The Heartbreak of Instruments

If it isn’t apparent by now, I will say again, I love playing drums. Often, at the end of the night as I’m packing them up, loading them out, someone comments on the extra work of a drummer, all those pieces and the hassle. My standard response is, “That’s the price you pay for playing the best instrument.” I really never mind it, the setting up and tearing down, lugging around that heavy box of hardware or those cumbersome cases. It’s the price I pay.

There is one thing that I envy about guitarists, though. I envy the ability to just pick up your instrument and play it whenever and wherever you are. I have a vision of being able to lie on the couch and watch a romantic comedy while my fingers practice geometry on the strings. I have a set of practice pads that I can sit down at in my home, but it’s still more of an effort than I imagine it is with a guitar. It’s not comfy.

Having so much contact with the wood and the strings, that constant tactile experience, must be so comforting. It’s different than with drums. My relation with my drums is mostly stick onto drumhead. Still, I am deeply in love with my drums and they are alive to me, in a way. They have a personality: workhorses, they’re not concerned with any aesthetic concerns or frilliness. They require power and stamina to make them sing out, and they don’t suffer a light touch. They just want to be on stage. They are masters at catching the resonant frequencies of the other instruments in the band and ringing out a deeply connected vibration. They stand up to the constant traveling well, and their 3-ply shells are light to carry and make their voice particularly loud. They are my drums, and they resonate for me only. I see them from across the room and I still feel the way I did the first time I saw them, stacked up in my practice room by a fellow drummer who was planning on selling them. My whole body sort of reached out and I had a single clear thought: oh! There are my drums!

I know there is a kind of magic that happens to guitars with all that intense physical connection with their players. Our energy, our emotions, our vibrations, it is all manifest energetically. Wood is porous, once alive, and the work and concentration and passion and creativity flowing from hands on a fret board must sink in, find the space in the soul of the instrument that absorbs this energy of the player. I imagine that the feel is second nature, that a player can pick up their guitar and know the smallest things about the instrument that only she would know, learned in hours and hours of such careful and pinpointed touch. The small anomalies, the rise of the frets, the weight of the strings and their distance to neck. The little things that signal position that only your fingers would know.

So much love is transmitted into a guitar; so many moments of pure focus, of pinpoint attention, of breakthroughs and live energy. So many times reached for to comfort, to console, to soothe. Guitars are cried over, danced with, dreamed upon. For a player who works with the guitar for a living, every aspiration and fantasy, every night of slogging it out or frustration or sold-out show is lived with the guitar in hand. The guitar becomes an appendage, an extension of the body, the player’s heart manifest on the outside.

Angeline’s bass guitar was stolen from a venue we played last weekend. The realization that it was really gone took a while, as we tried to search every possible scenario: the opening band accidentally grabbed it, someone at the venue had put it somewhere for safe-keeping, was it really not in the van? Then, the dawning of the loss, and then the heartbreak. We drove through the town, eyes peeled for someone carrying it as if it we could feel that it was close enough to be in sight, and that we could will it back to us. We went to pawn shops, music stores, spoke to people living on the street, put the word out, spoke to the police, did everything possible to search. Finally, we had to get on the road to our show in Northern California, and had to leave the town behind. When we drove out of town, it felt like an abandon.

Over my years as a musician, I have developed a list of stereotypes about the different players in a band. Of course, stereotypes are dumb and there are always exceptions, but I have fun thinking about it. I think certain personality types are drawn to the different instruments, and I’ve seen enough of a pattern to believe it. Drummers are often the planners, the organizers, the energy, the drivers. They are often very dorky, those kind of science-fiction loving, uncool folks who sort of let their freak flag fly with not a lot of concern of how they are perceived. I am including myself in this. Two words: fanny pack.

Guitarists tend to be meticulous, exacting, humble and insecure in the sense that they rarely believe they are as good as they are. Singers are wild cards, usually with some kind of simmering unrest in the center of themselves. That unrest can either make for someone you are driven to want to do everything for, or someone whom you are driven to get away from.

Bassists, they may be my favorite. Deep, private, with their own secret garden that is never revealed. They are usually an awesome hang. Funny, wry, easy-going and smart. Strange and interesting in their ways. They tend to disappear and reappear in a kind of magic intuition as to when they’re needed. There is something about those low and long sound waves that translate into an intuitive spookiness that I’ve witnessed in bass players I have loved as friends. They are often slow to react, but incredibly thoughtful and wise when they do.

Angeline is all these things, but I don’t know that I could explain just how smart, how deep, how intuitive or how much fun she is. She is a musician in the flow of a beautiful career, always learning, always working, always open to experience and to being completely present in everything she undertakes. She is an enigma, with an open, emotional expressiveness combined with a secret interior that is irresistible.

As a drummer, to play with Angeline is to be set to flying. Her feel and timing provides a kind of bed on which the drums rest solidly, and because of that I become a better player, anchored in that creative and solid flow, free to play with structure. I treasure this musical connection. I know every drummer she plays with feels this way, and I count myself fortunate to get to spend so much time on stage with her.

The day we lost the bass, I watched Angeline go through stages of grief: disbelief, hope, despair, sorrow. I think it’s been at least 12 years of her relationship with this instrument. Twelve years of what seems like constant connection. All of those hours, well over the 10,000 that goes into making someone a master of their instrument. All of that energy, all of that soul. It truly was a shock that the bass was gone. It was hard to believe that it wasn’t sort of magically protected by the pure sweat and energy that she had poured into it over those years.

We had a 7-hour drive to the North, and the mood in the van volleyed between positive hope of bringing the bass back to us, and heartbreak. Zepparella is made up of four people who truly believe in the power of positive thinking. We also recognize that there is a benefit to allowing pain in, to face head-on the very real emotions that storm through the body. So it went that day.

Here is the beautiful thing, the reason that I am beyond proud to call these people bandmates and friends. By the time we reached the venue, scurrying about to set up and make up for being so late, Angeline was peaceful. Of course, she was and still is frustrated, angry, devastated, following leads. But that night, she was light.

It is remarkable to see someone deal with hurt this way. As we drove, we saw the news of the theft circulate through the internet like wildfire. People were taking it on themselves to search, stopping in at pawn shops and flea markets, offering money and time, putting up posters, sending energy and condolences. As the day went on, I saw how this lightened her. It is the sign of an evolved human to feel gratitude in the midst of pain. I saw her come to live in that gratitude during the course of the day, and by the evening, after the show, when we were a little drunk and hanging out at the end of what seemed like an interminable day, she was able to just be.

I aspire to deal with difficulty in this way. Giving grief and anger their moment, and then moving past the extreme feelings to a calm and useful energy. Gratitude is a way in, recognizing the care and love that people send your way during these times. Things come through our life that cause us so much pain. What a gift to have such inspiring friends to learn from.

I will now end this to go do some nice voodoo to reunite us soon with our lost heart.

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You can hear me read this here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/heartbreak-of-instruments?in=clemthegreat/sets/bliss-and-drumming

8 thoughts on “The Heartbreak of Instruments”

  1. I was so sad to hear of Angeline’s loss. Even though I’m only a learner ( maybe intermediate level at best) I can really empathise with her having that beautiful instrument stolen. Sending all the positive energy I can to try and help them to reunite. Oh, the blog….this episode is one of your best, I think. I hope I can be one of “your” bassists when I become good enough 🙂

  2. I don’t think I am able to say exactly why, but I have tears in my eyes after reading this. It is amazingly beautiful. Thank you.

  3. It’s great to read your thoughts on the various instruments and your relationships with them, but there’s still one thing that drowns out everything else you said. That bass needs to come home!

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