A Drumset Is No Place for a Mind
I lost the pedal for my kick drum last weekend. Last I checked, I was packing it in my suitcase, and then when I got back from Colorado, no longer in the suitcase. They’re not massively expensive items, but it’s one of those things that takes time to work in, to adjust in order to get the proper rebound and tension. I’d played with this one for three years.
For the non-drummers reading this, making a song feel good has so much to do with the kick drum. It’s the pulse in the dance song you love in the club, the relentless pounding on the quarter note that shakes the booty. In rock songs, it’s often that same pulse, but in rock it’s called “four on the floor,” which means you’re pounding all four quarter notes in a measure with the right foot on the biggest drum. AC/DC are masters of this.
In rock, the kick drum, or bass drum, is where the time comes from. In jazz, the time comes from that big ride cymbal the drummer plays with, for right-handed drummers, the right hand. But in rock, the pulse comes from the ground up, and the way the drummer is with the kick drum says so much about the kind of drummer they are. Some stomp it, some accent it delicately, some play it like an assault.
John Bonham of Led Zeppelin was known for having, as Jimi Hendrix said, “a right foot like a rabbit.” This means that his foot was a lot busier than just playing four on the floor most of the time. He was adding accents and flourishes that ended up creating a rumble, a syncopated interest, and the “thunder” when they speak of his “thunder of drums.” He was able to roll on the bass drum with small and powerful movements involving his ankle and an almost intuitive sort of relationship with the way the foot flurries on the pedal, and therefore, the drum.
There are wide debates about how he did this, about how modern drummers have quicker foots, and lessons on how to get your own foot up to speed. At the end of the day though, to me the magic of John Bonham’s foot is not so much about the quickness, but about where he places the beats, and therefore affects the feel of the song. I love the way Zeppelin songs feel. There is a reason that the drum beat from “When the Levee Breaks” is the second most sampled song on the planet. It feels that good.
Anyway, my pedal was gone and I had a show in Point Arena on the Cali coast on Friday, and then a hometown San Francisco show on Saturday. I sat down at soundcheck on Friday and realized that the new pedal was very stiff, and that it was going to be an issue. I ran through some of the songs with those quicker foot patterns and it was just not working. I fooled around with the pedal for quite some time, trying to find the balance between all of the ways I could adjust it so I would be able to play with some of those quick triplets and galloping beats.
As I was trying to get it right, trying to find that perfect place of tension that had taken me three years to perfect on the lost pedal, I was not just frustrated with the mechanics, but started to berate myself for my technique. If I was a better drummer, it wouldn’t matter how a pedal was adjusted. I would be able to make it happen no matter what the equipment. I was falling into the internal monologue of shame. Shame for all the times I chose to not practice instead of to practice, shame for my innate lack of talent, then shame for following this train of thought and giving it credence.
I know what it’s like to step back from a train of thought and just observe it, so that’s what I did. I saw that it was my attachment to this limitation of the kick pedal that was the problem, not the limitation itself. There are drummers out there who would never think to be affected by a new pedal, and so I brought that mindset into my reality. It will be fine. Like them, I can play on anything. I did my best to adjust the pedal and then I just fell into that neutral space beneath the thoughts and ego, and trusted that my foot would find its way to the requirements of the song when it came time to play the song.
That was at soundcheck. By the time the show started, several hours had passed and I had lost a lot of that neutrality. We were playing a new song that night and that pitched me into my mind, concerned with counting and the right and left hand requirements of the fills. I felt a little tired, and could see that the four hours of winding Pacific Coast driving had set me on edge in a way, with a fatigue in my arms and wrists. All of these things were adding up to set me on edge, tense me up, place me right into my thoughts, agitated and negative. I kept trying to fall beneath them, and kept getting carried away, as the show got closer and closer, and the theater filled, and the opening band ended their set, and we did the small pre-show rituals that get us to the stage.
The first song of the set is a great warm up, medium tempo, and the fills so ingrained I don’t have to think much about them. This is great, since when I launch into that first song there is often something amiss in the way the equipment is laid out. I can goof around with my setup before the show all I want, but when it comes to actually playing live, in front of an audience, my body just moves differently, and sometimes I don’t anticipate those movements correctly. Drumming is about millimeters. A cymbal or the snare drum is just a little too close or a little too high, and it stops the flow; I hurt myself by slamming my fingers on the equipment that I didn’t expect to be so close; I go to crash on the cymbal and I miss it entirely, and hit only air. I drop a stick. That’s why certain songs are so great to begin the set with, because I can be fighting with these issues without getting too far away from playing what my band mates need in order to make it through their own first-song adjustments.
The first song also gives me the opportunity to remember to fall back into the open awareness underneath thought. This is the place in which the song plays and Clementine is just a vehicle for the expression of the foundational rhythm that carries the music through each person in the theater. This is the place in which there is no judgment, no fear, just pure love and expression, with no thought. The place that makes the sometimes grueling life of a musician worth every second.
Friday night however, the worry about that kick pedal became the net that kept my mind coming to the surface and flapping about like a frustrated and panicked fish. Not very musical, indeed.
Now, I had an excuse, and Excuse is the way my ego, these thoughts, this mind of Clementine, keeps me away from that beautiful flow of no-mind. Excuse is the way for me to keep from being in the moment, and instead to clutch and despair in this frantic way.
Before I get to a part of the song I think may be a problem, I begin to anticipate the mistake. I tell myself to FOCUS! My stomach sinks with dread. My ankle tenses; I stop hearing anything of what the band is playing. Time seems to speed up or slow down, and I overcompensate. The judgment and chatter becomes louder than the song and it impedes all motion, and I couldn’t possibly make happen what needs to happen to play the part correctly.
Then, until the next worrisome part, I am berating myself for a lifetime of laziness, of poor technique, of feeling like a fraud. Then, the tension of anticipation comes again, then the mistake, then the tirade. This becomes my performance. This becomes a wheel of misery on which I spin.
Meanwhile, who knows what I am playing during the rest of the parts. I am so far from being connected to the song, I could be sleepwalking through. This causes me to make mistakes where I never make mistakes. The tempos are uneven, the fills are coming out early or late and are confusing my band mates. I can fall into the center of the song here or there, but always, I’m coming back to the Excuse for the pedal and the disordered thinking around it that is creating an uneven and stressful show.
When I take the bow at the end of the set, I imagine falling further down, flattening myself out and sliding beneath the drum riser to hide.
When I speak to people about meditation and about the sort of mindfulness training I have been teaching lately, nearly everyone has their Excuse. The excuse as to why this isn’t the best time to learn how to do this now, or why they will have to wait until something changes in order to make the time for it, or the reason they wouldn’t ever be able to get so quiet, so thoughtful. I know these excuses, as I have lived each one.
In my own battles and in working with others, I see that it all comes back to the same thing. This ego of Clementine, with her thoughts and emotions and personality and stories, the ego is what finds the excuses and this ego is what creates this bumpy road.
My thoughts are created by my chemical makeup and by my experiences, and they bubble up to make sure that my body stays alive. My thoughts are there to terrify me, remembering some long ago cellular memory of being chased by a tiger, or a memory from this lifetime of failures, so I make sure to stay on the couch, safe and sound. To not risk anything. When I go for a run, my thoughts tell me to slow down or I’ll get injured, or to stop altogether or I’ll damage myself. When I want to try something new, the long list of reasons that I shouldn’t even try spills out of my brain and keeps me safe from taking chances, from living.
When there is some new element to my drumkit, my ego will tell me that that one new thing means certain failure. The mind manufactures Excuse, and I hang on for dear life.
My ego is so fragile, and my thoughts protect it from any harm by constantly terrifying me, interrupting peacefulness, and keeping me in worry for the future, or in regret for what happened in the past. Therefore, the present is never experienced, and the moments of my life go by without me even participating.
With practice, I learn to fall beneath all this struggle. I learn to let go of the battle, and trust that underneath these thoughts is a place of awareness that knows of a deeper truth, a more powerful consciousness that will always keep me safe. Here, there is no judgment, there is only what is. Here, there is no anticipation or regret. I just rest in this still place.
This is the place in which the ego lets go and I watch as I am played by the song. This is where I forget about the mechanics and just trust that I am meant to be here, that I am born an open and free being that has been brought to the stage to play this song, right now, and is connected to the greater ability that animates my body as I play. My mind and thoughts let go and the body relaxes, and the foot finds its way. Maybe I’m able to make the quick beats happen, maybe not. Regardless, the moments are good. The song feels good. The mind is still and the song is played from the heart. This is the place where something as earthbound as a kick pedal couldn’t possibly disrupt this flow. This is the place in which I remember that the true meaning of music is the connection of hearts.
On Friday, I succumbed to the old pattern of following my thoughts, and the mind won out. On Saturday, same pedal, more fighting with the tension before the show, but somehow, it was better. Somehow, the work I have been doing for these many years paid off as I watched my thoughts try to pull me out of that pure awareness, and I just kept breathing and falling into the heart, where the stillness lives. The foot did what it was going to do and once it played its part my attention let go, and lived in the next, and the next, and the next moment. I fell into the bliss that lies in the center of song, felt connected to the audience, and was peaceful. A rock show happened, and I let it.
You can hear me read this here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/a-drumset-is-no-place-for-a-mind