On Christmas morning, when I was 6 years old, all my dreams came true. As absurd as that statement may sound to me now, 20 years later, it was definitely true to me at the time in my 6-year-old world with my limited life experience. In typical fashion, I woke up first and darted down the hallway to the family room, and awaiting me at the other end of the house was a small, black Mapex drum set. Little did I know, this drum set would unlock so many doors in my life-and also flood me with a plethora of questions from friends and family.
I had started the violin a year before, and no one could seem to wrap their head around the combination of instruments. Playing drums and violin was like wearing purple and yellow together or bringing your cat to the dog park, and to answer the most asked question I ever received-no I cannot play them both at the same time. However, playing drums did expose me to music and ensembles I would have never known had I only stuck with the violin. While many found the combination of instruments puzzling, I find that I learned lessons from drums that influenced my violinist perspective and vice-versa. This is especially apparent to me now after studying violin almost exclusively for the past 7 years and keeping drums up only as I had the chance.
I recently played for a funeral back in Orlando in which I had to arrange a pop song for violin and voice. Having played many arrangements of pop music in various instrument combinations, I can say that my biggest complaint with these arrangements is usually the pacing. The new version is often lacking any sense of an arc from start to finish, a sure sign that not enough thought was put into the arrangement. However, even with a 24-hour time constraint, I found this aspect to not be too difficult, which led me to ask-how could I be able to do this with minimal formal training in composition?
The same weekend, I was playing drums at my church for their services for the first time in over a year. I couldn’t help but realize that the regular, studio-quality musicians that play there were following my lead not only with tempo, but also more importantly with pacing. Every build and fall was sculpted around the addition and subtraction of volume, layers, and complexity of the drum part I was playing. In that moment, I realized that probably the biggest lesson I learned from my 20 years of playing drums was how to compose and orchestrate in real time with complexity and direction-and to do it in a way that is both convincing and tasteful. This is a skill I probably never would have learned had I not played drums, partially because I would have never recognized its prevalence in all music if I was stuck in the orchestra hall for the rest of my life with my very limited vantage point.
I remember a conversation I had with a Doctoral Candidate at Michigan State who asked me about the history of improvised violin cadenzas-he was very adamant about prescribing improvisation to “classical” musicians in their curriculum in order to improve their creativity and musical senses. While I used to struggle to grasp the thought that any part of a classical masterwork could be improvised on stage, I realize now that the ability to improvise with direction, cohesion, and to do it convincingly is the highest expression of musical understanding. It is something we all must learn to do if we are to call ourselves “musicians,” and I never would have recognized its value without this epiphany I had on the drums. A student in music school will often hear these words uttered by their professors: “give it meaning,” “make it fresh, new, exciting,” or “play it as if you are improvising.” I always had difficulty understanding what this meant aside from “play it differently than the way you practiced it because it doesn’t sound good,” but now I think I’m starting to understand truly what it means. It is a journey in and of itself to apply a fundamental new approach to every aspect of both learning and performing, but every work of art demands this reinterpretation, or else it falls into the pit of irrelevance.