“Hands are not for hitting.” This phrase is used to teach kindergartners that they should not hit people. It is used to teach them that they need to keep their hands to themselves. But then the lesson deepens, whether it is meant to or not. Don’t make noise. Don’t stick out. Don’t take up space, be it physical or audible.
“Hands are not for hitting.” Unless you are a drummer. Somehow I’ve become a drummer. I feel like I’m admitting that I have some sort of communicable disease.
Is it a disease? Is it a sickness? “Disease” is really dis-ease. It is to be ill at ease. To not be comfortable, not well. Invalids have disease. An “invalid” is someone who is in-valid, who is not right, not true. “Invalid” is the same as invalidate. We are used to saying IN-valid with the emphasis on the first syllable when we mean “sick person.” We don’t hear it as the same word when we pronounce it as in-VAL-id, meaning wrong.
There are a lot of jokes about drummers. What do you call a guy who hangs out with four musicians? A drummer. How do you know when your stage is level? Your drummer drools out of both sides of his mouth. It isn’t seen as acceptable to be a drummer. It isn’t seen as civilized.
Mickey Hart, the longtime drummer for the Grateful Dead, wrote a book about his life with drums called “Drumming at the Edge of Magic”. He recounted a story about when his grandmother saw him at a family gathering while music was being played. He was very young, still in diapers, sitting on the floor. He was swaying rhythmically to the music. His grandmother looked at him swaying there and said “Oh no…” while shaking her head. His mother, hearing this, thought that the grandmother recognized some sign of a genetic disease in his movements. She asked, concerned. His grandmother shook her head ruefully and said “Another musician in the family…”
I don’t feel like it is a disease, but a healing. I feel that I’m becoming more myself the more I practice percussion. I’m having to be patient with myself, sure. I want to be perfect. I hate it when I get a good rhythm going and I hit a snag and it sounds like a skip in the record or a bump in the road. I have to remember to slow down. I have to remember to breathe too.
I forget to breathe sometimes when I get into things. I get so involved in getting the rhythm or pattern right that what should be an automatic, unconscious thing just stops being a thing at all. I catch myself holding my breath and sometimes the pattern falls apart. Sometimes not. Sometimes it is like juggling. Sometimes I remember to stop thinking about the rhythm and just let it be what it wants to be.
I like hitting things with my hands. The big wooden book bins at the library all have beautiful sounds that only I know. I’ve found many different notes on them. I’ve not figured out how to make a song yet, and I’m not sure I will. Then it might stop being fun.
Something I like about hand drums is that there are only so many “notes.” It is part of why I played bass guitar for a while. There isn’t a lot to learn. I greatly respect drummers who play on drum kits with sticks, but I feel that is too civilized for me. There is something very primal about hand drums.
I knew where the line was today when I walked into an instrument store that was next to the drum store I go to. It was full of stringed instruments and keyboards. The clerk invited me to try out anything I wanted to. I felt out of my depth. I explained that I had just come from the drum store next door and wanted to know what this store had.
Somehow I felt like I had to identify myself. I told him that I am in the “hitting on things” tribe, and not the “things with strings” tribe. I did ask if they had any wind instruments. I am in the “blowing in things” tribe as well. They just had some slide whistles and pennywhistles. Not quite what I wanted. While there I fooled around with an upright bass but I don’t think I’m ready to make an eight thousand dollar investment in a toy. Bass guitars are a hybrid. They are kind of rhythm, and kind of notes. I could handle a bass, if I felt like learning all those notes. There are a lot of notes.
I have a hankering for a French horn, but then again we are back to the idea of the steep learning curve. I’d have to relearn how to read music, and how to play the thing. There are only three keys to depress but there are different combinations. You can do one at a time or two, or all three. There are also three different breaths you can use. If you combine all of these things you can play any note you want. The problem is knowing what you want and knowing how to make it at the same time.
Sometimes I feel around musical instruments the same way some of my students felt about writing when I tutored in college. They had varying degrees of learning disabilities and writing down their thoughts was often an impossible task. By the time one particular student remembered how to write the letters he would forget what he was trying to say. Since his essay was on his grasp of the subject and not his ability to write, I was employed to help. I would read the question and he would answer and I would type it up. I didn’t change anything he said or do any fact checking. His grade was purely his. Essentially I was the human version of “Dragon Dictation.”
I made it easy for him. I got the words out of his head and onto paper. But there isn’t such a way for me to get the music out of my head and into reality. So right now I’m sticking with things that don’t have a lot going on.
Part of it is just allowing myself to make noise. Playing an instrument takes up space in the world. Making up your own compositions takes up more space. It isn’t physical space, sure, but it is still space. I’m noisy when I bang on things. I have to bang on them a lot to work things out. Children are supposed to be seen and not heard, after all. Making noise is kind of rebellious, and kind of brave.
It is the same kind of bravery that I employ when I write, and especially when I post my writings. To write my thoughts and share them with strangers all over the world is to take up space. It is to say that I think that I have something worth hearing. It is to say that I’m not going to be silent anymore.
In the same way that I’ve had to write a lot to feel like I can easily express myself, I know that I’m going to have to practice a lot to express myself musically. So I’m drumming. Everything needs a beat, a rhythm, after all. It is what our lives start with, that heartbeat, that boom boom boom.
I’m drumming to find myself, to make a space. I’m drumming because it is fun. I’m drumming because it is unexpected. I’m drumming in order to heal.