Careers In The Arts | Music: Joel Cummins (Umphrey’s McGee)
Joel Cummins | Umphrey’s McGee
A common misconception about careers in the arts is that they’re all fun and games. But to truly make it as an artist, it takes countless hours of hard work, optimistic thinking, and a voracious love for your craft.
After playing over 2300 shows in 20 years with his touring rock band Umphrey’s McGee, keyboard wizard and vocalist Joel Cummins knows a thing or two about spirit and drive. Since creating the band back in their college days, Umphrey’s has accumulated a rich history with 10+ albums, a devoted fan-base, and a can-do attitude that allows them to take musical risks like no one else in the music business today.
But how did it come to be? What does it take to be a successful rock star? Read on to learn why education is crucial for musicians, how Joel has used his music to raise thousands of dollars for Alzheimer’s, and a fun story about how Umphrey’s wrote their fan favorite tune and named it, “The Triple Wide.”
Acceptd: So, you’re a real life rock star. You travel around the world playing live music that you’ve written with your best friends, and you get paid for it! You’ve achieved the dream. Having said that, do you believe education is important for artists?
Joel Cummins: Yes, absolutely. Education is really essential for anybody who is trying to make a living doing music. I think that education in mathematics in particular is really important, so that you can manage your finances. That’s huge. Critical thinking, learning how to think for yourself, and asking questions is incredibly important.
I think with music, it’s really important to just play. To learn while you’re playing with friends, whether that’s in a rock n roll band, or in a high school jazz band. But, just playing as much as possible.
Learning music theory is also really helpful and important. That certainly doesn’t need to happen first, though. I think the most important thing for a musician is to find the love for music, and to continue to learn and embrace, and hear different genres of music. So, I guess that could be education, too. Music education can start with music history. Learning about all the different musicians and genres that have preceded the current batch of artists that are out there creating music now.
Acceptd: That’s such a good point. With technology, education can mean something so different today than it did even 10 years ago.
Joel Cummins: Oh, totally. With Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube, Tidal, and everything else, there are so many ways to stream and discover music. It’s a huge opportunity for the generation that’s out there today.
I think, when I was a kid, I had to actually ride my bike to the record store, and ask the record store guy, “what’s good?” (laughing) It’s a lot easier today to discover music.
For that reason alone, people should really try to branch out beyond their initial comfort zone of what they like. Music is being created in every single corner of the world. Every culture has their own little idiosyncrasies, so why not get out there and try to discover some more of what’s out there?
Acceptd: Well said. Can you think of any times you went outside the box to learn something new when you were first growing up as a young musician?
Joel Cummins: Oh, absolutely. I grew up studying classical music and some jazz, and was also into rock n roll. So, I would go all kinds of concerts. I went to see Roger Waters do The Wall in Berlin! So, I of course saw huge rock shows, but I also would go to the symphony and see The King’s Singers at The Martin Theatre at Ravinia, too. Once Umphrey’s got started, we got more into world music, and would go see the Afro-Cuban music festival that happened nearby as well.
As a kid, I would occasionally watch the African-American gospel church services. Gospel music is so passionate. That might have been my first exposure to a Hammond B-3, in fact! It’s great to discover something new like that.
Acceptd: And with the B-3 being such a regular part of your repertoire now, it really speaks volumes to the idea that education is all around us. Did you combine that natural drive to learn with a more traditional educational approach at all?
Joel Cummins: I did. I studied at the University of Notre Dame. I did Music Theory with a concentration in Piano Performance.
Acceptd: That’s great. Did you have to phsyically perform a certain amount of hours in concert to graduate?
Joel Cummins: There was a jury that I had to perform for. But technically, no, it wasn’t required. However, I did do a couple of concerts on my own volition, just to do them. The one that I did on November 2, 1997, was the first public performance of the original four members of Umphrey’s McGee.
One of those performances directly led to having a dinner about two weeks later that actually started Umphrey’s itself. I guess I mention this because, it doesn’t matter just what you’re required to do. I would encourage people to do more than what they’re required to do, because you never know what can happen.
Playing music with people, just getting out there and doing it, is one of the best ways to educate yourself. You can work on your listening skills. You can work on your ability to identify intervals between notes. The more you live it, the more you do it, the more it feels like speaking the English language.
Acceptd: Do you feel like you’ve reached that point in your playing?
Joel Cummins: That’s how music is for me now, but it took 30 years! I think especially the last 5-10 years where I’ve really hit a point where I can be on stage, somebody will play something, and I can play it back to them verbatim.
Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory says you have to practice something for 10,000 hours to really be an expert at something. And, well, I’ve definitely had 10,000 hours playing piano music, and definitely had 10,000 hours of playing just with Umphrey’s McGee, too.
I think you just cannot replace the time spent playing music, and doing things with music. When I say “doing things,” I mean it’s not just about playing. Listening and learning music theory and history are very important as well.
There’s a method of learning piano music called The Suzuki Method that involves learning all by ear. It’s also very important to learn how to read music, too. The combination of those two things is really going to give you the deepest experience.
There are a lot of people who are able to read sheet music, and can play when there is music in front of them. Then, there are other people who can play music, but don’t know how to read it on paper. Without both of those things, you’re a bit limited in the scope of all that you’re able to do.
Acceptd: That’s a great point. A huge aspect of what you do musically and makes Umphrey’s unique, is playing improvisational music. A lot of young musicians find this to be overwhelming. Was there a certain point in your career where you started to feel more comfortable with improv, and became more able to go with the musical flow?
Joel Cummins: Well, when Umphrey’s first started, we were really focused on writing songs, first and foremost. But, it’s important to point out: we were pretty terrible as a group in the beginning. Our playing together was loose, and our tones were really bad. Basically everything was terrible across the board.
It took us a few years as a band to get comfortable. I don’t think we legitimately improvised much for about three years at the beginning. It probably took us til about 2000-2001 to really find that comfort zone to get going on improv.
But this is the crucial thing. This is the most crucial thing. This is something Victor Wooten talks about in his book, “The Music Lesson.” You don’t have to know what you’re doing, to do it.
The analogy he gives is, “how does a baby learn to speak?” The baby is sitting around talking with adults, and even if he doesn’t make sense, do the adults give up and ignore him? No, they try to engage with the baby. And the baby doesn’t give up either. Eventually the baby learns sounds, then words, and can join the conversation. The reason the baby never stopped trying, is because he wasn’t worried about doing it wrong. Not having inhibition. That’s how music works too.
Acceptd: That’s great advice, Joel. Taking risks can be a huge aspect of success, for any career, but especially in the arts. Can you speak to risk vs reward when it comes to pursuing a career in the arts?
Joel Cummins: If you’re pursuing a career in the arts, you should never be doing it for a financial reward. Pursuing a career in music, or anything in the arts, is because this is what you love. And this is what you believe in.
I was talking to Huey Lewis about this. He said, “I feel lucky and blessed I’ve had so much success with my music. But, I have no doubt in my mind that I would be just as happy as I am today if I had never had any of that success, but I was just playing blues harmonica and singing in a club every weekend.”
And that’s what you have to remember: if you’re passionate, and you put in the work, and you love what you do, that is going bring forth its own kind of success and happiness. You can’t put a financial value on that.
So, I would say, if you’re doing this for fame, or money or something, you’re not gonna make it. The chances are like, 1/ 30,000 that you’ll have a successful career. But, if you’re doing it because you *have to* and it’s all you can think about and want to do, the chances are going to be much higher increased that you’ll be successful because you’re doing what you love.
Acceptd: Absolutely. That leads well into the solo piano album you made for your father called, “The Longest Day.” You made this album in 2014 just for him, then decided to sell it for a great cause. Can you talk about how you’ve used your music to raise money and awareness for a cause you care about?
Joel Cummins: Definitely. First for a little bit of background, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, and he passed away in 2016.
In the time between that, I learned how important music can be for people suffering from dementia. One of the last things that my dad could really enjoy was listening to music. Music connects with people’s synapses in a way that goes beyond what language does. Music touches memories, feelings, thoughts…it touches all these different areas of the brain that music excites. So, I wrote this music, just for him. There were a few tracks on the album I didn’t include, which were basically just me talking over improv piano music so he could hear my voice.
The important thing was that you could just tell that the music relaxed him. It put him at ease. I realized quickly how important music was for people who were losing that connection to the rest of humanity. It was an incredibly emotional and powerful experience for me to feel that connection with my dad again through this music.
Originally, when the album came out, we raised some money (thousands of dollars) for the Alzheimer’s unit where Dad was living at Plymouth Place in Illinois. We used the money raised to give the staff there some extra training. We also made some donations to The Alzheimer’s Association. Then in 2015, I decided that this would be a good opportunity to create a math scholarship in Dad’s name. Dad was a math educator for over 50 years. He was first an educator, then an administrator, then an author. At the end of his career, he even began teaching teachers, to help them with concepts to connect with students. That was so important, since math is so abstract, and can be tough to teach.
My mom was a teacher as well, so education was always incredibly important in my family. And you know, my dad loved math like I love music. The connection between math and music is right there; I mean, the relationships between intervals, and the concepts of music theory, they have math woven all throughout.
I always thought there was a special connection between putting out the music that I had originally made just for dad, then to sell it to other people, in order to support his dream, and help more students learn math. To further this, we’ve used money from the proceeds of this CD to provide a math scholarship each year at Lyons Township High School (in suburban Chicago). It’s both where I went to high school, and where dad finished his teaching career, so that’s pretty special.
Acceptd: That is seriously incredible. Way to bring it full circle! How does the scholarship work exactly?
Joel Cummins: It’s a $1500 scholarship each year, and it is awarded to a graduating senior from Lyons who is pursuing a career in mathematics.
Acceptd: How lucky for that student each year, and what a touching legacy on your father’s behalf. You mentioned earlier how music can bring back memories, connecting synapses that regular language can’t. Isn’t it true that you wrote “The Triple Wide” for your early keys album, “Common Sense?” Does it bring back memories for you the same way when Umphrey’s plays it, taking you back to your roots?
Joel Cummins: So, to be fair, that’s…kind of true. Jake (lead guitar), Andy (percussion), and I, wrote “The Triple Wide” on a day off of West Coast Umphrey’s tour 2001. You know, this was before people had cell phones that did anything besides making a phone call.
We were driving around trying to find a place to stay in between tour dates, and stumbled on this place in the redwoods that had a double-wide for rent. We decided that we would set up shop there for the night- because- well, one of the hardest things about being on the road when you’re a young band, and you’ve your gear in a trailer, driving around from show to show, bar to bar…is that you lose that time to be at home, practicing. That time when you’re just at home woodshedding by yourself, or just doing things off the stage where people are not paying to see you. We’d all been feeling that, at two or three weeks into the tour, and we just wanted to set up and play with each other.
So we did! We got the Rhodes out of the back of the trailer, and Jake got his acoustic guitar out, and Andy got his little electronic groovebox out, and we just set up while some other people cooked dinner right there. We just played and recorded things for three hours, just making things up. Andy was puttin’ down different beats that he had, and before you know it, that’s where the main theme of “Triple Wide” came from.
We did that in the Summer of 2001, so I don’t know if Umphrey’s played it first, or if it came out on the “Common Sense” album first, because it was all right around the same time. There’s no studio “Triple Wide” to compare it too, so I think it was just all right around the same time.
Acceptd: That’s the best! Thanks for clearing that up. So, did you name the song after the fact that you were in a double wide, but there were three of you?
Joel Cummins: (laughing) Well, here’s a funny story about that. We wanted to just call “The Double Wide,” but found out Galactic already had a song by that same name! So, we just went with “Triple Wide” instead.
Acceptd: What a cool tidbit. Thanks so much for sharing today and for all you’ve shared about music and education as well. Anything else you’d like to add?
Joel Cummins: Thank you for making the connection. I hold education very highly. As someone who taught private piano lessons for about ten years, and having come from both parents being teachers, I know how important it is to learn the foundations. To get an education.
I want to spread the love for music, especially, and get as many people involved in it as possible. It is one of those things that will continue to bring you joy throughout your life, no matter your age.
Click here to see “The Longest Day: Solo Piano Music for Dad,” and download a digital copy of the fundraising CD discussed above for just $10. It’s a great CD for the morning commute, especially during traffic, since classic piano has that calming effect Joel talked about above.
If you would like to donate directly to the cause, please send a check or cashier’s check with the Jerry Cummins ‘I Love Math’ Scholarship marked in the memo to the following address:
Feeling inspired to hone your own chops on the keys? Piano players of all ages, check out these awesome piano workshops with applications open now! Check out: Piano Texas , The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition, Steinway & Sons Piano Competition for 18 and under, or Art of the Piano for 18+. If you’re looking for some more guidance on what might be right for you in the wide world of the arts, download our Acceptd Summer Guide here for insights on study abroad, programs, competitions, and other careers in the arts.