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drum and life lessons

The drum lesson was in the back of a music store, the kind of place that's too small for its contents; cymbals and guitar strings spilling over into the aisles, a sense of darkness and clutter everywhere. The teaching room was all the way in the back, a walk-in closet of a space, barely big enough for a drum set and two people.

It didn't matter; when the teacher met us in the back of the store, I knew right away. The tenor of his "hello" told me: this man is not the right person to teach my son. But it would have been rude, an insult, to say, "This isn't going to work out, thank you and goodbye," it would have implied a kind of ethnic or class-related profiling, a kind of stereotyping.

It wasn't. Yes, he was large, with a strong Joisey accent, yes, his black hair was clearly dyed and coated with an oily sheen, but that mattered not at all. What mattered was that he was ten years older than me and exuded a work-weary affect, that he spoke with a kind of brusque heaviness, that he didn't take a moment to let Damian warm to him before entering the jail cell of a drum room. What mattered was that he checked his watch every five minutes while we stayed in the room with him. What mattered was that he was clearly on the defensive from the first moment, explaining and then explaining yet again how he always, but always, has his students work on the practice pad for the first ten or fifteen minutes, that's how he does it and if you don't like it, you shouldn't be there.

Which, y'know, is fine too. Everyone does indeed need room to do his job the way he thinks is best. But it bordered on hostile, this bristly defensiveness, and that's not so fine. Especially when you're teaching my sensitive, shy, anxious child. Who picks up on aggressive, defensive, bristly emotions. Who closes up like a clam disturbed by the rough tide.

He had Damian sit at the practice pad. Had him play quarter note beats. One-two-three-four. Just seeing if he understood rhythm, no problem. Then he had him do two on each hand, left-left, right-right, left-left, right-right. Damian played left, right, left, right. The guy illustrated, playing the beats himself. Damian played it wrong again. Skipping the second beat, sometimes doing it in a half-way sketchy almost-beat not hitting the pad. Blowing it.

Damian was so hesitant, so silent. I knew the guy was thinking, "And she says this kid can play advanced, complex grooves? Man, is she kidding herself or what?" Because right then, Damian not only seemed like a novice, but like a slightly slow one, someone who simply didn't understand the concept of body movement, who didn't process your words. And I think he didn't, in that moment.

They switched to the drum set. The guy asked Damian to play something he knew. He thought about it a bit, then played an 8th note groove. Bumpy, with some faltering beats, but the sound was basically right. The guy's reaction? "He shouldn't be doing such advanced stuff before learning the basics." But he does know the basics! He just froze because you have no ability or desire to create a welcoming environment.

That was the first lesson. Also the last. With this guy, anyway.

The second drum lesson was at our house. The teacher came a few minutes early, walked inside. Soft spoken, young, with long blond hair and a thoughtful demeanor. We – that is, he, Damian and I – chatted for a bit down by the door. Damian introduced him to the cats. We went up to Damian's room and settled in. Damian played from his sheet music. Played quite well, considering how little he's practiced in the past five months. Played quarter note beats with fills, played eighth and sixteenth note grooves. The guy encouraged him to come up with his own fills between eighth note measures. He raised his eyebrows and smiled at me while Damian was playing. He told me, "He's really good, he has a lot of potential. He's doing things easily that students twice his age have trouble doing."

Damian pointed out how two grooves were different from each other (one had an extra snare drum beat), the teacher asked him how a third differed from those two. He was engaging him, he was asking him to think analytically about the music, he was encouraging and warm, though in a quieter way than Damian's wonderful LA teacher. And Damian responded. Sometimes he was confused by a question and remained silent, but once I translated for him, he answered readily. One time he didn't know how to do what the teacher asked, so the teacher illustrated. Damian got it after that. He was the kid I remember from his LA lessons with the ineffable drummer Dan.

This teacher isn't as exuberant, as delightfully enthusiastic, as Dan was. He's a different person with his own style. But what struck me – what strikes me – is how very different Damian was with each teacher. And I'm not just talking about a quiet, shy boy versus an engaged child, because he was pretty shy with the second teacher too. But his playing. With the first guy, Damian – well, frankly, he sucked. Not an iota of talent visible. With the second, he showed himself: a kid with a natural gift for rhythm.

How much of our lives, our identities, our self-definition results from the ways we do or don't reflect light from other people? The first guy wasn't overtly negative; he praised Damian for getting things right and didn't scold him for his mistakes. But something about him shut Damian right down. The second teacher allowed Damian to be himself. And that makes all the difference.


wow! I'n glad I checked to see if you had something up!

Sounds like teacher #1 really never got over the failure of his Rush tribute band in the 1980s. Teaching because he has to, not because he enjoys kids.

Poor cretin! #1 sounds trapped and depressed. I think Chris got it right. Let's see how #2 blossoms--sounds like he's got potential for Damian to draw him out.

Glad I happened to look--tho' heaven knows I should be in dreamland....

Just a lurker here usually, but I was wondering about whether you think some of Damian's different responses was based on the physical environment of home versus a strange room? It sounds like the personalities, of course, made a big difference too, but it can also be easier to open up when in your own space Do you think that was much of a factor?

Tricia, I think you're right, and the environment was a factor. That's what Damian thought. (I didn't ask why he stumbled but whether he felt comfortable, and he said he didn't like the room, it was too small.) I think it was a combination of being away from home, not having time to warm up, being in this small space with different equipment, and, of course, the overwhelming teacher. He might have gotten used to all the other elements, but that last one... not so much.

Thanks for delurking!