Damian Erskine

It all comes back around.

Way back when I first started keeping a blog and first conceived of the idea of the TENACITY series, I knew that the first musician I wanted to interview was Damian.

Why?  Because he is an old soul.  I knew it from the first time we met.

Damian is one of my closest friends from my Berklee College of Music days. Now, we only get to hang out when we are recording or touring, but no matter ... I know this fellow has my back.  He's a big brother to me (and I am rich in real big brothers - I have two).  We can (and do) talk about almost anything.  He is open, wise, caring, and real. 

He is also one of the funkiest bass players on planet earth.  Seriously.  His chops are jaw-dropping, but he knows how and when to use 'em.  He's got awesome sauce in his hands and heart and it only comes out at the right time, if you know what I mean. 

In honor of my new blog, I asked Damian to revisit the TENACITY questions from where he is now.  His answers from 2011 are also below.


I Fell in Love with an Egg Timer and My Playing Got Better


I am always looking for ways to improve it, develop it, get better at it. 

There are many ways I work on it - meditation, saying no to things, working from a list, cutting down on consumption.  But in the day-to-day, one of the best ways I've learned to focus is by using this tool: the kitchen timer.

How does a kitchen timer make you focus? 

Setting a time limit on a task allows you to go deep and shut out distractions.  It's you versus the clock.  How much can you get done in 20 minutes? in 30 minutes?

During those 20 minutes, you make a deal with yourself: buckled down and do this one thing for 20 minutes, then you get to do something else.

I use a timer when I practice ANYthing -- guitar, drums, bass, voice. I use a timer when I sit down to write.

When I have a choppy day full of errands, lessons, and sessions, I set the timer for 10 minutes and get small, deep practice sessions done before I head out the door, between two appointments, or right after I walk in my apartment.

I can hear you saying it right now, "Why not just use the timer on your smart phone?"

I'll tell you why.  Using the timer on your smart phone means you have to fiddle with your smart phone to set the timer and turn it off.  It also means your smart phone will be sitting right next to you during your "supposed" deep focus session.  No one -- not a single person -- does deep work with their smart phone beside them.  Get real.  How do you get real? Get old school.  Go analogue.  Get a stand alone, honest to goodness kitchen timer.

Over the years I've bought, broken, or lost 20 or more of these things.  There are a million timers on the market; an Amazon search pulled up 2682 results.  Walk into any kitchen store and there will be five or six for sale, ranging from $5 to $55 or more.

One of my $5 timers recently broke.  So I was on the hunt for a new one.

I decided to hit up Amazon and found a GREAT one.  It's called the Smart Cube Timer.

Why am I in love with this timer (besides the fact that I am a total geek)?

1) It limits your choices.  Less is more.  You can only time yourself in 5, 15, 30, or 60 minute intervals. 

Limiting your choices -- when it comes to getting anything done -- is a good thing.  Less is more. 

2) It is whimsical and playful.  The large cube shape reminds you of a Rubik's cube, of dice, of wooden blocks. You want to touch it, flip it over, turn it around.  To time yourself for 15 minutes, you push the on switch and put the side with the big number 15 facing up (toward the ceiling).  The timer immediately begins to count down.  When 15 minutes are over, the timer beeps.  To stop the beeping, you turn the cube around so the zero faces up. 

What if your sweet spot for practicing is 10 minutes or 20 minutes?  Challenge yourself and grow: focus for five or ten extra minutes.  You can do ANYTHING for five minutes more.  Or get a different cube.  There at least three other cubes (in bright colors) that count down in different intervals (the yellow cube counts 5-10-20-45 minutes, the purple counts 5-10-20-30 minutes, the green counts 1-5-10-15 minutes).

In the end, of course, it is not about your kitchen timer, but about the time you put into your instrument.  The kitchen timer is a tool.  That's all.  The best tools are the ones that get used ... a lot. 

What are your strategies for focusing?  What tools do you use?  Any tips and tricks you want to share?  We are all in this together.  It's us against the forces of distraction ... Give it up!

Scott Colley

I first met Scott at one of the semi-regular Jim Hall Invitational Lunches that happened at the French Roast on 6th Ave in NYC. (R.I.P. Jim) The twinkle in his eye caught me.  I was shy and retiring but I knew that once Scott and I got a chance to spend a little more time together, we would be great friends.

Since then, Scott has introduced me to stand up comedy and I have introduced him to the world of women's ice hockey.  He travels all the time, but I managed to pin him down for a TENACITY interview.  Enjoy!  (For more info on the TENACITY series, read the FAQ here.)


From his bio: Scott Colley is the bassist of choice for such jazz legends as Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, and Michael Brecker. His remarkably empathetic skills, strong melodic sense and improvisational abilities have served him well on the more than 200 albums on which he has played.  He has worked with everyone from guitarists Bill Frissell and Pat Metheny to drummers Brian Blade and Roy Haynes.  In recent years, Scott has flourished as a composer and bandleader.  His writing is strong and melodic (see 2010-release, "Empire" on the CAM jazz label).

What made a difference for you along the way?  Tell me a story about that moment.
I have always thought that the most important moments in the creative process for any artist are not the moments that others actually get to see.  Most have heard of “flow” in relation to art and sports – referring to the moments when time seems to stop, and one has complete focus.  There are no thoughts, no decisions to make; we just do without trying.

As artists, we work towards those flow moments.  But the hardest and most crucial times are when we are stuck.  Those difficult moments are when we must confront the unknown and learn new ways of seeing. It also means we may need to learn new skills, which we resist because of the work involved.  So I remind myself of the importance of pushing through, and working on my instrument or writing, even when I would rather do just about anything else.

When I was studying at Cal Arts, I remember a teacher talking about the creative process using the image of a wheel.  At the top of the wheel you are the most productive and the ideas simply come out.  The bottom of the wheel represents the challenge of looking at things in a new way and pushing yourself back to the place where new concepts and ideas flow.  Every part of the process is equally important.  But you have to work through every turn of the wheel or else you become stagnate.  Sometimes when I have created something I think is worthwhile, it’s because I love making music.  Sometimes I think it is because I have a high threshold for pain.  Ultimately it is probably both.

To whom would you like to ask this same question and why?  Living or dead.  What do you think their answer would be?

When you mention tenacity, I immediately think of my father, who passed away a few years ago. I remember him waking each day to go to work at 5:30am. (My mother said he never missed a day of work in 35 years) I remember him clearly, putting on his work shoes in the darkness of our kitchen and driving 45 minutes to his job as a machinist. Although I think he did enjoy his job, it was definitely not his first choice. He had worked as a rancher during college and that was what he planned to do as a career. But over time, I guess life took over. So I would like to ask him if he was truly happy. Your question “what do you think his answer would be?”: I think he probably would have several reasons, but I imagine the primary reason would be that he did it for us.