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Drumming is a Kind of Walking

Ridgeline Transmission 162



About six months ago I began drumming again. I had taken a fourteen year hiatus. I wrote up my return in Roden, and posted the essay as a standalone thing here: ”Drumming”.

Six months later, and I’ve sat behind the kit almost every single day I’ve been home. Usually multiple times a day. It has become my thinking seat. The kit is electronic. I live in Japan and don’t have a soundproofed room in my studio, so the thought of playing an acoustic set, and barraging my neighbors with that banging, is enough to make my head retract fully into my chest. But electronic kits have gotten much, much better in the past few years. Their tactility is incredible. The sensitivity of the sounds — it feels like it reaches about 85% of a “normal” kit. Which is a lot. 85%! You miss out on all the truely fun stuff though — cross sticking and pushing on heads to change timber and turning your snare on and off with your thigh and raking cymbals and cymbal side dings and and and (but of course digital brings its own incredible set of creative options to the table, they’re just more … digital) — but the fundamentals are there and solid. And I’ve found something strange: I rarely turn it on these days. I’ll go weeks playing it off. Meaning, I just play it as a muted acoustic kit. The heads can be “tuned” to different tensions, and that alone is enough to make them feel unique. The only thing I really miss when it’s off are open high-hats.

Every few months, it seems like all the major publications publish yet again a story about the magic of walking. Most recently, The New York Times: “Whatever the Problem, It’s Probably Solved by Walking” These essays often veer mystical and dead poets are amply quoted, but let’s get down to brass tacks: Why does walking help us think? For me:

  1. It’s a self-hypnosis. The steady beat of your feet on the ground, the beat of the world moving past.
  2. It pulls your stinkin’ noggin’ out of your stinkin’ phone. Mostly, anyway. In this way, it forces you to be present, to sometimes — even — be bored.
  3. Boredom is the source of many solutions. Boredom kicks the brain into processing mode — background or otherwise.

So: We’re hypnotized through movement. We’re present. And we’re bored. That’s why it’s so good.

Running is also a way to get there, and one I find that brings me to an even deeper state of all of the above. But running requires gear, minor planning. running causes injuries. Walking can just happen. I like that low-risk, zero-cost entry fee.

As I’ve shimmied back into the drumming world, I’ve experienced a couple stages:

  1. Wow, my limbs are not used to this.
  2. OK, limbs back in action, let’s learn some new beats, “licks,” etc.
  3. Wow, this is tough but fun, and I’m making progress more quickly than expected.
  4. Huh, what I’ve learned feels “thoughtless” and “embedded” in my muscles.
  5. OK, neat, I’ve got this “always ready” new rhythmic lexicon deployable at will.

A lot of instrument practice is pure repetition. Just perform a lick, a sticking, a fingering, an arpeggio four billion times. Easy. Now it’s yours. With an electronic kit turned off, it turns out you can do so much of this while watching films. And it turns out, that while having your hands and feet (this is critical, the involvement of the whole body) do X — a simple thing, this X, but still a thing — over and over and over again while watching a movie, your attention on the moving images becomes focused almost as if viewing through a tunnel. The rest of the world falls away. There is no pull to check your phone. You are seated, yes, but moving your hands and feet. The repetition is rhythmic, catalyzes our desired hypnosis, and the mind shifts into a similar state to that of a mind on a walk.

Now, take away the movies.

This has become my thinking seat. One a.m., ten a.m., five p.m., doesn’t matter. I’m currently in the middle of editing and sequencing my next book (and publishing frequently about the process to a members-only newsletter called Nightingalingale — thanks to everyone following along!), and if If I don’t know my next move — what to edit or which photos to cut — I sit down. Often I’ll play a linear pattern because they have a nice permutative quality that I find works well for “hypnosis,” and is the closest thing to walking while sitting. The rhythm naturally tessellates, and I think through which images are currently working or not working, or where this particular paragraph should be slotted into the greater whole.

Because my kit sits in the corner of my studio, it’s an even lower barrier to entry than walking. A literal three second stroll to begin the process of moving the body to jump start the mind.

When I stopped drumming I stopped cold turkey. Maybe other “failed” musicians will understand this impulse. The intimacy of the act, and the degree to which it was embedded in my life was simply too much to modulate down. I spent the entirety of my years from eight to twenty-eight drumming my brains out. At that moment, when I quit, it was all or nothing.

Looking back, it’s no coincidence that soon after I put down my sticks, I began the big walks in earnest. The brain was starved for rhythm, hypnosis, and a touch of boredom. The photo at the top is of my guide walking with me up to Annapurna Basecamp, just after I quit drumming. My heart was broken — from a lover, not from the drums — and I was looking to mend it at altitude. (It didn’t work; I just wrote terrible poetry the whole way up on an iPod Touch.)

But walking worked in almost every other way. Many things became unstuck thanks to the walks (including, eventually, that broken heart), and the walks have precipitated most of my creative work these past fourteen years.

Anyway, it’s been great to rediscover the kit. And even greater to see it slot into life in such an unexpectedly useful way. Drumming is a kind of walking, and it’s a walk I’m happy to return to.


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