I marched in high school band, and in the summers with a local drum and bugle corps. I later became a private drum teacher and a drum line instructor for drum corps and several high school bands. In college, I wrote a massive term paper on the history of Ottoman percussion and its influence on modern classical percussion (for you academia freaks, it got published in a peer review journal, which I guess doesn't generally happen with undergraduate papers); and studied the history of military music just for fun.
After a bicycle collision ended my classical percussion career, I switched to guitar and became the musician many of you know me as today.
But over the last twenty years since that bike crash, I've never completely stopped playing drums.
I've always had at least a practice pad and some sticks laying around, which I'd pick up from time to time because the muscle memory felt good, reassuring; and I didn't want to lose it entirely. I continued to keep up my chops when I could. I played for a season with a community concert band (their schedule and the cost of membership made it impossible to stay, but it was fun while it lasted.)
I reached for my sticks and pad more and more and it felt good to just play.
(Video, above: "Modern Syncopation" from the NARD Solo Book, one of the first solos I learned in high school. I still have that book and still like to work out of it from time to time.)
I've never stopped loving marching percussion. In the ensuing years since my crash, I've continued to follow competitive drum corps as a fan and have picked up my sticks and pad more and more, just because it's been a kind of comfort food for my hands and because I love the sound of a marching drumline.
So when friends invited me to join a community band -- "there are no drum charts, just show up and lay down some tasty beats, you'll know a lot of the tunes already" -- I couldn't say no. I had a marching snare drum, I had sticks and I could still play a passable long roll. So last night I joined the Unpresidented Brass Band for a neighborhood block party and greenspace dedication. It was, in short, a blast. And for so small an ensemble, these guys know how to jam. After a few nervous, flubbed notes, I fit right in, and felt very welcomed. I can't wait to play with them again.
Only here's the thing. This band has a mission to play not only at warm and fuzzy community events and get-out-the-vote rallies. The Unpresidented Brass band also plays at demonstrations. That's why it was originally founded. And Portland, as some of you know, has a reputation as a hard-lefty protest town. Back in the dark ages when then-Vice President Dan Quayle came to speak at the Benson Hotel, he was greeted by hundreds of protestors, who were so loud in their expressions of displeasure that the police began calling Portland "Little Beirut" -- a nickmane that has stuck.
Now, with the rise of the violent alt-Right and repeated visits to Portland and other liberal West Coast cities by groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, the protests have turned threatening, violent and ugly. UBB played at a Patriot Prayer rally in June, acting as a peaceful alternative to the violence between the alt-Right and the radical-left Antifa groups where were there, ostensibly, to beat each other up. And while there were definitely violent scuffles and arrests, a number of folks who had come to protest peacefully said they appreciated the band's presence and its ability to keep things calmer.
I admit that appeals to me. A lot.
On the other hand, I also know that there's risk in attending protests, especially now that the corners are so sharply delinated and the "leaders" of each extreme are given to violence.
There's another Patriot Prayer/Proud Boys rally schedule next weekend in Portland. The band plans to play. I've been told repeatedly that there is absolutely NO pressure on me to join them; every member of the band gets to decide their own safety parameters for themselves and there is NO judgment either way.
I know that my Sweetie would prefer I sit out the next performance, situated as it will be near this rally. But a part of me -- a BIG part of me -- wants to go and make music in the name of waging peace.
Drums were once instruments of war. Intricate signals were developed that were used to sound changes on formation and/or a fighting battalion's position. These signals later became the rudiments -- the "drummer's scales" used to this day by students learning how to play snare drum. I studied these rudiments as a kid, and later learned about their military origins. While I understand that four hundred years ago drums were instruments of war, what if today they can be instruments of peace, joining with other instruments to make a beautiful cacophony of sound that encourages people not to fight, but instead to dance in the streets?
So I'm torn. I'm afraid of the potential for getting hurt, or arrested. But I also want to wage peace with music, and playing with this band has raised my spirits so much that the idea of playing again with them is high on my thinking radar today.
I'll need to decide one way or another very soon.
Meanwhile, I hope you'll enjoy this little bit of sonic happiness from last night's garden party.
(Video, below: courtesy of Andrine De La Rocha.)