By: Jonathan Ulman
Over the last 25 years of playing drums, there have been so many adventures, people and places along the way, but when you strip it all back, some of my fondest memories came from the very early days when I got my first drum set pieces. When I first started playing, my brother used to hold the cymbal on a wooden dowel so I could hit it along with the drum as I only had a snare and a cymbal
It was in fact my piano teacher who recommended that I start taking drum lessons. I assume this was out of frustration that I couldn’t sit still on the piano bench, but whatever the reason I’m glad he/she made this recommendation to my parents. I can’t remember who my piano teacher was, I only remember what came next. After a few months of figuring out what to do with a couple of drumsticks, (which were different sizes), and one which wasn’t even a drumstick, the time had come to get more serious. My parents lined up some additional equipment and next thing I knew, I had my very first Black Ludwig Drum set in my room with a full size poster of the great Dwight Evans, a homemade Bow and Arrow and some Monster trucks behind me.
I practiced a ton. I worked on technique and limb independence, but I mostly listened to music and tried to mimic the drum parts. With that being said, there were two very prominent memories that are the most vital pieces to my story as to where I am today. The first memory, and probably the most valuable, was borrowing my brothers Hip Hop cassettes to play along with. This is where I learned, inadvertently what it meant to sit in the pocket. Seems silly, but these days, asking someone to keep the same beat for more than 16 bars is harder than you think. Without a strong grasp on sitting in the pocket, I wouldn’t be getting as much studio work as I do today. It’s an unfortunate lost art. So, with this, I’m grateful to artists such as Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, EPMD, Slick Rick, Ghetto Boys, Run D.M.C, Big Daddy Kane and so many more.
The second memory from my early 90’s years was hearing Pearl Jam’s Ten. It was at that moment that I made my initial decision to follow this musical path. I had no idea what that meant, I just knew that I wanted to play drums for the rest of my life and I was 100% sure that if I learned Ten front to back, the opportunity would present itself where their drummer couldn’t make the gig and they would call out my name from the stage to come up and fill in. Surprisingly this hasn’t happened, but I was fortunate enough to be able to tell Eddie Vedder this story when I was 23 years old and he was so gracious. He even left me some tickets for his show that night. That story will have to wait for another time.
Fast forward through high school and most of college where I spent countless hours refining my craft, playing in bands, whatever the genre, and wrapping my head around how I was going to make this music thing work. Throughout my 20’s, I would commit to playing in no less than three bands at a time. All in hopes that one of them would “make it.” More bands, more opportunities for success, seems like simple math right?? Sort of… With all the frustrations, sacrifices, time and money, it’s hard to stay motivated when you’re burnt out, unfulfilled and bummed that another year has gone by and your dreams are slipping further and further away. But years later, I realized how pivotal and positive those years were. These were the years that I set the foundation for which my career now sits on.
During my 20’s, I got my degree in Communications and Marketing and put myself through graduate school with a degree in Digital Media and Photography. I worked day jobs managing Marketing departments, and spent my night playing music. I was still chasing my goals, playing with bigger bands, travelling as much as my job would allow, but always strategizing as to how to change my trajectory.
I felt like I just needed a lucky break, or as I came to realize, a means to think outside of the box. So towards the end of my 20’s I started focusing my attention on being an independent musician. I was already playing in five bands at any given time, so I was comfortable with what it meant to learn and play 50–75 songs a month- spanning multiple genres. With the remaining few hours left in my day, I promoted heavily to the local music scene so that I was available to play on a record or fill in on a gig. For the next two years, I hustled. I mean HUSTLED. 24/7 scheming constantly, with every one off fill in gig, or studio session, that came my way. I wanted more! I took everything. Paid, unpaid, didn’t matter, I wanted my name to get passed around. Selling oneself is not easy, especially in a city in which “session” work is limited, but I relied on 15 years of marketing experience, and most importantly, my playing experience to go after this new career move.
Playing in bands and being an independent artist are two very different mentalities. In a band, you have the support of your group. You are all there to support each other and work together towards a common goal. There is camaraderie between everyone. You spend time writing, recording, travelling and it’s pretty magical when it all comes together. As an independent musician, you’re often on your own. You need to be ready at a moment’s notice and your reputation as a player and a person is paramount to getting more work. I wanted my name to be synonymous with these five aspects:
5. Technical Ability
So I crossed out my previous 50 five year plans and started a new one and went after it even harder.
As of September 2016, I’ve accomplished what I set out to do so many years ago. Make a career at this completely unpredictable and insanely unforgiving industry and actually see some success along with it. This journey has taken unimaginable sacrifice, persistence, hard work, failure, dedication, frustration, tweaking, re-tweaking, patience, blood, sweat and so many tears. But never once did I lose site of the dream. It was never a matter of “if” I would make it work, it was always “when” I would make it work.
I am now on the road for the better part of 135+ shows a year both nationally and internationally and in the studio for another 40 days. I’m on call for anywhere between 25–30 artists for either studio or live work who can use me at a moment’s notice. I’ve played on about 35 records over the last two years as well. I would say it’s not uncommon for me to have to learn 300+ original songs a year.
As with anything in this industry, you have to stay hungry and motivated to ensure you are always working. It’s a full time job in many respects, and the gigs are a very small part of it. I’m so appreciative of all the work I get, but never assume that it will always be there if I stop hustling. In any given week, I’m working well over 100 hours on the networking side of things. The rest of the time I am focused on learning songs for upcoming sessions, writing drum parts, attending rehearsals, travelling to and from gigs and trying to be as proactive as possible to make sure I don’t fall behind. It’s something I never take for granted and truly keeps me grounded as an artist.
I’m incredibly grateful, humbled and appreciative every day for what I get to do. I am extraordinarily proud to have endorsements with seven of the biggest drum companies on the planet:
1. Zildjian Cymbals
2. Ludwig Drums
3. Vic Firth Sticks
4. Evans Drumheads
5. Westone IEM
6. Protection Racket Cases
I have been featured in numerous drum publications around the world and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of what I hope to achieve.
The last six years as an independent musician have been pretty incredible. I am more confident as a player and a person now and I can attribute that to the constant challenges that come with this profession. It took a long time to come to the realization that with enough hard work, drive and commitment I could achieve success in a career with the little to no guarantees. But in doing so, I had to be able to strip everything away and take a moment to reflect on just enjoying it for what it is. Playing drums is not a chore for me; it’s where I derive some of my most genuine enjoyment. And in turn, I’ve started finally checking off some of those boxes of goals I wrote down as a 10-year kid! I’m still waiting to play drums for Pearl Jam though!
Vote for Jonathan Ulman here as“Session Musician of the Year” — Boston Music Awards:
Produced by: Jeff Gorra
If you enjoyed, please recommend below and follow Artist Waves on: Medium, Facebook & Twitter