What Is

Some pretty incredible things happened this weekend. Potentially life-altering types of incredible things, and it was capped off by this epiphany:

My adult thought-life has been a battle of a) “What might have been” versus b) “What is”, when it needs to be a dance involving b) “What is” and c) “What might still yet be.”

From the time I started taking lessons on the drums in second grade through high school, playing music was an integral part of my life. I wasn’t the most disciplined kid when it came to practicing, but I was gifted. I won lots of awards, was first chair in the Maryland All-State Band for three years straight, et cetera, et cetera.

When I graduated high school in 1994, my life seemed pretty planned out. I was accepted into the music department at the University of Maryland campus, I was in a band with some good friends, and we had just recorded our first album. I was a drummer. Life was great.

However, through an unexpected set of events that I’ll leave to explain at another time, God made it plain to me that there was a much different plan that I should adopt instead. I packed up my stuff, left my plans behind, and moved back to where I was born in northern Indiana.

To this day, I’m convinced that decision was the best one for me to make. However, when I chose to move to Indiana instead of attending the University of Maryland to study music, my mind started comparing my life from two different perspectives: a) What might have been, and b) What is.

“What might have been” was that, if I’d studied music, I would have been spending hours of every day practicing.

Honing my craft.

Pursuing more opportunities to play.

Becoming a better drummer.

“What is” was that I was someone who didn’t have time to do any of those things because I needed to work to make ends meet. Thankfully, music didn’t completely disappear from my life, but I didn’t feel like I could focus on drumming.

Because of that, for all of my adult life, I haven’t felt like a drummer. I’ve been someone who enjoyed playing the drums, but if you were to ask me what I do, I would not respond with, “I’m a drummer.”

Whenever I’ve played, I’ve been comparing my actual, “What is” skill level, technique, and style with the “What might have been” fantasy drummer that went to college, majored in music performance, and made music my full-time pursuit.

My entire adult life, I’ve considered myself to be about half the drummer that I could have been if I’d gone to college. I’ve never been able to measure up with the fantasy in my head. “What might have been” Drummer versus “What is” Drummer has been a mental war that I’ve been fighting for over 20 years now, and “What is” Drummer has never had a chance of winning that war.

Over the past few years, I’ve been drawn toward practicing more, improving my playing, and to “get ready.” Playing and recording for my wife, Nikki Lerner, has opened up opportunities to perform alongside some phenomenal talents, both nationally and even globally. It’s been an incredible experience, but I haven’t felt worthy of the opportunities, because I’ve constantly been comparing myself to what might have been.

This past week, Nikki celebrated her 40th birthday by holding a free concert. She invited our friend Mark Lettieri, one of the guitarists for Snarky Puppy, to come play with us, and even to open the evening with a set of his own music.

And Mark agreed.

Because he’d be flying in from Dallas, Nikki offered for our band to be his backing band for the evening.

And Mark agreed.

To let me play the drums for his set. The set of a two-time Grammy award winning guitarist, who’s played with a ridiculous number of world-class musicians. And now me. Wait, what?

I immediately had a mental list of a dozen drummers locally who would absolutely crush Mark’s set. But I kept that list to myself, decided to accept the challenge, and immediately began praying that I had chosen wisely.

I practiced my ass off for weeks in preparation, because I knew that I had one shot. I wasn’t just doing this so Mark would be pleased with our performance. I was doing it so that I might finally win the war.

The show was this past Friday night. Not only did I not pee myself (which was a victory in and of itself), but it was a rare moment when I was actually proud of how I performed. And we even got to play with him again on Saturday for a clinic that he held in the area. And again on Sunday for our church’s services.

It. Felt. Great.

You see, throughout the years, people have often spoken to me quite kindly about how much they appreciate my playing. People whose opinions I highly respect and value. I’ve thanked them, of course, but my internal response has always been, “Well, if you could only see what might have been, you’d realize how flawed your opinion is.”

What this weekend has helped me realize is this:

Everyone that I’ve ever played with, and everyone that has ever complimented me, has no idea about “What might have been.” They’ve only ever seen and heard “What is.”

“What is” was worthy of appreciation in their eyes.

“What is” was enough for me to be chosen to play some incredible music with some incredible people, throughout my life and especially this weekend.

There is no “What might have been” to anyone else. There is only “What is” and “What might still yet be.”

I am a drummer.

So I’ll keep practicing and working on honing my skills. Because this story isn’t over yet. It is, and has only ever been, “What is” and “What might still yet be.”

May we all keep striving to move what is toward what might still yet be, and stop trying to compare it with what might have been… because it doesn’t even exist.

l-r: Mark Lettieri, Nikki Lerner, Stephen Waddy (in the back), me, David Phillips
l-r: Mark Lettieri, Nikki Lerner, Stephen Waddy (in the back), me, David Phillips

7 thoughts on “What Is”

  1. I watch you while you play. You do seem at war sometimes?? But all of a sudden I see a smile come across your face showing that you are satisfied with your performance. So are we, and I challenge you to look for that smile, rock or finger snap from YOUR audience. We love to hear you play and love to see you smile. Rock on my Brother. Thanks for the enjoyment you treat us to and the joy you bring in to my life. Peace

  2. I LOVE this!! And you were amazing and I love that you giggled all the way home from the airport. That’s the best part and is kind of how I felt watching you all in stage each time. So happy for you!

  3. Well said David, well said.

    We’ve spent a lot of time fighting the same internal battle.

    Thanks for bringing clarity to my very muddy perception of my musicianship.

    1. You are welcome, my friend. I’m glad to be sharing this journey with you. Once we’re able to get out of our own heads and embrace the musicians that we are (while always striving to improve), we’re gonna rock this funky joint. Or something like that…

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