Sunday, August 19, 2012
Deciding to solo in last night's performance was like so many choices in life: You say a reluctant yes, believing you can change your mind at any time, when in reality the yes refuses to be so easily undone.
I'm a new drummer. An accidental drummer, truth be told. Walt and I started classes with Clifford at the beginning of March. We had such a great time with the first one, we took a second, and a third. The only option for summer drumming was a performance class, so we signed up for that, trusting Clifford's right hand Audra when she said we'd do well and it would be fun.
And it was so much fun. Learning whole rhythms that involved not only the djembes we play, but also dununs, the bass drums of Western African drumming. Meeting new people. Getting to know new friends better. Feeling like a real drummer, with a true sense of the music, the beat, the complex weaving of sounds.
From the beginning Clifford talked casually about the fact that he wanted us each to at least consider soloing for the performance. Part of one class session was spent practicing both individual and group solos, with nothing decided about who would or would not do a solo at the end.
At another session closer to the actual performance date, he asked us all to try a solo during practice. Nothing big, just a couple of good hits to mark our place and intention. After we'd all survived that, he asked us who wanted to solo for at least one of our three rhythms at the performance. Mine was the next to last hand in the air.
I didn't want to solo. But neither did I want to be the only person who didn't solo—yes, there apparently is an adolescent alive and well inside. Plus I was hooked by the challenge of it, and maybe lulled by Clifford's easy confidence that we couldn't fail. Mostly, though, I agreed because I was so afraid of soloing. And I figured it wouldn't be too bad to hit a few quiet notes for one rhythm from the safety of our line of djembe players.
Then Clifford told us we needed to play loudly enough that we could be heard over the other drums when we soloed. Once we'd practiced a few times with very short and sufficiently loud solos, he mentioned that it would be a good idea if we each stepped forward when it was our turn. When we all managed that without trauma, he added that we could play a solo for all three of our rhythms if we wanted.
No place to hide.
The thought of the performance itself didn't make me nervous at all. I practiced nearly every day and listened to recordings of our classes when I wasn't practicing. My handing and tones improved noticeably from week to week, and although I knew I wasn't even close to sounding like Clifford or Audra or any of the drummers in the advanced class, I felt confident that I would hold my own in the group.
The thought of soloing was another story. It wasn't really something I could practice because it was supposed to be from the heart—my own personal rhythm in response to the larger rhythms being played around me. In order to solo, I had to be willing to step toward an audience, away from the safety of the group, and do my best knowing best would be far more about enthusiasm and guts than skill.
When my turn came last night, the first solo in our second rhythm, I stepped forward and made myself look into the audience. Where I saw two of my brothers and a sister-in-law smiling wildly, cameras at the ready. Where I saw my dear friend Daune and her husband and daughter with faces full of curiosity and kindness. I smiled back and gave myself over to a nervous, short and sufficiently loud rhythm. When I stepped back into the safety of the line with the warmth of Walt's approval to my immediate left and the palpable love of my friends and family to the front, I felt the same sense of satisfaction I'd felt earlier in the summer at the end of our day in Actun Tunichil Muknal.
There was a second solo for the last rhythm, also short, also nervous, and nothing like the intricate and wonderful performances of both my husband and the more experienced drummers in the group. My success came not in the quality of my rhythms, but in my willingness to open the door for them to emerge. My willingness to be seen as less than perfect (even though I do really know perfection is a toxic myth). My willingness to celebrate my particular place in this process of learning without feeling the shame I often do that I'm not somewhere farther ahead.