Just recently I began giving drum lessons to a new friend of mine from church. I felt honoured by his request—I’m an intermediate drummer, not an advanced professional. But he reinforced to me that he wanted me to teach him, not someone else. It was humbling. Opportunities where we are asked to pass on knowledge or skill or wisdom should, I think, humble us. And remind us that we are growing and learning and getting older: that we do have something to pass on.
On our first lesson together I asked him what he wanted to achieve through these lessons. We swapped ideas, set some goals, shared stories and then got to work. Though he’d had some previous informal training, he repeated that he wanted to “start at the beginning, as though I know nothing.” So that’s what we did.
One of the most basic and important concepts for beginner drummers (especially exuberant ones) is the ability to count and play a steady beat continuously over several minutes. It’s one thing to hammer out a basic rock beat for four bars. It’s something else entirely to play that same beat for three minutes without deviating the tempo. So that’s where we began: I’d set a tempo and we’d play through a basic beat for a minute. Then I’d set another tempo and we’d do it again. Slowly we began to build up the muscle memory, to fine-tune the movement, to gain a sense of steady rhythm.
A lot of drummers want to get up there and solo. To them playing drums is about flashy stick spins and flailing limbs. It’s entertaining and exciting to be sure (and usually incredibly loud!) but is seldom in and of itself a song. It may serve to get the crowd going during a show, or spotlight the drummer, but it is seldom applied appropriately to music—to the stuff of the band itself. Soloing is done by oneself; a band implies giving of oneself for the betterment of the group. It can be fun to drum solo, but the adrenaline wears off after a few moments. Playing in a band brings a deeper sense of joy, we begin to find pockets where our flourishes are not done outside the larger whole, but contribute to the beauty of all. In short, learning the slow, steady rhythm can bring about a deeper, more long-term sort of passion…better than the 1-minute solo.
Rhythm. It’s the drummer’s job to keep the band on track, not to show off. Out of that steady, regular rhythm the rest of the band is allowed to shine: the guitar, the bass, the keyboard, the vocals, whoever! Out of that rhythm comes life. And good drummers can play the rhythm with soul. The sticking is no longer a series of mathematical figures or hand patterns but a groove. And from there, from that place of regularity, comes the freedom and maturity to be able to make the song come truly alive.
I say all of that to say this: just as finding a rhythm is key to the true fulfillment of a drummer and the musicians as a whole, so to is finding a daily rhythm to our inner lives so that we might better live in community with others. At first this may feel boring, as I’m sure it does to the novice drummer. We’d rather be playing fills: soloing. Yet a life that is only fills feels devoid of order, of healthy structure. And a life of soloing is, well, hard to be around. None of us was meant to live in utter isolation for all time. And though solitude is itself a valid discipline, most of us are engaged regularly with family, friends, co-workers, fellow students, whomever. There is a band on stage with us. And what we do, how we choose to order ourselves will surely effect those closest to us. By incorporating daily rhythms we can better give ourselves to one another.
Over time, as familiarity is gained, our attitude shifts from begrudging the repetition to appreciating its daily regularity. Setting the rhythm and keeping at it is the hardest part, especially as we first begin to structure our lives to it. It can feel constricting, we’d rather be ‘doing nothing’ with our time; or we say it feels ‘pointless’ simply because we can not yet see immediate results (the unfortunate by-product of our instantly satisfied culture) Yet reward does come. The garden of the inner life needs regular work: tilling, watering, weeding, fertilizing and so on, before we begin to see the fruit of our labour.
And that’s what seems so contradictory here: that we need to find rhythm, structure, in order to find freedom. A good drum solo can only be played by a drummer who knows something about playing the regular everyday beats. For out of rhythm comes to ability to groove, to solo, to react spontaneously at the right moment, to find the freedom. Daily rhythm does not bind us from life, it opens us up to the fullness of life.