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Blues drumming is a lot harder than it sounds. I’ve learned in the past year that a song which sounds easy usually isn’t. It may sound easy because it’s easy to listen to with a distinct, catchy melody and a constant groove, but I’ve learned that if it’s easy to listen to then somebody worked really hard to make it sound like that.
Blues songs are easy-to-listen-hard-to-play kinds of songs. They sound simple because they have a repeating chord progression – I, IV, V— but they are hard to play well. That’s what the guitar is playing anyway. For me, the drummer, it’s not about playing the one chord or the four chord but about playing triplets. Playing triplets means playing a sticking pattern that goes like this: left-right-left or right-left-right. Three strokes for each eighth note beat. That might sound simple, but it isn’t – at least for me. I’ve been playing straight rock beat for almost 2 years which has just two strokes for an eighth note: right-left or left-right. Adding that third stroke is killing me. It’s hard to explain why. But let me put it this way. Let’s say you have a full-time job and a family. And let’s say after a few years you have the routines down. You wake at 6 am, your spouse wakes 15 minutes later; while he or she is showering you wake the kids and start breakfast. Once the spouse is out of the shower, you can take yours. The spouse then eats his or her breakfast, finishes getting the kids ready for school or day care and while you’re putting on your shoes, you eat a bowl of cereal and watch the TV weather. When you finish the cereal, you put the bowl in the dishwasher, start it running, grab a briefcase and hustle the last kid out of the kitchen into the garage. Everyone piles into one car while the other spouse takes off in his or hers. You go to work. The spouse goes to work. Then someone picks up the kids and then you have another routine. Let’s say you have been successfully managing that routine for a while.
Now, let’s say, for some reason, you don’t know why, you decide to get another job after work. And let’s say you thought it was a good idea, but once you started you realized that the routines would be far more different than expected. But now you realize that every routine which went smoothly before just starts falling apart because you inserted something new. So, you wake up late because you’re tired from your second job, the spouse takes the shower, but you’re still in bed when he or she gets out. No one woke the kids. The breakfast isn’t ready. No one knows what the weather will be and you’re still tired. Then you wonder: is the second job such a good idea?
For me, that’s what learning triplets feels like. I’m learning triplets because I wanted to play blues songs that I love and that would be fun to play in Chicago: Get Your Mojo Working, Sweet Home Chicago, Mannish Boy, etc. But I didn’t realize how hard it would be for me to learn. I was used to the routine of the basic rock beat. I knew where I stood with it. I knew what to expect. It felt right. My hands alternated the strokes effortlessly. But blues…and that third stroke…where does it go? How do I make it fit into my routine? That’s when I get frustrated. I start breaking a sweat at the practice pad. My arm and wrist muscles tense, my jaw clenches. I get angry. Am I so stupid, I wonder, that I can’t learn this?
And then I have to remember: it’s just drums. It’s meant to be fun. But like a lot of things that I do, I sometimes forget that I started doing it to have more fun, not less. And if I treat drumming like a second job, then it won’t be fun. That’s when I have to let go. Take a breath.
I pick up the sticks again. Left-right – oop! Okay, once again: right-left…right. Left-right…left. Breathe.
And stroke by stroke, breath by breath, I find my way back to why I started to the play the drums: to have fun. I’d like to end this posting with the phrase: and before I knew it I was jamming on Sweet Home Chicago….
But that would be premature. Left-right…left?
I grew up in a mental hospital in upstate New York. I wasn’t a patient. My father was a doctor. He was one of the many foreign-trained medical doctors who worked there. For immigrants, the acronym is FMG — foreign medical graduate. It was the 1970s and state mental hospitals like the one I grew up in were staffed with doctors from other countries — the only ones who would work in them.
“They needed doctors.” My father said, one year when I was visiting. I was in my twenties then still fresh my college and standing in the doorway in my old room when he told me this. “I was only going to come for a few years and then go back. But you and your brother were born and I saw that you ate ice cream and drank milk and I thought ‘where are you going to get that in the Philippines?’ So we stayed.” As he wandered down the brown carpeted hallway to his room, he scratched the back of his head and repeated it. “So we stayed.” It was an answer to a question I didn’t ask but which had lingered in the air for years. Why did you come here if you hate it so much?
The house on the campus of that psychiatric hospital is the first house (perhaps only) for which I have lingering sentiments. It seems now in memory like a huge victorian house. But who knows what it really was — it could have been built in the 1920s or the 1940s. A screened porched wrapped around half of the house and then another heated porched called a “winter porch” sat on the other side. There were black walnut trees in the front yard and a crabapple tree at the door to the porch. The driveway circled the house. To me, now, in a 2 room plus office apartment, the house remains in my memory as if it was a vast English estate. In some ways, it wasn’t far from it. It had amenities that are unthinkable now in suburban subdivisions. An apple orchard filled the acres adjacent to the house and I remember the orange light of October afternoons as I tried to knock Macintosh apples of branches. Lilac bushes lined the driveway and in June I plucked their purple flowers and sprinkled them across the lawn in circular patterns. There was an outdoor stone barbecue upon which my father grilled chickens marinated in soy sauce and garlic. A badminton court graced the front lawn. I and other local children, all the offspring of foreign doctors, batted a plastic birdie back and forth across the net until sundown. We were an assortment of Filipino kids with parents who passed plates of barbecue chicken and rice back and forth across the table while we ran back and forth across the lawn outside.
The house seems like a palace to me now. It had a walk-in pantry in the kitchen where cases of apples, delivered free from the hospital kitchens, were stored . The hospital laundry did all our sheets and table linen and we wrote our name in the corners of the sheets in black laundry marker. The hutch in the dining room contained rows of heavy silverware with ornate patterns on their handles. The furniture was made of heavy brown woods and upholstered in shades of brown and mustard. Everything in the house was owned by the hospital. The green banded plates and the silver belonged to the hospital. The dining room table and its chairs were owned by the hospital. My bed was owned by the hospital. Even the lamps on the end tables. The house and everything in it was rented by my parents every month for $75. We owned nothing except our clothes and the piano my parents bought one year, I can’t remember when.
The hospital itself – or the building that I associated with “the hospital” — was a brown brick building with yellow trim on the other side of the small creak (pronounced “crick” as people say in that part of the state) which divided the campus. When we crossed the small green steel bridge from our side of the campus to the hospital side of the campus, that’s when I felt like I was in some other land. I have dim memories of it. There was a post office and a bowling alley on that side where we would bowl once a week. There was a turquoise ball the right size and weight for my seven year-old hand. And I remember the soft leather of the red shoes I rented. I remember the patients very dimly. They are lump forms of grey and blue sitting in plastic bucket chairs the color of salt water taffy. I saw the patients rarely. Once, in a brave foray to buy candy from a vending machine in the commissary, I darted past the chairs and the people sitting in them, clutching a Heath bar, waiting for an adult hand to pluck me up by my collar. I made it out with who knows what playmate to eat candy in some place I can’t remember. The other time, vaguely, I remember a teen-ager coming to the door of the back porch on Halloween. It was past dark and he stood there wearing a football jersey and football helmet, a plastic orange pumpkin swung from his wrist. Did he say “trick or treat”? I don’t remember. I only remember retreating backwards and then turning and running back into the house.
Other than these two vague memories, life at the mental hospital was for me a childhood dated by the blooming scent of lilac bushes followed by the juicy tartness of apples. In between, I forget even winter in that house. What did I do? Did I draw? Did I play? I only remember watching Happy Days in the basement rec room. And then summer invades memory again and I see myself eating slices of watermelon on a paper plate next to Roxanne, another filipino kid whose parents also worked at the hospital. Juice drips down my arm and I lick it up with my tongue.
This is all I remember about those years at the mental hospital. I say this know because I saw recently a call for submissions for stories or essays about Western New York State, the place where I grew up, and I wondered if my childhood in that region would offer any stories. But I can remember nothing complete. Just features of it — architectural details — but no stories. People who know that I grew up at a state mental hospital tell me “It would make a great story.” I don’t remember stories. I remember only colors, smells, and tastes. And my father and his choice to stay leaves me with no sense of guilt for his compromise. He stayed. And I am glad.
I had one of those days when I see myself only as having failed. Failed to do the dishes. Failed to feed the cats. Failed to remember someone’s birthday. Failed to do paperwork. Failed. Just failed.
One of those days when the “To Do” list is so long it takes up pages. One of those days when I’m sleepy and wired at the same time so I think I can be productive but my brain is going so fast that I can’t finish reading one sentence without getting distracted or drowsy. But I’m too wired to sleep. I’ve had of those days when all the urges to move forward get stuck and all I can do is say I can’t do anything at all. On days like these it’s always a toss-up. I could either sleep for 4 hours or I could paint the kitchen.
And the drum set sits idle in its cases. Rosie has taken to sleeping on the snare after shows and I find clumps of cat hair mashed into the black nylon when I set out for shows. She’s using the drum set more than me these days. And the practice pad has become a de facto end table with brown rings from my tea mug scarring the top of it.
My project looms large. The charm of my day of tourism has worn off and I wonder if it was a mistake. So it’s been a day of regrets too. Why didn’t I do this? Or that? Why do live here and not somewhere else? Why I’m married to him and not someone else? Why did I once leave a party and forget to thank the host? Why do I have this job? Why did I skip yoga? Why? Why? Why?
Oh my, it has been a day.
It was only this evening, as I laid flat out on the couch like a victim of a disaster, did I discover my amusement. There was show on Channel 50, one of Byron Allen’s celebrity shows, that featured a tribute to Eddie Murphy’s 80’s HBO Special “Delirious.” In between interviews with comedians like Chris Rock, Cedric, and Chris Tucker, the show featured clips from the “Delirious” along with interviews of Eddie Murphy. Each of the comedians talked about how watching “Delirious” showed them it was possible for them to be comedians too. Martin Lawrence said: “I related to everything Eddie talked about and I realized that if he could do it, so could I.”
Then they replayed all the famous bits from the HBO special, The Ice Cream Man (Can anyone forget Eddie singing ‘You ain’t got no ice cream because you on the wel-fare’?), My Mother’s Shoe, and the unforgettable Farting in the Bathtub. I laughed hard. And after laughing I heard now-famous comedians say that from Eddie they learned how much was really possible. In between the laughs, I learned it too. For the first time all day, I had genuine energy and at 10 PM in a drizzly rain I biked to the video store to rent “Delirious” — not available, it turns out — but I biked home in that rain hearing that Ice Cream Man song over and over in my head: you ain’t got no ice cream, you ain’t got no ice cream.
And for the first time I realized why Eddie Murphy was inspirational. Even as he was telling jokes about growing up not having anything, he was standing on stage in front of thousands of people having it all. Anyone listening to him could laugh at what it felt like to have nothing from the safe distance of having everything. And they learned that having nothing doesn’t mean you’re not one day going to have everything.
So there I was on the couch, no longer prone, listening to the Eddie talk dirty about the Honeymooners (my least favorite bit, I think) and imitate James Brown and Michael Jackson. That’s when I got it: believing I’ve failed is really just a starting point — it’s the first step in discovering how I can succeed. Failure, rather than a predestined certainty, is just a moment — a momentary thought — and I can let that go of that like I can let go of thinking I’m fat or that I can’t play the drums. It’s just a thought that can disappear as easily as it came.
Oh my God! Did I tell you about my day? It was fabulous.
I have a big project due, one of those big projects that require reading and writing for weeks and weeks at a time
and it’s due soon. In the face of deadlines that loom large in the future, I have a sure-fire first step: procrastinate.
This morning I woke to a beautiful 75 degree in Chicago – in August – how often does that happen? Big project?
What big project? Let’s go to the zoo! Today was an expedition to the parts of Chicago that tourists see. Every
now and then, I think it’s important for me to take the time to visit the parts of Chicago I don’t usually visit.
In the routine day-to-day routine of living here, fighting traffic, waiting in line at Whole Foods, paying bills,
and looking for parking, it’s easy to forget that Chicago’s a huge city with things to do – cool things to do.
I struck out this morning – a hat on my head and a backpack on my back – to walk to my favorite places: the lake,
the zoo, the gardens.
From my house in Lakeview, it’s a forty-five minute walk to the lakefront. Once at the lakefront, it’s another
twenty minutes to the famous view of Chicago from the lake. The one you see in movies. Jennifer Anniston jogged
here. Harry met Sally near here. ER came here. And now I’m here.
From there, the zoo. It was 2:00 PM now and the only animal out in the sun was this lion who clearly had no
interest in being photographed.
I ambled among empty cages while animals slept their afternoons away. Tourists with cones and sticks of pink cotton
candy filed past peering into cages, waiting for the animals to amuse them. But they weren’t cooperating except
for this massive seal.
From there, the gardens.
sits in a wintry dryness. Today, it was as warm outside as inside and I missed that comforting envelope of
humidity that greets me when I enter in winter. It still has its charms.
And fragrant orchids:
It was 3 PM when I left the gardens and headed back home. Two miles to go. As I walked, Brian called my cell phone
and I accepted the invitation for a lift at point not far from where I was at Fullerton and Lincoln. It was 5 PM
when I arrived home with my feet aching.
And the project? It’s still due soon. And I suppose I could have locked myself into the library and sucked dark,
dry, air-conditioned air, but I wonder if I would have written better or more, had I done that? I like to think not.
For me, the big projects go better – or my experience of them seem better – when I don’t stop living to do them.
And yet…well, I’ll let you know if I still make that deadline….
We had a show on Friday and like having a bad hair day on the same day as a job interview, I was having a bad body image day on the same day as a show. There are a lot of things about playing on stage that I had to learn to cope with and one of the first of the worst obstacles was learning to accept the way I looked.
And it’s not that I look bad or that I look unusual or that I have deformities, I don’t. I look normal enough, but when I look in the mirror I don’t think I look normal. I think I look bad. Too short. Too wide. Too dark. Too everything. Like a lot of people I have days when I think I look okay (not great, mind you) and days when I don’t. The morning of the show, I woke up thinking I was …. and yes, haven’t we all done this? … I thought I looked fat.
It was that kind of day. A bad hair day is one thing. An “I look fat” day is quite another. For me there’s nothing worse. A too-short day isn’t that bad. A too-dark day, I can live with, but a too-fat day…oh god. The ‘too fat’ idea is the most paralyzing and when I see myself in mirrors or windows, I think I look huge, that my body takes up the size of the city block. Now, put that idea together with: people are looking at me, and you have nothing more paralyzing. The problem with public performance is that people are looking at me — I’m on stage, for pete’s sake, they’re supposed to look at me. But somehow, before I really started gigging I thought they would only look at me when I wanted them to, on those days when I thought I looked okay. But no. They’re looking at me even on days when I think I look …sigh…fat. On Friday, both those ideas whirled around in my head all day. Too fat. People are looking at me. Too fat. Oh no, they’re looking at me. It’s a wonder I even made it out of bed.
On days like these, I have to get a grip on myself fast or there’s a chance I’ll never make it to the show. I learned a trick. I shared this trick with Alicia, who was preparing to go to a cocktail party with “Nate Berkus’ people.” We were having lunch at Taste of Heaven in Andersonville.
“When I started playing I was the largest size I had been in years – a fourteen,” I said.
She nodded her head knowingly.
“In other days, I would not have thought of being on stage if I wasn’t a size 8. It was like being a certain weight was my permission for being seen. When we started performing I couldn’t drop twenty pounds overnight. So I learned a trick.”
I pushed a string bean to the side of my plate.
“I visualized myself as a size 5 before shows. I pictured myself as a size 5 instead of a fourteen. And even though I wasn’t really a size 5, somehow picturing myself as a smaller size changed how I acted. And you know what happened?”
“From the first moment I walked into a bar or a club, men would notice me and be complimentary. I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the size that counted but how I felt about myself. That freed me up from obsessing about how I looked to concentrating on how I played.”
“That’s a good trick.”
“It sure is.” She said.
So that was the trick I practiced. Did it work? Sort of. But it didn’t matter. What’s important is that I got up there and played anyway. And you know what – it didn’t matter whether I was a size fourteen, a twelve, or a five, because while I was playing I was just having fun. And thank God (or Goddess) for anything that lets you forget to judge yourself.
Omigod, did you quit the band?
No. This is the new space for Chick Drummer. If you got here from www.shortpunksinlove.blogspot.com, then you’ve been reading Chick Drummer on the website for Short Punks in Love. I’m still in Short Punks, so don’t fear. The band hasn’t ended.
The Chick Drummer blog was an accident of sorts. The blog was started by the website designer who created the short punks website (www.shortpunksinlove.com). Brian was the one who initially attended to the technical aspects of the band (myspace, blog, e-mail, etc), and he started writing the blog. But as the year went on and Brian became busier with other things, I started writing more posts most of which were about my experiences as the drummer. And since I’m a woman that meant I had a lot experiences that weren’t always typical of your average male’s experience of gigging. It was only at a recent conference for women bloggers that I realized there was potential for Chick Drummer to be about more than just drums (although, that’s a lot too).
I created this new wordpress blog after attending the Blogher Conference in August 2007 (http://www.blogher.org/). The conference was a great experience: 700 women bloggers and me (give or take some corporate reps who weren’t bloggers). I learned at the conference that it’s important to invest in the blogging equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and create a space for myself where I can write about topics directly related to being a woman and a musician. So what does that mean? Well… for instance, and this is just off the top of my head, how about a whole post about how hard it is to find the right clothes for playing drums on stage? Or one about make-up that doesn’t sweat off when you play? Or what it’s like to playing the same night with two other male drummers? Do they compete? Are they helpful? Do they offer to set-up my drums? These are ideas that I may not have been as comfortable writing about on the Short Punks blog because on the SPiL blog I was writing to help promote the band. Here, I’m writing to help understand my own experience as a woman and a drummer. Nothing else. No promotion. No PR. Just me and what it’s like to keep playing the drummers while I finish a doctorate, teach my classes, share a house with Brian and 2 cats, and live my life.
Chick Drummer then is a new space for exploration. If you just started reading, then I hope you stick around for more. If you’re mostly interested in the life of the band, then www.shortpunksinlove.blogspot.com will give you updates on the activities of the band (rehearsals, shows, recordings, tours, etc). But I hope you’ll keep reading (and sharing stories) about life as a chick and a musician (or artist, poet, student, psychic, mother, etc).
Thanks for reading!
Chick Drummer (email@example.com)
Brian took Rosie for a walk today. Well, sort of. Rosie is a cat. Cats don’t get walked. They get tethered. And once you tether them, you better be prepared for the cat to make the rules. Cats always make the rules, but it is only when you leash them and try to make them act like something that they are not that you begin to realize finally that they are not dogs or weasels or horses. They are cats. They live by their own rules.
Brian has been sick. And his daily perambulation consists of sitting on the porch with Rosie on his lap while he sniffles and coughs at the August sunshine. Brian hates summer. Having a cold during the summer just makes a bad situation worse. So while he sits on the porch and hates his cold and his summer and longs for the bite of a Chicago winter, Rosie sits with him
Today, however, she seemed more enchanted by the outdoors than usual and rather than sit contentedly on Brian’s lap while nature came to her, she decided to investigate nature. This meant an attempted leap off the porch. The only thing stopping her was my hand on her tail and Brian’s hand at her collar. That’s when I suggested he leash her. We tried using a harness once, but she bucked it like a wild horse bucks a saddle. She leapt up and down throughout the living room and kitchen, toppling guitars and chairs before I had the presence of mind to grab her by the back of her neck like a mother cat grabs a kitten while Brian unbuckled the harness.
Now, we just attach the leash to her collar. She gets the idea anyway. She knows she’s attached to something and instead of going to explore as we think she would, she sits down instead and bats at the leash or pulls at it with her head. This is perhaps the only time when she seems like a dog – rather, a puppy. Which, by the way, is one of the ironic nicknames we use for both cats – “puppy.”
So Rosie sat there on the porch peering at her green leash while Brian waited at the bottom of the stairs. It was there that I remembered a story I read – the only story I remember, really, and not even a story at that – about Shelley Manne, the drummer. Manne was a great drummer who began during the big band era. I still remember my first sight of him on a DVD of jazz drummers. He sat on a riser above the band behind a white drum kit with a bass drum the size of a coffee table. He had a solo. The bandleader signaled him, but instead of a flashy Buddy Rich solo, the kind I had been accustomed to seeing, Manne did something subtle instead. A quick roll. A swinging beat on the hi-hat, and then without hesitation he moved to the floor tom and changed to a slower tempo but it still swung. You could hear all the beats even when he wasn’t playing them. Wow. And he was cute, too.
What’s that guy’s name?” I asked Brian who was holding the remote.
“I don’t know. Let’s see…” He skipped back on the DVD. “Shelley Manne.”
Be still my heart. Shelley Manne. Where are you?
Turns out, he’s dead. Long since.
A quick Wikipedia search told me he had died. That was all I really learned aside from the usual listing of recordings and famous appearances and friendships with other musicians. But that’s not what I wanted to know. I wanted to know some story, see some picture of the musician that would help me see what kind of person he could have been. A few weeks later I ordered a book about him from the library. In the dim light of my library carrel I skimmed over the names of records and appearances and then I read an anecdote about where he grew up. His father was a music director in New York City and young Shelley, perhaps no more than 7 or 8, would walk his cat on a leash through Central Park.
Walk his cat on leash through Central Park. That’s what I needed. Every time I see him play or even think of him playing I see that picture of him in my head – a young boy in short pants, a boat under his arm, walking toward the pond in Central Park with a cat on a leash. A cat that undoubtedly would stop and sit and pluck at his leash rather than walk.
So this morning, while I watched Rosie chew on her green leash and while I watched Brian wait patiently for her to notice him and not the leash, I saw in my mind a young Shelley Manne, seven years from his first drum set, try to walk a cat through Central Park. It’s these odd pictures years apart in different cities and lifetimes, but which are remarkably similar that remind that we are all the same and that once Shelley Manne, just like me, had to learn to play triplets, or hold his sticks properly, or accentuate a beat, or come in from a break. That’s why stories about famous people are so comforting to us. We realize that’s once they were just like us – just like us trying to walk a cat on a leash.
About a month after I started playing the drums, we got a gig at the Red Line Tap and I suggested instead of practicing at home that we should rent a rehearsal space for a few hours to hear how we sound at a louder volume. We found a practice space just south of Wicker Park in the old industrial district that rented rooms with equipment for $10.00 an hour. Ten dollars got us a room full of amplifiers, a P.A., and a drum set. The usually smelled of sweat, bear, and stale smoke which filtered in from one end of the hallway where people were allowed to smoke since smoking wasn’t allowed in the rooms themselves. For me, the advantage of playing there was being able to hear myself play loud. At home, I covered my drum et with an assortment of kitchen towels and placements to dampen the sound, but no matter what I did to the drum set, it was loud, so loud that if Brian was playing it, which he often did when he was recording a new song, I could hear it halfway down the block. Despite my enthusiasm to learn to rock, at 38 years-old, I could imagine how annoying it would be for the next door neighbor who just moved into that million dollar single family home next door to hear me banging on drums at one o’clock in the afternoon. So I covered them with towels and did my best to play quietly. But that’s antithetical to the instrument and in order to hear how I really sounded, especially when I played with Brian, we had to rent a practice space by the hour in four-story factory building. The first time we went, Brian insisted on bringing his own tube amplifier, which is a heavy kind of thing be carrying up four factory flights of stairs. As time went on and the more we practiced there, the less we brought so that eventually I only brought drumsticks and a bottle of water and Brian brought his guitar and his pedals. It was on one of those evenings that I discovered the magic of playing music.
It was an awful rehearsal. I sucked that night. There was something going on in my head. I thought everything I played sounded terrible and at the same time I could play what I heard in my head. Brian would hit some chords and in my head, I would think: “Okay, double snare hits, right here.” Instead I would miss the space to play them entirely and I would play out of rhythm. I stopped several times, just gripped with a kind of panic, that all of sudden, after almost a year of practicing I couldn’t play even the simplest thing – something I could have played in the first month. Each mistake just made me more panicked until I became focused only on what I couldn’t do and not what I could do. After an hour, I felt paralyzed. I sat behind the drum set almost unable to move. It was made worse by the fact that we weren’t at home, where I could get up, take a break, maybe have a cup a tea and then come back in an hour. Here we were paying to play and I wanted to make the two hours worth the money we spent on it. My shoulders slumped over. I sighed. Brian smiled sympathetically.
“I feel like I can’t play.”
“But we’ve played this before. We’ve played it out.”
“I know. There’s just something going on my head. I think I can’t play.”
“You can play.”
I sighed. If I was a Peanuts cartoon, someone could have looked at me and seen the word balloon with SIGH written in it above me. I almost didn’t know what to do. I tried for a few minutes, continually looking at the clock, thinking “another hour.” Then after half an hour, “another half-hour.” And then later, “okay, it’s 15 minutes before the end of the reservation, I can pack up now.”
The two hours ended with me, unhappy and depressed – dejected. I wanted to give up. Who was a I kidding anyway? The thought was embedded in my brain as we walked down the four flights of stairs to the street. I barely spoke.
I was in front of Brian, opening the door, so I saw them first. It was 10 o’clock at night, dark in the street between the factory buildings, but even in the darkness I could see the huge forms of grey elephants, walking tail to trunk. I stopped. My mouth opened slightly and then as if I was twelve, I shouted “Elephants!”
There they were a line of four or six elephants lumbering gracefully with their giant padded feet down a street in a Chicago. Next to them were keepers, who smiled as I shouted. What it must be like to take elephants for a walk down a street in Chicago! I heard a footsteps racing down the staircase behind me and the door burst open. One of the managers of the practice space had raced down the four flights.
“I saw them from upstairs,” he said, breathing heavily. “And I wanted to see them up close.”
The three of us stood there, watching, mouths slightly agape as a short little parade of elephants and then zebras passed in front of us quietly and calmly. And it was in that moment of awe, of wonderment, that I forgot the very thoughts that had kept me paralyzed for the last two hours. For three endless minutes, it wasn’t about me being disappointed in myself and fearful of the future, but me with elephants and zebras standing in wonderment of the circumstances that brought all of us together.
“Where are they coming from?” I asked the manager.
“The circus is at United Center and there’s a loading ramp to the trains behind the building so they walk them to load them into the train.”
“Wow.” I said
The last zebra twitched its tail in good-bye to us as the parade receded into the dark, damp mist of a Chicago November night. From that night on, I tried, whenever the fear of my inadequacy loomed large in my head, to think of elephants, and their magic which helped me forget that the largest part of who I am is not the part that can’t do something, but the part that can.
Making your dreams come true is one thing. Practicing to make them come true is another.
I had the drum set – hunter green – set-up in the spare bedroom (now known as the “music room” after we removed Brian’s desk and the books). But owning a drum set isn’t the same as playing it. And because of the flu, for the first 2 weeks, I barely touched it. When I did, I sat on the drum stool (“throne” I eventually learned later), hitting things sort of aimlessly. I was timid with this new monstrosity that took up all the available space in the bedroom the way an elephant takes up the space around a small circus stool. Oddly though, I felt huge behind the drums rather than small. I thought I would feel small behind it overwhelmed by the drums that I didn’t know how to use and the bronze cymbals that seemed to loud in that too small space. Instead, I felt like an elephant trying to balance a huge foot on a small table. Everything seemed too small as I hit a drum head with a stick. And I seemed too big. Out of place behind the set. I feel I didn’t fit. This wasn’t me … yet.
Learning to make that drum set feel like a part of me rather than a set of false limbs was what practicing came to mean to me. The more I practiced, the more I realized I was learning how to live as me rather than just learning how to play the drums. This realization came one day during one of those tortuous practice sessions when I would bash at the heads and sound would come out, but nothing that sounded like music. Or, to put it more simply, I was not playing anything that even I wanted to hear.
On the rubber practice pad, I had begun to feel as if playing the drums was possible. Without the loud, real sound of a stick hitting a drum head on a huge birch shell, I could feel like I was playing really well. Yeah, I rock, I thought, as I heard the muffled fwack-fwack of the drum stick on the rubber. Fwack-fwack, fic-fic, fwack-fwack.. Oh yes, I definitely rock.
The day I took those sticking exercises to a real drum set for the first time was the moment I realized that I had only learned half of it. On those drumheads, that fwack-fwack sounded like bash-bash-rattle, bash-rattle-bash. When I tried to play softer, thinking if I lowered the volume of what I was playing, it would sound better all I heard was a whooshing rattle noise that buzzed in the air long after I played it. That’s when I felt as if learning how to play the drums was one of the most misguided ideas I have ever had and I had a few in my lifetime.
I sat there on that stool, dejected. My heart fell into my shoes. And the sticks, felt heavy and leaden in my hands. What happened to that magic daydream that I had in my head? How was I going to get there from here? I put the sticks down and walked away from the kit. I stayed away for a few weeks. Whenever I walked by the room and saw that green drum set, it looked like a huge face, opening its huge bass drum mouth and mocking me: You can’t play me. Ha-ha. You can’t play me.
I started to wonder if I should sell it. Post a picture of it Craig’s List and buy a futon for that room and some plants. Maybe make a library.
The drum set had arrived on the December 23rd, but because of the holidays and my teacher’s departure to Texas to plan his wedding, our next lesson wasn’t for another 3 or 4 weeks. I continued practicing on the rubber practice pad, where I felt safe. At my next lesson, Ben asked if I had found a drum set. I triumphantly told him I had.
I told him how much I paid and that it had been delivered to me by a filmmaker in Milwaukee who was on his way to Indiana to film a documentary.
“That’s a great deal,” he said. “And it was delivered to you! Well, we have to teach you something you can play on it.”
We do? I thought. You’re going to help me conquer that green elephant in my possibly-soon-to-be a library?
That’s when Ben had me move my stool up to the drum set that sat in the basement of Andy’s Music where he gave lessons.
I tensed. I was sitting behind another drum set and that feeling that said you will never do this in your whole life even if you tried returned.
“Okay,” Ben said. “You’re going to learn the basic rock beat.” While he talked I tried to breathe while he wrote the notes on tabulature. He showed me how to read the notes: the middle note was snare; the bottom note, bass; and the row of x’s on the top, hi-hat. All those violin lessons were finally paying off. At least I can read notes across a page, but the hard part was going to make my limbs recognize that the middle note wasn’t an “A” but a snare hit. Over the course of an hour, Ben helped me discover a new road into the mysterious land of that drum set. The hi-hat clicked out the time in eighth notes: one-and-two-three-and-four-and. Chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik-chik. As I played it, I recognized it as that sound I hear in most songs that ticks out the beat, a high-sounding clicking that can be heard above the other sounds. Then, I learned the snare sound, a crack that came on the TWO and the FOUR. So, now I heard chik-chik-CRACK/chik-chik-chik-chik-CRACK/chik-chik. And finally, the bass drum, the boom underneath it all; that came on the ONE and the THREE. BOOM/chick-chick-CRACK/chik-chik-BOOM/chik-chik-CRACK/chik-chik.
OH MY GOD!! I thought. I’m playing the drums!!
And as soon as I heard it, it was gone. The booms fell on the cracks the chik disappeared altogether and I was playing the same noisy-bashing I played at home. I looked to Ben, expecting either disappointment or concern.
Instead Ben’s face flashed a huge smile: “Awesome!! That rocked!”
“Yeah, you got it. Now, you just have to practice it.”
Practice I did. I practiced and practiced it until I could play that plain old rock beat for 3 minutes. At first it came for only a few seconds, then a full minute, and then, one snowy, sub-zero afternoon, I heard that rock beat come steady and loud and I knew I had tamed that elephant. The mocking maw of that bass drum was vanquished, and instead of the drum set being a land too small or too large for me, it was a place that was beginning to be made just for me. It was on that day that I discovered how music could be a place to go to not only to escape, the most obvious reason, but also to discover – to discover who I was going to be now and what I was going to do now.