Spring has sprung here in Maryland, and that can only mean one thing for Dear Old Daddy: time to figure out what the $#@% to get my kids for their birthdays. This gets both easier and more difficult as my kids get older. Their interests are clearer, and sometimes they can even tell us what they want, but they also are beginning to have expectations I have to live up to. A one year-old can’t really be disappointed in his birthday haul. With a fourth birthday around the bend, that possibility seems very real. So too does the possibility that something that the kids think they want and say they want and might be totally pumped about getting on their birthdays quickly becomes outmoded and unused.
Then there’s the fact that we already have, like, a gazillion toys in the house, and my cranky old ass is tired of stupid toys all over the damn place.
What’s a dad to do?
Well, lately I’ve been in the market for a new guitar. (I know, I know: non sequitur–but stick with me. I’m going somewhere with this.) I figure since I’m new to the area and don’t have any friends yet, I could go acoustic and land a few local coffeehouse gigs or whatever singer-songwriters do. Maybe start wearing a pretentious hat and act like my caffeine addiction makes me deep. Thing is, I don’t know much about acoustic guitars. So I’ve been shopping, which has presented a fun opportunity to introduce the boy to the wonders of Guitar Center. He really likes the room with all the DJ equipment. They have these multi-colored spotlights that swing all over the place, and he just chases them around and tries to jump on them and has himself a full-blown blast. He also really likes the keyboards. They make so many different sounds! And guys–there are these electronic drum sets that he can play through headphones and change the sounds the drums make… It’s the coolest! He kind of hates coming into the acoustic room with me while I try out every guitar in my price range that doesn’t say Fender on it (sorry, y’all, but a man has got to stick by his principles, sometimes even if they’re admittedly stupid and wrongheaded), but he does think banjos are pretty cool.
On our most recent Guitar Center outing, I started noticing the prices on the keyboards as we scrolled through the presets looking for sounds that either sounded like sci-fi effects or farts (or sci fi fart effects–best of both worlds!). Some of them were pretty reasonable. As a third-rate musician who didn’t complete an actual music major in college because I couldn’t play the piano and didn’t have the patience to learn, I’ve always wanted my kids to learn piano early, so I’m sure you can guess at my thinking here.
“Hey dude,” I ventured on the drive home, “would you like one of those keyboards for your birthday?”
“Yes!” he says, and I’m like, “Cool. Got that one in the bag.”
Moments pass in relative silence before a tiny voice rises from the backseat. “Dad,” it pleads gently, “instead of a keyboard, I want a drumset.”
Hold on, son. Let me just turn up the Black Sabbath so you don’t hear me crying.
Okay, yeah, I said I wanted him to learn piano, and I do. But let’s be real. Before I was almost a music major–and this is the only reason I can still even call myself a third-rate musician–I was and am a rock guy. And drums rock. Drums, more than any other instrument, are the total embodiment of the appeal of heavy music.
But I’ll come back to that, because no decision was made in the car on the way home from Guitar Center that day. Because no decisions of that magnitude get made without consulting the Momma. And here’s where it got interesting. Momma was… dubious. Our little dude is not exactly what one would call disciplined. He’s more like the Tasmanian Devil in the old Warner Bros. cartoons. What’s more, his interests tend more towards space, dinosaurs, and firefighting than music. After talking with the missus, I started to seriously consider the possibility that I was projecting my own interests and the boy was just playing along. Kids can tell when they’re giving you the answers you want, ya know. Maybe he was humoring me, going with the flow the best he could, and a nice set of shiny new drums would just gather dust in the basement until little sister gets big enough. (At least I’ve got one kid I know loves music.)
I’ve done my best to reaffirm his real interest, but it’s still tough to tell how much commitment he’s prepared for. The conversation between the wife and me ultimately came down to whether our boy who can’t sit still and focus on anything for more than a few minutes and tends to lose interest in activities the moment they start to involve someone else telling him what to do would be ready at four for a set of real, if somewhat miniature, drums. And this is why it matters that drums are the best symbol for the powers of heavy music.
Drumming, like drummers, is often maligned as being infantile and non-musical. I’m not actually going to refute that point; it’s part of what makes drummers so special. Instead, let’s expand it beyond the obvious. Yes, drummers hit things with sticks to make boom bang noises. More than any other commonly used western instrument, a drum set requires the use of the player’s whole body. It’s gross motor rather than fine motor. Being percussive rather than melodic also means that drums employ a different type of thinking, more strictly mathematical, more analytical. In my own 20-odd years of playing in bands, I’ve found that drummers tend not to actually be infantile at all, but actually very bright and quick and often extremely logical. Less Animal (admittedly my favorite Muppet) and more Bunsen. Nerds, basically.
Therein lies the great paradox of the drum, and of heavy music. Drumming is at once hugely physical and primal, what with all the banging and crashing, and entirely logical, being totally based on fractions and division. It is cathartic and cerebral, instinctual and structured, id and ego. In short, sitting behind a drum kit is to fully and fundamentally experience one’s humanity.
(At least I imagine it to be. I never learned to play the drums, and in the innocence and arrogance of youth I decided to play guitar like every other damn fool out there. Also, this coffee I’m drinking is actually 43% guano, and it’s roasted over used bourbon barrel staves exclusively while original Billie Holiday 45s play in the room. Do you like my hat? I totally saw a picture of Kafka wearing one just like it.)
Back, then, to my rambunctious, scientific boy. My boy who likes to run screaming around the backyard pretending to be on a train to the science center to look at dinosaur bones. My boy who resists rules and discipline imposed by others but who casually strolled through an entrance interview at the local Montessori school figuring out math and logic games with no instruction.
Like one of my best friends and favorite drummers, he often seems both too smart and too hyperactive and unfocused for his own good. He, like drumming itself, is a beautiful paradox of extremes. And it’s my job to shape him into the best human he can be. The way of the drum, it is my sincere hope, will offer an opportunity for discipline and focus that is both mental and physical. It will help him, even at this young age, access and put to work the best of himself, and it will provide a lifelong hobby that will connect him with creative personalities of all stripes. A good drummer is always in demand.
Or maybe he’ll just bang on some things and make loud noises. I mean, he’s only four after all.