This Kid Is My Hero, Or How Watching My Son Become a Percussionist Has Helped Me Commit More Fully to My Creative Journey and Embrace the Title of Artist

by Michelle M. Johnson

This kid....


Sam Johnson-Vrooman practicing snare at a mostly deserted
Becker Vineyards with an an early-December Texas sunset
in the background in progress -- how could I not take a picture? 

Everywhere we go, my son, Sam Johnson-Vrooman, is sneaking in percussion practice. He's been that way for a while now, but for the last 7 months it seems like his practice pad and music are just things that naturally get taken along with him, whether it is on a day trip to our favorite vineyard as is pictured above, or if it's a longer journey to visit family and friends out of state. 

This year, my child's senior year at Seguin High School and in their music program, is all about auditions, and today begins the series of auditions that it feels like he has been working towards for the vast majority of his life, ever since he fell in love with the inexpensive but realistic bongos that my partner, Steve Vrooman, and I bought him for Christmas when he was only 6 years old. 

Today, he and a group of his fellow SHS musicians are in Austin competing at Area auditions for a spot in the State Band. And, it's crazy to me how calm and collected he was this morning as he prepared before dawn to catch the bus in comparison to the last two times that he went up for this annual competition. 

But, it makes sense: Sam has subjected himself to this kind of scrutiny and judging time and time again. Through loads of practice, my child has opened himself up to the experience of reaching for a lofty goal and taken the inevitable criticism and failure that comes along with that journey and learned to grow from it rather than be crushed and defeated by it. 

On days like today, this kid is my hero. 

Now, make no mistake, this kid drives me absolutely crazy, and we butt heads more often than not. For heaven's sake, Sam's 17 and chomping at the bit to graduate high school and start studying music full time in college, and I'm 44, recently thrust into full-blown menopause and chomping at my own bit to have just a smidgen of control over my schedule! Add in my college professor partner, Sam's father, and life in our little home can get pretty explosive!

But, when I take a step back from my role as Sam's mother and instead look at my son as a fellow creative, that is when this kid becomes my hero. 

There were many times over the course of the last four years where Sam could have given up on his goal to become a symphonic percussionist and attend college as a music performance major. There were auditions that didn't go as well as he needed them to, there was critical and sometimes emotionally painful feedback that was challenging to bounce back from, there was pressure from peers to spend his time differently, there was the eventual recognition that to achieve greater growth as a musician he needed to devote financial resources as well as time to his goal and therefore go without other typical teenage niceties, and all of these experiences were piled on top of the typical fears and doubts all creatives have on a day to day basis. 

My child is not my superhero. 

Sam has had moments of crushing doubt about his talent, experienced crippling performance insecurities, and he has made poor decisions and lived to feel the regret about them. My child is not graced with superhuman creative ability; he is not the Thor or Hulk or Superman of the percussive arts.

No, my child is my average, run-of-the-mill hero. 

Sam is the kind of all-too-human creative that helps me keep me pulling out blank drawing paper and putting more black lines on it even if the last few sheets that I've pulled out and gotten messy ended up balled up and thrown into the recycling bin. He is the kind of creative that reminds me that I need to be kinder to myself and reach out for the support of those I love and trust when fear and doubt creep into my brain, whispering to me that "no one needs to see any more coloring books created by you," "no one needs to read any more random and meandering blog posts by you," "no one cares that you have a passion to share a variety of creative arts with others so shut-the-hell-up on social media," "you're a fraud, a no-talent, a fake," "you're not an artist - you don't have a degree in art!" Sam is the kind of creative that reminds me that this is a journey I've chosen not a just a career, and that the goal of the journey is to keep experiencing it, keep finding new goals, keep challenging myself, keep learning, keep sharing, and that if that makes it difficult to answer the omnipresent question "So, what do you do?" when I meet someone new, so be it. If that person sticks around for the answer, well, then that's a good sign that perhaps they will be an interesting new acquaintance.

I don't know that I could or would have traveled on the artistic pathway that I have these last two years since publishing my first coloring book, Doodled Blooms, back in April of 2016 were it not for the fact that its publication coincided with Sam's decision to become a symphonic percussionist and study music in college. Were it not for watching and supporting him through this arduous, incredibly stressful process, were it not for seeing how many times he had the opportunity to throw in the towel, and were it not for observing that he continually chose to keep his nose to the grindstone, I don't think that I would have had the spirit to keep coming back to my drawing board, my computer every time my life got thrown a loop that took me way off course and threw me hugely behind schedule (something that happens quite often when you're the parent of a teenager) or every time someone asked me "So, you make money this way?" (Well, yes, a little, when people buy my book or think to hire me for a creativity workshop because they have enjoyed my blog or my library coloring meet-ups. But, you're right, super-smart-and-nosy person, I do not get paid explicitly for the lion's share of the creative work I do. Thank you for echoing my anxiety's biggest and most frequent concern!). 

Even last Saturday when we had ring-side seats to the San Antonio Symphony's struggle to keep this amazingly talented symphony going financially, Sam remained steadfast in his determination to pursue music professionally. After listening to conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing's ardent speech about the need for the arts to be present in a community for it to be a truly human society, but yet noting how consistently public policy was not in support of creativity, that somewhere along the way the word "sustainable" when applied to the arts had become synonymous with "cheap," I leaned over and queried my son about whether or not the SA Symphony's dire financial situation made him nervous for his own professional and financial future. Sam looked at me and simply replied, "no." 

Sam is the kind of creative I have learned to trust and hold up as my hero not because he has accomplished so much or gained success upon success. My son is my creative hero because of how he behaves when the inevitable bumps in his artistic journey slam into him. This kid is my hero because he dusts himself off when he gets knocked down, he opens his ears and heart to the feedback of those he trusts, and he consistently gets back to the business of being a young musician, which is not performance, applause and accolades. The business of being a creative is creating, and in Sam's case, that business is practicing, researching, and auditioning. If you have a few minutes, here is Sam's full college audition set for your listening pleasure. This 18 minute video is the work of 7 months of practice, both at home and at school, and almost a full 8 hours spent videoing to get a seamless recording of his solo work on three different instruments. When Sam is asked by an adult what he is going to study in college and his response is met with, "So what'll you do with that?" it takes every ounce of control I have not to rip the questioner's face off. What my child has learned through the music performance application process alone will without a doubt help him earn a good living doing something anywhere. It has also helped him learn how to deal with such banal interrogations much better than I do.




This kid is my hero because he has taught me that I need to take myself and my creativity more seriously because no one else is going to do it for me. Music is what my kid has to do and so he does it. I have to create, and what that creation looks like from one day to the next is going to be completely different. Because of Sam, I have started to look at myself as the percussionist of artists:  I have a need to draw, dance, teach, write, paint, collaborate, share, choreograph, collage, and build. And allowing myself to engage in each different style of creation fuels me into greater creativity with all the other styles, and in my opinion, makes me a better artist, educator, teacher, partner, writer, painter, builder, creator. I have tried many times to take the alternative and more traditional path to the creative one I now find myself on. I worked hard to stay on these paths, I tried to make these jobs into something I could look forward to waking up to each morning, and for the most part I was successful. But, each time the opportunity presented itself for me to step off and away from these positions, I took it, eventually, and without a terrible lot of looking backward or hoping that I would return to that one specific profession someday. And, I think it is because of this kid and of my having access to the best seat in the house for his creative journey that I have chosen, only just recently, to commit to this business of creating and to engage with my own creative journey just as Sam has engaged with his, bumps, successes, fears, victories and all.

This kid is my hero, and I am really looking forward to hearing how his first of many auditions this year went today.

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