Drumming Rules: An Essay
Drummers are born, not made.
Rule #1: Drummers are born, not made.
Rule #2: Avoid caffeine whenever possible.
Rule #3: The main goal is gaining independence.
Rule #4: Don’t look down.
Rule #5: It’s not about the volume
Rule #6: The gig is over before it even begins.
Some people are born with a beat. It’s the same beat everyone else is born with, but most ignore until the day it shows signs of stopping. The people who pay attention are the drummers. The rest are either dying or practicing to be cardiologists.
The people paying attention to this inner beat are the same ones listening to the outer beat as well. It’s huge and erratic, buried in layers of conflicting rhythms, seeming always on the verge of collapse. But it’s held together at the roots, beneath the scrap metal and ground settle, down where everything is deep and warm and steady. If they stand still long enough, they can hear it ticking— like a loud wristwatch or a tiny bomb.
Fortunately, the drummers can’t ignore the beating outside anymore than the cardiologists can ignore the beating inside because without them, the seconds no one’s hearing tick away a little softer and the minutes no one’s counting click away a little faster. For a drummer, the meter’s always running. And so the drummer’s always drumming.
The child drummer will spend an inordinate amount of time arranging upside down pots and hanging the pan lids from overturned chair legs. She will steal her mothers’ knitting needles and start right in, thrilling at the copper thwack and the tinny splash while imagining herself surrounded by all that glittering brass and hardware and, in her excitement, will probably wind up poking herself with the knitting needles and wishing for a pair of real drumsticks.
But this won’t satisfy her for long. While riding shotgun in the family car, she’ll stare off, mesmerized by the Morse Code of rubber on road, the paradiddle of bridge metal, the wet hissing of rain against the treads, the sudden punch and shock of potholes — while all the time silently wondering if the windshield wipers will ever catch up with the radio.
She’ll attach playing cards to her bicycle spokes with a clothespin and circle the parking lot for hours, just for the sheer pleasure of hearing the new tickety join the old tockety of the sprockets as they play against the slow, dry crunching and popping of asphalt in the background, beneath the nubby tires.
But in the darkest hours, being born with a beat will be a terrible curse. Her nights will be forever plagued by anonymous blips and bumps that will eventually give way to blind wide-eyed fumblings and head-cocked, barefoot wanderings ( punctuated by the arrhythmic snoring of the metrically deprived) as she ventures forth, alone, in search of the source of her distraction . A drummer should, therefore, avoid caffeinated beverages at bedtime and use ear plugs whenever possible.
As the drummer matures, her hands and feet must somehow learn, not only to co-operate with but to become completely independent of one another as well, in order to facilitate the execution of more complicated rhythms. Unfortunately, independence comes in stages. One day, she’ll be drumming like a drunken dyslexic and the next day she’ll be Keith Moon. The problem will be staying Keith Moon. Independence can be fleeting at times. But if she’s lucky, she’ll get close enough to enter The Zone.
In The Zone, she’ll spin without getting dizzy. She’ll hit the skins dead center with her eyes closed. Suddenly, it will all make sense. Nothing will exist without The Beat. She can maintain this state indefinitely as long as she doesn’t look down. Contemplating the impossible motion of her own limbs is death to a drummer because when considered, the beat is irrecoverably lost. Suddenly, the entire notion becomes surreal. Instinct immediately gives way to reason. She’ll enter the realm of the absurd. She’ll feel as though her limbs must certainly be on loan. The meter will be sucked from her brain like the yolk from an egg. Panic will set in.
This is where the whole idea of doing sets comes from. The band takes a break until she’s ready to stop thinking, sit her ass back behind the kit and get ready to take it on again. It is here, onstage, where she’ll learn the next rule: It’s not about the volume.
Ask any guitarist and they’ll tell you: all they really need is a good crack and a steady thump— the rest is just showing off. They don’t need a bunch of fancy drummer nonsense played at maximum volume. They need a pocket. Rock steady. But most drummers play loud anyway, either because they can, or because they’re partially deaf from playing so loud. Either way, micing up a drummer can be tricky business— which is why drummers are rarely electrocuted.
Eventually, though, there will come a point in the drummer’s life when she'll realize that there’s never going to be enough time to keep. That the gig is over before it’s begun. That all the yearning and learning and honing and zoning, all the poking and choking and rocking and rolling, all were weathered simply for one brief moment of musical euphoria. She saved it up for the third set and the next thing she knew, she was doing the load out. The floor is a tangle of wires and tape, her hands are bruised and splintered and she's humping amplifiers up ramps, ears ringing, groaning like some sweaty, strange-haired Sisyphus. Because with drumming, all she could have ever really hoped for was to gain a little independence, keep a little time, and never miss the beat.
© 2010 susan beck
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