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Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Non-Drumming Drummer

I recently went to visit with a kind-hearted friend of mine. He has a habit of letting assorted people stay at his big San Francisco home. His house is a haven for folks who are either down on their luck, traveling on a limited budget or are friends or friends-of-friends of any of his five children.

While there, I was introduced to a young man of about 20 who, in response to my self introduction, said in a surly voice: "I'm Bob. I'm on a walk-about, traveling the United States." We chatted a bit and then I asked him if he was a college student. He replied: "No, college is a waste of time. It's the safe route taken by frightened people. I'm an artist, a jazz musician." I asked him what instrument he played and he said: "I'm a jazz drummer." I told him that by co-incidence I was also a drummer and asked him who he had studied with and he said, with a strong note of defensiveness: "I didn't have to study with anyone, I learned on my own." Trying to be tactful, I said: "That's brave of you. I was unwilling to try and learn on my own. How is your playing coming? It must be difficult to find opportunities to practice and places to play while traveling around." Sneering, he said: "There is no need to practice. I do all of my learning by listening to jazz and imagining it all in my head. I said: "But, I assume you have learned the basic drum rudiments such as paradittles, flams, and the like?" He answered: "That's all old, corny stuff and absolutely unnecessary. I learn by imagining and picturing the drum set and playing it in my mind."

After asking more questions and suffering the insults that went with his answers, I discovered that this boy had never owned a practice pad, drum sticks or a set of drums and that he had no idea what music notation looked like. I was further shocked to learn that he had never once played with a band of any kind. I was not surprised to find, after further inquiry, that he was the only son of wealthy parents and was traveling on their money.

Given that he was a snotty kid and not very likeable, I decided to tease him a bit. I said: "So, let me get this straight; you have never practiced, you have never played on a set of drums, you have no idea how drum technique works, you have never trained your hands to play the instrument, you have never played with another musician or band, but you advertise yourself as a jazz drummer. How do you justify this?"

Raising his voice, he angrily said: "You're like all the old farts; you do everything by the book. I'm taking a free, unfettered approach to jazz drumming. I can sit in right now with the best jazz groups and play as well as anyone. I've learned everything I need to know by listening. You're a slave to an orthodox, stodgy, old fashioned approach to playing drums."

I watched his face closely, because it occurred to me that he might have been working a beautifully delivered put-on. But, sadly, it was no put-on. His self-delusion was real. At this point I decided that he was getting too worked up and that further pulling of his covers would only lead to unwanted and unnecessary tension in my friend's house; but his pathetic attempt to gain respect by way of false advertising got me to wondering. What kind of parenting or home life would bring about such an obvious feeling of inferiority and enable such a blatantly neurotic and self delusional defense?

A couple of scenarios come to mind. I would guess that he had very little success academically. Given that he was articulate during our exchange and had a good vocabulary, he was probably tagged with an early label of bright under-achiever. His teachers could see he was smart but they did not know how to get past his defenses. I imagine his parents, whenever he delivered his silly "I'm superior to those who have a work-ethic" rationalization in response to confrontations about not doing chores or homework, continually backed down and let him off the hook without any consequences.

The anger that he demonstrated during our little exchange leads me to think that he learned very early to bully one or both of his parents with the tried and true defense of the insecure--"The best defense is a good offense" ploy. That is, if he attacks first, they are set back on their heels and never get their point across. I can imagine that he had weak, guilt ridden parents who folded in the face of his attacks or accusations of unfairness; or perhaps they were pre-occupied and never thought enough about his woefully inadequate study habits to consider it a problem. I would further guess that he was given money in lieu of attention, time and training.

Of course, it could have been a different scenario. Perhaps he had overbearing, judgmental, high achieving parents who put up such high standards that he had to develop this defense in order to justify not reaching such a highly set bar. I remember a patient of mine once telling me that both of her parents had doctorates and that even if she went on to graduate school for a Ph.D. after getting her undergraduate degree, the best she could do was break even. When, at my suggestion, she told this to her parents they were shocked. They had always believed they were inspirations, not daunting roadblocks.

But, for whatever reason, Bob, the non-drumming drummer chose to make believe he had a professional jazz musician's skill. His knew that esteem and respect are tied to such skills but because he had never learned to put in the necessary hard work he had to resort to a silly, delusional rationalization.

It seems to me that the world is populated with all too many folks like this boy. He and the Paris Hiltons of this world seem to think that attention, regardless of how it is gained, is enough. The idea of working hard to learn something worthwhile; the idea of delayed gratification; the idea that one's work is an extension of one's heart and soul; all of these notions are outside their awareness.

Once, while riding on a plane, I sat next to a wise man. We were discussing the challenges that each generation of American immigrants has faced during the last 100 years. He shared a pertinent old Yiddish saying: "My grandfather was a laborer so my father could be a businessman so I could be a professional so my child can be a poet." We can add that if the businessman or professional does not teach a value system that includes a work ethic and the value of delayed gratification, the happy chain of generational events in the saying breaks down. In this same vein, I once heard a definition of happiness: "Happiness is the awareness of my own personal growth." Bob the non-drumming drummer, until he learns to put in the practice, will never be marching to a real and satisfying beat.

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