My first drum lesson. I’m in my 20’s, a bartender in New York. A customer had passed me a business card.
“Well if you want to play drums, here is the number of the best drum teacher in New York City.”
I remember that card coming toward me. I remember the blue afternoon light deep in the restaurant windows. I remember grabbing my future out of his hands.
My teacher sits me down at the drum set.
“Okay, now hit the drum.”
I look at the snare drum. It is vividly white. I gingerly pick up the drumsticks lying on the head, and tap the drum politely.
My teacher grabs the stick.
“No, I said HIT it,” and he slams the stick on the drum, shattering the muffled quiet of the practice room. I jump. He shoves it back into my hand.
I hold the stick and tighten up on it. I lift my arm. It is weighted by cobwebs of protocol that have ruled my life to this point, and as I tear through I hear voices: Don’t Talk Back! Quiet! Be Nice! Children Should Be Seen But Not….” WHAM!
That snare drum hit signals the next chapter in my life, the one with drums in it. The chapter that brought me the real education: no money, crappy jobs, clinging to rent control, beat-up car, and an honest feeling of joy in any part of a day with drums in it. All day long on some.
Junior high school. Taller than any other student and some of my teachers, I’m walking to a school assembly with shoulders compressed to force my head to meet my sternum, eyes on the ground. Due to a limited imagination, a very sporty girl has decided to make me the target of her ridicule as we jostle in the pack heading toward the auditorium. This is Southern California, so the stage is outside, center of the school. The sunlight is blinding enough that when I hear this girl behind me I’m able to do a quick turn to evade her path and slide onto a bench at the back without her seeing.
The high school jazz band is warming up as the quad fills. I watch my tormentor take her seat and I relax and check the band out. I wish away this school and look to the stage for a sign that high school is different. There are about seven worldly looking teenagers there, looking bored and fiddling with their instruments. Guitar, saxophone, trumpet, a big upright guitar, a keyboard, my eyes study each one.
At this point I’ve played perfunctory piano for about 6 years. Perfunctory guitar for a summer. Perfunctory flute through elementary school.
There is a girl on stage. I watch her come from the right, say something to the guitar player, smile coolly, and walk to the drums. The drummer is a girl. An electric tingle of surprise squares my shoulders and I sit up straight. The drummer doesn’t call attention to herself. No one on stage makes a big deal or regards her in any special way, and yet I watch this foreign entity as I would watch a macaw fluttering down into the Serrano Middle School quad. She sits at the drums, adjusts one of the stands, and then reposes there patiently, a part of the ensemble.
The band starts to play, and I watch her confidently drive the music and move effortlessly through the seemingly magical patterns she plays on the drums. The band members seem to listen only to her, and she leads the lovely and aggressive sound as it bounces through the stone auditorium. She isn’t smiling or trying to ingratiate herself. She is an elegant mix of physical power and beauty. For the entire hour I am on that stage, in the driver’s seat.
I hear nothing but drums in my head for the rest of the day. How do I tell my parents that this is now my chosen instrument? I try a variety of scenarios and reasons. But by the end of the day, the piano, guitar, and flute all torture me.
“But you’ve already played the piano, guitar and flute and you never stuck with any of them!”
My parents would never go for yet another instrument. With this realization I am forlorn and shuffle home, head hanging in defeat. The idea of telling my parents that I want to learn the drums is just too much.
Now when I look back, I think they might have encouraged it. But to my 13-year old self, the conversation seemed impossible.
In my house, dad was king. We didn’t backtalk or argue our point. When we got in trouble, there was no defending our actions. This was the way he was raised, and this is the way we were raised.
We stayed quiet. When my sister and I sat in the back seat on vacations and the giggling got too loud, we got in trouble. We were polite, well-behaved, and fearful of my father’s moods.
Now, I stand up straight. I make noise.
Monday morning at the day job. The band drove 11 hours from a show in Portland the day before, and since the club sold out it meant we got a late start on Sunday morning. After-party at our guitarist’s friend’s house. Drinks by the backyard firepit. Laughing so hard it hurt.
The stale law firm air hits me in the face like humility. The double life amuses me at this point. Saturday night, I signed my name on a man’s chest after the show. Blink, and I’m sitting in a cubicle with my hair in a bun.
I pour water over a teabag in the kitchen when one of the attorneys sidles up. A scarecrow of a man, there’s kindness buried in there somewhere, long tamped down by the need to do The Right Thing. He tells me a story about his daughter playing drums at a recital. How much she likes it, about how her talent just blew him away.
“That’s awesome!” I respond with enthusiasm and try to be as encouraging as possible.
“Does she have teacher she likes? It’s so important for a musician of any age to find a teacher she really connects with. You can buy a drum set for pretty cheap, or practice pads to have in the house for her to do hand exercises on.” I ramble on about various ideas to further her education.
I finish my little speech and look up from my teacup. He is staring at me with uncharacteristic frankness, mouth open. He’s made the connection between encouraging his daughter and his Marin County, Ivy League, Do The Right Thing plan for her.
“Yes, but then she might want to be a musician!”
Good breeding and that buried kindness telegraph across his face with a little flash of regret for his words, but the horror in his voice gives him completely away.
I get it. He probably hopes his daughter ends up a securities lawyer. Huge bank accounts and houses and cars and vacations: the American Dream. The fact that I would rather carry a bass guitar cabinet called “The Fridge” for a living makes no difference. My life is definitely not for everyone.
But regardless of the scarecrow’s dreams for his daughter’s life, without drums she might be shuffling through junior high right now, powerless. Hitting something very hard at that, or any age, is a revelation.
A rock club. I’m living on the road for a year, in a different city every night. I’m playing a kind of heavy rock that lends itself to power in drumming. Up until this point, my life has been one of careful self-consciousness. I’m in my early 30’s and my 20’s were spent in a sort of self-regarding haze, concerned with judgment, mine the harshest of all.
Every night, I’m in nightclubs filled with men. The chicks who attend are all sisters, there are so few of us. If we’ve never played the venue before, the soundman will be condescending to my band before the show. I use my annoyance at that to fuel my performance. I love being underestimated. Makes me want to hit things even harder, and I do.
I walk through the club, purposeful. The night is mine. I head to the restroom and see my two bandmates there, shaking the day’s drive out of their hair. In the mirror with them I feel strong in triplicate. They are powerful too. When we’re threading our way back into the crowd, their light shines on me and I am even more settled and strong.
There is a drum set waiting for me. It’s the best beauty accessory I could have. Behind the kit I aim to be huge, like a monster. I believe that to really be a player you have to embrace the ugliness that happens when you’re in the moment. Flying over the drums, straining to hit it right, throwing it all in to make people feel it, make people move. I can’t control my facial expressions when I’m really in it. I’m distrustful of good-looking drummers and singers that don’t sweat. My guitarist bleeds on her guitar. I learn that embracing that ugliness is where beauty lies.
An outdoor festival, after the set. I’m standing by the van amid my drums, relaxing a little before the dismantling begins. A man and a woman walk over with their three or four year old son.
“He just couldn’t take his eyes off you the whole time. We think drums are his favorite.” The little boy stands next to dad’s pant leg, quietly staring at me. As I talk to his parents I drag the drum seat and floor tom over, adjust them to his height, and then pat the seat. “Come on up dude, you want to play?”
He scrambles up on the seat and I hand him a stick.
“Put your hand out. Here’s how you hold it, turn your hand over like this and slide the stick in there. Okay, go ahead, hit the drum.”
He looks at his parents and then sideways at me. He taps the drum.
“No, HIT it!” THWACK.
The little boy jumps at the sound. An electric smile spreads over his face. Staring me right in the eye, he lifts the stick slowly and WHAM!
He giggles as his parents snap back a little with the sound.
“Good!” I hand him another stick and he starts going to town on the drum as I pack up. His parents are delighted. “Now you’ve done it!”
A few hours later, I’m wandering the festival, and I see the family come running over to me. The little boy is still gripping the sticks I’d given him.
“He wants to tell you something,” they say.
“Hi dude, what’s up?”
He’s shy again. “He wants to tell you that he has a set of drums.”
I kneel down. “Wow, you have some drums at home? Well, you know what to do with them, right?”
That grin spreads like lightening across his face. He looks me straight in the eye, shyness gone, and WHAM, hits the dirt with a powerful thud, and adds that little giggle afterwards.
There is such a beauty in LOUD. In making yourself heard. Command the eardrums, command attention. My life before drums was spent trying to crawl back into myself to be invisible, to be quiet, to be unnoticed. But glorious sound released me. Right now as you’re reading this, just WHOOP! out into the still air, clap your hands, make a noise, make yourself heard and hear the repercussions. Sound parts the silence like a stone falling into water, it ripples out, and silence smoothes over the place where the noise just was. We are here, with the whole universe listening. Our songs drop like rain into the river of time.
Parents everywhere beware. I’m going to redeem that sad little Junior High School girl’s missed opportunity by showing every little kid who’s interested how fun it is to make themselves heard. And if mom wants to climb up on that seat and give that snare drum a whack too, you got it.
Hear me read this post here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/the_power_of_loud?in=clemthegreat/sets/bliss-and-drumming