The gymnasium is packed with forth graders and it is loud and beginning to get out of hand. A long table stands in front us lined with shiny brass parts and long wooden horns. We wait on Mr. Schriever, the music teacher. He is tall and pointed. Around kids his size is dwarfing. After ten minutes of stir-crazy anticipation Mr. Schriever saunters in through the set of double doors, his head down, his hands in his pockets. He waits in front of the table before his name is called by one of the forth grade teachers. He picks up a clarinet, plays out the opening to a sweet melody, sets it back down to the table, and moves on to the trumpet. He repeats this process on down the line. We fiddle in our seats, trying our hardest not to interrupt him with questions. When he finishes each song, we clap loudly, the snaps echoing off the rubber floors. We’re eager to choose.
The last instrument Mr. Schriever approaches is a drum. It’s a standard fourteen by seven inch snare with a silver metal shell. Heads pick up in the gym. Mr. Schriever picks up a pair of drumsticks off the table and begins to tap the drum awake. Snares underneath coil softly. He begins a rudimentary pattern. His left hand and right hand move independent of each other. His eyes are elsewhere, not focused on the drum or piece of paper, nor a single person in the crowd. They look at nothing. Patterns produced sound like marching bands down Main Streets on sweltering July days. A hive like buzzing noise projects when he presses the sticks press down hard. A constricting snap when they strike in pairs. Pauses occur so fast they can’t be discounted as accidental; when the sticks come back to the head its certain that they weren’t, the pauses reflect tension of absence. The teacher’s playing is tremendously fast, the rolls and the snaps and the let offs. The sticks are frenetic and in Mr. Schreiver’s face nothing demonstrates work.
Teachers hand out slips of paper with instruments written on them. Beside the name is a small line. “Here’s what we want you to do.” A teacher says. “We want you to choose your three favorite instruments. When you’ve decided, put the number next to the instrument on the sheet in one to three order.” Mr. Schriever stands alongside the table as a flurry of students rush down to ask him to repeat their options. He meets them in Zen trance, his long hair disconnecting true eyesight, his back arching forward to project his voice down to their small ears. The excited would-be musician runs back up to his or her spot in the bleachers. They jot down their number one, two, and three picks.
I find the spot marked “drums” and mark a number one. I circle it several times to let Mr. Schriever know I’m serious. They might as well have just handed me the drumsticks right there on the spot. For the sake of process, I fill out saxophone as number two and trumpet as three.
That night at home, I tell my mom about the pending news. I’m certain that I will be picked for drums. She is excited but does not attempt to mask her own disappointment. She’s wanted me to become a saxophonist my whole life. Unlike her parents who forced their plans upon her, she lets me find my own interests. Still, this is the one decision she attempts to sway. She plays Kenny G cassettes in our Toyota Camry station wagon and tells me that someday I will make as good a sax player as him. She tells me I have the brains for it. I nod my head and ask if her she really thinks so. I don’t tell her I think Kenny G’s songs all sound the same. They’re a swell of noise that never change regardless of what cassette she puts in. Unlike the snapping and buzzing of the drums, it’s soft. Unlike the radio songs my friends and I listen to, there are no words. It lacks an edge to sink into. We drive around town from soccer practice to school to karate instructions in our steel-grey Camry, Kenny G’s cassettes humming through the speakers. When I can’t take it any longer I’d hit the FM button as silent protest.
My mother was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to parents whom, unlike their many neighbors, were not Mormon. Her father was an engineer for the government. In the high altitudes of the southern Rockies, he worked in engineering for the United States military. Her memories of this place are few. Inside my grandmothers house is a painting of the valley in which Salt Lake sits, a large body of water enshrined in the forefront. My mother will occasionally look at the painting and declare that she does not remember the water, only the air, which was dry, and the neighbors, who were kind.
Then her parents uprooted the family to Connecticut, where my grandfather took a job as an engineer with the Sub Base, designing submarine technology. On the second and forth weekend of each month he drove to Washington to sit in on classified meetings at the Pentagon. My mother played with her three sisters in their large colonial home in Flanders, under the sturdy oaks and the shade of the backyard elms. The time spent playing was a reprieve from the stern nuns at their Catholic schools, who wrapped their wrists with rulers and commanded them to recite Hail Mary’s frequently. When my grandfather would return from D.C., he kept the house quiet and disciplined, non-bemused by the giggling of his four daughters.
My mother’s sisters departed one-by-one. The first, Kathleen, left for the west coast. Next her sister Maureen, who left for Eastern Connecticut State University in Danbury, dropping out after her second year to get married and start a family. Karen was the third to leave, heading to Boston College to study microbiology.
My mother was beach blonde with blue eyes and a thin, Irish nose. She rode her bike from her house in Flanders, empty in last years of high school besides herself and her two Irish Catholic parents, all the way to Niantic. Fifteen miles both ways. She likes to tell stories of arriving in Niantic, how she’d move through the town and maybe buy an ice cream at the Dairy Queen or stop at the beach for a quick swim before heading back home. And though she had friends, she always is alone in her stories, and never does the tone scratch loneliness. Quite the opposite. Her departure from her family, if only on the off days in the Connecticut humid heat, tell me that she had always wanted to get out of the house, with her sisters gone, and be able to move on her own.
She wants me to be a saxophonist, but she won’t say why. I think she likes the instrument and never learned to play. Or it’s possible that she’s listened to too many Kenny G albums and has become romantic with the sounds of the melodic horn.
A group huddles around the door when Mr. Schriever posts the list to the wall with a piece of Scotch tape. I’m no longer thinking about my mother and what she wants. I think only of myself. We run up in packs, choking the hallway. I cram in until it’s my turn to view the list. I find drums. Unlike saxophones and flutes, the amount of names posted underneath is few, a stanza to a poem. I read them off. “Brittany… Brian… Bryan… Mark.” I look around the page for a second list of drums, that maybe there’s a second drum section included or maybe it’s broken in two parts. I find nothing. Piles of people push behind me, waiting to get it. I won’t move until I find my name under a list that says drums. Not finding a second list I return my index finger back to the original.
I can’t help the swelling in my face. It feels like a sucker punch to the gut. Voices around me shout which instrument they’ll be playing.
Rob yells, “Trombone!”
Alex yells, “Trumpet!”
Sarah yells, “Flute!”
Voices don’t echo in our elementary school; the ceilings are too low and the halls are too narrow. Instead they ring out sharply for all to hear. Each voice reminds me of my defeat.
I turn around. It’s Pat and Rob. Rob’s got a big smile on his face and Pat is wearing a toothy grin.
“What’d you get?” Rob asks. “I’m trombone. I’m the only one.”
“I don’t know.” I say, my head down.
“Aren’t you in saxophones?” Pat asks.
“Yeah, I think so.” I say. I hadn’t even looked.
“Me too!” He says. “We start next week. I’m going to get my parents to take me down to Stewart’s Music this week to pick out my saxophone. You want to come with me?”
“Hey man, are you alright?” Rob asks.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” I say.
“You don’t look okay. Are you sure you’re okay?” Pat asks.
“”I’m okay. Trust me, I’m okay.”
I turn around and walk down the hall, trying to muster up some strength to make it through the rest of the day. I can’t even make it back to the class before the swelling in my face starts leaking out. I try to slink into my chair and duck my face in my hands. I’m trying to get the tears to cut off. After the entire class gets back and Mrs. Hobbit gets things going she notices me with my head in my hands.
“Everything alright, Jesse?”
I won’t return her question. When she comes over and puts a hand on my shoulder, I look up at her with tears in my eyes. “What’s wrong?” She asks. I can’t decide what’s worse: not getting drums or crying in front of the class. It’s a tight spot, so I don’t say anything. She leads me back to a couch in the corner of the class. When the class has a break, she comes over and asks me what’s going on. I tell her. She says she’ll see what she can do. She says that this is the way the world is. She tells me that I’m going to have to learn to deal with disappointment.
My mother consoles me at home, as I scream in frustration over not getting what I want. It’s pathetic in many ways. Has she spoiled me too much? Given me everything I asked for when I needed it? If this is not the case, then I should be able to take this blow with stride. But I’m too childish to look towards the lesson that can be learned.
She knows more about disappointment than I’ll ever know.
After graduating college, she packed up her belongings and drove north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and settled into a single bedroom apartment. With her freshly printed degree in business administration, she took a job running books for a law firm. She wasn’t there for the work, and could have cared less about how much she made as long as it footed the rent.
She was there to be won over by the town, which was anywhere but Flanders. At night, she stopped in at the dive bars, the small cafes and popular joints. She’d made friends quickly. Together they’d sit at the bar, sipping white wine, while local musicians took to the stage with acoustic guitars and played music in the same vein as Cat Stevens, Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor. Soft acoustic melodies, sung with poetic lyrics that helped romanticize the shoreline city with its archaic brick roads and it’s winding turns leading to nowhere.
Then a night came when she met my father, whom like many men of that era, came into town with a guitar, some pot, and an unkempt beard. He was a stonemason working in Connecticut, not far from her home in Flanders, and they connected immediately. He’d sing her songs- country, folk- and in time they were fast in love. When he asked her to marry him, she was left with a choice. Either she would move back to Connecticut, where my father had his masonry practice established, and get married and begin a family. Or she could stay in Portsmouth, stay with the music that crept out of the open barroom doors and the persistent salt-water smell of the Piscataqua River and the quiet individuality she’d come to love.
My father would not move north, to be with her. And she conceded to leave the city behind her, to return home, to lose autonomy, to be dependent once more.
When I return to school on Monday there’s been an amendment to the list. Mrs. Hobbit tells me check it again and when I do I see my name scrawled underneath “drums” in pencil. I pump my fists up and yell out in the silent hall. My voice bounces sharply off the painted bricks. I realize the noise and run back to class before I get caught. When I get back to my seat I try to play it cool. I can see Mrs. Hobbit smiling but she offers few words. I know she feels guilty for giving in. There was a lesson I was supposed to learn from not getting what I wanted. I could have learned something valuable here. But that was what the weekend was for. I had Saturday and Sunday to sit around our condo, Mom reassuring me that I was supposed to play the sax. Perhaps Mrs. Hobbit knew that the weekend was enough suffering for me to endure.
The day after I find myself moved into the drum section, I bug Mom to drive me down to Caruso’s Music in New London. It’s the same place my sister Lindsey bought her clarinet two years earlier. I remember the store and the cacophony of noises creeping out of every corner. When we enter through the back entrance we stroll past black baby grand pianos. Another pair of doors opens into the main hall. Electric guitars stack one wall. Men sit on amplifiers and pick out chords that revert back underneath them. An antechamber of wood with mounted acoustics; I cannot hear the sounds that come from inside. On the far side eight drum sets line up in two rows. There’s a four-piece jazz setup- one high tom, one floor tom, one snare and one bass- with dark colored Zildjian cymbals sparsely decorating the exterior. A Tama Rock Star kit sits intimidatingly: eight toms, two double bass drums, painted jet black with enough cymbal power to bother a deaf man.
I walk past and look at the sets but don’t consider touching them, my Mom watching and tailing behind me. In the back corner of the shop there’s a crate with the heels of sticks popping out. They vary in color, width, length, and brand. I pull out a pair and slide off the cover, like a soldier inspecting a sword. I test instinctively: the right weight, the right movement around the fulcrum, the right grip of wood around my sweaty fingers and palms. I pick out a pair of Vic Firth 5A with solid wooden tips. When I tell the salesman I’m just starting out, he throws in a pair of blue grip tape. He opens the package and winds the tape around each stick carefully. When he is done, he hands them over he asks me what I think. I pick them back up and swing at the air. The grip is tighter than before, almost as if they’re a part of my hands. He asks me if I want to try them out. I sit down on small beginner kit and begin hitting the drums spastically. The salesman and my mother laugh, as I swing about the kit in kinetic strokes. I don’t play long, just enough to get it out of my system. I don’t lose a stick in the process. Someday I’ll make sense of the big and complicated machine.
For a long time it has been just my mother and my sister and myself. It’s the family unit we’ve built since I was two, when my father left in a rage, jumped in his white Bronco, and left the family behind.
When my mother decided to move back home to Connecticut, she did so with no great aplomb. Her and my father wed in small ceremony, attended by close family and friends. Then the moved into a three-bedroom home together on the outskirts of Norwich, Connecticut, where my father left each morning to lay brick and my mother stayed home, raising my sister and me.
She was 29 when he left. I remember the morning that the marriage was over. I was two, and memories do not stick at that age, only fragments of visual details, like the shaded oaks that hung in our back yard or the swing set that my sister and I played on. But I remember a series of images all pressed together, the morning that my sister and I were playing on the swings and my fathers truck door slammed and the wheels spun out before it raced down the street and was gone. I remember my sister opening the screen door to the kitchen, and asking my mother what was wrong. My mother holds her head in her hands, crying, and my sister repeats over and over, “What’s wrong Mom? What’s wrong?”
Once again she was alone; independent of her marital strain but left with no support. In the months and years that followed, she lost it all: the bank seized the house, took her Jeep. She worked part time at boutiques to put food on the table, and asked her older sisters and father for financial support.
And then we moved away from Norwich to a condo in East Lyme, a half hour south of Norwich, near the warm salt-water beaches off the Long Island Sound. On the first morning we had moved into the condo, which was small: two bedrooms, a nook of a kitchen, a single bathroom, an unfinished attic. My sister and I stood by the front window, with the shades drawn, and we bent up the blinds with our fingers and looked out into the complex with the identical condos forming a circle around a sort-of cul-de-sac of residences. Outside kids played in the narrow, paved road that connected each home. We looked and were afraid to go out on our own. Then our mother opened the door, and forced us to find our own way.
For the first six months of drum lessons, our drumsticks never touch an actual drum. They ricochet arrhythmic patterns off plastic disks. Drum pads are an inch thick, with solid plastic rims, filled with resilient Mylar that provides immense kick back to the drumstick once it makes contact. The sound it makes is a soft tap, opposed to the loose echo the old snare Mr. Schriever played during the orientation. The sticks chip and splinter at the tip. Indentations form at contact spots they shouldn’t have made: reminders what is supposed to be hitting where. I hold the pair, once glossed and shiny maple. They show signs of decay. The blue grip tape is loosening at the top from pinching too tight. Need to lighten up the fulcrum and let the swing of the stick do more work. I cannot force my arms on the down stroke. See the tip crack near the top? That is from eyeing the book when I did not trust my timing. I tell myself these things when I am playing and when I am not. In bed and when I am in route to school.
“Mr. Schriever? Why can’t we play the real drums?” I ask, early in our lessons.
“Because it’s too loud, man. If I had to hear four snare drums going in this small office all day I’d be deaf.” He says.
“When do we get to play the actual drums?” Bryan asks.
“We’ll get there, man. We’ll get there. For now we got to work on getting basic rudiments down. Once we have that all set, dude, we’ll move up to the bigger and better things.”
We carry our drum pads under our arms from class to class along with our sticks and our Buddy Rich Drum Rudiments book. Each night at home I practice for hours, the noise a droning tapping of wood against soft plastic. As Lindsey tries to do her homework, she yells to Mom that my drumming is annoying her. Each hour of repetitive rudimentary work is closer to obtaining mysteries. I’m working at opening up a complicated procedure, one stroke at a time.
One night I’m behind the kitchen table, standing with the drum pad in front of me, the Buddy Rich book beside it. I’m trying to work on a pattern called the paradiddle. In a four-note pattern its complexity is slightly harder than a standard drum roll: left stick, right stick, left stick, left stick. What is more difficult is that once the first paradiddle is completed, the book instructs that the second paradiddle be completed inversely to the first: right stick, left stick, right stick, right stick. I read the sheet music over and over. I understand what my hands are supposed to do and how they are supposed to accomplish the task. I start slow and put the sticks down on the pad, not tapping to a beat. Though my brain knows the pattern, my hands won’t coordinate. They revert back to a standard drum roll. They want to repeat the double drum roll after the first paradiddle. Once I manage the first paradiddle, I can’t remember to start the second. When I do, I blank whether or not to start with the right hand or the left. I look at the sheet music for answers but it becomes hieroglyphics.
Mom sees me struggling from the living room and comes in to the dining room. She looks at the book and sticks and me. Though she knows nothing about drums, she knows that something is off.
“How’s it going in here?” She asks.
“It’s hard, but I’m starting to get it.” I say.
“Yeah? That’s good. Do you need any help?”
“Are you sure?”
“Let me help.”
She walks around to the table and looks at the book. It’s laid out in quarter note sheet music with little L’s and R’s underneath, instructing the drummer which hand goes where. I explain to her how it works. When she asks how she can help, I think back to our lessons in the music room.
“Can you clap your hands in time?”
“Okay then, watch me.” I begin clapping steady as a metronome. “You just have to keep the beat the same. Don’t speed it up or slow it down. That way I can drum along to it.”
“Sounds easy enough.” She says.
She stands across the table. I listen to her claps and count down until I’ll begin the first strike of the paradiddle. One, two, three, four. Then I hit the first note on the left hand on her first clap. The second note, on the right hand, comes down a little before she claps a second time. I stop what I’m doing and let out a hard breath.
“What’s wrong?” She says, her clapping stopped.
“Keep clapping.” I say.
She starts again, her tempo strong and even. She has a natural metronome inside her. She had been a musician once, a pianist. Her parents gave her little freedom when she began playing. As my mother sat at the wooden piano in their living room, her Mother and Father joined her on the stool and interrupted her practice to mark her progress. My Mom showed them the songs. They hounded her over each note. She could never be alone with the piano. They continued to bother until she gave up playing. She was never sure if it was because they were proud of her or because they saw something in her and wanted her to develop it. Either way, she quit before she could find out.
I work the left hand and then the right, attempting to land the timing on each one of her claps. It’s slow moving. By the end of an hour I make it through a full measure, completing a single paradiddle. She doesn’t ask any questions. She’s found a comfortable way of sitting in a chair that allows her to clap in time without looming too large. When we finish I look up to her and she smiles. She wants to know what we’ve been doing and I try to explain to her how I’m separating my hands from one another. It’s a drumming process Mr. Schriever calls “independence.”