Returning to drumming after a fourteen-year breakOriginally published by: Roden
Man, my body and mind missed drumming. I feel like such a fool. For the first time in roughly fourteen years I picked up a pair of drumsticks. Not to twiddle or tap out paradiddles on a practice pad, but to engage, fully, against a metronome with sheet music in front of me, on a proper set. And it felt so good I nearly passed out.
Since winter of last year I’ve had the itch. I began drumming again in my dreams. The notion, the idea, the promise of the physicality burbled over the top of the pot. In Japan, a physical kit in a home doesn’t work. But electronic kits had gotten seriously good — the latest Roland snares and rides and hi-hats are marvels of percussive technology, sensitive and nuanced and offering up maybe 80-90% of the experience of playing on their classic analogs,1 but nearly silent. I hemmed and hawed. I thought about the size of the thing, the kit, and what it meant to bring that into my life, my living room. Another object, a thing to be owned by. And a bunch of cardboard boxes to be chopped up and thrown out.
From age eight to twenty-eight I drummed. It was a huge part of my life, almost the entirety at certain points. A lifeline, too, certainly. First on a little snare drum at home (the stand gifted to me by my mother’s boyfriend at the time, a stand purchased at a yard sale for a buck, one I still have (!!) and am using to this day, rusted, lightweight, no-name, probably from the 70s) and then in various orchestras, moving to a beginner Pearl kit, playing in bands, jazz bands, punk bands, ska bands, rocksteady bands — anything I could find. As soon as I had a license I would drive the three or four hours into the East Village to sit in on reggae sessions in a weed-smoke-filled Coney Island High on St. Mark’s. I could hang with those guys, though no one expected me to do so. I looked like I had stepped out of some hidden library at K-Mart. Back home: practicing classical snare solos, making all-state orchestra, upgrading to a three-piece DW, spending summers at UMass at their marching camp. I put together and managed a ridiculous band when I was sixteen with a bunch of kids from the neighboring town. We played a gig at University of Hartford and the whole place went wild and the drive home as an almost out of body experience. Whatever chemicals were coursing through me then, I had never before felt. One of the other musicians — a guy named Ted — sat next to me and I remember driving so slowly on the highway, car full of drums, the two of us marveling, not wanting the drive to end, not wanting whatever had happened that night to end. Total performance intoxication. I was in. (He went on to study composition at Harvard.)
At university in the states I wasn’t good enough to make the official jazz band, but the jazz band bassist and guitarist saw me playing with my very Sly-and-the-Family-Stone-meets-Maceo-Parker inspired band and they dug my feel so much they petitioned for me to be a second kit drummer. The first guy looked like he might throw up on me at any moment. In gaps of playing ability also lived gaps of social class, and that much was obvious. Second class may I have been, I ended up at the Reno Jazz Fest playing in front of thousands, our piano player winning every soloist award they doled out. When I arrived in Tokyo for university, it was straight to the music circles. I couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese, but could stand toe-to-toe with any jam session. So I lived in Tokyo rehearsal studios for nearly a decade, at one point playing two or three gigs a week, recording CDs, DVDs, other one-offs.
It was fine. I was fine. Sometimes good, very rarely great, never exceptional. I still didn’t know how to apply “serious” rigor to creative work. Didn’t know how to strategically make better the parts of the creative process that were inefficient, hokey, suboptimal. I was still feeling my way through the world, trying to shed so much childhood baggage. But playing was a form of language and dance I had internalized and committed to. However lacking or regressive those commitments may have been, they were the best I had. I gave all I knew how to give. Playing served as a bridge to many things, friendship certainly one of them. But bands were also where I learned to lead, to organize, to manage. Where creative goals could be established and achieved as a team, a team I conducted. Where I felt acutely the gap between taste and talent and the drive to close it, too.
When I was twenty, I dug up an old book of practice patterns and within the mix of it all was a chart for a so-called Mozambique. I studied it, alone, in those stale-smelling underground Tokyo studios. Going over it again and again until it clicked, and when it did, it felt like flying, like something spectral had been unlocked. I still remember where I was — Takadanobaba, Gateway (a now defunct studio) — when it came together. I had learned many other patterns, beats, ostinatos, but — not to be reductive — they were basic in many ways. Here, the Mozambique brought something new beyond classic jazz patterns, more fully syncopated, and within that syncopation a looseness to be plied and luxuriated in.
I love the ramping up of knowing that happens within your muscles when you learn something new and physical. At first, the coordination seems impossible. But then the mind begins to split, limbs gain independence, and given enough hours: a total unyokening. It reminds me, in ways, of writing kanji. I don’t know where the strokes come from. Like language itself, manifesting from an electrical twitch of a diaphanous umph. I sit down and the character is there (or more often, not). I want to say a word and the word is on my lips. I want to raise my arm and it’s raised. Like this, my right hand is tapping out a series of accented and unaccented hits on the ride, my left hand is filling in ghost notes without conscious prodding, and the bass drum is banging when it’s supposed to bang. Phantasmagorical, the whole process. You sit with this — the basics, the fundamentals — of the pattern for a while and it becomes part of yourself, undeniably linguistic, like learning a new word or phrase, and you are no longer bound by the rules of the page, but can improvise on top of it, be ensorcelled by it, throw it around the kit, play with dynamics, tempo, own the thing, make it your own, place it in your pocket to be retrieved at leisure. That ownership and confidence of ownership is where the flying happens, where music shifts from reproduction to pliant expression. Anyway, I first felt this fully with the Mozambique some twenty-two years ago.
Of all drummers, I find myself returning to Steve Gadd most often. No big licks, feel for days, creative, issuing a kind of restraint you don’t often see, certainly not in new drummers and rarely in accomplished ones. Turns out he is a Mozambique lover. Though I learned the pattern before I found him. Perhaps the pattern drew me to him, or I felt the pattern in his playing and from there leaned in closer. A heartening overlap of taste kinship.
But then I hit a point around twenty-eight, gave it all up cold turkey. Didn’t know any other way. Stopped the playing. Stopped the drinking. Stopped the recording and gigging. Realized the day had only so many hours to be committed to creative acts and I was sick of reliance on others — other musicians — to make things happen. So I pulled back and every hour that had been spent in the studio went to the page. I started writing bigger essays. Really sitting with them. Most everything good in my life as an adult — so much of what I love, the most inspired and inspiring people, experiences, the most emotionally and financially (!!) rewarding acts, impulses that feel deontically good — I can trace back to writing. So in hindsight, this was a very good trade. And within the writing was rhythm. The drumming, I had to believe, wasn’t lost. Not that music itself didn’t bring with it goodness, but I felt, acutely, a limitation on what I could do behind a kit and where that could bring me. So I dropped it like a sack of dead chickens.
These past fourteen years, somewhere in the back of my mind was that little kid, tapping on a snare. Somewhere lay the delight of the Mozambique. Some quondam vow forgotten. Maybe that’s why I took to walking with such alacrity. The dance of the walk, the rhythm of the walk was replacing that old promise. I was remembering what it meant to move and mix movement with creativity, to intertwine the two so intensely that you couldn’t have one without the other. I’d finish some drum sessions with bloody hands, sweat soaked, exhausted, fully used up. Like that, in the studio, I first felt how you could whittle yourself to nothing in service to a creative impulse. I’ve finished many walking days with bloody feet and a nearly bloody mind.
And then ten days ago the kit arrived. A forty-two kilogram box deposited in front of my door. Boxes within boxes. I unpacked the thing throwing the boxes into a box pile that would have driven a cat insane with box joy. Wires everywhere. I set the thing up. It turned on, it worked. I hit the rubber and mesh things and those things produced a familiar noise in my headphones. I swung my arms around and they mostly worked as intended, but man they were rusty. The first day I played for three or four hours. The second, another three or four. And by the third day, something had returned. The neural networks were fired back up. My calf muscles were aching. As was most of my core, and right shoulder. A good ache. The kit sits in my living room. I pass it many times each day and can hardly resist sitting behind it. The meditative quality of entering into that elevated state is a shock. I don’t know if I felt it — or would have understood it if I felt it, or the value in feeling it — decades back. But now, it feels like going on a long, silent run. The body moves and the mind is unshackled. Background processes kick into high gear and problems can be solved. Problems on the page or problems of life. All on top of the Mozambique.
Like this, drumming has returned to my life. I have no desire to play with anyone. It is a selfish act. I love how selfish it feels. I use YouTube and make more progress on new charts in a day than I could have in a month twenty years ago. I know how to break things down in ways that would astound a younger self. My belief in process more than makes up for any deficiency in motor skills. Drumming is language, and for fourteen years I forsook direct engagement. Though tangentially it spilled out everywhere else in my life, it’s nice to have the undiluted act back.
Anyway, I was a fool. I should have acted on this impulse sooner. But maybe I wasn’t ready. Now, though, even as I type these words it’s hard not to go sit down and play. Maybe (probably?) this impulse evaporates soon. Maybe ten days from now I won’t want to touch the kit anymore. I hope that’s not the case. But even if it is, I am OK with waves of need. Though fourteen years is extreme. Right now this feels good and necessary as part of life. Nourishment atop nourishment. Grateful to have this language back as a first-class citizen in my muscles and my home.
The main things missing: Being able to modulate tone of by pushing down with one stick on a head and tapping with the other; true cross-sticking. Varying levels of muted cymbal tomfoolery. Easily switching off the snares. But the benefits arguably outstrip these few compromises: any sound can be mapped to any surface, a single pad is not a single sound, playing is whisper silent, and the mesh heads and rubber rims are far kinder on wrists and ganglion cysts than standard drums. ↩︎