Sunday, December 15, 2013

Drumming: The Early Years

What goes through the head of an eight year old? That was a long time ago for me, so I can't remember a whole lot besides hot dogs, but one important thing I can tell you is that it was when I first became captivated by the drums. I also think eight years old is about the age when your dreams start the slow transition away from "some sort of laser space hero" to more attainable pursuits.

Now, I suppose I can't speak for everyone when I say that. It's possible some people entertained the idea of being a space marine well into high school or college, but for me, I was ever the skeptical one. Perhaps when I pitched my pie in the sky career aspirations to adults before this age, I saw the slight wincing. The patronizing gazes. I heard the dulcet tones hidden beneath their encouragement. "Yeah you can be an astronaut!" They'd say, failing to add "even though they will only accept perfect human specimens and you threw up from the tilt-a-whirl so maybe try something else."

So one day, I was sitting on the porch at my camp listening to some music, when someone put on "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin. My ears perked up.


"This fucking...somethings!!!" I thought. Later I would find out the word is "rocks". Before this time, I guess music had never really grabbed me. Maybe because it had always been something that was just on in the background. Or maybe attentively listening to music was on that long list of things that your parents did, and you were told "you'll do it too someday!" and you nodded while actually thinking "no that's something old people do, and I'll never be old, so..." Or maybe it was because I was fucking eight.

Whoever put on that Led Zeppelin album has no idea how much they changed my life. The guitars were all SQUEEEELAAAA and the vocals were all HRRMMAAADEEERRROOO but what REALLY got me was the BEAT. So POWERFUL. It hit me on a truly primal level. I'm not sure if it was a chance mix of circumstances that led to that event, or if it was bound to happen because it was just coded in my DNA or what. But that's when I made my decision. Drums for me! Nothing else for my whole life thanks!


So I'm dreaming of drums all the time at this point, just scheming how I could possibly get my hands on some. I knew it was more complicated than

Parents: Ok.

So I had to bide my time. What opportunities did I have to play? Let's see..I know! My second cousin had a drum set! He was several years older, and I heard he was super good. So, how to make this guy my new best friend and use him for his shit? Well luckily it never came to that, because I heard he would be bringing his equipment to our upcoming family reunion!!! The drums were so close I could TASTE THEM. They tasted like WOOD AND METAL SCREWS.


So there we were at the family reunion in a giant field by my Dad's cousin's house. The field was full of tents, a giant fire pit, and a small stage with the mighty drum set. I knew about five of the probably ten million people there. How many first cousins do you have reader? A few? More than ten? Well my Dad has about forty. FORTY. And they were mostly all there. And they all had kids. And they all brought friends.

So I was a shy kid, and I didn't really have the fortitude to stroll up to my older cousin amongst the hubub and say "Hi can I play your drums?" So what I'd do is walk near my parents and say something like "wow, look at those drums! Sure wish I could play 'em!" My parents were well aware of my percussive desires, and of my shyness, so they got the hint that they were gonna have to pull some strings. I distinctly remember my dad asking my cousin if he wouldn't mind letting me play the drums, while I was close by all fucking

And my cousin said something like "sure."


So now I just had to wait til the drums were available.

Well, I think the theme of this family reunion must've been "let's never stop playing music ever" so I had very few opportunities to actually try my hand. It was like sitting at a shitty concert with the promise of pie after the band is done, except the band never finishes and you start to convince yourself you don't like pie that much and you should just fucking leave.

When suddenly BAM! Opportunity! YES! But what's this? Who the fuck are you? This stupid little fat blonde kid hopped up onto the drums and just started smacking the shit out of them. I had never seen this kid before in my life but I knew immediately that I hated him. HOW LONG HAD YOU BEEN WAITING HUH FUCKFACE?! And he Just. Kept. Playing. He couldn't even play beats. He was just hitting random shit with the endurance of some sort of titanous beast. I stewed in my anger, along with several other kids that wanted him to shut the fuck up, when finally some other kid intervened. "Hey man, you've been playing forever, it's my turn." The stupid little fat kid said "NO! I need to JAM!"

Well so did WE. How about we START by jamming the sticks UP YOUR ASS. I wasn't sure if I was related to him, but I hoped not cause I'd be ashamed to share the same blood as this stupid pile of dog shit.

I think several other kids lost their gumption and just let this kid have at it for awhile, but I was determined to wait. Finally the kid left the seat.

Because the family was getting up to play some MORE MUSIC God DAMMIT.

So I waited and waited and waited some more, when finally my opportunity came. I found myself at the seat. Sticks in hand. Feet on pedals. Behind the instrument of my dreams. And..


Man, how the fuck do you play this thing?

This was hard.

I'd spent so much time lusting after this fine instrument, and hadn't really given a thought to what I'd do when I actually had the chance to play it. Sure the guitar was a mystery, the piano was a mystery, and horns and reed instruments were a mystery, but they all combined strange finger dexterity and knowledge of tones. But the drums? It looked like all you had to do was hit shit and coolness would just happen. But my every attempt to hit any of these drums resulted in a truly impotent bellow of insignificance. Also I don't think my feet touched the pedals.

My dreams were crushed. Did I cry? Probably. I had watched my cousin and various other mystery relatives play this thing with ease. What, I actually needed to PRACTICE? Pffffff. So fine. No shortcuts for me. What other choice did I have? Hmm, school percussion!

My brother had joined band the previous year, only he played a lame instrument, like the lameophone or something. I knew if I wanted to cultivate a knowledge of drums and percussion, the school music program would be a smart way to go.

Just one problem though. At this point I was 9, and I obviously wasn't the only nine year old that wanted to be a drummer, and to prevent a band comprised of one flute, three trumpets and eighty drummers, there was a stipulation. To join percussion, you need to have taken at least two years of piano lessons.

Woulda been nice if they'd told us this shit when I was seven. I had of course taken zero years of piano lessons, and wondered how I was going to overcome this hurdle. Luckily my parents talked to the band director, who graciously made an exception, with the caveat that I start piano lessons now, and take them in tandem with music lessons through the school. I would later hear from the band director the conversation went something like this:

Band Director: To play percussion you need at least two years of piano under your belt.
Parents: Well, he hasn't taken any lessons, but he really wants to play drums.
Band Director: I know, a lot of kids want to play drums, but without the piano lessons, we can't do it.
Parents: You don't understand. He really wants to play drums.

I like to imagine my parents subtly sharpening a knife during that last bit.

So the band director relented, and I was in! And it was BOORRRINNNGG!! First, drums are loud and expensive and my parents sure as fuck weren't gonna drop hundreds of dollars on something I'd get sick of, so I'd have to struggle through years of piano and percussion lessons before having a drum set of my own.

Second, percussion lessons in school were very much not drums. It was all orchestra bells and practice pads. Orchestra bells look like this:

And if you're wondering how the general populace felt about this instrument, here is a 100% real transcription of a conversation I had with two guys at my bus stop:

Guy one: What are those?
Me: Bells.
Guy two: You play the bells?
Me: Yes.
Guy one: Bells are stupid!
Guy two: Bells are boring!

So there's that. 

Practice pads look like this:

If you're struggling to figure out exactly what you're looking at, just imagine a drum, minus everything fun. Using these helped us get our chops up, without the noise. The noise was like 90% of the reason I chose drums in the first place, so this was a fucking travesty. The fact that I put up with this shit for years shows you just how badly I needed to play drums to be happy with my life.

I was only so patient, and I think my parents sensed that, because a couple years after I started playing percussion, I got my very own snare drum. There was still no "full drum set" yet, but I at least got part of the real thing. The only thing was, when you hear a snare drum on a recording, you're hearing an amplified, EQ adjusted snare hit. When you play one of those babies in real life you get weird ass overtones and rings and buzzes and echoes. I was disenchanted, but persevered, figuring all I had to do to achieve that idealized sound was to buy a one million dollar snare drum at some point in the future. I'd already been patient, so what's a few extra years or decades? Incidentally, I later discovered you just needed quality drumheads, proper tuning and muffling pads.

A bit after the snare drum years, I became aware that Junior high Jazz Band was a thing. Ahh Junior high Jazz..let's take some of the most stylistically complicated music there is, and hear it played by a bunch of shitty kids. Gotta start somewhere though, so I stayed after school and got to fiddle around a bit a couple times a week. By now I was coordinated enough to play simple beats, though not well. There was also the problem of the other drummer.

He was better than me, because he had already been playing for a couple years at this point. This did wonders for my confidence, as any smidgen of improvement I felt I'd made was quickly overshadowed by his superior skill set. So I was relegated to conga drums, or what everyone else liked to call the bongos. Because to most people every hand drum is a fucking bongo drum. 


I think the band director saw me deflate when I got my new assignment, so he was very supportive and talked up the congas like they were some sort of backbone of the band. I think he even played a couple of tunes with congas in them for me. I feigned enthusiasm, cause I understood he was just trying to make me feel better about sucking, but really the congas were just a way to say "I've heard you play drums, and I think you'd be better suited to play far fewer of them. Also we're going to take away your sticks." But dammit I played the fuck out of those things to the point where my joints ached from slamming them incredibly hard with virtually zero proper technique. Still pretty sure nobody heard me. 

But it's ok. Soon I would get a drum set all my own.

To be continued.