One More Drummer Done

With the end of the school year comes the end of the pipe band "off-season." That's not entirely true. Bands have gigs all year, with a bunch grouped around St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. Competitions, at least in the northeastern U.S., run from early May through late September. Still, for bands with beginner programs running on a rough school-year schedule, this is the time when kids find out what comes next.

I'm not playing with a band at the moment and, although I wouldn't rule it out in the future, I don't have plans to play again anytime soon. These days, my focus is on my MFA, my book, and this whole freelance, life reboot adventure. However, I spent a long time instructing drummers and drum corps when I was playing actively. Then I took a long break. And when I got back into "the scene" a few years ago, I started teaching again with a terrific juvenile program that I was fortunate enough to help shape years ago.

I may not be on the field or the street these days, but I do get to be in what may be my favorite spot as a musician. That's sitting across a cafeteria table from brand new drummers on Wednesday evenings. I particularly like my current gig, which is working mostly with what we call our "baby beginners," or the kids who are about 5 to 9 years old and starting with no previous musical experience. I also get to work a bit with the next group up, at the top end of the same age range, who have been in the program for a year or two and are starting to transition from classes to a very novice-level band. 

The fact is, pipe bands are weird. A novice-level band full of kids competes against novice-level bands full of adults. There's a lot of crossover friendships between kids, teenagers, and adults who share the same musical interests. And the musicianship and decorum of a teenager who makes it into a mixed age band is expected to equal or exceed that of the adult standing next to her (or him).

It's no wonder, then, that plenty of kids wash out between the time they start lessons and the time they make it into their first band. There are usually three reasons we lose drummers in these early days. They have a poor innate sense of rhythm, so they get frustrated quickly. They have behavioral difficulties beyond what we can address in a group setting. Or their parents, once they realize the time commitment required by pipe band life, decide this isn't the right choice for their family.

If I do my job right, these kids and their parents still leave with a great feeling about the music, about the band, and about themselves. What remains every year is a tight core of kiddos who, year after year, show themselves to be really talented, hard-working, pleasant human beings who, each on their own schedule, ramp up into excellent musicians. Some take a little longer than others. And some race ahead.

This year, due to an unusually rapid washout of newbies last fall, I was lucky enough to work one-on-one almost all year with a 9-year-old boy who has become a very bright spot in my Wednesday evenings. This slender, serious, blond kid went from never holding sticks in October to potentially being on the field with the novice band by the end of this summer. That's practically unheard of, as I remind him when he is convinced that he is, in fact, "terrible," because he hasn't mastered a complex rudiment on the first try. 

I like all of the kids I work with (and all of those in the bands, for whom I'm more friend than instructor), but certain ones leave a particular impression. This boy is one of them. Together, we have laughed a lot over The Big Bang Theory and his need for a t-shirt bearing the mantra I've coined for his lesson time: Less Drama, More Drumming. Best of all, I've been treated to excited displays of his latest artwork and descriptions of his entry into his elementary school band. 

Now, I get to work with this very cool kid and three more of my former students, as well as one of the most exceptional teenagers I know (with whom I share conversations about things like internships and international human rights efforts). It's a blast to watch them gel into a little corps, suddenly seeing how all of the pieces they've learned fit together. Each one steps up a little bit, trying harder, encouraging the kid beside him (or her) to try again, and beginning to hear the whole instead of the parts.

I have only about six more weeks with this gang, and then we'll gear up for the fall. They will all move on to new music and, most likely, a different instructor. And I will likely be sitting in front of a new gaggle of mini-drummers, ready to start again.