When I was a senior in high school, we took a class trip to Toronto, Ontario. (This was way back in the good old days when you didn’t need a passport.)
There are a lot of things to remember about that trip. I don’t remember most of them.
Here’s the main thing that I do remember.
Most of our class and many of our chaperones had reassembled at our designated meeting spot in one particular place outside the mall. (I used to remember the name. It’s a gigantic mall.) Many of us had gotten there early, apparently having gotten bored with shopping. We knew we were going to be waiting around a while.
Now I need to interrupt this moment because this next part will be important later: I never quite felt accepted by my peer group. Not as a group, anyway. I felt that a lot of them got along with me just fine when we were one-on-one, but I very frequently didn’t feel like part of the group. I felt like I was tolerated at best, disliked most of the time. It would be a long time before I realized that a lot of people felt that way, and that most of them thought I was just fine, if perhaps a bit… well… strange. But generally, I felt like they didn’t much want me around.
So. Back to Toronto.
While we were waiting, talking, and goofing around, I noticed a couple guys carrying kick drums down the street. They tossed down a couple of large towels and put the drums on them, and then walked away into the massive pedestrian crowds, just leaving the drums where anyone could mess with them. Nobody did. (It was Canada.)
A couple minutes later, they were back with more drums. Gradually, over the course of about ten minutes, they had set up two drum sets, each with two toms, one floor tom, two or three varieties of cymbal, hi-hats, and accessories like a couple empty aluminum cans duct taped to a stand to act as cowbells.
They put out an empty case for people to throw money into. And then they started.
The drummer on the left was the backbeat. His job was to hold a steady rhythm, and to occasionally add some interesting fills. He was a perfectly adequate drummer.
The drummer on the right was a wild man. He stayed perfectly on rhythm, but it became clear that this was his show. He started with the same backbeat as the left drummer, but soon he was rocking some incredibly intricate fills and stickwork. To this day, I can’t figure out how he did one of his regular moves, which involved his hands rapidly crossing one another (right on top), uncrossing, crossing (left on top), uncrossing… and all the while hitting sharp sixteenths on everything in range. The sound was impossible to describe accurately, but it was almost as if he were managing to do a drum roll with every different beat coming from a different drum or cymbal than the one before. It was his show-stopper, and people started putting money in the case almost as soon as he did it.
He also wasn’t content to stay at his set. He grabbed the stand with the cowbell cans, got up from his seat, and carried it with him as he walked to nearby objects like a mailbox, a lamppost, street signs, decorative planters — all of which became percussion instruments for him, interspersed with the cans.
He climbed most of the way up the lamppost, leaving the stand on the ground, and drumming a complex rhythm with a stick in whichever hand was not currently helping him climb. He wrapped his legs around the lamppost and held on that way, drumming with both hands for several bars before climbing back down, picking up the can stand, and returning to his set, where he went back to his syncopation and flair without missing a beat.
Either my watch was wrong, or our main chaperones were delayed, because I watched these guys for twenty minutes without being told that it was time to go… and then when they finished a set and took a break, someone told me that we were going to be waiting a while longer.
One girl — Angie — grabbed my arm and said, “What did you think?”
Angie was a beginning drummer herself, and one of those girls who was always energetic and enthusiastic about everything. I had tried to teach her a couple things about drumming, but I never had any idea if I was really teaching her or not.
“I loved it,” I told her.
“You should see if they’ll let you play,” she said.
“No,” I said quickly. “These guys are making a living that way. They don’t want just anyone to play with their set.”
Angie turned and walked straight up to one of the guys — the left, backbeat drummer. “Do you ever let anyone else play these drums?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Do you play?” He held out his sticks.
“A little, but my friend does!” she smiled, coming back, grabbing my arm again, and pulling me toward the set.
“Sure,” said the right, showman drummer. “You want to do a little something?”
“I can’t do what you guys do.”
“Can you just lay down a beat?” asked left. “It’s all I do, really.”
This was really happening. I was drumming, improvising, in public — in front of my classmates and anyone else in Toronto on that block.
I reached out and took the sticks.
I laid down a beat. For about two minutes, I let go, and I let the patterns and rhythms take over completely. I did some of the best drumming I’d ever done. I finished with a round-off fill and a crash on a cymbal, and right drummer ended at the same time.
Out of sheer dumb joy, as he pointed a stick at me and the small crowd applauded — my classmates most of all — I thumped the kick drum twice.
Right drummer thumped twice.
Right drummer pointed at me with both sticks and an expectant look. I wasn’t sure what he was doing. So I did it again.
Right drummer, staying on the rhythm we had established with our kick drums, went
BOOM BOOM CHACK, BOOM BOOM CHACK
and pointed at me with both sticks… so I went
BOOM BOOM CHACK, BOOM BOOM CHACK
…and then realized what was happening. A battle.
BOOM BOOM CHACK TA-BOOM TA-BOOM CHACK THOP
BOOM BOOM CHACK TA-BOOM TA-BOOM CHACK THOP
…I responded, surprised that I had just instinctively found the same rhythms and specific drums he did without really seeing what he had done.
…and on we went, with him increasing the difficulty level a small notch each time. For a moment, I felt as if I were in two different places. One part of me was completely in the zone, mimicking him and nailing every single rhythm, every roundoff, every fill, every tricky maneuver. The other part of me was standing back, watching, astonished, as I was drumming better than I had ever drummed before, and recognizing that this was not something I could do consciously.
It got harder and more complex. I kept up. He worked in triplets with one hand while playing eights with the other. I kept up. He worked in rimshots and stick clicks and techniques I had never even heard slang names for. I kept up.
After what felt like half an hour, but I’m sure could not have been more than three minutes, he pulled out The Flair. Crossing (right on top), uncrossing, crossing (left on top), uncrossing. As he was doing it, my two halves snapped back together and I was suddenly conscious of the metaphysical weight of the sticks in my hand.
He finished his eight beats and pointed his sticks at me with a fantasic expression on his face of eagerness and, almost, almost, fear.
And I went
He beamed and stood up. So did I. We pointed sticks at each other. The crowd, as cliche as it may sound, went wild. I watched several people throw coins and bills in the case. I shook the hands of both drummers, thanked them for an amazing experience… and then I noticed my classmates were still cheering. Some of them were chanting my name.
And while I knew that what I had done was probably impressive, the level of energy they were putting into cheering for me was disproportionate to the reality of it. They were cheering for the fun of it, and they were cheering because teenagers like to make noise.
But through all of that, they were cheering for me. And what’s more… I knew that if they didn’t like me, the way that I thought they didn’t like me, their cheering would have been at an appropriate level, or lower. It would have been polite.
It took me until that point to realize these three things:
- I had more friends than I thought I did.
- I had more skills than I thought I did.
- I would not have known any of that if I had not reached out and taken the sticks.
So, Angie. I know you’re out there, although I don’t think you’re reading this.
Thank you. I could have said no; I could have insisted on turning down the sticks, so I do give myself a little credit for deciding to go with it. But I never would have even considered it if you hadn’t given me that push.
Those few minutes of being a drummer on a Toronto street were one of the most important moments I’ve ever had. When I start to get down on myself, I make myself remember that moment, and I remember:
I have more friends than I think I have.
I have more skills than I think I have.
And it’s really, really important to take that chance and grab those drumsticks.