5 Lessons to Learn from Neil Peart

by Jeff Mihalich, President

I have always admired Neil Peart, the drummer and main lyricist for the rock band Rush. He is considered by many to be the greatest rock drummer of all time. While I started writing this before his death at the age of 67 from brain cancer, that event prompted me to finish it. So, below I share five lessons to learn from Neil Peart, aka "The Professor." 

Drumming completely eclipsed my life from age 13, when I started drum lessons. Everything disappeared. I'd done well in school up until that time. I was fairly adjusted socially up until that time. And I became completely monomania, obsessed all through my teens. Nothing else existed anymore.  - Neil Peart 

1. Strive for Perfection, Focus 

I remember an interview with Peart where he talked about his goal of having a perfect performance. While he said he had not had one, I cannot imagine anyone noticing his mistakes. Perfection is something that may be impossible to achieve, but the innovators I admire seem to have a similar drive for perfection. Neil Peart optimized that in music, while others I admire did the same in their respective disciplines. Steve Jobs wanted to perfect user experience in technology, Ansel Adams tried to perfect every image. This drive was obvious to those around them and through the results they achieved.  

Geddy once joked, 'You're the only guy I know who rehearses to rehearse!'- Neil Peart

I've heard the stories. Like, Eric Clapton said he wanted to burn his guitar when he heard Jimi Hendrix play. I never understood that because, when I went and saw a great drummer or heard one, all I wanted to do was practice. - Neil Peart 

2. Redefine, Disrupt and Change 

My feelings on Peart is that he was not just the greatest drummer, but perhaps the greatest rock musician ever. That kind of drive creates disruption; Peart changed the way drums were used in rock music. The typical back-beat was replaced with another lyrical voice; Rush was able to create music with a three-man-band unlike anyone else. While Emerson, Lake and Palmer came close with Keith Emerson’s powerful keyboards and Carl Palmer’s jazz-Inspired drums, Rush brought a full powerful sound that always seemed like there might have been a couple of extra musicians. Peart also moved beyond the sometimes disjointed and simple rock lyrics to bring personal experience, philosophy and storytelling to Rush’s music. His lyrics are perhaps some of the most thought-provoking and interesting lyrics in rock. Rush’s unique sound has earned them the most loyal fan base in rock and garnered them third only behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum albums by a rock band. (Source: https://www.rush.com

For me, drum elements are like hieroglyphics - I think of a certain physical figure, and a little three-dimensional glyph will appear in my mind as I'm playing. - Neil Peart 

People don't realize the limitations of 200 words, and the way they get chiseled down into a song that has to be sung. - Neil Peart 

3. You are Never Too Old to Learn and Improve

In 2007, I studied with Peter Erskine because I was doing a Buddy Rich tribute concert, and I wanted to take my big-band drumming up a level. I went over to Peter's house with my sticks, feeling like a 13-year-old again.- Neil Peart 

For the person labeled the greatest rock drummer of all time by most, re-inventing yourself would not seem like a sound course of action. Peart, after nearly 50 years of playing, changed the way he approached playing. While the average listener would not notice the nuanced difference, Peart change his grip and his motions, making a complete departure from how he had played for his entire life. In order to keep improving it is sometimes necessary to re-evaluate how we approach our work. Even if you are great at what you do, there is always room for learning and positive change. Peart was “like a 13-year old again,” he still had that excitement for his craft and ability to learn. 

What is a master but a master student? And if that's true, then there's a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession. - Neil Peart 

4. Persevere 

In 1997, Peart lost his oldest daughter in an auto accident, and just 10 months later lost his wife to cancer. Peart left Rush to deal with these personal tragedies; He took a motorcycle trek across the US and Mexico and appeared to leave Rush and the music business behind. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson also assumed he was done, having achieved so much. One day Geddy got a call, Peart wanted to return to the band. The music they would create in their later years would again redefine them. 

Suddenly you were gone from all the lives you left your mark upon.  - "Afterimage," Grace Under Pressure, 1984 

5. Be Careful What You Wish For 

Everyone of us faces challenges; it is how we face these challenges that define us. With Peart, his first challenge was the sudden fame he achieved when joining the already-successful band Rush in 1974. The original drummer, John Rutsey, left for health reasons, unable to handle the tour schedule after the successful Rush debut album. Peart loaded his drum kit in his mother's Pinto to audition. Peart blew away the competition and had a few weeks to learn the drum parts. Peart was an introvert by nature, and while he loved performance and put everything into every show, he never liked the spotlight. 

Even as a kid, I never wanted to be famous; I wanted to be good. - Neil Peart 

I expect if you're a professional public speaker, you probably wouldn't want to go onstage and sing and play drums. - Neil Peart 

Peart had always managed to keep private with the help of his bandmates, who love meeting with fans. It never became an impediment to what he was trying to achieve musically. One day you might reach your goals. This may bring new challenges — be ready to face them. 

If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. - "Free Will," Permanent Waves, 1980 

While most of us will never achieve what Peart was able to in his life, we can learn a great deal about what is possible, about how capable we might be if we have the focus, drive and openness to change that Peart had.