I used to drive my parents crazy, tapping at the family dinner table. To them it was incessant tapping. To me, it was drumming. I couldn't stop practicing my rim shots, paradiddles, ratamacues. Any hard surface was an invitation to syncopate, to rumba, bongo, or samba drum riffs. From age 10 to, well, the present, percussion has been unavoidable. There is always a rhythm at my fingertips. Given a moment of silence, I fill it with drumming. Given a song on the radio in the car, the steering wheel becomes my snare drum. I've got rhythm to express.
It seems unavoidable: We are bipeds, after all, and we live life with music hard-wired in our inward parts. Our walk is by definition a beat, a song in 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8 time, depending on the shoes we're wearing and the speed of pedestrian traffic. Every so often we may find ourselves breaking out in a waltz, but this is syncopation thrust upon us.
I have come to believe that drumming is a developmental stage that many kids go through and that many boys never grow out of.
Perhaps Robert Bly, through his male drumming circles, really has tapped the "Ur riff" embedded in my half of the species: We are compelled to make rhythmic noise, compelled to make music by hitting things.
So when my parents started taking me to Eli Rabkin's Drum Studio for lessons in fifth grade, it was simply formalizing and disciplining the expression of this deep, internal timepiece. Mr. Rabkin scripted my tapping, gave form and pattern to the interior beat by drilling me in the jazz rudiments, writing out left-right sticking patterns and showing me how to go faster, how to play more notes using less energy.
And he sold my parents more and better targets for me to hit in playing those notes: most significantly a white mother-of-pearl Gretsch drum set with Zildjian cymbals, piece by piece, birthday by birthday.
"Stop tapping," was still a familiar dinner-table refrain. The plate, the tabletop, the glass, hit just right with fork tines, can produce the fundamental elements of the drum set: boom, snap, tap, sizzle. But even if I put down the cutlery and sat on my hands, my toes would get busy. "Stop tapping your feet," became the next most-familiar dinner-table refrain. I was busy doing Ginger Baker triplets and five- stroke rolls on the table legs.
When refraining became unbearable, I simply had to retreat to my drums and get it out of my system. This would suffice for a few minutes. I just had to have rhythm.
I had no idea how annoying my own rhythmic bliss could be to those around me. But now I share the dinner table with my son, the drummer. A very good drummer. A loud drummer. A conga, rock 'n' roll, Latin-music drummer. Alas, a dinner-table drummer. And I find myself repeating the very dinner-table refrain of my childhood. I am deeply conflicted.
As my son's audience, I am aggravated: "Stop tapping!" Yet as a drummer, I would just as soon be tapping away with my fork and knife. He's got a good vibe going.
His room is a veritable drum studio, an empire of things to hit: congas, bongos, a dumbek, plus a very large set of beautiful wood-grain drums ("traps," according to an older generation of percussionists). And cymbals of all kinds.
It's amazing how such a simple concept - the most ancient of instruments - is capable of improvement. Drummakers have evolved rapidly, making both subtle and sublime changes to the heads and hardware of a drum set. Spencer's drums resonate beautifully to his skilled touch.
And he also is struck by the Myriad Target Phenomenon that I recall so fondly from my high school days, when my drumming buddy and I would combine our drums to create one monster set, the tom-toms alone arcing around our throne for 360 degrees. And just because we're bipeds didn't mean that three or four bass drums was overkill. It was "about" having more than enough targets of differing timbre to hit; being prepared for any percussive exigency. Spencer understands this.
For New Year's Eve this year, we assembled the Friends and Family Blues Band over in the town hall. It was a big band: Jersey Jim came up from Nashville, Uncle Derek tickled the ivories, I played bass guitar; nephew and niece Callum and Imogen were magic on the mike. Spencer transported every imaginable piece of drum paraphernalia to the stage. He built himself an MTP nest of epic proportions. Enough for several drummers. And, quite predictably, this brought out the latent rhythm kings in the audience. Ryland and Annie did a fabulous stint on congas.
When my jazz drummer friend Bill dropped by after the holiday, he remarked, "Spencer hasn't played too many gigs yet, has he." He could tell just by the amount of equipment that Spencer is content to haul. Experienced drummers tire of toting the heavy myriad targets, so they bring it back to the fundamental sounds: boom, snap, tap, sizzle.
After all, it isn't how many things you bring to hit, but how you hit the things you bring. But does a drummer ever stop hearing that familiar dinner-table refrain?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society