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The Non-Drumming Drummer

I recently went to visit with a kind-hearted friend of mine. He has a habit of letting assorted people stay at his big San Francisco home, which is a haven for folks who are either down on their luck, traveling on a limited budget, or are friends or friends of friends of any of his five college-age children. 

While there, I was introduced to a young man of about 20 who, in response to my inquiry about his activity, said in a surly voice, “I’m Bob. I’m on a walkabout, traveling the United States.” We chatted a bit, and I asked him if he was a college student. He replied, “No, college is a waste of time. It’s the safe route taken by frightened people. I’m an artist, a jazz musician.” I asked him what instrument he played and he said, “I’m a jazz drummer.”

I told him that by coincidence I was also a drummer and asked him who he had studied with.  With a strong note of defensiveness, he replied, “I didn’t have to study with anyone. I learned on my own.” Trying to be tactful, I said, “That’s brave of you. I was unwilling to try and learn on my own. How is your playing coming? It must be difficult to find opportunities to practice and places to play with other musicians while traveling.” Sneering, he said, “There is no need to practice. I do all of my learning by listening to jazz and imagining it all in my head. I said, “But, I assume you’ve learned the basic drum rudiments such as paradittles, flams, and the like?” He answered, “That’s all old, corny stuff and absolutely unnecessary. I learn by imagining and picturing the drum set and playing it in my mind.”

After asking more questions and suffering the insults that went with his answers, I discovered that Bob had never owned a practice pad, drum sticks or a set of drums, and that he had no idea what music notation looked like. I was further shocked to learn that he had never once played with a musical group of any kind. I was not surprised to find, after further inquiry, that he was the only son of wealthy parents and was traveling on their dime.

Given that he was such an insulting and arrogant young man I decided to push him a bit. I said, “So, let me get this straight. You have never practiced, you have never played on a set of drums, you have no idea how drum technique works, you have never trained your hands to play the instrument, you have never played with another musician or band, but you advertise yourself as a jazz drummer. How do you justify this?”

Raising his voice, he said, “You’re like all the old farts. You do everything by the book. I’m taking a free, unfettered approach to jazz drumming. I can sit in right now with the best jazz groups and play as well as anyone. I’ve learned everything I need to know by listening. You’re a slave to an orthodox, stodgy, old-fashioned approach to playing drums.”

I read his face closely because it occurred to me at that moment that he might have been working a beautifully delivered put-on. But, sadly, he was not teasing me.  His self-delusion was real. At that point, I decided that he was getting too worked up and further pulling of his covers would only lead to unwanted and unnecessary tension in my friend’s house.

I believe this young man—I think of him as the “Non-Drumming Drummer”—is an excellent example of someone who has difficulty forming friendships because he doesn’t have the necessary interactional skills.  He is so frightened interpersonally he spends most of his energy defending himself by going on the offensive.  We can safely assume that his jazz-playing skills are on a par with his friendship skills.

A young man without much of a work ethic, Bob doesn’t feel good about himself because he hasn’t learned to apply himself and succeed at anything.  In place of legitimate and satisfying achievement, he is trying to find respect from others by falsely assuming the role of an artist-jazz musician. However, you cannot be a jazz musician without first learning the rudiments of the instrument.  It is only after mastering the instrument’s basics that you can interact appropriately with other musicians.

Similarly, it is only after learning the basic listening and verbal skills that allow you to effectively interact with others that you can build effective and long-lasting friendships.  Such friendships are built on mutual respect and equality.  This young man had no clue, and it was sad watching him interact so inappropriately with the other guests at my friend’s house.

Over the course of the weekend, Bob alienated most of the other guests and created much social tension.  When he left to continue his “walkabout,” he didn’t say good-bye.  I felt for him because it was clear he was many months or years removed from finding the personal satisfaction that accompanies both achievement and friendship. 

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.      


Comment from Stan
Time: February 5, 2008, 8:01 am

This guy sounds familiar. With each generation the willingness to work hard and earn your way seems to diminish. I’ve got grandkids like this. The world owes them a living and they want everything their parents have without working for it. If you talk about a work ethic they sneer at you. Nice article!

Comment from Lynn
Time: March 31, 2008, 2:15 pm

In music, just as in life–it is only after one has learned the rules that one can then (respectfully) break them.

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