three drummers on craft

In 1988 I got the chance to see Ed Blackwell, the great free jazz drummer, play in the Student Union with Anthony Braxton. Wesleyan at the time seemed a sort of retirement home for jazz monsters entering their dotage. I didn’t really know who any of those guys were, but I knew they were a big deal. I wasn’t really playing drums yet – not unless you count all that banging on books on my bed I had done through middle school, and all the time on other people’s sets I cadged through high school by dating girls who were either drummers or had brothers who were. But I remained impressed that drumming was something you could learn by watching drummers closely. There were no hidden embochure techniques or obscure valve positions to learn. Just pay attention and do likewise. So I went, and I did.

I don’t remember anything that night past the first note of the show: the way Ed sat slumped behind a tiny kit and began the first number with a swat at the ride cymbal. He  swatted it the way a guy his age might swat a fly after sitting on the front porch for forty years – a fly that had also been there for forty years, or its fathers or grandfathers, a fly that no matter how much he swatted would always come back. It was a swat of intimacy with the cymbal; he knew exactly where it was and what it would do when he made contact, exactly how hard to stroke it and where and how to bring the hand back around for the next stroke without wasting any energy. The cymbal responded with equal composure, swaying ever so slightly on its fulcrum and returning to meet Ed’s next stroke. The fly wheeled away and looped back in again to restart the eternal cycle. It was magnificent, and permanently etched in my mind: this was what it looked like when you played every night of your life, and now found yourself playing again.

Perhaps I am making too much of this: it’s just an old guy hitting a cymbal, after all. But it reminds me of how frequently in education someone will say something about teaching being “an art and a science,” then lean back in a satisfied way as if they have Really Said Something There. I know what they are getting at, I think: they are trying to say that teaching includes touch and judgment and transcendence and aesthetic inspiration as well as mastery of predictable, tried-and-true algorithms and formulas. That it is both beautiful and serious, and that we would do well to remember it as such in a time when most forces wish to make it only the latter.

But I don’t think teaching is really either an art or a science. I think it is a craft.

“Craft” is what Elliot Eisner is getting at when he describes the foolishness of trying to prescribe and automatize an event that is, in so many ways, not reproducible from student to student:

Theory is general. What the teacher must be able to do is see the connection – if there is one – between the principle and the case. But even where such a connection exists, the fit is never perfect.

It’s what the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards is reaching for when they define “What Teachers Should Know and be Able to Do” thusly:

As with most professions, teaching requires an open-ended capacity that is not acquired once and for all. Because they work in a field marked by many unsolved puzzles and an expanding research base, teachers have a professional obligation to be lifelong students of their craft, seeking to expand their repertoire, deepen their knowledge and skill, and become wiser in rendering judgments. Accomplished teachers are inventive in their teaching and, recognizing the need to admit new findings and continue learning, stand ready to incorporate ideas and methods developed by others that fit their aims and their students. What exemplifies excellence, then, is a reverence for the craft, a recognition of its complexities, and a commitment to lifelong professional development.

But it is also the word that includes not only responding to the moment of inspiration that engenders learning, but also finding within you the capacity to do it again in forty-five minutes. This is the sort of insight David Sedaris describes when he works for a season making jade clocks for craft shows and realizes the backbreaking boredom that accompanies the intention to do the same thing well more than once. Put another way: the artist can abandon an unsatisfying canvas, or paint it over, or rip it in two. The teacher has another class coming in third period.

That’s why I am so interested in watching and listening to drummers who have enjoyed long careers and are still enthralled by doing what they do. Neil Peart remains first among these: his precision and imagination and technical prowess are widely revered, but what I most notice is how hard he still hits. The first rule of recording is to hit the drums hard, but the cymbals softly (to get consistent levels. and to keep the wash out of the tom mix). I can still hear in studio and live recording how fully he applies himself: you can’t mix in those bright attacks, that blindingly-even speed. There’s stamina here, of course, but also something to learn about what keeps one engaged with playing parts that are, in Rush’s case anyway, mostly the same every night.

What’s keeping him engaged? Here’s some insight:

Has your relationship with the instrument changed over the years?

Enormously so, in all those inner ways that might be boring to somebody else, but I feel them strongly…part of it’s been deliberate, in that I’ve studied with teachers from time to time…I had a great old-time teacher in the mid-90s that kind of helped me reinvent the way I approached the instrument that still nourishes me now. The inspiration of other players too, old or new, inspires you…Eric Clapton said he wanted to burn his guitar after hearing Jimi Hendrix. I never understood that. When I hear somebody great, it makes me want to go home and play.

How great to hear that from the guy whose tapes were usually on when it was book-banging time (and whose latest records still get shout-outs and love from the fans – and members – of Foo Fighters, Pantera, Metallica). I hear a respect for oneself in relation to the instrument, and a growing respect for the instrument itself as something that outlasts the technicalities of any given show, or session, or evening, or even band. The drums are always there. Its reminiscent of physician’s description of medicine being a relationship to “the truth of the pathological lesion,” a relationship that transcends any single patient (to the chagrin of those who seek to develop physician empathy).

Peart also reaffirms that much of this learning and self-transformation takes place “beneath the water” of his actual performance:

The big change I made was in 95 when I changed everything – the set up of the drums, even the way I held the sticks for a time. I dedicated myself to doing everything different. And when I first came back, (Geddy) Lee was listening to the demos and he said, “It doesn’t sound that much different to me.” And to me that was a compliment,  because I had changed everything and it still sounded like me.

But the changing nature of his relationship to his craft did yield other, deeper transformations:

I worked so much with click tracks and sequencers that I had become remarkably metronomic. But that had a rigidity that went with it. So my mission then became to conquer that and become looser. I want to become more improvisational, because I am compositional…now the first half of my solo is completely improvisational…I do challenge myself because there are no consequences. There’s no mistake. If I do something weird play it twice, and it’s a new part, a jazz instrumentalist once told me.

I wonder at how another drummer I grew up with – Phil Collins – has stayed engaged with his own playing in ways that keeps it fresh. He’s a harder one to get a bead on: a dry New Yorker sketch from 2006 portrays him as fastidiously self-absorbed and remote, certainly not as open to discussing his own process and evolution as a musician. Maybe he didn’t do what Peart did: reinvent himself, change it all around sometimes, burn everything he owned now and then to see what might grow from the ashes.

But change is there to be heard, for sure, in the progress from the first mewlings of prog freak-out to John Bonham-heaviness to the playful looseness I still ape in my own playing (witness the gorgeous weak-hand drag roll that kicks off “I Missed Again,” or the terrific three cymbal crashes as the verse drops into the bridge of “Easy Lover“).  His story seems sadder, since he’s now too incapacitated to play and actually retired from music with an apology to his haters for his unimaginable success (“I’m sorry that it was all so successful. I honestly didn’t mean it to happen like that”). I hope I’m around for his rehabilitation in the hipster mind; maybe his lessons for sustainable practice are some negative ones – fix your posture! (OK.) Don’t get too popular! (Really?) – but also to respond to the changes in your world and bring who you really are to what you do, since that’s the energy that makes you go anyway.

Not sure how to end this except to note how valuable it is for me to pay close attention to the folks who have spent their lives doing things well, and to consider how to bring their practices into my own work as a teacher, a researcher, a member of an academic community. It’s where most of what I write ends: wondering how to keep ourselves tapped into the source of energy that makes our work as teachers sustainable and effective. I’m grateful to have had so many great examples – so much to think about.

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