Have you ever tried to start a band? Like really? It’s crazy hard! First, you have to find someone who plays an instrument. Then you have to see if you can even get along with that person. Then you have to have similar musical tastes. Then you have to figure out how to put it all together.
I never took music in high school. I didn’t think I would have much interest or success. Like most little kids, my introduction to playing real music started with the recorder. As a kid, it was the greatest thing ever. Hold your fingers just right and you start making sounds that aren’t completely offensive to the ears. As a parent- there is no such thing.
The first time my kids brought home a recorder was a dreaded rite of passage. It didn’t matter what notes they tried, what song they were attempting to play, that little plastic bastard signaled the start of a migraine. “Oh it sounds wonderful, keep up the good work!”… the lies we tell our kids.
When I was in the peak of my recorder career, I was super proud of myself for “creating” a mashup of “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. They were all the same notes, just in a slightly different order. But I was a GENIUS!! I also knew how to play the theme song to Hollywood Squares. Or at least I thought I did. I’m sure my parents heard “screech, screech, squeal, screech”.
“Oh it sounds wonderful, keep up the good work!”
When I got to grade 4, that was when the REAL instruments made their introduction to our lives. I remember the day they handed out instruments. Most kids had some idea what they wanted to play. They either had parents or older siblings that played a particular instrument, so they had a natural interest in gravitating one way or the other.
Aside from my self-proclaimed success with the plastic recorder, the only music I had any interest in playing was the radio. I would often joke later in my teens when someone would ask me if I played any instruments, I would tell them, “I am really good at playing CD’s”.
So the day came when the music teacher (god bless his soul) assigned instruments to everyone. I watched as all manner of brass shapes that I had no clue as to what they were got handed out. I knew what a trumpet and what a trombone looked like. I knew what a saxophone was but had no clue there were different kinds.
I was one of the last kids to get an instrument- again, because I had no preference going in. So he handed out all of the instruments that were “spoken for” and then looked at what was left. He then looked at me and asked me a question I didn’t think fit in the context of music;
“How strong are you?”
Ummm… I can do 5 push-ups? I can probably hold my own in a fight… I was 8 years old what do you mean how strong am I? Well that was my first lesson in the different types of saxophones. He handed me this HUGE crate with a handle and asked me to carry it back to my seat in the music room. To this day, I am sure that bastard weighed more than I did, but I was determined to prove I was “strong enough” for the instrument he gave me- a tenor saxophone.
The next 3 years were an exercise in learning several truths;
1. I could not grasp the concept of reading music
2. I could not grasp the concept of blowing on the mouth piece and not destroying my reeds
3. I could not grasp the concept of getting slivers in my tongue
4. My arms got really strong carrying that coffin for 3 years
My parents were supportive to the point of saying “maybe you would be much better at something different”. The only problem with that was there were no options in elementary school. You couldn’t “opt-out” of music. You HAD to take it. So I struggled, and suffered, and decided that as soon as I got to grade 7 when music was an option, I was NOT taking music. Clearly it wasn’t for me. I’ll keep playing the radio.
I remember a friend of mine in high school laughing after telling him my story of why I don’t play any instruments, and he tried showing me how to play a few basic things on guitar. It didn’t go well. I remember him showing me notes (nope), tabs (WTF am I looking at?!?!) and chords (again- nope). I learned quickly that I had short fingers and could not spread my fingers far apart enough to make the strings make any sound that wasn’t similar to a gagged rabbit being stepped on.
My younger brother got an electric guitar one Christmas and I got a set of golf clubs.
I loved golfing. Hitting a ball down a fairway made sense. “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge”… didn’t make sense. White ball, little hole, big stick- THAT I understood. At one point my brother was in a band, and they practiced at our place a lot. As a result, the drums stayed at our place.
My brother asked me to help him one day by trying to keep a beat for him. I hesitated at first, knowing my history with music but eventually gave in. Keep a beat. How hard can that be right? Well as it turns out… I was REALLY good at it. He was practicing a Nirvana song (Scoff from Bleach, for the record) and it didn’t take me long to figure that out. All I had to do was listen to it a few times, and I was easily able to translate it to the drumkit.
After that, I started listening to more music and learning to drum on my own. The first song I learned to drum really well was “King Nothing” by Metallica. Their album “Load” was HUGE at the time and was probably my favorite CD for a couple years. So picture this; I am sitting at the drums with my headphones on, tethered by the 3’ cord to my yellow Sony Discman as loud as I could get it, listening to one song on repeat. For HOURS.
Clearly our parents didn’t spend much time at home…
“King Nothing” took me a couple days, but I got to the point where I was very comfortable with it. Then I started working on songs from other bands I liked; Our Lady Peace, Moist, Bryan Adams, Pearl Jam and Nirvana all spent a lot of time spinning in the Discman beside me as the laser wore the disc down by playing the same songs for hours and days on end.
I learned a lot in the months that drum kit was in our basement;
1. Playing music is therapeutic- when it sounds good
2. There are many different styles of drumming out there
3. I seemed to be able to play drums “by ear”, and lastly…
4. Metallica had some extra drums that I didn’t have
Eventually I learned what a “Double Bass” was and rather than beat myself up over why I was unable to make the same sounds in the same time as that guy could, I focused more on the stuff that I could play with the equipment I had in front of me.
I would go to occasional jam nights and sit in on drums when others would allow me. I wasn’t a professional by any means, but I could hold my own. The problem was I spent so much time playing with the Discman, I had zero experience really playing with other musicians- and there is a HUGE difference between playing what you hear on a CD versus maintaining rhythm and flow with 3 or 4 other instruments.
Eventually I moved out, got married, had kids. Drums were not a part of my life for a long time. I think my daughter (my youngest) was in grade 1 or 2 before I ended up with access to another drumkit. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in a crazy coincidence it turned out being the exact same kit that was in my basement growing up where I learned to play.
I would spend several years doing just what I had learned to do- headphones on, music blaring and listening to music learning to play whatever song I was interested in at the time. Mostly hard rock stuff. I went through several drum heads in the years I spent beating the skins while watching my kids grow up.
In 2009, I went through a major life changing event; my biological family reached out to me.
I haven’t finished my blog on that whole process, but needless to say- it was big. Part of that whole experience was my biological mother teaching me the fundamentals of playing guitar. Remember my friend tried teaching me in school but I couldn’t make sounds any nicer than killing cute animals? Turns out he was not a good teacher.
As I learned, my entire biological family was musically inclined. I have 2 cousins who are recording artists, uncles who are session players and a whole lot of natural talent woven in and around everyone else. Including me. My fingers are still too short to do barre chords, but I find shortcuts and cheats.
That summer, my biological sister (that I never knew existed until that year) got married. That was a big thing because not only was she getting married, but the entire family that knew I was given up for adoption was going to meet me for the first time. At the reception, there were all kinds of instruments there- because everyone in the family plays SOMETHING. At one point, I jumped in on the drums. I don’t remember any of the songs we played- in fact I likely didn’t know many of them, but keeping a beat and making it work with the music comes pretty easy to me.
One of my uncles was playing guitar and singing, and after every song he would turn to me and say something like “I’m right here!”, or “I can still hear out of this ear”. Turns out learning to play drums on your own to hard rock music teaches you to hit the drums hard. Real hard. As I had never really played with anyone else before, I had no idea that you could play the drums “quieter”. We were playing some blue grassy, country stuff and I was hitting the drums like I was playing for Metallica.
Later in the night when all the older relatives went to bed, our generation was left alone with the instruments and then out came the Metallica and Offspring.
I developed an addiction to stringed instruments after learning I could actually play. I had several thousands of dollars in instruments go up in the house fire. Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass guitars, mandolins, a banjo… I love playing guitar. And I love playing drums. Guitars are way easier to whip out and play around the campfire though. I don’t think I could choose one over the other.
Over the years I have tried starting a band- or at the very least get together with a group of people consistently and play together. I cannot believe how hard it is. I am a strummer when I play guitar, so I need to play with someone who is a picker- someone to do the solos while I play rhythm. Then we need to find a bass player. Not many kids grow up thinking “I should learn to play the instrument that gets the least amount of attention!” I can play the bass, but I haven’t spent a lot of time working at it. There are people out there who it IS their favorite, but once you find that grey needle in a stack of silver needles, then you need to run them through the aforementioned requirements of taste and compatibility.
Drummers are probably the hardest to find.
Not because drumming is hard, but because it’s so much more expensive. And hard to transport. I have been told that drummers think differently than most people, it takes a special kind of weirdo to be a drummer. I was told the same thing when I started playing goalie in hockey. Very few morons LIKE to have a hard piece of rubber shot towards them at 100 miles per hour, but those of us that do it absolutely LOVE it!
To wrap this meandering ribbon of a blog up in a bow, music is awesome. It’s amazing. I grew up playing sports because team sports were great for building great social skills and self-esteem. You will have some bad teammates along the way, but the trick is to not let them spoil the team for you. Music can have the same effect. Everyone learns at a different pace, but when you put the team or band together- it’s about creating something together. Playing together. Helping each other get better.
In team sports, the coaches and management pick the players they want for their teams. It’s easy. If you make the team, you show up, you start building a rapport with your teammates through practice and experience then learn to work together and grow. In music- especially in a band, the players choose their team, and that’s a lot harder- or, so I have found. The process is the same; you show up, you start building a rapport with your band mates through practice and experience then learn to work together and grow.
That’s why so many bands never make it. Getting along with those few other musicians is really hard. And those that do make it, often break up eventually too. Finding someone to play instruments with-multiple someone’s is hard enough. Then you have to get along with those people. Then you have to have similar musical tastes. Then you have to figure out how to put it all together. If it works, you can make beautiful music together. If not, you just end up by yourself listening to other people’s music while hitting the drums too loudly. Notthat there’s anything wrong with that.