hand. Observe your thoughts as in a meditation and bring your mind back to the sound and feel of the instrument and your breath and relaxation.

“[Burning Man] is a jaunty, joyous romp through the sun-scorched desert. Loved the lush layers of instrumentation, and it’s a cool arrangement starting with the chorus. You don’t often see that, and it perfectly sets up the tune. The vocals are unique–or maybe I’m just not used to hearing them. They exude a subtle charm, an ebullience and bubbliness like fruit that’s perfectly ripe, if that makes sense. Any more ripe and they’d start to lose their richness and full-bodiedness. The lyrics are a fun story, adding to the song’s surreal sensibility. Really, I can’t find anything negative to say about the song, which is kind of weird. Usually there’s something. But not here! As I listen again and again, I’ll let you know if anything strikes me. All in all, Burning Man is a nourishing serving of contemporary psychedelia. Great job!”

-Jody McCutcheon (Former CHART magazine music critic)

I sang in children’s choirs as a child and this song may have come partly out of that experience. Having said that it was probably the toughest song to write and perform. Co-producer Christian Anderson suggested using multiple vocals in unison to create a chorus/choral effect.

The lyrics came out of heavy late night discussions with my wife prompted by listening to negative news out of Washington and going to bed feeling downright negative and defeated.

I re-wrote the chorus after getting some great feedback from Allister Bradley at Song Studio Toronto who suggested the “Tell me something Positive” theme, which actually gave the song more hope from a lyrical perspective. I sincerely hope you enjoy it!

Here’s a pre-release for your enjoyment, available now for download on Bandcamp. This was one of the first songs I wrote close to a decade ago, originally with Braintoy in mind. Pink Floyd was a major influence.

My Simple Life was a game I tried to master and I learned
My simple life was better off before my bridges burned
For when I knew the only path to take was to your heart
That tragic love was doomed to tear my simple mind apart

releases December 2020

Riley O’Connor: vocals, drums, piano
Michael Schatte: guitars
Scott Kemp: bass

recorded by: Christian Anderson @ Cerebral
produced by: Riley O’Connor and Christian Anderson

My journey as a songwriter began over a decade ago. It was a transitional time in life where my original band was calling it quits. On one hand I wanted to give pro drumming 100% committment. On the other hand I wanted to say something in my own words and music where the vocabulary was coming from a different place than the drums.

The writing process was slow, at times painful, at other times exhiliarating and freeing. When I first recorded myself singing with acoustic piano, I knew I had a very long way to go. This was going to be a long-term committment to music that would take time and energy. Back then, I wanted to saying yes to every drumming gig that came along.

About 6 years later, my partner Courtney got me way out of my drum comfort zone and encouraged me to perform solo piano/vox in front of family. I started to take songwriting more seriousely. I took some piano and vocal lessons. I joined Courtney at local karaoke bars and open mics to work on performing. Most importantly, I started to believe in my own creative process to the extent that I wanted to get professionally recorded music out there and it felt worth it to put the required work in.

Listening back to final mixes of my debut album, I can’t say that I’ve yet “arrived” as an artist. That would be for someone else to say. At the very least I’m testing the waters and pushing my own boundaries. I’ve written songs in a variety of styles loosely under the rock/pop umbrella, some leaning towards roots and country, others leaning toward hard rock and prog stylings. I’m proud of my accomplishment and despite being not entirely happy with everything I’m hearing {few artists are}, I’m ready to share this music with the world. Furthermore I think there are some solid songs here!

Looking towards the future: I want to co-write. I want to collaborate with like-minded artists. I want to contribute more than a drummer might typically contribute to another artist’s album. I want to write poetic lyrics, paint images and tell compelling stories. My up-coming release is a big step forward on this journey.