The Unique Beat of a Different Drummer

This morning, I’m sitting with my dogs, my eyes burning from a lack of sleep combined with the pollen squeezing through my window screens.  Outside, the garbage trucks disrupt the peace of the morning’s birdsong.  Brakes and beeps signal giant, awkward mechanical invasion.  Glass breaking as it’s crushed into tiny pieces in the bellies of the trucks.  Not very attractive on this crystal clear spring morning, but a necessary weekly disposal.  Every few minutes, the jingle of the tiny bell hanging from my cat’s collar moves from left to right, and then back again, as she decides to bolt to a new location to gain an advantage in her ongoing bird watch.  Instincts are hard at work as the cats dash and the dogs nap in the sunshine flooding my home. Animal bellies full with breakfasts.  All feel safe, and I am calmed by their presence, content that they trust the home I’ve provided for them.

Uniqueness is the word that comes to mind for me this morning.  As I watch my animals, I’m reminded of the different personalities they all possess.  They are true members of the family, bringing their own antics and naughtiness.  We love them completely.  People are the same – no two are exactly alike.  We’ve all heard the cliches since we were kids:  “Be yourself”, “You’re unique”, “You’re one of a kind”, “There’s no one else like you”.  The list goes on and on.  We all do bring something a little different to the table every single day.  At home.  At work.  When we play music or how we engage in anything and everything.

This became incredibly clear to me several years ago when playing a concert with the Army Blues at the University of Maryland.  The concert was organized by Blues’s drummer, Steve Fidyk, and it featured the great Peter Erskine on drums.  Steve is an absolutely fantastic drummer, one of the best I’ve ever heard and have had the pleasure to work alongside for many years.  His time and taste are impeccable!  Steve opened the concert with the Blues, then introduced Peter.  When Peter came out to play, I knew it would also be great – he’s legendary!  But what really blew me away was his ability to get a completely different sound from the same drum set!  It made sense:  two trumpet players playing the same trumpet will sound completely different since physical approach and interpretation are different from one to another.  How could I be so ignorant thinking the same rule wouldn’t or couldn’t apply to the drums?  But I had been!  A completely different center to the kit and to each individual drum existed for each player.  It created a uniqueness to their sounds, respectively.  Because Peter and Steve are both great time keepers and musicians, this was the thing that stood out to me between them.  I enjoyed myself tremendously as the concert carried on through the afternoon.  What a pleasure!

In November, 2011, the Blues, again with the help of Steve, played at PASIC (Percussive Arts Society’s International Convention) in Indianapolis.  As a producer with the Blues, I headed out a night early to delve into my work, finalizing every detail of the performance including the lodgings and “troop movement”, if you will, for the trip.  Along with our sound man, John Knox, I toured the facility and made sure we had access passes, etc., etc., etc.  The difficult thing about this performance would be performing for over two hours with two separate drum sets in the band, with a rotation of drummers beginning with our own (Steve), all in front of a room crammed full of drummers of every level, shape and size!  But first, we had to rehearse the entire show, and do so on the same afternoon as the concert!  It would be a marathon, for sure.  But we did it!  Rehearsal and concert with some of the best in the drumming world:  Keith Carlock, Peter Erskine, Simon Phillips, Ed Soph, John Riley, Emil Richards, and of course our very own great Steve Fidyk!  A 3+ hour rehearsal followed by just minutes for dinner (which I inhaled in the company of John and Marie La Barbera), and then a 2 1/2 hour concert!  We were exhausted as the burn in our abdominal and facial muscles scolded us for our efforts.  But it was worth it to me to hear and play with these fabulous players!  Each was incredibly unique.  The drum sets didn’t change – just the men steering them.  And it was an amazing experience.  I could say something fantastic about each one of them.  Keith Carlock, the drummer for Steely Dan, had the deepest “pocket” I’ve ever heard.  Never have I heard someone put a groove down so precisely yet so human!  It was raw and real, yet perfect in every way.  There was no guessing where I needed to place my part.  Too easy.  Peter Erskine executed the tastiest brushwork, driving the band in the most subtle way.  Beautiful.  John Riley played a couple of Thad & Mel charts as he’s the drummer with the Vanguard Jazz OrchestraMel Lewis would be proud!  I could go on and on…All on the same equipment!    But more importantly, all just having fun being who they are!

Expanding this thought, it makes sense.  I could take rhythm section gear, arm it with different groups, and they’d sound like their respective group.  Even if give student-line instruments, the Jazz Ambassadors would still sound like the Jazz Ambassadors, despite the manufacturing limitations of the instruments in their hands.  Two painters could take the same brush and paints, yet create completely contrasting pictures of the same concept, if asked to do so.  This is another wonderful phenomenon of music, and the arts in general.  It’s what makes them pleasing.  It’s the connection between instrument and human, tool and craftsman, art and beholder.  And this is the challenge I take from my job:  recreating music on a daily basis in the only way in which I know how – my way.

I would challenge everyone, whether you are a self-labeled artist or not, to pick up a pencil, a paintbrush, a pot, a pan, a poem – whatever the medium may be – and just let it come.  See how many ways you can do one thing.  How many ways can you draw a circle?  How many ways can you paint a house?  How many different sounds can you get with a wooden spoon and a pot?  How many ways can you have that talk with your kid about whatever it is he or she needs to hear?  Try all approaches, not just the reactionary ones.  Stop.  Think.  Feel.  Experiment.  Don’t criticize yourself!  Give up the self-restricting little voice for perpetual Lent.  Kick that joker out of your life once and for all!    He doesn’t like you, and it’s time you accepted that!  In art, there’s no wrong, and everything we do is a form of art, in my humble opinion.  We are all unique in some way.  The trick is to allow ourselves to be just that – ourselves!  And there’s nothing more true in life!  Don’t forget to play in some way today and every day, in every single thing you do.  Being a kid is not a number.  It’s a lifestyle!  Choose it!!

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