How Drumming Made Me A Better Photographer

I’ve been drumming much longer than I’ve been taking photos.

In fact, most of the people that know me would say sticks belong in my hands… NOT a camera. I got my first drum set when I was 11. I learned how to play via weekly lessons and, at first, repeatedly listening to Green Day’s “Dookie” album (and an unfortunate Creed phase we won’t get into). From junior high through high school to college, I was all about jazz. Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Dave Weckl, JoJo Mayer… these were my heros. Such a large part of my identity is enmeshed with being a musician, and drumming has been the thing to afford me opportunities to go to college, travel abroad, meet friends and hear, countless times, the inevitable, “Did you start drumming because your last name’s ‘Drumm?’”

Well, after living abroad for two years, relocating to Norman, Oklahoma, and landing a new gig, er…job, doing photography full time, I’ve found myself drifting away from the music scene. While I might not find myself behind the set as often as I’d like, I feel the same artistic urges behind the camera that I’ve had for years as a musician. Here are a few truths that have helped me make the transition from drummer to photographer.

 1. I Express Myself Through Creativity.

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There’s been a few moments I can recall, very distinct times in my life, where I’ve had the realization that my drumming or photographing was happening out of a very simple desire to express how I feel. It was an important moment for me when I realized that my emotions were being translated through how I choose to perform. While my artistic endeavors and decisions might seem arbitrary, they are, in fact, an extension of myself and how I communicate. This is important because it makes my photography and drumming inherently significant, even if only to me. Being a musician helped me understand a part of my own identity. Knowing that I’m not just a musical person but rather a creative person has helped me make the transition to photography.

2. It’s Easy To Miss The Forest For The Trees.

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When you begin a new journey there’s so many things to get excited about. As I was learning how to play the drums in my early years, there was always a temptation to want more things along the way. The young and dumb Mason thought playing faster and having a bigger drum set equated to being a better drummer. What I’ve learned in over 10 years of being a musician is that the instrument doesn’t matter. The player does. I can (and did) have a huge drum set with 15 cymbals, two base drums, two snares and six toms and that, in no way, made me a better drummer nor did it help me sound good. I’m learning the exact same thing now as an emerging photographer. “I need a better camera with more megapixels.” “I need more lenses.” “How about some speed lights and, of course, an awesome camera bag!”

None of that stuff has made me a better photographer. Can they help me get a better image? Yes. But sometimes, wanting new gear, whether it be a new cymbal or lens, can be a stumbling block to simply enjoying the artistic process with what you already possess.

3. Comparing Yourself To Others Is The Worst Thing To Do.

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Ugh, that could have been me!

It’s in my nature to compare myself with others. Feelings of insecurity stem largely from the fear of not being as good as “this person or that person.” As I watch and listen to so many other photographers around me, both local and abroad, I have the tendency to feel insecure. “How could I ever do THAT?” Well, fortunately, I’ve been through this before. As a young high school musician I had to make the decision whether I was going to be discouraged by others success, or if I’d look to them as a source of inspiration. The latter, I’ve found, is a much healthier point of view. Why not see others, even those younger than myself, as a source of wisdom or encouragement? Drumming has taught me the difference between “being better” and “doing your best.” One matters and the other doesn’t.

4. Musicianship Is Essential.


There’s more to being a musician than playing your instrument. Musicianship, to me, is similar to professionalism in the work place. Both refer to your work ethic and your ability to deal with people. I’m not the best drummer in OKC (duh); however, I’ve gotten so many gigs as a result of my ability to consistently be on time, be reliable, help out with loading/unloading, and I’m not unpleasant to be around. Being a good musician isn’t just about being good at your instrument… it’s about being a good person. Nobody wants to hire the incredible drummer who treats everybody else like crap (unless that drummer is Buddy Rich).

In the same vein, had I shown up to my job interview for WebComm talking about how everybody would be so lucky to work alongside me… well, I doubt I’d be writing this now. Being humble, reliable, and treating others with respect can get you the gig, even when you aren’t the best drummer (or photographer) in the room.

5. YOU HAVE TO SUCK Before You Don’t Suck.

As if one Creed poster weren't enough.

As if one Creed poster weren’t enough.

This is a fresh wound. While I’m definitely comfortable behind the camera, there’s still so much for me to improve on. I’m learning and experiencing new things almost every day and some of these experiences I’ve completely bombed. I could tell you story upon story of photoshoot failures, composition screw-ups and awkward encounters that’d only serve to prove I don’t know what I’m doing. However, part of growing is pushing through those times where you just don’t seem to get it.

I remember going through the same thing when I first started out drumming (turns out tempo is important). My sophomore year of high school I practiced my butt off to make first chair in All-State Jazz band. I practiced four hours a day for months leading up to the audition. I met with an instructor weekly and still, after all that, I didn’t make the cut. Had I quit then, I never would have gone on to make first chair my junior and senior years and I never would have been granted scholarship opportunities across the nation. Drumming has taught me the simple fact that you have to start somewhere, and the trick is to not give up.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice & Shoot, Shoot, Shoot.

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Buddy Rich said it best: “You only get better by playing.” This is the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever been given or could ever give. If you want to get better at something you have to spend time doing it. Simple as that. The skills I’ve got behind the set or behind the camera are a result of the time I’ve spent in practice. Reading books on the matter and listening to albums are an essential part of growing as a photographer and musician, but it isn’t until you have sticks or a camera in hand that that information can be practically useful.

Matt Granger, a portrait photographer from Sydney, has a whole youtube channel called, “Get Your Gear Out” that’s dedicated to the idea of getting photographers off their butts and out on a shoot. If you want to get better at something, take Shia’s advice and “JUST DO IT!”

If you’re a musician or an aspiring photographer like myself, I’d love to hear about what motivates you!

Let’s chat!

Mason Drumm



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