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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:
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.
There 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.
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.
5. Bring Duct Tape.
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.
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.
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.
One of my all time favorite gigs was the Temple gig when we followed a puppet show. And I’m thrilled that we will be playing there again on Saturday, December 13. SPIL is in the short Peace Concert included in the Temple’s Annual HolidayAuction evening.
The doors open at 4:30 PM and I think we’ll be playing around 5 PM. Tickets are $10.00, which includes the auction, vegetarian food, and the concert.
If you’re in town, the auction will be a great place for bargains on art, services, and event tickets.
For more on the evening, go to the temple website: http://zenbuddhisttemplechicago.org/auction/index.html
Singing is much much much much harder than drumming. I sang at the last show and while it did not go badly, I felt in my voice a hesitation and in my head I heard a voice that screamed: “OH MY GOD!! YOU’RE SINGING IN PUBLIC! STOP!” I kept singing and the two brief songs I sang were over before I knew it. So, to the voice I said, “Relax, it’ll be over in a second.”
I so admire singers. And not just famous singers, everyday singers. People who sing songs while they do the dishes or go for a walk. I admire people who sing whole choruses and verses of their favorite song. I have favorite songs and singers. I like the way Nat King Cole sings “Mona Lisa” and the way he lingers on the “m” so that it’s sounds like “yummm…”. I like Etta James when she sings “At Last” and the way she sings the “at last” so that you really can feel her exhale a sigh of relief…at last. I like even (or especially) Astrud Gilberto because of how she sings slightly off-pitch, no so badly that it’s unlistenable but just enough so that it’s charming, fetching, as if she were a child lisping. I love that she is singing and she’s not a perfect singer. And I have discovered (re-discovered, really, I’m old enough to have heard her songs on the radio in the 70s) Karen Carpenter and how she sings with a very short range but every note and breath counts. Every time it rains, her song about rainy days and Monday seems to fall with each drop. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down. Sing it, girl. You speak the truth.
So, I am in awe of singers: the great ones, the flawed ones, the affected ones. I admire them because more than any other instrument I have learned to play (piano, violin, drums), the voice is the one that asks you to be vulnerable. When I sing with my voice, I am making music with my own body (flawed, imperfect, limited) and I’m singing (ideally) with my emotions (sad, angry, happy) and there is no object in between me and the sound an audience hears. There is no instrument under my chin or a wall of drums to hide me from the audience. It is just me and my voice. And when I sat on stage singing I felt as naked as I could feel, despite the wall of drums that sat in front of me. God help me the day I walk out from behind the drums to sing in public.
Singing makes me grow. I have to learn how to find intervals with my voice, which is a matter of teaching the muscles in my throat, mouth, chest, diaphragm to recognize an “A” and know how it’s different from a “C.” Needless to say, I’m still teaching myself those things so by the time we played last week, I still couldn’t pitch myself very well, especially when I was drumming. There was one moment in the chorus of “Rosie” that I knew I wouldn’t hit a low note. We had discovered in rehearsal that fell below my range and that I should go an octave or a third up instead. But, because it’s all new to me and a third up might as well be a universe up, I didn’t quite have it down when we went to the show. And during the song, I tried not to anticipate it. I tried to just let the moment come and accept whatever happened when we got to the chorus.
Oddly, when we got there, a solution presented itself. We were singing in unison and as Brian’s voice dropped down to the unreachable note, I could feel that I wouldn’t hit it on key, and my hands and arms with a mind and brain of their own took over. Instead of singing that note, I played two loud hits on the snare. My voice didn’t sing it but my arms did. The result was that it sounded as if I was punctuating on the drums the idea of the word that Brian was singing. Problem solved. Life is awesome.
Last night we rehearsed again and in order to work on vocals we left all the big gear at home. No big amps, no drums: just Brian and his telecaster and small Fender Champ and me and a snare. A thirty-minute set-up with full drums became a five-minute set-up without them, and within minutes of arriving at the rehearsal space we were ready to practice.
We spent the next hour fighting. I wanted him to turn down. He didn’t want to. I wanted to sing it one way; he, another. He felt invalidated; I was angry. For an hour we stopped and started the same song. We fought about line breaks and fell into angry silences. After an hour, I stopped and did something I learned to do at the last buddhist retreat. I put my hands together, plam to palm, and inhaled and slowly, I counted my out-going breaths from five to zero. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.
“Why don’t we just relax and do what we like?” I said.
Brian sat still, not moving, slumped over his yellow guitar like a puppet without a master. “Okay,” he said in a mutter.
We kept playing. Over the hour the angry stillness seemed to lift and as we got out one good rendition of “Twilight. We seemed to lighten up even more and tried another song. Eventually, we both apologized and began talking about other songs to work on.
There’s an idea, a stereotype really, of a temperamental diva-singer in a booth hurling insults at producers and creating tantrums. It’s a cliche, but I have discovered there’s a reason why it happens so often. Singing is hard. Even when you’re good at it. You are vulnerable in a glass booth with groups of people watching you sing. You are there, naked, in front of others while they drink coffee and stare at you with detached disinterest. You are out there — and here’s the kicker — no one else is.
If you’re on the mailing list for the band, then you have already received this notice about our show on Friday. If you’re not on the mailing list, then what are you waiting for? Email me at email@example.com and I’ll add you.
So, we’re playing at Hotti Biscotti (see www.shortpunksinlove.com for more info) on Friday, April 11, which means that at end of a week full of teaching and grading exams, I get to be a rock star. The bonus side of having a “hobby” like ours. (I put “hobby” in quotes because Brian hates it when someone calls it our “hobby” as if it were to equate performing music with other hobbies like hummel collecting and bargain shopping. For Brian it’s not a hobby, but a reason to live. And he means it like that: a reason to live. But that’s another story, one I’m saving for a memoir.) Where was I? Oh yes, the up-side of playing out is that when you’re a teacher you spend your days in front of young people being looked at with the same amount of interest one gives a CTA conductor or a McDonald’s employee. You’re there, and yet not there. So, going somewhere to be on stage and have someone (anyone) give you slightly more attention can be a huge boost to one’s sense of existing in the world. Hey, I must exist: you can see me. For those of us who experience existential crises on even-numbered days, this can save quite a bit on therapy.
Meanwhile, the next show will be a challenge for me: for the first time, I’m going to sing. Really sing, not just sing the occasional line. It’s part of an agreement we made after the last show when Brian wouldn’t use his Les Paul Gibson (a great guitar) during the show.
“Why didn’t you use the Les Paul.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t get it. It’s a 1200 dollar guitar and you never want to play it on stage.”
“Look, it’s a lot of guitar, I’m not sure if I’m ready. Tris and Andy [former bandmates] used to say the same thing about my first Les Paul.”
“Okay, how about this? I’ll make a deal with you. If you play the Les Paul. I’ll sing.”
Brian’s eyes perked open. Sounded like a fair deal to him. We agreed. And I started singing at the next show and at rehearsal yesterday we worked on vocal parts for me. It’s a whole new world, playing drums and singing at the same time. The greatest challenge is not dropping beats while I sing. I have a whole new respect for Levon Helm, Karen Carpenter, and Phil Collins. It’s not as easy as it looks.
So, if you happen to be around and want to see me tackle this next challenge, then stop by Hotti Biscotti on Friday. We’ll save you a seat at the bar!
Life has been intruding in my budding career as a rock star. Immediately after the show I thought I would upload the pics, write pithy comments, and then post it for our adoring fans. A week later I still haven’t charged the batteries in the digital camera and I’ve forgotten all my witty comments. Another lifetime has passed since that show and I’m trying to remember what happened last week.
Memory is a frail thing. What did I wear? Jeans and some sweater, I think. What did we play? The usual set. Brian has written two new songs, folk-like tunes that I’m still learning so I probably played hand-snare. Oh right, hand-snare. I asked the Sound Guy if he was miking the snare because I would be playing hand snare. He said, “I never heard that before. Did you come up with that?”
I said in a voice that I hope wasn’t condescending (but probably sounded like it), “Uh no, John Bonham did … and Max Roach.”
That’s when I realized there was an age gap. This kid didn’t know who I was talking about. I tried not to think about it.
We played second, because one of the bands had people coming later. We were happy to go on second. I should explain now some booking etiquette. Short Punks booked the show and we were the most “well-known” band (ha!) so we were technically the “headliners” (chortle), therefore we should perform last. You know, save the best for last. But here’s the problem with going on late for people like me: if I go on too late, I get tired. And there’s that age thing rearing its head again. Brian and I like playing first or second because we’re brighter, cheerier, and, in general, a lot happier. Then we can enjoy the other performers without worrying about our set.
And the other performers were:
and us … oh yeah, and I forgot, I wore a red sweater.
We were pretty happy at this show (and with a few exceptions, we’re happy at most of the shows), but we were especially pleased at the maturity of these bands. Let me put it this way, Brian was the youngest one in the bunch instead of the oldest. And I was — hurray! — one of the other youngest ones. We appreciated that everyone was on-time and eager to play. There were no complaints about the “draw” (band lingo for “audience”), the lack of drink tickets, or the absence of a cover taker (i.e. guy who takes your cash at the door). Everyone was just happy to be out on Sunday night playing for someone. And the turn out was good — thanks to Jungle of Cities and their supporters.
So, that was the show. I may not sound as eager about the shows, but, in many ways, because we have done so many, my feeling about shows has changed. They used to terrify me — feel me with alternating waves of dread and anticipation. But, after two years, they have begun to feel like teaching. I walk on stage now with the casualness that I walk into a classroom several times a week. This ease, this lack of effort or anxiety, could seem like apathy, but, I think, it’s more comfort and confidence. And that, after two years, makes me extremely happy.
Before I go, here’s one more pic. Later that week, Ben fell asleep on Brian (as he does every night and at every nap) and it was too good not to post.
In the recent issue of Roctober, Brian found this short notice about our first CD.
Short Punks in Love. Moody indie with a nice balance of resonant guitar and spare percussion. Far less cutesy than the band name, but just as romantic (actually, more so).
“Spare percussion”!! Ha. I love that. It was our first CD, my first recording, and “spare” was all I could play. I only knew the basic rock beat so that’s what I played. We get compliments every now and then on the “percussive style” and I’m often embarrassed to admit to the complimenter (although, I do) that my “style” came from not really knowing how to play. Brian was so supportive, and actually prefers minimal drumming, that it actually worked with the songs he wrote. Now, we’re having another discussion. Since I have learned more I want to complicate the drumming patterns and he wants to keep them minimal. We’re working on that now.
Meanwhile, that debut CD, now 2 years-old, is still our favorite. And, if you haven’t heard it and want a copy, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send you a copy for FREE!
We have a gig on Friday, a rehearsal on Thursday, and this means one thing: I better practice. When we took our short hiatus, Brian kept playing, “woodshedding” in the music room, trying new chords, writing new songs. Meanwhile, I pushed the practice pad into the corner and started leaving mail on it. And without even noticing, a month, even two months went by and I hadn’t picked up a drum stick. Hadn’t even really listened to drummers on CD. I just went and did other things.
I am not one of those musicians — one of those bio-pic musicians who “save” their lives with music. I am not one of those musicians who, as Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin (and yes, I saw that movie, and liked it) does, says that “one day I’ll be a star” (or something like that). I am not John Coltrane who practiced every moment he was awake. At night he would practice with his saxophone when others were asleep, his fingers working his horn while he had the reed out. I am not Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton or Nick Drake or even Brian Cremins. I am a regular person with an average amount of discipline who would rather write this blog, clean the bathroom, do a load of laundry, or shop on-line than practice. I’m THAT kind of musician. I’m the kind who daydreams of being magically a great musician without actually practicing. I’m the kind of musician who practices my tv screen pitter patter with Craig Ferguson while I brush my teeth.
“I’m so glad you liked the CD, Craig. Well, you know, we recorded it in the south of France, and that made such a difference to get away from L.A.”
And he would wink in that cute, Scottish, way and say “Oh yes! El Ay!!”
I am the kind of musician who still has to count my way through a song because I lose my time if I don’t.
I am the kind of musician who forgets whole songs that I have already recorded. I am the kind of musician who occasionally forgets how to assemble her own instrument. Does the drum head go this way or that way? I am the kind of musician who hasn’t taken a lesson in over year. I am the kind of musician who wonders how far I can get as a musician being this kind of musician.
We have a gig on Friday. I have to remember how to assemble my own drum kit. I have to practice and work the muscles in my hands and arms so that I can play a whole set without getting fatigued. I have to listen to our own CDs to remember the songs. I have to remember to breathe when I play or I get dizzy. I have to remember that if I want to be the kind of musician who saves his or her life with music, I have to forget that I’m the other kind of musician who would rather be at home with a box a donuts than on-stage with ten people staring at me blankly while I’m trying to remember all the things I’m trying to forget.
We have a gig on Friday. Did I mention that? We have a gig on Friday.