Drummer for the stars shares his path to success at the Cal Poly Leadership Summit

Mark Shulman, a drummer who has performed with artists such as Billy Idol and Tina Turner, speaks at a Cal Poly leadership program Thursday
Mark Shulman, a drummer who has performed with artists such as Billy Idol and Tina Turner, speaks at a Cal Poly leadership program Thursday dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Renowned rock drummer Mark Shulman has played with some of the world’s most famous stars on the biggest stages.

But he spoke to Cal Poly students Thursday about overcoming stage fright and his failure to believe in himself.

Shulman spoke to about 100 students at Cal Poly’s new Leadership Summit class at the Orfalea College of Business.

“In order to play in front of 200,000 people, I had to free myself up to fail,” Shulman said. “When you’re free to fail, you become free to succeed.”

The Los Angeles resident has spent much of his career touring with performers such as Cher, Billy Idol, Tina Turner, Pink, Velvet Revolver and Foreigner.

But his success didn’t come easy. Shulman described attending an audition to tour with the band Bad English for his big break in the music business in 1988.

He said his nerves and anxiety were so severe at first that his ability to stay calm and focused was distorted — and his tempo was rushed.

The audition went so badly one of the band leaders threw a metronome, a time-keeping device, at him. “It drove me to obsession to find out how to overcome fear and being overwhelmed,” Shulman said.

The drummer said that he had to learn to disengage from his own inner turmoil and consider the perspective of those around him.

That lesson proved fruitful when he later auditioned for Cher and was the ninth of 10 drummers to try out.

Shulman invited the singer’s band to play whatever music they wanted so they wouldn’t have to play the same tunes they’d already played with the drummers before him.

“I could see smiles light up their faces,” Shulman said. “I was able to see that it wasn’t just about me. It was about them, too.”

The next morning, he was informed he got the gig and went on to perform with Cher for nearly nine years, leading to other jobs with stars.

Shulman also encouraged students to embrace positive thinking by finding a way to tackle problems rather than whine about them.

Shulman has given motivational talks to employees at big companies such as IBM, Cisco and McDonald’s, according to his website.

Shulman said the Cal Poly summit’s professor, Ronda Beaman, is one of his mentors. Beaman said Shulman spoke to the students for free, driving up from Los Angeles.

“Each of you has something to contribute, and he wants you to believe in yourself and inspire others to do things they never thought they could,” Beaman said.

The class aims to develop students’ ability to be leaders in various aspects of their lives — including business and personal decision-making.