Hum Drum November 26th, 2007

The most useful thing I do every day is probably eating. I also consider working on a screenplay to be useful, and finishing one even more so.

The most useless thing I do every day is to play the drums.

I’ve come to drumming fairly recently. I’ve played guitar forever, tickled the ivories on and off, and even gained a beginner’s proficiency on flute and saxophone. For all of this a person might think of me as a talented musician, but that person would be thinking wrong. I am a music lover, a true amateur, with very little of the talent or discipline necessary to elevate myself to the level of “accomplished,” or even “kinda good.”

But music flows through me, and any time I am at a party with live music the place I really want to be is playing with the band.

My pal Francis has a music studio down the street from me, complete with every instrument ever invented. For me it is the best sandbox in the world.

One day I sat down at a drum kit and bounced a stick against the drum-head. Oh my god – it bounces! That’s how those guys get so many hits so quickly. Never even thought about it before. The perfect bounce is an exercise in balance as well as timing. I sat down on the seat – drummers call it a “throne” (isn’t that great?) – and I began to do nothing more than tap my feet to the beat. When one foot is stomping on a bass drum pedal and the other on a hi-hat cymbal, merely tapping feet to the rhythm makes a lot of good noise. It is like dancing. Add the arms and hands, and it becomes a full body exercise, a dance for seated royals. The music flows through me, the body dances in a full expression of joy, and the joy becomes audible.

I fell in love with the drums.

But I didn’t want drums to become just another instrument I could play poorly. The most fun I have with music is playing with other people, and most other people who play music would rather play with someone as good as they are. That tends not to be me. I was going to have to get better.

Will I ever become good enough to be a good drummer? I doubt it. Do I have a goal of becoming a professional drummer? Not even remotely. For now I just know that I want to be better, and that means practicing.

It’s all about repetition.

Over and over and over, I hit the drum with a stick. That part isn’t playing music; it’s just hitting a drum with a stick. Every now and then I try to put this into perspective. My life is busy and complicated. I have so many writing projects I’d like to be working on that if I never came up with a new idea for the rest of my life I still couldn’t get to everything. Then there are house issues, family issues, health and well-being issues, community issues… There are things I can do every day which will feed my family, nurture my friendships, and save the earth.

Or I could spend an hour every day hitting a drum with a stick, which isn’t much fun, will never make me any money, and sometimes makes all of life feel stupid and pointless, sitting on my throne like a weak stupid king. It is certainly the most pointless thing I could possibly do with my day.

But without the tedious repetitive practicing that all real musicians do every day, I will never get to the next level of competence. Only repetition will get me from poor to adequate to not bad to … to drummer. Repetition is the only way to drive me forward from stage to stage, elevating me beyond my stuck place of musical incompetence.

In addition to the goal-orientation of practicing, I have found other, more subtle fruits.

There are lots of things to think about when hitting a drum with a stick. Are the strikes even? Do the left and right hands sound the same? With supreme concentration I look for a perfect balance of timing and of dynamics, to the point where I can’t even feel the sticks, can’t tell whether it is my right hand or my left hand at work. I kind of disappear, leaving only my heartbeat, a steady bam bam bam echoing through the room.

I try to achieve total independence in my four limbs, each growing its own brain, each listening to the other parts but maintaining its own integrity. It takes a great deal of concentration, which in time becomes unnecessary as the four brains take control and concentration yields to a floating mindlessness, the kind yogis and priests try to achieve.

So, in spite of the fact that it is stupid and useless, drumming may in fact be the most useful thing I do every day. It is a time of meditation, of balance, of mindfulness transformed into mindlessness, all driven by the rhythm and movement of drumming. It is a process of becoming which will never reach a conclusion.

It is life itself, in all of its totally useless glory.

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