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.

“Awesome!!”

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!”

“It did?”

“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.

 

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