I'm a big believer in learning to read music, just as Simon says. But drumming is also, I believe, flexible. Adaptable. The more experienced you get (and/or familiar with a song) the more free style can happen.
Dr.Vartan, one of my drum teachers, told me that playing the drums is like driving. Let's say you're headed to the library. You think about how fast you need to drive, where the other cars are, and when you should signal that you want to switch lanes, move over, and turn into the parking lot. There are rules to the road, but you've got to think about where you're headed and how fast. Drumming is like that. You've got to keep tempo, move around other instruments if you're playing in a band, and think about where you're headed in your fill, etc. She always encouraged me to read/look at the bar ahead of the one I was playing. (It's harder than it sounds.)
Which is another reason, I guess, to love the drums that much more! In a way, drummers are pirates. I believe, like Simon says, that reading music is an important skill. But it's also important to be flexible, be creative and learn to free style!
It's about twenty years too late, but at least it's here: a book for my twelve year old self.
I don't know how you choose your next book to read, but I get my ideas from various places. Twitter has become a great source for adding titles to my to-be-read list. Someone I follow had asked the question: what's your favorite middle grade book you've read recently? The thread to that question was awesome!
But none of the suggestions stood out to me more than I am drums by Mike Grosso.
On the second night of me reading I am drums, I had the house to myself. Hubby was in school (he's taking night classes). He came home, kissed me, and asked, "What's wrong?"
"This is the book I should have read when I was twelve," I said. "But I couldn't! You wanna to know why?"
"Because it didn't exist!" I burst into tears and babbled on about how Sam's experience mirrors my my own...
My friends might not have said it, but they thought it was "weird" that I play the drums. (Cuz I'm a girl, probably.) My mother didn't say it, but I could tell she didn't think playing the bass in a skirt was very ladylike. I heard beats in my sleep (and everywhere I went) and tapped my notebook, locker and desk. It was torture to play the set "in pieces," as it's described in the book. It may not have been true, but I felt like I was stuck with the triangle for all the performances. I dropped the crash cymbal once. Once! And the teacher never let me play it again. (Okay, maybe I dropped it more than once. And I was nervous during our performance! I couldn't help that they slipped out of my sweaty hands.)
I never hit anybody with a mallet, like Sam, but I felt angry that I wasn't able to take private lessons, that my parents hid their sigh of relief when I said I'd take choir instead. "It's cheaper," my sister had explained. (You can read my more detailed story here.)
"I can't give this book to my twelve year old self," I told Hubby. "I can't--- I can't!" And cried some more as he held me.
After a moment, I calmed down, sat up, and said, "I can't go back and tell my twelve year old self not to quit."
"No," Hubby said, his arm still around me.
"But I'm a drummer now."
Hubby smiled. "Yes you are!"
"And once grading is finished, I can start putting stars on my calendar again. I can practice."
"I'll be able to justify lessons again."
"And I have that." I pointed to the drum set in the other room as tears ran down my cheeks.
"Yes you do!"
"It's mine! It's mine, mine, mine. It's real. And I'm a real drummer."
I wish I could tell you I'm exaggerating this conversation, but, unfortunately, I am that dramatic.
The point of this post is not to make Mike Grosso feel bad. It's not his fault that this story (or a story like it) hadn't been told when I was going through my middle grade crisis over the drums. Even if I had played through junior high and high school, I don't know if I would have made a career out of it. Yes, I sometimes think about the drummer I would be right now if I hadn't quit at age twelve. Not that I'd be the first blue-man-girl (which my sister says is impossible because it's the blue man group) or even win a Hit Like A Girl Contest, but here's the thing---
We have the book now. The story is out there! Imagine the girl drummers--- and all young musicians--- who can read it now! Think of the impact!
My two concluding thoughts are:
1) I'm included in that. I'm a young musician. Even if I were 84-year-old Wanda, I'd still be young at heart and be able to play the drums now!
2) There are important stories to tell. You may think that your struggles are unique or "weird," but they're not. Tell them.
I'll be honest. I haven't practiced very much this summer. Family vacations, a teaching gig I wasn't planning on, CampNano and creative writing classes, and family emergencies have left my calendar with about two or three stars a month. (Yes, I put stars on my calendar when I practice. Don't be judging.)
But with a new semester starting, I had the opportunity to move some things around and re-commit to a drumming routine, perhaps 15-30 minutes, Monday-Friday before dinner like I used to.
I'm not taking lessons right now; I haven't practiced enough during the summer to justify paying for them, so I decided to learn a couple songs on my own. I asked drumscores.com to help out, and they sent me the drum scores for a couple songs I've wanted to learn for a while. It's been really fun, but only one week into this new routine, I found that as I hit the high-hat, my fingers and wrist started tingling. When I hit the crash, my whole arm vibrated, from my fingers down to my elbow. Ow!
While he wrapped, I said, "This stinks! I just got back into a good drumming rhythm (pun totally intended!) and this is what happens. I was looking forward to having all stars on my calendar this month." (Hubby takes me about to eat when I get all stars in a month, and I can justify taking online lessons!) I asked, "What am I doing wrong? Simon says drumming should never be painful, so what am I doing wrong?"
"You type at weird angles," Hubby said.
I thought about that. Yeah, I do. Sometimes I get lazy, especially when I'm typing on the couch, and my wrist(s) shift in strange ways. This is especially true on my iPad.
My wrist feels like I rolled it. (Is that possible?) So I'm babying it a bit and waiting for it to heal itself. I hope it heals quickly so I can get back to drum rolling. In the meantime, this has been a good time to review the drumming basics, like posture, grip and technique.
I'm pretty good about shrugging off those negatives. I mean, I know what to do when the dementors attack me in the classroom; my coworkers are supportive, and I have the best students in the classroom and in the tutoring center! So... not a lot of beating myself up there.
I probably could be a better writer. I often need to remember why I write or take a step away from criticism I've received, but I'm generally good about being kind to myself. Writing is a process. And writing a book is an even more complicated and longer process. I'm getting there...
Drumming in spurts
The other day, a friend asked me how long I've been playing the drums. I hesitated because I wasn't sure where to start in sharing my drumming story. Do I say I've been playing since 7th grade? No, that makes it sound like I played all through junior high and high school, which I didn't.
Do I say that I started drumming in college? It was only one class. I wouldn't want him to think I got a degree in drumming or even joined the college drum line. I didn't.
I ended up saying something like, "Well, I first learned in 7th grade, but didn't get serious about it until I joined Drum Ambition in 2016." But even as I said it, I knew that wasn't the right answer. Yes, Drum Ambition helped me a ton! They provided consistent lessons that I could afford and watch in my own time, but I bought my first set in 2011 and learned some stuff with Drumscore and other great drumming websites before starting online lessons.
The truth is, I drum in spurts. Sometimes every day. Other times once a week. Sometimes once a month or twice a year...
Who are drummers anyhow?
I used to think that having a drum set meant I was a drummer. True enough, it's a great piece of evidence, especially when the neighbors come over, see the set, and ask "who plays the drums?"
But what if I haven't played in a long time? Am I still a drummer?
What if it just sits there for a month or two while I'm surrounded by piles of essays to be graded--- or I find other excuses not to get behind the set? Am I still a drummer?
When my drums are calling, and I roll over and take a nap on the couch, either because I'm sick or don't feel like practicing...am I drummer?
When I'm in one of these slumps, I feel like I'm avoiding "eye contact" with my drum set. Like it will give me a long lecture about how long it's been since I've played, and (by the way), you're really behind in your exercises! Hope you still remember them!...
A "hobbyist" drummer
I used to think that to be a drummer, you had to be in a band or do gigs. True, I'd love to perform more often, but that just hasn't happened for me, yet. Yes, I have played (more like goofed around) with friends that play guitar or other instruments, but I've never been in a band (besides 7th grade!).
Am I drummer?
Yes! In fact, Simon, my drum teacher, would call me a "hobbyiest" drummer. I had never heard of that! But that's what I am. I play for fun. I've taken some instruction, and I can read music. I have a few favorite tunes that I can play along with. But it's a hobby. It means I do it when I feel like it.
My husband's hobby is dirt biking. He used to do it a lot in high school, but only really does it about once a year with his cousin now. Maybe twice a year. When he's asked what his favorite hobby is, he always puts dirt biking on the list. Just because he doesn't do it every weekend doesn't mean he doesn't ride dirt bikes. Could it be true with my drumming? Yes!
I've been blessed to live near good neighbors. This has been particularly important after I bought my first drum set. After all, drumming isn't exactly the quietest of hobbies. But I've always lived with tolerate (often encouraging) roommates and neighbors.
My philosophy has always been: be a good neighbor to have good neighbors. And it's worked so far. From the very beginning I'm open about my drumming. I tell my landlords, roommates, and neighbors--- usually with a plate of cookies and a promise to never play after 8:00pm and/or have my phone near me so I can receive a text to tell me if it isn't a good time to play. (I've never gotten such a text, by the way.)
Right now, Hubby and I have particularly good neighbors, which is especially fortunate because we live in a close-knit one level apartment complex with two walls connected to neighbors. Two other neighbors live quite close to us as well.
The one opposite of us has a little girl and one on the way. Her attitude has always been, "if you don't might the occasional crying and screaming, I can do with the occasional drumming." Next to her is an older gentleman, and when we first moved in and I told him I had a drum set, he said he was practically deaf (or going deaf) so he didn't think he'd hear the drumming over his loud TV, which he hasn't. ha ha!
The neighbor just next to us is named Terry, and she talked for ages with me when I met her, and she said drumming wouldn't ever be a problem for her either. It was the neighbor on the wall closest to the drum set that I worried most about when we first moved in--- not only because she'd be affected the most by the drumming, but because I could never catch her home to introduce myself. I eventually just dropped off cookies with a note explaining that she'd sometimes hear me drumming, but never too late in the evenings.
We've lived here for almost three years now. It wasn't until two or three months ago, though, that I finally met the neighbor closest to the drum set. She asked me in the parking lot if I was the drummer. I said I was. She said her name was Natalie and she had a nephew that played the drums. We talked for a while, but she, essentially, said I sounded good and to keep it up!
I was so excited, I ran home and told Hubby, "I met Natalie!"
"Natalie Portman?" he asked.
"No, our neighbor. She said she could hear me playing my drums and I sound good."
"Natalie Portman is our neighbor?" he teased.
Anyway, I saw Natalie again today. (Not Portman.) She told me she hasn't heard me drumming much lately. I told her I've been sick, but I'm feeling better now. Her encouragement today got me behind the set again after a long battle of being sick, lazy and just having the post-holiday blues.
I think having good neighbors is important to a drummer. I always just hoped to have neighbors that didn't complain about the noise, but I think having neighbors like Natalie and the others has been encouraging. Natalie's not the first to ask about my drumming when I haven't played in a while. My other neighbors will comment sometimes, and they're always very sincere and encouraging.
I hope you, also, have good neighbors. Or live next to Natalie Portman.
Or the fact that I had two students email me to tell me they were sick but still showed up to class anyway and practically cough on me as they asked about their failing grades.
Nope. It has nothing to do with the fact that it's finals week. I'm stressed for my students that I teach. They have presentations and a writing project due this week. I've also been a bit stressed about finishing my NaNoWriMo project (which I didn't), and finishing my creative writing classes.
I practiced drums on Tuesday last week, for about ten minutes. That's all I could get in before passing out on the couch, tissues littered around my infested area, and Star Wars playing on the TV. I'd called in sick from work (which I never do!).
The two weeks before last, I didn't practice at all. Blame NaNoWrimo. I was frantically character sketching and writing as much as I could for the challenge. Blame finals week. I had to prepare tests, presentation examples and instructions, grade past quizzes and conference with students on their essays. These might be reasons why I didn't practice like I should have--- but they didn't make me sick.
It's karma. You don't practice, you get sick.
Drumming is good for your health. If you don't drum, you could get sick.
The last time I donated blood was in 2013. When the sign up list went around at church last month, I stared at the clipboard, trying to remember why it'd been such a long time since I'd donated.
Then I remembered. Oh, yeah. China. I went to China, Summer 2014, and they don't let you donate for three years after traveling to China or Africa. Before my trip to China, I would donate about once a year. I considered it my heroic act. (I think I once got a t-shirt that said "I'm a hero for donating!") I did the math quickly in my head. Three years had passed, so I signed the clipboard.
I sat in the chair and let the talkative student nurse take my pulse and ask me whether I'd had sex with anyone with HIV and if I'd gotten a tattoo within the last week. She confirmed that it'd been three years since I'd been in China. Before I knew it, I was lying on a pop-up hospital bed and someone was touching my forearm to find a vein.
Then I remembered something. Last time I donated, I got a bit dizzy. I had to lie on the floor with the fan blowing on my face. The time before that, I had to teach right after, and I nearly passed out in class. ha ha! ugh... Great time to remember that.
Long story short: I didn't pass out. I didn't throw up. But they gave me an ice pack for my neck and draped a giant red barf bag over me. It covered me like a blanket. Honestly, do people throw up that much? They told me to breath, squeeze my butt cheeks, squeeze the wooden stick (what happened to the stress balls?) and not think about it.
Luckily I brought my iPod. I cranked up the volume, but it wasn't helping too much. Then, Shinedown's "Crow and the Butterfly" song came on. Simon (my drum teacher) taught me to count it in triplets. Yes, it's 12/8 time or something, but he says it's simpler to count it in triplets.
I tossed the barf bag off me. I won't need it, I told myself, and I counted the song in triplets. "1-triplet, 2-triplet, 3-triplet, 4-triplet..." It worked! The color returned to my face. I breathed easier. When it ended, I put it on repeat and did it again. Out loud. I didn't care who stared. It got me through my nervousness.
Do you remember that game from your childhood? Someone would stand in front of the classroom and say things to do, but you were only to do them if Simon says.
Simon says... touch your nose.
Simon says... clap your hands.
Do jumping-jacks. --- Ohhhh...Simon didn't say! You're out!
In case you didn't know, the drum teacher for Drum Ambition is Simon. So, for the past year or so, I'd go into the practice room, watch some videos, play for a bit, then come out and tell my husband, "Simon says this and Simon says that..."
For this blog, I've compiled my four favorite things Simon says:
Simon says, "Count out loud"
This is probably the number one thing he stresses in all of the videos. Why? Because drumming is all about rhythm. It's not good if we're speeding up or slowing down all the time.
Simon says, "Start with slower tempos"
Drumming, to me, always sounds cooler when it's faster, but what I've learned with Drum Ambition is that learning to play new beats slow builds control. I've always appreciated the way Simon teaches in slower tempos. I can't tell you how many times I got frustrated (before Drum Ambition) trying to learn something online and the person teaching plays, maybe, the first example somewhat slow, but then speeds up. It's like they're showing off! Arrgggh! Simon's not like that. Sometimes he'll show you one of the beats faster, just to show you "where you can take it," but he always stresses the importance of starting with slower beats and working your way up. He'll say, for example, start with 50 bpm and then go up in increments of five.
Simon says, "Learn to read music"
A lot of Drum Ambition right now is geared towards beginners. Because of my piano and choir background, I can read music fairly well. But I've found these early lessons, especially the notation lessons, to be really helpful. Sure, I may have been able to identify eighth notes from quarter notes, and I can count basic beats, but can I play them? Can I do eighth notes with my right hand and quarter notes with my left foot? Re-learning to read music has helped me with my coordination. Also, it gives me power. It's like learning to read books for the first time. It's opening a whole new world to me, which brings me to my last Simon says for this blog post...
Simon says, "This will give you some musical options"
That's what these lessons are all about. I can build grooves and fills from the lessons to create my own solo pieces and play to my heart's content. The things Simon teaches are the basics or core lessons every drummer should know.
Simon says other things, but these are the ones I hear him repeat the most. I can almost hear him over my shoulder when I'm playing, "count out loud," or "start with slower tempos."
Drumming is difficult. Don't get me wrong. I still have a long ways to go, but I think as long as I do as "Simon says," I'll get there.
I love where I'm at in my learning. I'm building 4-way coordination right now. But it does take a some effort. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Frankly, it's been a battle to motivate myself to pick up the sticks. I went for two weeks in June not practicing. Not because I wasn't home. Not because I didn't have time, necessarily. But because I didn't feel like it. Saddest and dumbest excuse ever, I know.
This week, I decided to do something about it. With a little encouragement from hubby, who said if I didn't start practicing that I'd lose Drum Ambition lessons, I started sitting at the set. I tell myself that I don't even have to play. I just have to sit at the set for 15-30 minutes. I can't leave until the time is up.
I've been doing this all week, and what happens is that I sit there on the throne with my iPad for about 2-3 minutes, and I tweet stuff or whatever. Then, I see my sticks and I pick them up. I twirl them around for a bit, play a bit more on my iPad--- then before I know it, the iPad is down and I'm playing the drums.
Sometimes I just goof around for the first five or ten minutes of playing. I don't touch the teaching material. But, hey! I'm playing! Gradually, after a bit of free styling, I move into my exercises, and I find myself playing longer than I ever have. I'll be at it for almost an hour or two some days.
Yep. Sometimes you just gotta sit at the set. This is true, I think, in a lot of life situations, but especially true about learning to play an instrument or learning a language. The first step to success is showing up. So, sit at the set if you have to. Just sit there. You'll be amazed how well it works.
There are probably a lot of reasons why I didn't continue drumming in junior high, but I think one might be this idea or feeling I got that said, girls don't play drums.
A couple weeks ago, I read an interesting article for my creative writing class. It was about gender stereotypes. The author used the Let Toys Be Toys campaign as a sort of springboard to talk about children's books. Basically, the article is all about this idea that we shouldn't be labeling interests as a boy interest or a girl interest. Just let toys be toys and books be books.
I'd like to add: let drums be drums!
The author, Tricia Lowther, says, "Typical themes for boys include robots, dinosaurs, astronauts, vehicles, football and pirates; while girls are allowed princesses, fairies, make-up, flowers, butterflies, fashion, and cute animals. There's nothing wrong with these things, but it is wrong when they are repeatedly presented as only for one gender. Girls can like pirates and adventure, boys can like magic and dressing up."
If you went back in time and interviewed me at 13 years old and asked if I was quitting drums because girls don't play drums, I'd probably tell you, "No. That doesn't matter to me."
I'd think of a million other excuses to give you. And some of them might be true. Like I said, there were probably many reasons why I quit. At the heart of all these reasons, though, I think you'd find that I just wanted to fit in. (Who doesn't at age 13?) In the end, I'd be lying to you. I probably, very much, felt that girls don't play drums, and I'd be better off in choir or doing some other kind of interest that was more readily acceptable for a girl.
Tricia Lowther says, "Children are individuals. They should feel free to choose their own interests, not feel that they're supposed to like or reject certain things."
How I wish I had known that in 7th grade. In the very least, I wish my band teacher had approached me and encouraged me to stick with drums. I didn't feel valued as a percussionist. I needed someone to say out loud, "You know, drums aren't just for boys," and show me some great women drummers like Cindy Blackman, Jen Ledger, Stefanie Eulinberg, etc.
I love that today we have programs like the Hit Like A Girl Contest. As stated on their website, their "purpose is to spotlight female drummers/percussionists and encourage drumming and lifelong musicianship for girls and women, regardless of age or playing level."
As part of my creative writing homework, I had to create a character who broke gender stereotypes, so a girl that likes typically things boys like or a boy that likes things girls usually like. My character is a 15 year old girl who plays the drums. I got an A on the assignment, which was good news for my grade, but sad news that the stereotype still exists.
If you know girls who play the drums, keep encouraging them. Don't let them quit like I did. It's super hard to get back to it as an adult. I'd glad I am. I love Drum Ambition. It's just hard.
Yeah--- let's kill the gender stereotype. Let's let drums be drums.
I'm what you'd call a "hobbyist" drummer.