When I was a wee chap my mom decided to put me in drum lessons. It was in part inspired by any number of things depending on who tells the story: From banging on pots and pans in the kitchen (I still have some of those stainless gems packed away); to a family friend who was a percussionist himself prodding with the wonders of music; to the proximity of a music store from my grandparents where the owners were good friends and it made for built in baby-sitting; to my aunts and uncles providing me with drummer boy stuff like Native American hand drums and other costume percussion.
Whatever the real reason was, I began my vocation as a toe-tapping, desk-slapping, coworker, classmate and fellow commuter annoyance otherwise known as being a percussionist, or as it’s otherwise affectionately know as the disease called drummeritus. I am obligated to express my sincerest thanks to my parents and sister, my neighbors and anyone else affected by affliction for putting up with me (and being generally more than supportive of the “noise” I produce)
there’s no substitute for talent. industry and all the virtues are of no avail – Aldous Leonard Huxley
Honestly though, being a percussionist is a truly something special beyond just being a musician, as we are the most versatile and diverse performers who are expected to play a wide range of only mildly related instruments. My percussion studies, for example, included trap kit (drum set for jazz, rock and other genres), field percussion (Scotch-Irish traditional and modern American Marching), ensemble auxiliary percussion of all types, mallet instruments, timpani, some ethnic hand drumming, random stuff found in Cage’s works, and so on.
The wide range of instruments provided exposure to a very wide range of music and such diversity gave me opportunities to be introduced to different cultures and deeper historical perspectives as I studied music. Very little else in the world can provide what being a percussionist can provide in that sense. It spans from Military Symphony (No. 100) by Haydn during the Classical period of second half of the 18th century to the historic use of military percussion as part of battle field communication and cadences for personal coordination. From the bombastically emotional approach of Gene Krupa on “Sing, Sing, Sing, in the Swing era of the early 20th century to George Antheil’s nihilistic Ballet Mécanique around that same time in 1923. From the use of percussion in Roman Dyonsis & Cybele ceremonies to it’s use in stage effects for the first three Disney cartoons by xylophonist George Hamilton Green, Jr. From the hand percussion traditions of Africa as they were carried to the Americans as part of the Slave Trade to the effects of Anthony Williams work with the steal pan on Caribbean music or the work of timbalero Tito Puente on Latin music as a whole. From John Cage’s ranging Second and Third Constructions to the 1976 Drum Corps International Blue Devils show incorporating the Channel One Suite drumline solo to John Bonham’s performance as the centerpiece of the Led Zeppelin saga “Moby Dick” (of which any live performance should do). Each of these “pieces” speaks to moments in time, reflecting perceptions of people and historical events, while presenting personal interpretations of the world. Good musicians don’t just perform the works they learn the context the work was created in order to better interpret it in the modern world. They are more than just great works of percussion spanning a bunch of different musical genres, they are windows to the past, to who different people of different cultures were.
Being a percussionist taught me more than sociology and history though. It taught me a foreign language. Actually, several. The execution of modern Western notation for music requires one to learn to read, write and interpret it not that much different than how spelling and grammar and dialect affect normal linguistics learning, particularly when you dissect the process of creating and comprehending both music and language. Of course, modern Western notation isn’t the only notation available, thus, although some precepts may be the same, one must learn to read and interpret a variety of notation conventions to be successful. Furthermore, inside of musical notation conventions there are typically composer notes which can appear in any combination of olde Latin, Italian, German, English, Russian, French, etc. as well as when applicable lyrics that can range just as far reaching, so apart from music’s own inherent language there’s a wide ranging exposure to linguistics (foreign languages) on the whole. As poor as my ability to speak more than one verbal language is, I have deep linguistic comprehension and English reading comprehension and writing style understanding and even a cursory ability to pick up the dynamics of programming languages because of my background in music, particularly the idiosyncrasies of percussion writing.
Percussion performance is also encourages proper socialization which is a key element to being a successful person in the “real world.” Sports typically are lauded because of their ability to teach teamwork as well as pushing for individual success and business people love sports analogies because of this. Music does just as well because most music is performed within an ensemble setting it encourages individuals to work together in order to produce the entirety of the work, be it a symphonic piece, a big band song or your favorite top-40 rocker. The interaction between musicians is imperative, both in context when speaking about music and even moreso within the music itself such as the subtle adjustments necessary to maintain tempo and harmony balance between musicians which are cornerstones to non-verbal communication. There’s also ample ability for the individual to grow within the ensemble and not just through solos and other audience facing actions that show off talent, but in such as section leaders and other ranking and responsibility assignments. Believe me, I would have been a much more socially awkward kid if it weren’t for the opportunities being a percussionist offered within group participation and in self-motivation.
Music is entrepreneurial in nature which is a highly desired set of skills these days. I’m proud to have had my musical studies encourage risk taking and inventiveness in order to succeed. It required dedication in the face of failure and the ability to focus as much on the process as on the product. The notion of both understanding the rules and the best ways to bend them (why there’s a box and how to think outside of it) are inherent to both formal musical composition and improvisation just as they are considered key elements of successful entrepreneurs. Inventors in particular have a rich history in intersecting with music during their entrepreneurial endeavors.
Percussion was also a great physical exercise for a youth that didn’t have much interest in traditional competitive sports. Trust me, marching band as a quad tom player is as strenuous in physical training as ANY high school sport (one simply doesn’t just strap that contraption on and go). But even beyond that, the mere effort it takes to practice for several hours a day, particularly with being a rock drummer learning four limb independence builds lean, tight muscle mass and creates muscle memory in repetitive movement, increases cardiovascular health and stamina, encourages correct posture and core balance, drives at independence in motor skills, and provides a cogitative basis in controlling one’s body based on physical responses to playing one’s instrument, the sounds one hears, the sight of a conductor or fellow musicians cues, etc. These all are important traits not just for young kids in early development but the motor skill collusion has been shown to help the elderly such as dementia patients overcome limitations of the diseases. I would have been much scrawnier had it not been for the hours spent on music.
Music is math and rhythmic notation which is a foundation of percussion is a very visible representation of this. Rhythm is the order of musical movement, from the founding the meter, time and tempo to the complex juxtapositions of beats into syncopations and polyrhythms and all of the correlations between notes are mathematically connected. In it’s most simplest form this is binary, the absence or presence of sound. The internalization of these relationships to manipulate them for music requires an understanding of mathematics principles at the basis of music. Add in the functional relationships between pitch and it’s manipulation into melody and harmony and the mathematical need becomes even more poignant. Percussion requires a vast understanding of these mathematical relationships to be successful and it helped me particularly understand advanced non-numeric relationships in math later on and makes it infinitely easier to work with computer engineers and programmers (many of whom seem to be musicians as well).
It’s also science, particularly physics and geometry as everything in musical perception comes down to acoustics. Tuning and maintaining instruments requires an understanding of the science behind how they work. How to arrange them for a performance based on the orchestration (instruments used), the space size and shape, density of air and materials in the space, the intended audible response to the listener all requires an understanding of wave length, amplitude, dissipation, refraction, reflection, etc. One might not always know all of the technical definitions at first but the exposure to how to tune, arrange and manipulate the playing of instruments within a performance context, be it a garage or a concert hall or an open field becomes a huge part of the learning process of becoming a great performer. It’s no great wonder that a great many of the creative types in the sciences have such a deep respect for music or are musicians themselves.
Finally, and most obviously, music is art which makes the whole conversation come essentially full circle. I don’t begin there because the arts as a whole provide a great deal of contravercy, forcing people to view the world around them from a new lens, that makes people uncomfortable. Music connects typically perceived dry ideas like math, science, history, language and the like with the emotional experience humans crave in an all encompassing way.
Music, like all art is an experience for both the creator and the consumer. It encourages people to be creative and push the boundary of expectation: Be it in the interpretative performance of a piece or in the process of writing one. It includes both the sound you hear and the way that sound is presented a a context within a performance. It intrinsically exists beyond the sum of its individual components with an inherent value proposition to affect one’s soul. Even those who don’t perceive music aurally, such as the deaf, still can participate in the creation and consumption of it which speaks volumes to the emotional product that music as a whole is. Percussion particularly can transcend because of it’s very nature connecting our lives to ourselves in very personal ways.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for my early percussion education. I can tie back many of my educational successes directly to music. When I had physical injuries I can trace my path to recovery through music. My career in marketing and product management is directly related to the lessons I learned through being a musician. And, it is in music that many of my closest personal relationships are forged. Therefore today’s affirmation is exactly why I’m happy being who I am, because I am a percussionist.