Different Drummer Book: Excerpt #1

This is the first excerpt of my upcoming book, Different Drummer. You can read about my reasons for posting this here

Chapter 1, Part 1

Stacey took my case from me as I walked into the house. She was excited and talked non-stop as we went into the living room. She and I unpacked my gear and she talked on and on about nothing in particular. Did I see the latest Disney movie? What was that cord I was plugging in? What type of drum was I going to play?

At this point I was beginning to wonder why I was there. This child seemed so typical. She was curious, communicative, excited to meet someone new. She helped when I asked her to uncurl the mic cable and watched intently as I tuned the drum.

Then the phone rang. Stacey’s mother left the room to answer it and Stacey panicked. She dropped my mic and ran screaming after her mother. She hugged her mother pleading, “don’t leave me, don’t leave me”.

Her mother ignored the phone and tried to calm her, to no avail because Stacey was inconsolable. She screamed and squeezed. Squeezed and screamed.

This was the behavior I was told to expect.

So, I did what I came to do. I played my drum. Quietly and slowly at first, then with more urgency, gradually building in tempo and volume until Stacey turned to look. Her mother guided her over to the couch near where I was playing and encouraged Stacey to watch me play. Stacey was uninterested at first but as I played on she began to calm and occasionally glanced over at me as I drummed away.

I played for almost twenty minutes, the last half during which Stacey sat quietly on the floor next to her sister, who was thumbing through a book. Stacey spun a toy in her hands in rhythm to my drumming. She was calm and seemingly content. At one point, about fifteen minutes into my playing, the phone rang again and her mother left the room to answer it. Stacey didn’t flinch. She continued spinning her toy while I played.

I was engaged in a tradition with a long history. In many places around the world drummers were employed to moderate behavior, to calm or excite, to soothe or provoke. They were the therapists, the psychologists, the psychiatrists. Drummers were the bridge to the unconscious and the unknown where the root of behavior resides.

I was called to play for Stacey because she was experiencing extreme anxiety that wasn’t responding to more typical treatments. She also had autism. Hers was a mild case that is also referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome. In this form of autism, language is present but communication is lacking, social interactions are one-sided and awkward, eye contact is fleeting or even non-existent. There are also other common attributes such as anxiety and ritualistic behaviors, both of which Stacey had in spades.

I met Stacey ten years into my search to understand the role of drumming techniques in therapeutic practice. I had begun exploring the traditional use of therapeutic drumming around the world while attending the Musician’s Institute (MI) in Los Angeles. Interestingly, I didn’t discover these ancient techniques at MI. Rather it was through a chance encounter with a hand-drumming teacher I met in a park not far from my apartment in Hollywood that led me down the path that I would spend the next thirty years walking, oftentimes blindly.

The Musician’s Institute was a new school when I attended it. My class in the percussion program consisted of 16 graduating students. The program was arduous and demanding, but because of its intimate size, each student was encouraged to follow his passions. In class I focused on progressive jazz, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles. Outside of class I explored hand-drumming originating from West Africa.

Both my school and my apartment were in Hollywood. This was a great place to live while attending a music-based school. In the early 1980’s this part of town was a bit rough. There were lots of underground clubs and many artsy people hanging around. There were also quite a few homeless people and vagrants. Oh, and few tourists on the main drag.

My apartment was just a few blocks from school but the most straightforward, not to mention safest, route was past the Chinese theater. The Chinese theater, if you’re not aware, was built during the height of the glamor years of Hollywood and contained the handprints of some of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. In the courtyard you’ll find the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg (not at that time, though), and many others. This site was the most popular tourist stop in Hollywood and drew hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors each day. And it was in my path to and from school. Needless to say, I quickly got tired of wrestling the crowd. So, it didn’t take me long to find another, more interesting route.

My trail-blazing took me off Hollywood Blvd and onto Franklin Avenue, one block to the north. It was still a busy street for traffic, but few people walked (few people walked anywhere in LA in the 80’s, probably don’t today either). This way only added a block or so to my commute and became my route of choice.

I should probably back up and describe why I chose MI as opposed to other much more established percussion programs. I could have gone to Berklee College of Music in Boston, a very good music school for traditional jazz, or perhaps the University of Miami for big band. I chose MI because my goal was to be a studio drummer and MI’s curriculum was geared toward this goal.

I aspired to by like my heroes, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Calioutta, and my personal favorite Jeff Porcaro. Well, as it turned out Jeff’s dad, Joe Porcaro, was one of the founders and directors of the percussion program at the Musician’s Institute, called the Percussion Institute of Technology (PIT). Aside from being able to study with him I was also looking forward to their focus on Brazilian and Afro-cuban drumming, collectively referred to as Latin drumming. These represent the roots of all popular music, especially the progressive jazz and rock that I loved. Unfortunately, I quickly found out upon beginning my classes at MI that, though the Latin drumming existed, it was only on the drumset. I wouldn’t be learning to play hand drums.

Initially it wasn’t a big deal because I had my hands full, so to speak, with the drumset work I was doing, but I longed to expand my horizons and learn these other instruments. It wasn’t because of any sense of history or tradition, however. My reasons for learning hand drums were entirely practical: I felt that the more instruments I could master, the better chance I had of being able to make a living playing music.

As fate would have it, my route to and from school took me past a small park where a drummer often sat and played his congas (these are barrel-shaped hand drums that originate from Cuba based on drums played for centuries in West Africa). Many days I idled by and listened as he played, intrigued by the variety of sounds and rhythms he was playing. I could sometimes pick up bits and pieces of rhythms similar to what I was learning on the drumset but many times what he played went way over my head.

After a month or so of hearing him play, I approached him and asked if he’d teach me. He said no, he wasn’t interesting teaching anyone, especially a drumset player, saying that I would corrupt the drumming and wouldn’t appreciate its roots. I assured him that I would be respectful, but he demurred.

Undeterred, I kept showing up and pestering him. I often resorted to hiding behind a nearby tree in the hopes that I could pick up some of his cool rhythms and techniques.

Finally, after a few weeks of this he got sick of me stalking him so he relented and agreed to teach me. On the condition that I would take seriously the foundations he would share with me and follow his rules for how I was to use the information he would pass on.

I agreed, but I didn’t really know what he meant by any of this. By this point, though, I wanted to learn to play hand drums like him so badly that I would have agreed to almost anything.

So, we set a schedule and I met with him a couple of times a week before my first classes of the morning. This began an intense period of study that involved me playing the drums or attending classes nearly every waking moment. I was so absorbed by my studies that I often forgot to eat. Over the course of about eight months I unintentionally lost close to 50 pounds. I wasn’t big to begin with and I ended up barely over 130 pounds (at 5’9″, I was thin). This, however, was the early eighties so my emaciated state was pretty on par for the young people hanging around Hollywood. I fit right in.

I have to say that the instruction at the Musician’s Institute was top-notch. My teachers were first-tier drummers. Joe Porcaro could be heard on countless TV and movie soundtracks and almost all the live awards shows, including the Academy Awards. Ralph Humphrey, the other percussion program director, and his band, Free Flight, often played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he had played with the likes of Frank Zappa and on TV show soundtracks too numerous to count. My Latin drumming teachers (teaching drumset) were Alex Acuna and Efrain Toro, two of the most in-demand players in the genre, ironically both of whom played hand drums for their gigs.

But none of them held a candle to the understanding of rhythm and it’s effects that I gained from this unknown drummer I met in a dirty city park. My teacher, Lloyd, came from a long line of drummers in his native Trinidad (and before that, West Africa). His was a tradition that dove deep into the roots of society, carrying with it much power. Where I studied reading and rudiments at school, I was learning history and responsibility from Lloyd.

He spent as much time schooling me on traditions as he did with techniques. I was learning the origins of my chosen instrument. I discovered that the drumset that I had spent the previous decade trying to master was a new invention, less than 100 years old.

This instrument that I revered was a cobbled together grouping of mismatched instruments used when there were too few people to play the drums individually. I was learning that the rhythms I was playing on my drumset were originally played by 3 or more drummers on separate drums, bells, gourds, rattles, or shakers. I was learning that the rhythms were an abbreviation of their original forms to accommodate the limitation inherent in using only one limb for each instrument or group of instruments.

Each of the traditional rhythm parts were much more complex than those that ended up on the drumset. For example, the kick (bass) drum part for the Brazilian Samba on the drumset utilized only the accented notes played by the big bass drum, called a surdo. The surdo’s rhythms involve loud and soft notes and rim shots played with a mallet in one hand along with hand mutes and slaps to embellish, alter the pitch and sustain with the other. The overall feel of a surdo’s groove was much more driving and dynamic than anything that can be played with the kick of a foot pedal.

By learning the subtleties of the surdo’s rhythms, I became a better drumset player and developed my own interpretations of the Samba that drumset players explored. So, from a musical perspective studying the hand drums enhanced my abilities. But from a personal perspective my hand drumming studies with Lloyd open an entirely new world for me, one in which I got to see the power of drumming and music to have profound effects on those listening.

You can read Part 2 of Chapter 1 here