I’m walking up the back stairs of our new 2nd floor apartment, and there’s a painful pinching in the tendon of my right ankle.  I start to lean on my left leg more to shift the weight from my right leg to my left.  The groceries I’m carrying swing heavily towards my left.  I feel like a broken marionette. My strings cut in half on my right side, while they are pulled tight on my left. I’ve had this pain in my right ankle since August. The last few weeks of that month we were still gigging with 2 shows in a week in mid-August.  We were rehearsing, too, and I was playing for several hours at a stretch in rehearsal and at gigs.  I told no one — not even you, dear reader–about my bum ankle.  I just kept playing.  The right ankle for those of you unfamiliar is attached to the right foot which plays the bass drum.  And in bass player-free duo, the bass drum is all the bass you hear.  So, that right foot gets a hell of a workout.

For a drummer, a bass player can mean all the difference in the world.  It means I can play fewer beats which means less repetitive moment in my right ankle.  The bass player plays all those notes in the bottom range which can help to anchor the chord changes and the melody.  You need a bass player.  Okay, you don’t need a bass player — obviously, because we’re a guitar-drums duo — but it can really help if you have one. Without one, I play more beats on the bass drum to compensate.

Here’s the difference.  With a bass player, I play like this.  Boom-chick-boom-chick.  Bass drum on ONE and THREE.

Without a bass player, I play like this:  BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Bass drum on ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR.

Or, like this:


Or this:


I start playing the bass drum on the eighth notes and the quarter notes.  That’s a lot of notes. And that’s a lot of notes on a bum ankle.

So, after a summer of recording, out-of-town shows, and gigs, the ankle, my leg, and my body were wrecked. Done for.

Happily, this coincided with the beginning of the fall term and I went back to teaching.  Since then I had 2 gigs with just the snare, and one rehearsal with the bass drum.   And here’s the thing:  I haven’t really missed playing the drums.  Surprise.  I worked really hard — okay, kind of hard — to learn to play the drums in three years and I did a lot of shows and I really learned a lot about myself and other people.  And here’s what I learned most:  I don’t live to play the drums.  I like to play the drums. But I don’t live to play them.  This is no secret.  I have been writing since the beginning that I would rather sit on my couch with a box of donuts than play a gig.  But I didn’t realize until the injury that I didn’t need to play the drums.

This is different from Brian.  He lives to play the guitar.  If he didn’t play the guitar, he would die. We have proof of this from a recent stay in a hospital (more on that some other day).  I, on the other hand, like to play the drums, but I also like to do other things, too. So, drumming must compete for my attention.  And there aren’t enough hours in the day for it all.  What does this mean then for Chick Drummer?  I don’t know.

Brian, at my request, started playing with other musicians and booking gigs with different rhythm sections behind him. This has been a relief to me. Not just because of the injury, but it freed up time for me to do other things beside rehearse.  I’m not sure, in the end, how drumming will fit into my life.  I’m glad I learned to do it. It taught me a lot.

I learned about clubs, bookings, fans (and what it’s like not have any), promotion, CD production, on-stage banter, and happiness.  I learned a lot.  I keep learning.  I also learned that some days we have to choose and we can’t always choose to be all things to all people.  That said – and here’s the twist – I play a gig at the end of January.  And I’ve got to practice.


While I was attending the Mind-Life conference in Washington D.C., I seemed different even to myself. Even though I spent hours in an auditorium seat listening or half-listening to scientists and educators discuss the possibilities of cultivating compassion, attention, and emotional regulation, I still felt rejuvenated. Somehow, all the talk about how other people could be happy was making me happy.

This was most apparent to me in the hour after I would leave the sessions. At 4:30 PM each day 1500 of us would file out of the auditorium and into the bright D.C. sunlight — the days were unseasonably warm that week and I spent one lunch hour basking in the warm of an 80 degree day. As I blinked in the bright light, I headed north on 17th street towards my hotel. The world looked different than it had that morning at 8 AM when I had walked to the conference. Colors seemed brighter, and I seemed more attentive to other human beings and objects. I stopped and noticed things that I would have walked right by before.

On the first day, as I walked leisurely back to the hotel, I noticed a man leaning against the wrought iron railing that surrounded a park statute. On other days, I might have seen that, but I might not have seen what I saw next. His had was stretched outwards to the grass, and I saw a squirrel walk towards him, place his tiny squirrel hands around the man’s finger, and bite a peanut. And, without hesitation, without my usual shyness, I stopped and said, “Do you feed them all the time?”

“Oh, sure.” He reached down into a black knapsack. “They come to me all the time.” He leaned forward and another squirrel rushed towards him, grabbed a peanut, and headed to a grassy patch at the base of statue. “The young ones won’t come to you, because they’re afraid of people. But the old ones come up all the time. If you’re afraid though, they won’t come to you.” And he held out a peanut to me. “Go ahead.”

I took one, kneeled down towards the grass, and held it out. A squirrel rushed towards me, and I felt his tiny paws with their tiny individual fingers grasp my finger, while he put the peanut in his mouth. I gave a small shriek. “Squirrel hands!” They have such tiny fingers, and I could feel each one as if it was my own. I stayed for another 15 minutes or so while we handed out peanuts and watched the squirrels shell them and eat the peanuts, or run to bury them in patches of grass. I introduced myself to the man, gave him my name, he gave me his, and we shook hands. As I walked away, and wished him a good day, he shouted back to him, “Hey! This one is saying ‘good-bye’.” And sure enough there was a female squirrel on her hind legs, paws in the air. I realized, soon after, she was really begging for another peanut.

That was the life at the conference, and then there’s the one I live now. The one that finds me typing this on my computer in a dark office early in the morning. There’s that life. The life where dishes are dirty in the sink, where dust collects forlornly in the corners of the apartment, and where a student drowses in the back of the classroom, his head leaning on the whiteboard, his mouth open slightly. There’s that life: flawed, imperfect, annoying. In Constitution Hall, where we sat for last week’s conference, even the most optimistic teacher and scientist could often think, “Compassion is all fine and good, but what does this mean for what I really do?”

And as I sit here, another stack of papers beside me, and another afternoon of teaching ahead of me, I wonder the same thing. “What does this all really mean?”

In the end, I have no answers. Sometimes I think that the classes feel slightly different if only because I am slightly different, because I have had a few days away thinking, plotting, about how others (and I?) could be happier. In class, the usual events occur. The students respond with wisecracks, the teachers bemoan the students, and the days have turned grey and cold.

I cannot say now that today will be magical, like feeding peanuts to squirrels, but I also cannot say that it will be inevitably flawed. I cannot that that they or I are definitely doomed to despair, regret, unhappiness. And, if that is all that I have received — the doubt in the faith that all the world is doomed to tragedy — then I have received more than enough.

One of the best and worst things I heard on this second and last day of the conference was also one of the last things anyone said. Lee Schulman, commenting on recent research on teacher education, said “No one understands adequately that of all the forms of professional work, teaching is the most difficult.”

Can I get a hallelujah?

I needed someone outside of myself who neither works nor lives with me to say that.  An objective researcher  helps to confirm the feelings of exhaustion and frustration I often feel at the end of the day.  So, it’s not just me. This is good news and probably the best news I heard at the conference. It is easy to think at the end of the day that my failures in teaching are my fault.  Or, alternatively — and this is not helpful either — it’s easy to think it is the students’  fault. In the end, it is neither. Building a collaborative approach to teaching with the students is one way I hope to overcome what could be the inevitable burn-out that teachers experience.

The sessions continued the themes of the first day, but now the ideas seem to hold together more if only because we are hearing certain words repeated over and over again in tandem:  compassion, social and emotional learning, neuroplasticity. It is various forms and combinations of those three words which, for me, hold the essence of this conference.  The question became for me how do I cultivate feelings of compassion in my students so that they can use this skill — which it is, a skill rather than merely an inherent personality trait — to help themselves and others.  The scientists and educators worked together to create a dialogue in which they can communicate about the same ideas with different languages and still comprehend each other.  So, from the researchers we learn that students who can hold constant attention will learn more. That was obvious, but a student who can also regulate his or her emotions will also learn better.  That was not so obvious. Emotional regulation was one of the more useful concepts offered by the panelists.   If a person can regulate their emotions — regulate, not repress — it means he or she can deal skillfully with negative emotions and thereby create space for learning.

Dr. Nancy Eisenberg gave one of the best overviews of this emotional self-regulation in regards to sympathy and empathy. In her example, she described a girl named Isabella who watches a boy be rejected by other boys.  In watching this situation, she feels the same emotion as the rejected boy.   This empathy may lead her to feel concern: sympathy.  Sympathy overlaps compassion because it includes motivation to make the boy feel better.  Empathy, however, does not always lead to concern.  (This is when I felt myself strain forward in my seat.)  If Isabella has been rejected once herself, Dr. Einsenberg continued, then when she feels the boy’s rejection she begins to remember her own experiences of rejection and becomes focused on her anxiety.  This becomes personal distress.    Thus, a person becomes more focused on making themselves feel better rather the other person.  With sympathy, focus is on the other; with personal distress, focus is on one’s self and alleviating the uncomfortable feeling.  Choygam Trungpa calls this idiot compassion, and The Ven. Samu Sunim calls it grandmother zen. And I do it all the time.

As she spoke these words, I recognized myself.  I recognized that when I often want to “help”others it is because their discomfort makes me uncomfortable and I want to feel comfortable again.  This also explains why could be so pushy with advice and angry when people don’t take it. I need people to improve their lives, because it makes life easier for me.  This, I realize, is decidedly not compassionate.

And His Holiness elaborated upon the levels of compassion recognized from the “buddhist view.”  There are two levels of compassion, he offered. The first is biological compassion — we feel compassion towards others, but if they reject it or are not “nice” to us, we cannot offer it.  As an example, an audience member had asked in questions sent to the panelists in writing, “How do I show compassion to students who call me vicious names?”    This kind of compassion which is influenced by the others’ behavior is an example biological compassion.  In contrast, there is “trained compassion” which is cultivated and not contingent on others’ acts, and this is the one we want to strengthen.  His Holiness also added that we need a more “solid compassion irrespective of others,” and we don’t need religion.  “It can be done through secularism.”  At this moment, he interceded to stress another point:  the purpose of the conference is not to have science be influenced by buddhism.  “This is wrong,” he said.   “We’re not here to prove next life — it is buddhist business. We never try to prove there is a god or heavens. This is none of our business.  These are not universals.  That is religion.  What we are discussing  is the potential to develop inner peace. We must remain strictly in the demarcation of secularism.”  This was followed by a round of applause.  An important point given that the audience members were mostly educators, scientists, policy-makers, and foundation directors and donors.   He’s a shrewd one that Dalai Lama.

And even as I write all this, I realize I am creating a false impression. That these ideas as I summarize them were readily accessible at the conference. I had to concentrate hard for two days, and I have compressed my notes into a picture of a narrative with unity and coherence that, had you been there, you might not have felt yourself. In the end, this  writing is a brief summary of what I could take away from a conference that at times left me fatigued from the effort to concentrate.  The terminology could overwhelm me and I worked at understanding the definitions and the implications.   In the end, I am left with questions. What does this mean for me? What would change in my teaching or life?  What is compassionate action in a college classroom?

But, despite the unanswered questions, I came away with one really great story/joke told by Dr. Takao Hensch, a biologist.  “There is an organism,”  he said, “called a sea-squirt.” It is a tube-like organism at the bottom of the ocean, and it goes through a larval stage when it explores its surroundings until it finds a rock on which it can settle and it sticks itself there.  At which point, he said, it ingests its own brain.  “Sometimes I worry this is what happens when we grant tenure at universities.”

Big laughs from the audience.

And finally, there was one other good story from educator Linda Lantieri who asked if His Holiness had remembered a story from Gandhi’s Autobiography.  In this story, she said, a mother comes to Gandhi to ask him if he can tell her son to stop eating sugar.  Gandhi told the mother to bring the child back in two weeks.  The mother returns in two weeks and Gandhi just gives him a lecture about eating sugar.   The mother then asks, “Why did you want me to wait two weeks?”  And Ghandi replied, “Because two weeks ago when you asked I was still eating sugar.”  Thus, we learned that the only real way to teach compassion is to embody it ourselves.

dalai lamaIt is not in keeping for me to write about non-drumming topics on ChickDrummer. It wouldn’t make sense given the title of the blog. But in limiting the topics, I limit describing all the factors that go into my understanding of drumming and music.  One of the influences in life and in music is my meditation practice.  I have been a meditator since 2001 and I “taught” myself some basic principles of meditation from The Dummies Guide.  Over the years, I have read and meditated more, and this week I am in Washington D.C. attending a conference titled “Educating the World Citizen for the 21st Century.” Panelists include neuroscientists, educators, and contemplatives and H.H. Dalai Lama.   For 6 hours a day for two days, I and about 1500 others have been hearing discussions about science, spirituality, and education.

I arrived in Washington D.C. excited but exhausted by a recent mini-reunion of friends from high school who flew in for a weekend in Chicago. I cooked omelets and french toast (“more butter, anyone?”)  in a hotel suite and we ate, drank coffee, and strolled around the Lincoln Park Zoo.  That time with my high school friends, it turns out, was a perfect preamble to a conference on education.  The first day, in 2 sessions, panelists discussed the challenges of teaching young people.  And throughout the day, I could not help but remember myself as a teenager.  My time with my high school friends reminded me that late adolescence was confusing for me, just as it  is for my students. The first session outlined the questions the conference panelists will tackle.  What are the positive qualities that future citizens will need to respond to recent global challenges with compassion, wisdom, creativity, and skill?  How do educators meet these challenges? And how can recent developments in neuroscience help?

Unlike a typical conference in which there are dozens or hundreds of concurrent sessions in conference hotel rooms,   all 1500-2000 participants meet in Constitution Hall and listen to presentations by neuroscientists, contemplatives, and educators, who are then questioned by H.H. Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s critical intelligence has often been described, but we were able to witness it firsthand as he questioned Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist.  Recent research on the brain has discovered two things: 1) the brain is “plastic”  meaning it can respond to environmental factors and can change, and 2) the brain makes new cells to the last day of life — neurogenesis.  In education, then, the question is: how do we capitalize on the brain’s plasticity?  Davidson, in describing plasticity, offered research that suggested early intervention in the development of the brain is better, but it is never too late.   The Dalai Lama paused and then asked:  “Does this apply to dementia?”  Davidson replied, “That’s a very good question.”   The Dalai Lama asked a question so good that one scientist observed, “As usual, Your Holiness,  you have created a whole new field of research.”  The Dalai Lama’s question shows that he cannot only absorb scientific information readily, but he can move one step beyond and ask for the next possible application. His question is astute:  if the brain can make new cells to the day we die, can we exploit this to aid those who suffer from dementia? In the end, Davidson said that they did not know if it applies to dementia.  The reason being that studies are done with terminally ill patients with non-neurological diseases. They are injected with a chemical that can mark the new cells, and once they have died, the brains are studied. There is no way to study this in a non-invasive procedure.  My guess is that a bunch of scientists are now going to try.

A presentation by Ronald Dahl, a scientist, expanded upon Davidson’s as he suggested that not only is the brain plastic, but at certain ages there is “unique plasticity.”   Between the ages of 10 and 15, new interactions are being created by different mental systems. So, while puberty may be an emotionally and physically challenging time, it is also a time when motivation and passion are accelerated.  “The skills to use control, effort, and attention to keep goals a part of behavior are strong at this time,” said Dahl.  But this period between 10 and 15 also has many challenges; the body has entered puberty, but the prefront cortex has not fully developed so the necessary cognitive processes are not yet in place.  The brain is not mature just when we need reason to calm our troubled teenage souls.  “This is a precarious time,” said Dahl,”and increases in mortality have to do with this imbalance.” And that was one of the stunning statistics of this conference offered by Davidson.  When we compare the 10 year period before adolescence (ages 4-14) with the next ten years (15-25), there is a 300% increase in mortality.  The increase in deaths is attributed to factors such as violence, drug abuse, and drunk driving.  Translation:  being a puberty-driven teenager could kill you.

So, day one of this conference has brought some revelations.  Your brain will grow until you die.  You are not stuck in your life. And if you survived the high school years in one piece, you’ve won half the battle. In the end, this conference and the findings of researchers has everything to do with why I became a drummer at 37.  I and my brain needed the stimulation that drumming gave me. When I learned how to play a drumset, I built new neural pathways. It helped with depression, anxiety, and ennui.   I also became more physically dextrous. My right and my left foot can play different rooms: eighth notes on the right, quarter or whole notes on the left foot.  This desire to drum towards the end of a long tour of graduate school helped me complete my studies. I don’t think I could have finished my doctorate if I had not started drumming. My plastic brain made it possible.  Thank you, brain.

Stay tuned…day two of the conference is tomorrow.

road to madisonThere was once a famous writer (I forget whom, e-mail if you know), who said about writing: “I hate writing, but I love having written.”  I often feel that way about travelling, and as I faced our first gig on the road I had an habitual reluctance to leave the comforts of my home to sit in a van with two guys and drive to Madison to do a show.  In the end, despite my hesitation to leave the tranquil routines of my house, I learned more doing our first road gig, then I did sitting on my couch with a box of donuts.

Six Things I Learned at My First Out-of-Town Show.

1.  Bring snacks.

I ate a big breakfast, and I figured I would eat lunch before we left at 2 PM.  What I did not anticipate is how much MORE stuff you have to bring when you’re doing a show out of town than when you’re doing the bar a mile a way.   In the end the time I would have spent eating lunch I spent organizing gear.  I was pretty happy that I had the foresight to bring some food to eat in the car.  Trail mix rocks.

2.  Bring a flashlight.

The show which was scheduled at Escape Java Joint ended up being an outdoor show, because the cafe itself was being remodeled. When we pulled up in front of the cafe we were greeted with a huge sign that said: “Closed for Remodeling.”  Huh, we thought.  Aren’t we supposed to play here?  Turns out the promoter converted the outdoor patio into a stage and  we played outside which was fun. The only problem was that the minuted they killed the stage lights, we had no light to see while we packed our gear.

Hermes greets us at Escape Java Joint

Hermes greets us at Escape Java Joint

3. Bring bug spray.

And just because you never know when you’re going to play outside, bring bug spray.  “Wow,” I said to Bob, “I’ve never played so close to mulch before.”

4. Bring an extension cord.

That three-foot power strip seems long enough inside a club or bar, but it’s not nearly long enough outside.

5. Have a load-in checklist.

We learned that you have to make sure everyone in the band has their gear, and not just be concerned about yourself.   Here’s why:  the next morning after the gig, I get a call from Bob, the harmonica player.  “Are my harmonicas in your gear?”  He asked with urgency. Turns out Bob lost his harmonicas.  And this is a big deal. Why? Because Bob’s harmonicas are custom harmonicas and the whole outfit including the leather case costs over $700.  He thought he put them in the back of his amp but he couldn’t find them the next morning. After several phone calls to Madison, we finally decided that Bob and Brian should drive up to Madison again that day to look for the harmonicas.  So, 8 hours after returning to Madison, they were heading  back.   Bob eventually did find them, but not in Madison.  He went home again and checked the back of the amp again.  They had slid under the reverb tank.

Brian and Pearl at Escape Java Joint

5. Bring Duct Tape.

Just because.

I also learned that you can have fun on the road.  We talked about music in the car, our families, and the albums that influenced as teenagers (actually, we talked about many things because Bob was producing an audio/photo montage of us for YouTube. More about that later).  I learned that I can be happy on the road if I just be on the road instead of wishing I was back home.  I learned that great shows start with greetings from happy dogs. I learned that we look great in the light of dusk at an outdoor show. And I learned that you can get really great thai curry at the Corner Store on Williamson Street in Madison.  I’m a forty-one year-old woman who just did her very first road gig, and I learned that getting my ass out of the house to do something completely new and foreign is way more educational than sitting on the couch with a box of donuts.

"Happy Pearl" as Bob titled it in Flickr

Tomorrow I’m going to my first out-of-town gig with Short Punks.  I’ve written before about how I’m an unlikely musician.  About how I would rather be at home on the couch with a box of donuts, than at a show at 10 PM at night.  I’ve written about it more than once, because in many ways it’s my greatest challenge.  Overcoming the inertia of life to do something interesting with my life.

Tomorrow, I’m going out of town for a mere 20 hours, but I feel like I’ll be gone for a week and I wonder how I’ll cope. I wonder how I”ll manage without the morning meditation at the temple, or what I will do without my usual lunch of miso soup and rice, or how I will take a nap in the back of the van while Bob and Brian trade dialogue from Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galatica.

I’m an unlikely musician.  I’m a homebody, a book-lover, a cookbook collecter, and a writer.  I like quiet, silence, and cats that pad softly around the apartment looking for places to lie in the sun.  I’m a person who feels the richness of an empty afternoon.  I’m that kind of person, and I’m going to sit in a van for six hours with two guys, and wait a couple more hours before soundcheck, so that I can do a 45 minute set.    So, at moments like these I have to ask myself one question: what am I going for?

I’m going because there’s a feeling you can only get on stage, that is not reproducable anywhere else:  not in a bar as a customer, not in a classroom as  a teacher, not as a buddhist sitting in temple.  There  really is nothing  like the feeling of setting up your gear on a stage whether it’s the corner of a neighborhood saloon or a space along a cafe wall.  There really is nothing like the experience of communicating with others without words, of catching the ear of someone who wasn’t planning on listening.

So I’m going.  I’m going to ride in the backseat of a rented minivan, headphones on my head, listening to buddhist chants, and taking notes for my memoir.  I’m going to watch the flat, grassy landscape of the midwest pass by me like a green-brown sea while I wait for my 45 minutes in the dim sun of a Madison cafe.  I’m going to forget about missing miso soup and snack on apples, and listen to the odd snippet of conversation from Bob and Brian when they both realize at the same time that they watched Outer Limits as kids.  I’m going because despite how rich I find a quiet life, there’s something unmistakable about a noisy, messy, rocking one.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while then you know I’m a wannabe musician who doesn’t really like to practice.  I heard a saying from Bob, the new harmonica player in the band, about the differences between rock musicians and jazz musicians.  Jazz musician like to practice, but don’t like to rehearse; rock musicians  like to rehearse, but don’t like to practice.  Then there’s me.  Weeks go by when I don’t want to practice or rehearse. This is the odd paradox of my creative life:  I like having created something, but I’m lazy about creating it.

It’s a miracle that I got this far being a drummer when my tendency in life is to be inertial.  I wrote once that I would rather be sitting on a the couch with a box of donuts than be at a gig.   So, I’m surprised when I actually do practice.  You know, get out the practice pad, find the drumsticks, take out the metronome, get some practice books out, and sit there and do exercises.  That’s practice. That’s boring practice.  I managed to progress as a drummer initially because I had so much training as a child and I just learned how to practice.  I knew that it was largely about repetition.  Repeating something  until it sounds right or is done right.  In the end, it is this understanding of “practice” that makes me hate to do it. I hate doing it because it’s dull, but experience told me (tells me still) that it pays off. Gigs sounds better, performances are smoother, and in the moment of playing on stage the body, which has its own kind of memory, can kick in and do things that your mind is too slow to think of.  I practice knowing its good for me, but not really liking it.

So it was a complete surprise for me tonight when I practiced and it was different.  I liked it.  I cannot tell you how or why it was different, but it was.  Something shifted and instead of playing with my brain, the part of me that says “this is good for you, so do it,” I practiced with my body, the muscles, which say instead “man, this feels good.”  And for the first time in my life, it was different.  I fell into grooves and stroke patterns that I can’t play usually and played them better.

The blues pattern, for instance, has always been hard for me, but I could have played it all night. That triplet feel, that ONE-trip-let, TWO-trip-let, THREE-trip-let, Four-trip-let felt more real than it ever had.  I heard the beat in my head, and then I heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf jamming on the top.  For the first time ever, I got it. Eyes closed, sticks moving in rhythm, my lips humming the melody, I finally felt that blues thing, that feeling.

And after twenty minutes, the spell was broken.  My arms got tired.  I got bored again. I started wondering if I could play other beats I couldn’t play before.  Ten minutes later I was sitting in the rocking chair not practicing.  Those moments are fleeting — those it’s-so-effortless moments come and go.  Even on stage, you can never count on it. Adrenaline helps, makes you think it’s all that easy, but we know in our heads if we have had that moment.

I wish I knew what made tonight different.  Is it because I’ve been sick for the last month with the flu and a respiratory infection?  Was I too tired to be intellectual about practice? Is it because I painted my office yellow and moved the buddha statue to the east wall?

I don’t know. But, I hope that practice will become easier — something I want to do if only to see if I can capture that moment again.  That moment when being a drummer is mostly easy and not mostly hard.

We find inspiration wherever we can get it. And sometimes when we’re not even looking, really great inspiration comes into your boring job, sits right down, inspires you, goes to lunch with you, inspires you some more, goes home, and then friends you on Facebook.  This is what happened to me this week — another busy week —  when I wasn’t looking for inspiration. Inspiration walked in called herself  “Laurie Lindeen” (http://laurielindeen.com/) and proceeded to remind me why playing music is still worth doing even when I haven’t touched a drumstick in four weeks.

One of the bonuses of being a teacher is that we have a venue for sharing and exposing other artists’ work to the college and to students.   It was Brian’s idea (not mine) to invite Laurie to speak at the school; he had been an admirer of Laurie’s band Zuzu’s Petals in the 1990s.  She had recently published a memoir about her experiences titled Petal Pusher and Brian had loved it.  I had no idea who she was.  But, dutifully, I supported Brian and assigned an excerpt of her memoir about playing in a rock band to my students.  This was facilitated by Brian who handed me a copy of a chapter and an assignment and said, “Here, have your students read this.”

And I did.  The chapter I read could have been a posting on chickdrummer.  In it Lindeen writes about the aftereffects of gigging, the adrenaline that races through your veins the next morning, the hangover that comes not just from alcohol, but from the experience.

“It’s difficult returning to your normal life the morning after a gig.  I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed newlywed with an afterglow.  More like a haggard mental patient following shock treatment: After all that adrenaline leaves your body, you are left with a ferocous hangover.  The counterchemical is as down as the adrenaline is up.  Antiadrenaline is the darkest shade of navy blue; it brings a sort of postcoital depression.”

I read that in my office preparing for class, but I felt like the proselyte of a new religion who had just heard holy words from an oracle.  You said it, girl. I had always wondered what that was. That funk, that weirdness I felt the morning after gigs. The first two years of gigging I rode the adrenaline high for two days after the show, but as I get older I want off the ride the faster. Roller coasters are great, but who wants to live on one?  So, I had to develop a new after-show routine. We leave the club as soon as we can, no hanging out to talk with other musicians, we come home, unload the gear with the precision of a S.W.A.T team, and I shower, I eat something light and healthy — grains, vegetables, tofu, fruit — I do yoga to stretch the worn-out muscles, and I try to be in bed before 2 am (reasonably early for musicians), and the next morning I try to get up at the same time I always do instead of sleeping late.  I learned to do this out of my own sense of self-preservation.  I’m 40 years-old, not twenty, and the physical strain of shows takes a toll on me that it doesn’t on some young thing.

And that was what was so inspiring about Laurie. She writes about and talks about what gigging and being a “rock star” (in quotes because the term is relative) really means.  It means you can still suck at your instruments and still record and gig, it means you don’t have to be a virtuoso, it means you can do it just for fun, and here’s the inspirational part:  it means you can be woman. And she also speaks from the perspective of a woman who has matured and reflected on what the years in a rock band in her twenties means for her now and how it influences her writing.  “I write listening to the backbeat; I hear how the vocal sits on top,”  she said.  That too, I think, is also the benefit of music outside of music.  It changes our understanding of other arts.

There aren’t a lot of books by female musicians that tell you what’s like for us. There’s umpteen million books about male musicians, their gear, their groupies, their drug problems, but there aren’t many written by women.  The other inspiration in Laurie’s public appearance is that I could see how she inspired the young women in the audience.  I could see it in their eyes and the way they looked at her with one question beaming from their faces:  How did you do it? In the end, it doesn’t matter that you or I may have not heard of Laurie Lindeen or Zuzu’s Petals.  What matters for some of the women (young or old) in the audience is that there was  another one out there who tried to live life on her own terms.

I jumped on a bandwagon recently and started watching and admiring an HBO series called Flight of the Conchords. The premise of the show is described succinctly on their website: “Bret and Jemaine have moved to New York in the hope of forging a successful music career. So far they’ve managed to find a manager (whose “other” job is at the New Zealand Consulate), one fan (a married obsessive) and one friend (who owns the local pawn shop) — but not much else.The premise is intended to create a humorous atmosphere, and if you’re not in a band, then it is hilarious. However, if you live a life even remotely like the Conchords’ then the show is less funny and more a tragic reminder of how pathetic a wanna-be-rockstars’ life really is.

Tthis “digi-folk duo” lives in a small, crappy New York apartment filled with music gear and they do lots of crappy gigs. In one episode, their “manager” (whose day job office sits in the same building as a business called “Asian Massage”) takes them on “tour” (notice how many quotation marks we’re using here?). Jemaine, one of the musicians, reads the contract outloud in the backseat of the manager’s car, and says, “It’s says here we’re going to have a tour bus.”

“This is the tour bus,” says the manager.

“This isn’t a tour bus.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“You’re only two people. What do you need a whole bus for?”

I have paraphrased the conversation, but the gist is the same. It was funny until Brian and realized that (we, a duo with a harmonica player) will no doubt be touring in our Nissan Sentra. This scene just reminded us of this fact, and what began as a funny show laughing at a the adventures of a pair of naive musicians, became a not-so-funny mirror or our own lives.

The scene, however, which really stopped us from laughing, occurs at their first gig in the tour. They’re playing the lounge of a airport motel. In the corner of the restaurant, they’re completing their set, and one of them says, “We’d really like to thank you for having us. We have CDs and t-shirts for sale.” Then the sound of one or two aimless claps resounding in an empty room. Brian and I sat quietly through the scene until I said, “God, that is so not funny.”

“I know,” Brian said. “That happens to us all the time.”

And indeed it does. We’ll be completing a set at a nearly empty bar, but I will still declare cheerfully into the mike: “Thanks for coming everyone! We have free CDs and pins!” And just like in the show, I hear solitary claps echo through the room. The same scenario is funny in the TV show, but is depressing in real life. The myth of the musicians’ life is hardly ever explored, but what I like about this particular show is that they don’t embellish their lives. It is pretty funny to hear them thank everyone for coming to the show, when the joke is that the audience is there because they’re waiting for a flight out of there.

Brian tells this story (possibly apocryphal) about Eddie Van Halen watching This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary about a rock band. In Brian’s story Eddie Van Halen had to leave the screening because it wasn’t funny. “It was just too real,” said Brian. We have a similar response watching Flight of the Conchords. What should be hilarious scenes about lonely gigs, strange fans, and band drama (one member “quits the band” weekly) for us seems like a sobering Oprah episode on something like identify theft: “this could be you”. And like an Oprah viewer, we recognize ourselves. “Hey, you have that synthesizer!” I’ll shout when it appears in the background of the band’s apartment. Or, “God that happened to us,” Brian will say of the Conchords’ Open Mic gig when the announcer (in the episode, Daryll Hall) used the wrong name to introduce the band: “The Flutes of the Commodores.”

That was the other thing that shocked us: the band’s name is like our band name. Flight of the Conchords sounds a lot like Short Punks in Love. It makes me wonder if we’re not some unrevealed joke. Two mid-thirties to early-forties musicans have day jobs as community college teachers while they pursue a rock-n-roll career in Chicago. Actually, that does sound pretty good. If HBO only knew about us.

Our first CD was recorded in the spare bedroom that housed the cat litter box and the drums. The second CD was recorded in a make-shift studio in a rehearsal space on Chicago’s West side. And now, the third CD, which we had been saying we would record but never did, is being recorded back at home. In the living room this time instead of the spare room, because that room was taken over by our rabbit and her cage. In this third recording endeavor, I have finally realized with a clarity that I had not realized before that I hate recording.


In the beginning, I thought I disliked recording because I was new to drumming and playing drums by at itself was stressful with or without recording. During the second CD, it was less agonizing, although still taxing. We were in someone’s studio space who took care of the details of miking the drums and running cable and setting levels, and helped to make the experience less stressful for both of us. Despite the success of that, we missed the intimacy of the first CD, the spontaneous, recording-by-the-seat-of-your pants quality. And, well, let’s face it –recording at home is free. Recording in a studio costs money, and we’ll need that to duplicate the disk and pay for the covers. So, we’re back at home. Mikes and cables over the place, rabbit locked away so she won’t eat hundreds of dollars worth of cable, and now, Bob, the harmonica player, squeezed into the living room with us.

The addition of a third person has done a lot for us. We argue less because there’s company. I work harder at not being sarcastic or snide or looking outright bored, which I often am while I record. And, more importantly, because I don’t like recording, there’s someone there to be excited with Brian about recording. Bob likes it, too. In our sessions with Bob, I realize how much of a downer I must have been for Brian during the first two CDs. I think it’s because recording is nothing like the experience of playing live (at least for me). Drumming live, from my experience, is like being a racehorse in the paddock waiting for the race start. We want at those drums. We want noise, and the pure adrenaline of letting loose. Meanwhile, recording (at least for SPiL) is about restraint. It’s about me holding back and laying out an even rhythm that Brian and now Bob can overdub. Drumming in this situation is more about staying out of the way and less about driving the band. So, it’s not as much fun and it requires more concentration. I have to listen more to myself (which I hate) and hear whether I’m rushing the beat or whether I’m playing too loud. It’s about maintaining an openness and tranquility, which, frankly, I suck at most of the time. And when I record, I realize just how much I suck at it. I realize that practicing and music training is what helps with this. The violin training I had as a child, I now realize, was about being calm when I was nervous. About playing when I did not want to, and about focusing when I was agitated. That may explain why at 15 years-old I gave up (or gave in) and went with the messiness of my personality. I went with the unease, the activity of mind, the itch to move.

It’s only now, in my forties, having exhausted a life of constant change and movement that I see the value of just sitting still on the drum throne and tapping a constant beat, something even and consistent, undramatic. Calm.

Brian and Bob do over dubs

Brian and Bob do overdubs

For more about the band, go to: www.shortpunksinlove.com