the idiot’s guide to drumming

the idiot's guide to drumming 07.09.13

K.J. Farrell’s Bar, 7/2/13 (Max McGill (L) and Phil Ricca (R))

1. If someone gave you too little time to learn a completely new skill and perform it in front of an audience, would you do it?

2. If [your son] gave you [6 weeks] to learn [an instrument] and [play it] in front of an audience, would you do it?

3. If [Max McGill] gave [me 6 weeks] to learn [the drums] and [play a 30-song set] in front of an audience, would [I] do it?

Improbably, stupidly, (and therefore obviously), I answered this question affirmatively.

air drumming is not the same as drumming

If air drumming was the same as real drumming, I would be John Bonham, Neil Peart, and Taylor Hawkins all wrapped into one unified package of drum-smashing awesomeness. The magnitude of my sound would sterilize small animals 50 yards away. The polyrhythms and backbeats would explode people’s brains inside their heads. I’d have a harem of groupies.

None of those things happen when I drum.

Lesson learned: 38 years of first-rate air drumming has no value in a world of tangible drums, cymbals, and drumsticks.

multitasking is important

Virtually every study published on the subject of multitasking arrives at the same conclusion: people can’t do it effectively. In fact, people who claim they possess this talent usually underperform compared to less confident/delusional peers.

I have known for a very long time that I cannot multitask. If someone asks me a question while I’m reading a book, I can’t hear them. If my kids try to silently mouth words to me while I’m on the phone, I can either translate their facial contortions or listen to the person on the other end of the line – never both.

Unfortunately, it turns out that drumming requires your legs and arms to operate independently of each another. The beat your hands keep has little to do with what’s going on below your waist. This realization produced a single, overwhelming reaction: “I’m completely screwed.”

Hit the high hat and snare? I can do that. Hit the bass pedal with my right foot? I can do that. Do both at the same time? I had a better chance of replacing Doc Rivers as coach of the Celtics.

having a prosthetic leg doesn’t help (mostly)

While my right leg spastically depressed the bass pedal to yield what I will optimistically call a “post-modern beat,” I had to figure out how my prosthetic leg could operate the pedal for the high hat. The high hat consists of two cymbals. When compressed and hit with a drumstick, they produce a nice tight clicking sound.  When you step off the high hat pedal and strike them, they produce a more diffuse, crashing noise.

Good drummers – i.e., any drummer other than the one writing this post – will often hit the high hat with no pressure on the pedal and then quickly apply it, which creates a groovy – that’s drum lingo – siphoning off of the sound. While I’m sure there are above-knee amputee drummers capable of performing this magical feat, I soon realized that at this stage of my drumming career, I’m not one of them. For me to have any shot at playing 30 songs with only 6 weeks of practice, I decided to forego this (usually) necessary skill, opting for an “all or nothing” pedal approach on the high hat.

Even that proved challenging. Getting my prosthesis on and off the pedal seamlessly proved difficult. I tended to either miss the pedal or find it a beat or two late.

However, looking back, I have found a silver lining – the prosthesis forced me to radically simplify what I tried to do. Given the fact that every time I tried to do something “impressive” I ended up playing a tempo that has never existed in the history of  music, this is probably a good thing.

One final observation: my prosthetic knee is motor-powered. When it senses a lack of stability, the motor actively straightens the knee joint to prevent falls. Apparently, applying and releasing pressure on a drum pedal with the knee bent qualifies as a potential fall. I solved the problem by turning the knee off when drumming, and writing in boldface letters on my set list – “KNEE OFF!” I’m betting that no drummer in the history of humanity has written those words on his or her set list. Call Guinness.

getting by is good enough

With only a week before Max’s show, I confronted the uncomfortable reality: (1) he was going to actually play this gig with me behind the drum set; (2) I wasn’t going to make it through the performance if I tried to play these songs as they had originally been recorded.

So I settled.

I left out fancy fills. Faced with the choice of “going for it” and flaming out spectacularly or finishing the song successfully, I chose the latter.

I’ve seen lots of non-professional bands. I’ve never walked away talking about how great the drummer was. But I have left many shows thinking to myself, “that drummer sucked; he ruined it for everyone else.” Employing the “don’t be that guy” approach became my drumming North Star. It wasn’t brave. But it was realistic. 

I couldn’t make Max’s show great, but I sure could blow it up from within. I wasn’t going to be that guy.

you can learn the drums in 6 weeks

When I picked up drumsticks for the first time in my life in late May, I figured that I’d somehow get through the show. And I did. As a band, we played the entire set list without any outright failures and with many really tight songs.

When we finished the show, the owner of the club found me and talked about what a great job Max had done up front. I thanked him and told him I was just happy to get through the night without ruining it for my son. He asked why. I explained.

He said, “You mean you just haven’t played in years, right? You’ve played drums before.” “No,” I explained to the guy we had presented ourselves to as a semi-professional outfit only a few weeks before. “I never picked up drumsticks until the end of May.”

He invited us back to play again in August. That was the best compliment I got all night.

For actual proof that (a) Max is a good singer, (b) his friend Phil is a good bassist, and (c) that I sat behind them on stage, click here.

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