One of my earliest musical memories is of me sitting next to my mom on a blanket at an evening outdoor concert, watching a full symphony orchestra perform spirited works like “The William Tell Overture”. I remember feeling the ‘cannon’ (tympani) booms in the middle of my chest, and how incredible it was to experience a literal connection to the music being performed.
A few years later, when it was time for me to choose a musical instrument to learn how to play, I opted for the one that seemed to call out to me: the string bass. Little did I know how that choice would position me to be in the heart of the rhythm section of orchestras, bands, jazz ensembles, and pep squads for years to come – where I always found myself standing next to the drums.
After college, I went through a phase where I tried to locate a church that I could belong to. I found that I was (unconsciously) drawn to organizations that focused the music portion of their service on ‘world-beat’ selections. The country of origin could be Ireland, Africa, Brazil, or the Appalachians – so long as the song had a strong-and-interesting drum line, I was hooked.
I am a sucker for marching band shows, and my favorite part of parades is the drum corps. Yet for my varied (and persistent) interest in drums, I have never actually played them. Sure, I’ve whacked a triangle a few times, and crashed a few cymbals together – but I have never really learned how to play a compelling, get-people’s-bodies-moving drum segment. And for as much as a strong drum beat brings up something intensely satisfying from somewhere deep, deep within my pre-conscious being, it seems like a miss (and a shame) that I have never really looked into participating in some sort of drum-related experience. So I decided to add #14 to my 101 list, then simply wait and see what might happen. (I love nudging Fate, then sitting back and seeing what she drops on my path.) In this instance, what she brought me was a Zen Buddhist priest who also happens to be a classically trained percussionist, professional music composer, record producer, and educator who is interested in teaching people engaged mindfulness through the creation of music, specifically chanting and drumming.
When I learned that the meditation center I sometimes attend was hosting an afternoon of group drumming with this professional percussionist/Zen priest, I signed up immediately. After several weeks of waiting, the day of the event arrived, and I hopped in my car and drove across town to participate.
Given the road construction issue that almost thwarted my most recent meditation experience, I left my house extra-early for this drumming event. When I arrived at the previously touchy section of freeway, I saw that the work had been completed, and I arrived at the meditation hall with 15 minutes to spare. I chose a seat, and quietly sipped tea while watching a few volunteers arrange the room for the session.
But two minutes after I arrived, I heard a man call my name. Wondering who might know me here, I looked up – and saw one of my friends from work! I was surprised to see him, and happy and excited to be able to share this experience with someone I knew. Yay!
My friend and I chatted while the set-up came to a close; then the drummer/priest/teacher moved to the center of the room, introduced himself, and gave all of the attendees a general overview of the plan for the afternoon. He/we began the session with a 20-minute sit (meditation period), during which he encouraged us to contemplate the notion of community and the concept and experience of interconnectedness. After the sit, the priest/drummer stated that a lot of what we would be doing during the afternoon is call-and-response types of musical expression. He explained that the response is just as important (if not even more important) than the call – because it is the response that feeds the next call. Without a response, the next call can’t come; but without a call, no response can be born. Interconnectedness. Boom.
The priest/instructor then had us all begin a very simple “heartbeat” rhythm on the drum in front of us. After we were able to collectively sustain a stable rhythm, he then invited individuals to ‘break out’ and offer a few bars of their own beat within the context of the whole. The experience was a play on community. If we are all individuals who insist on doing our own thing with no regard for the people around us, the resulting actions are usually noisy, disjointed, and therefore rather unpleasant. But if we are willing to come together, to agree to work with those around us, our experience is usually more pleasant – and people in the group can then share their own voice and express their individuality, and it will be heard. Mmm.
The next activity we did involved separating into seven sections, learning a part, and coming back together to create a Cuban “comparsa”. As some individuals began learning their rhythm, their faces became very stern: their brow narrowed, their lips pursed – they were going to learn this part quickly and perfectly, damn it! The instructor took notice of the demeanor, and gently encouraged the group to let the experience be joyful. Let the music be healing. Yes.
When we made our way through the first pass of the song, I was reminded of my old orchestra days – and felt a bit of longing in my chest. I miss music. I miss the experience of living through the transformation a group creates when working with a new-to-them composition. While I don’t miss the tedium of some rehearsals or the lonely hours of individual practice, I do miss the end result of all of that work: working with other humans to create something both beautiful and ephemeral. It’s a bit of magic.
After we had been drumming for the better part of 40 minutes, my hands started to get sore. Fortunately at this point in the afternoon the instructor had us put our instruments down, and we sang a few South Ghana call-and-response tunes – which I loved. I think African tribal music is wonderful; I love the spiritedness of it. It rarely fails to evoke strong positive emotions in me – and I felt those emotions even more deeply when I was part of creating the music instead of simply listening to it.
However, as singing was more natural to the group than drumming, many people started to ‘speed up’ the song, and make it go faster than how the teacher was directing us. After a few minutes of the group running away with the rhythm, the instructor stopped us. He said that accelerating is a very common phenomena in music – but also in life. We rush-rush-rush through our days, seeking the next experience, chasing after the next moment. We hurry through our morning shower, speed in our car to get to work, reply to the emails in our inbox as fast as our fingers can type, eat lunch barely chewing and rarely tasting….no wonder we are stressed and exhausted. To address this issue, the priest asked us to consider this question: “Is each moment equally loved?” A shower is no more worthy than a trip in the car; an email is no more real than a sandwich. Can we apply equal attention and care to all the various aspects of our lives? Can we make each beat be the most important one – until the next one naturally comes?
After a brief break, we all moved to a different type of drum, and learned one more multi-part song. I chose a drum with a stick (instead of a hand drum) – so while the part I played was more ‘basic’ than in the previous drumming song, I was grateful to be able to give my palms a break.
We played the new tune for a good 20 minutes; and in our final moments together, the priest/instructor gently had each section transition into a new rhythm: a heart beat. As our time together came to a close, we all returned to the place where we had started. Of course. Yet while the end looked the same as the beginning on the outside, I felt markedly different inside. I had just spent three hours engaged in activity that moved my body, touched my soul, and put a smile on my face. (Indeed, I honestly can’t remember the last time I spent three hours smiling.) As the volunteers moved the drums out of the meditation hall, I hugged my friend, wished him well, walked to my car, started the engine….and felt wonderful.
Of course, I soon started thinking about how I now want to get a drum of my own and how I might be able to rearrange my weekly schedule so that I can figure out a way to play with a group of other drummers on a regular basis…and then I caught myself. My brow was furrowed. My lips were pursed. I took a breath in, and slowly let it out. I relaxed my shoulders. I smiled. I loved this moment as best I could.