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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

And the Beat Goes On......The Secret Life of Drummers

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

Drummers enjoy a deep, complicated life, says English professor Jeff Hammond, center, playing here with staff from the College. (Photo by Matt Molek, The Point News)


As someone who has drummed for nearly half a century, I can attest that a drummer’s dignity is often hard to come by. This is due mainly to the
widespread belief that drumming is so easy that, as the Geico ad says, even a caveman can do it. After all, drummers hit things: where’s the artistry in that? It doesn’t help that dealing with our equipment makes us look less like musicians than roadies. Long after our band mates have packed up and departed in glory, we’re still fiddling with wing nuts.

Not surprisingly, drummers aren’t expected to have much of an inner life. The tuneless noise that we produce seems to preclude that possibility – and with our churning hands and feet, there can’t be much going on in our heads. This view is reinforced by the popular image of the drummer as a feral man-child, wild-eyed and vaguely dangerous. Keith Moon of The Who and Ginger Baker of Cream perfected this image, but its roots go back to Gene Krupa. It lives on thanks to drummers like Tommy Lee, Travis Barker, and “Animal” of the “Sesame Street” band.

But don’t let our image fool you: drummers enjoy a deep and complicated inner life. Although this has always been a well-guarded secret, it’s time to break the silence. I’m about to describe what a philosopher might call the phenomenology of drumming. In other words, I’m going to tell you exactly how it feels to be a drummer.

Drummers derive our deepest identities from our Everyman status. Since everybody can relate to hitting things, we serve as on-stage standins for non-musicians: we help them imagine that with minimal practice, they, too, could make music. And since we drummers don’t need to watch our hands, our upraised faces give non-musicians a legible barometer of the musical mood. Although rock drummers often look angry and jazz drummers often look bored, these expressions are the products of art, performative equivalents to the actors’ masks in ancient Greek drama. If you’re not sure how to respond to a performance, the drummer’s face will tell you. And why not? Deep down, the drummer is you.

A drummer relishes being the ultimate “sideman”: we’re most at ease when we’re most inconspicuous, hovering at the shadows and margins of things. A sideman lives to support and complement the entrée: if the music were a steak, the drummer would be the béarnaise sauce. When the drumming is proficient, everything feels complete – though it might be difficult to say why, because good sidemen don’t stand out. Indeed, our most gratifying form of being noticed is not to be noticed at all. The throbbing thump of a bass drum, an intrusive cymbal crash, a piercing run-shot – these gaffes subvert our ancillary role. As that thumping bass attests, bad drumming is infi nitely more apparent than good drumming.

But what is it, exactly, that drummers do? Chiefly, we provide the repetition that makes variation possible, the order by which improvisational disorder becomes meaningful. Our most obvious function is to serve as timekeepers, maintaining the tempo so that the other musicians are freed from worrying about it and can simply play. Our steadiness provides the runway from which their flights can take off, but we’re also the control tower that allows them to land. When other players get too excited and rush ahead, we gently hold them back. When they get sluggish and start to drag, we keep them brightly moving.

This leads to the most fundamental truth about drummers: our strongest and most valuable trait is our ability to listen. Listening is not a trait normally associated with people who hit things, especially things that are potentially as loud as drums and cymbals. But if we couldn’t listen, we’d always be drowning everyone else out. Drummers don’t just listen closely; we also listen broadly. We hear the music as a whole, taking everything in all at once. We respond to the music that way, too, coloring and texturing the entire canvas of sound: setting up solos, punching up this or that instrument or riff, and signaling the start of a new phrase. Born observers, drummers pursue a species of musical selflessness: by watching and listening, we do subtle things that help other people do obvious things.

Furthermore, drummers might be incapable of making music by ourselves, in the usual sense of the word, but we are indispensable enablers of
other people’s music. That’s why we have a special feel for ensemble work, for playing together: it is only within groups that what we do comes to life.

Mastering these subtleties forces drummers to become smart people. For one thing, we have to be smart in order to cope with our terrible image. The Stones’ Charlie Watts is a modest, well-spoken man who loves jazz and collects art; Stewart Copeland of The Police is an equally genial person whose playing was influenced by the Middle Eastern music that he heard growing up in Beirut. Back in the day, however, Watts looked menacingly stupid when he played, and Copeland projected the essence of mindless Dionysian frenzy. But these guys were just doing what drummers do: becoming whatever the music requires. For better or worse, sometimes the music requires us to play dumb – a fact that vindicates even Tommy Lee and his fellow wild men.

Playing dumb, of course, is not the same as being dumb. That’s why I’ll close with some advice for youngsters: if you’re not a deep thinker, don’t be a drummer. Take up an instrument that makes fewer intellectual, artistic, and interpersonal demands. Given the Zenlike profundities that mark the secret lives of drummers, no one should be sitting behind a drum kit who doesn’t really belong there.