Monday, June 4, 2012

On Creativity Part 2: I Never Play the Same Beat Twice

As a drummer/percussionist, I've had this....problem.

For years, even as my skill improved playing with the band, keeping in mind that prior to joining the band, I'd never played in front of anyone other than family before, and as I watched my kit increase in size (be that my acoustic, vintage Rogers kit or that electronic piece of shit I currently have to play, that's going bye-bye soon), with more drums and different cymbals, adding mallets, employing a splash, a cowbell or a block, etc, all after I sobered up. This "problem" surfaced whether I was playing a kit or playing hand drums, first the congas, then with the new addition of playing the djembe (a large, African single hand drum) in recent months. (In fact, the "problem" is the most obvious to me when playing hand drums.)

The problem? I never played the same song the same way twice. While I inherently, loosely knew patterns and beats to songs I've now been playing with the band for 6 years, suffice it to say, the end result--the "performance" of the song during the actual church service--was almost, I guarantee you, vastly different than the way I rehearsed a song during practice Friday night. Different than the way I practiced it an hour and a half before the service on Saturday afternoon. Different than the way it sounded in my head just measures before my part in a song would physically begin.

It's not such an OVERT, obvious issue to the singers. As long as I'm playing the songs, keeping time, they're concentrating on their vocal parts, though they rely on me for certain cues and are used to breaks in timing and such. It's GOT to be obvious to the other musicians, though, or at least it was in the past. They'd grown increasingly frustrated when we'd play a song and my brain couldn't recall what I played where, or even the melody of a particular song, the WAY OUR BAND PLAYED IT, *not* the versions we were "supposed" to learn from the CD's the lead guitarist gave us, professional recordings by musicians with technical skill that surpassed that of ours, slick production and editing. (Ah, the trials/tribulations of being in a cover band.)

While those CD's are helpful in learning the basics of how a song goes, as I told my bandmates hundreds of times, the way I learn a new song is to figure it out as I go along with my band. And I tried to impress upon them....I'm not a professional. Much of it, I chalked up to cognitive dysfunction and alcoholic memory loss, because I'd listen to myself play on years-old recordings of our band playing, and for the life of me, I had unimaginable trouble replicating precisely what I played in the past. Categorically, it's not that I'm a terrible musician. There are occasions when Jake will exuberantly hug me with a pat on the back and a "Good job on those fills!" But...

I don't sight read music. I don't read music, period. Like I've said before, there is music in front of me when I play, but it's the lead guitarist's chord sheet and lyrics, with scribbled notes on it in my handwriting, which even I have trouble deciphering the meaning of sometimes, especially if we resurrect a song that's been in the vault for a few years. I use them chiefly to watch my place in the song in tandem with the singers, or when to start playing or stop playing, or if I'm supposed to count in and begin a song, that kind of basic stuff. My notations aren't proper, either. They aren't rudimentary or necessarily logical. They are not those of a "trained" musician. Essentially, they're gibberish. If I write out "Boom-a-cha-cha-cha" at the end of a song, I vaguely know what to do, but it won't ever be the same fill as I've played in the past.

When the band's lead guitarist and pianist abruptly left just as the Lenten season was upon us, it left the band with two musicians: the bass player, Jake, and myself. Fortunately, Jake is a proficient guitarist and seamlessly transitioned, as a professional musician who's played in front of thousands of people, from bass to lead guitar out of pure necessity. The electronic drums were thought to be overpowering at first, so I came up with the idea of buying a djembe, to quietly compensate and augment the songs, at least during the more solemn, quiet Lenten season.

The most I knew about a djembe was that it was able to make a variety of sounds that more closely reflected that of an entire drum kit, as opposed to the congas, with a limited range of tone, which was what my brother, a professional drummer himself, explained to me. I'd never played one before.  I didn't put much research into the purchase of the djembe. All I knew was that key-tuned ones were far pricier than rope-tuned djembes, and I had a limited budget that the tightwad church didn't plan on reimbursing. (Plus, this way, *I* own the instrument, the church doesn't, like my acoustic kit, which is mine. The electronic kit is the church's, and frankly, they can scrap the damn thing. The plan is to bring back the Rogers kit with a drum shield muffling it in front, which'll have to suffice and will sound SO. MUCH. BETTER. It's beyond aggravating to, without a monitor in front of me, try to hear myself coming out of a small amplifier behind and off to the side of me. Essentially, apart from the real cymbals I play--I refused to play the rubber cymbals that came with the electronic kit--I can't hear a damn thing I'm doing, unlike being enveloped in the acoustics of a real kit.)

Without my brother living nearby to give me tips, I ordered an instructional DVD along with the djembe. To date, I never removed it from the shrink-wrap. Like my brother's acoustic drum kit when I was a young child, I just sat down and PLAYED it. And I could do it. I can't tell you how. I can't tell you what processes went through my conscious mind, other than to chalk it up to pure intuition, how I was able to figure out what part of the djembe produced what tone, other than to say I farted around with it a little, a few minutes maybe, before practicing for an upcoming service with Jake and the singers. I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Only in reading further in the book I got for my birthday, Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works, did I realize what *I* interpreted as a musical handicap was really a well-honed art of controlled improvisation. While I haven't talked to other drummers about it, as I just put the book down to write, I think if I were to take a poll, I wouldn't be the only musician who improvises beats, fills and rhythms. Out of the roughly 120 songs I "know how to play" with my band, the Contemporary Christian stuff, I can remember (possibly) half of the songs' drum parts when the songs rotate in any given week. (I play twice a month, every 2nd and 4th Saturday, you should come see us sometime!) Other songs, I literally have to teach myself all over again. Conversely, put my iPod on songs I *know* but have never drummed, and I can drum them. I just wing it.

Lehrer was interviewing the famed cellist Yo Yo Ma, renowned surfing guru Clay Marzo and members of the Los Angeles troupe of Second City (which is really more famous here in Chicago, hey!), on "letting go" and allowing the creative areas of your brain to let the proverbial sunshine in. Ma was a Julliard prodigy, Marzo was surfing while he was still in diapers and is THE surfer on the ocean scene (who happens to have Asperger's Syndrome), and the Second City institution begins comedic improv classes for young children as well as adults, and has produced some of the greatest comedic artists in film and television history.

I learned that it's in the release of what's considered proper, unlearning what you were taught, and experimenting, that the genius of creativity honestly has the best chance of flourishing. Our creative brains are firing so rapidly when we are young children, which is why as youngsters, we have the innate ability to create prolifically, yet slump, biologically, as our brains mature, unfortunately, the author says, around 4th grade. Lehrer suggests our talents become latent with age if we discontinue the practice of them, though I went from playing drums regularly (by myself) in our basement as a kid, dropping the art entirely, to picking up a pair of sticks and joining a band when I was 34, just like riding a bike. He quotes Picasso, who said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." (Blame the frontal lobe.)

A fascinating statistic Lehrer points out is that, in a study by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, it was shown that bipolar disorder, from which I suffer, is so closely tied to creativity that "nearly 40 percent of the successful creative people she investigated had the disorder, a rate that's approximately twenty times higher than it is in the general population." (p80) This particular study was done back in the 80's, and more recently, Lehrer cites a study by psychiatrist Hagop Akiskal, in which he found that "nearly two-thirds of a sample of influential European artists were bipolar." (p80)

It's thought that during periods of hypomania or mania, the brain of a bipolar patient is afire with ideas, sometimes overwhelmingly so, to the point of an interference in what is considered "normal" daily functioning. The execution or ability to translate the influx of ideas and thoughts varies from patient to patient (from my own observances, not the author of the book's). Andreasen's study showed that manic individuals had "an overwhelming need to express themselves," which is something to which I can certainly relate in practicality. When the mania finally ebbs to either chemical stability or, worse, a depressive episode, creativity can still flourish, and though, while the output of new ideas and the need to disseminate tons of information is reduced, this can be a useful period as well, which lends itself to the artist's ability to edit work, fine-tune, and perfect whatever craft is the artist's pleasure.

Sometimes, since I *am* successfully (most of the time) medicated and stable, I have trouble discerning a manic or hypomanic episode until I've been exhibiting precise physical symptoms akin to bipolar; for example, sleeping 3-4 hours a night with vibrant dreams and plenty of REM sleep, awakening charged with the urgency to create well before dawn, or embark on a set of innumerable tasks rendered from what I think are all brilliant ideas, only to emerge frustrated when those pursuits fizzle out.

When thoughts race, I know my body and mind well enough to eventually give it a break, USUALLY. I try to relax with music or by reading, though sometimes, that just charges me up more. I admittedly enjoy yacking with Kate late into the night, which is relaxing, entertaining and intellectually stimulating. I do not watch television, but will mindlessly scan YouTube clips, or attempt to sit through a Netflix rental, my son largely independent and uninterested in Being With Mom All Evening.

Some nights, I go to bed at 9:30 or 10:00 pm, before Luke goes to bed. Not always, admittedly. Other times, it literally takes Luke prying me away from my creative pursuits physically, his strength greater than mine, repeating "Mom. Go to sleep now. Go to bed. Come on. Here, I'll put your Pandora channel on. Get into bed. Go to sleep." My mom, meanwhile, just keeps emerging from her room, herself trying to sleep, afraid I'll conk out smoking outside (which I have before) or in a transient sleep stage sitting upright on the couch at 3am (which I have before), which is all very tiresome and difficult for my family, I realize. "But Luke! Look at this latest someecard I made! It's genius!" which he'll read, roll his eyes, tell me is ridiculous, and forcefully shut down my laptop.

On the topic of original someecards (which can be made at, of which I've made 39 in the last week, many featured in my blogs, it was more than a surreal experience to find one of them has gone viral on the internet; specifically, among musicians on Facebook, the largest social networking site in the world. Someecards require one to be largely sarcastic, biting, humorous and correlate one of their stock graphics into less than 150 characters at a time. In essence, improvisational funzies, complaints or rants, loving sentiments, flirts or categorical bedamning.

What ecard went viral? And how did I find this out? It landed on Facebook as a shared picture that was, ironically, re-posted (small world) by a music professor at my alma mater, Knox College, jazz musician Scott Garlock, who is my Facebook friend. When I scrolled through my news feed and saw it, I assumed he got it from me, but I've come to find out it's ALL over the place. In tracing it, it's been shared, liked and commented upon THOUSANDS of times from musicians and fans all over the globe, even though it's only been viewed on a little over 300 times. Social networking sent this stupid ecard into the stratosphere. God help me if George Takei gets his hands on it! It grew out of my frustration as a drummer, actually, and how my own guitarist's improvisations at band were literally throwing me off my whole game lately, which is apparently quite humorous to other musicians. Don't believe me? Look on and look at the creator of the card. It says "Anniearchy." That'd be me. It was this:

My moment of internet glory aside, again, it's vital to point out, as I have in previous blogs, that depressive does NOT equal "depressed." And certainly stability is not equal to depressive. My writing has been extremely prolific lately, my creativity peaking, which I just chalked up to having an awful lot of free time, with summer school starting in a week, whereupon my focus will have to transition back to that of a student of psychology, four mornings a week for 7 weeks, while I throw my procrastinating ass firmly into entering a doctorate program, which is in and of itself, almost akin to a full-time job.

I didn't miss playing any Contemporary services during the recuperation from my hysterectomy in late March, the way the calendar of services fell. While I slipped from a depressive episode into full-blown depression for several weeks, I wrote a lot of blogs and tinkered with poetry. I compiled my own personal version of a Beatles group/solo anthology that amassed so much music, meticulously mixed and categorized, that it took not CD's to share, but a flash drive, that I wanted to give to Tatus, but haven't yet, purely because during the transfer to the flash drive, the mix, as I intended it, got, well, mixed up, and I'm a musical mix perfectionist.  (The Beatles mix is 127 songs long and would take 6.9 hours to finish listening to.) I sent Kate either 5 or 7 CD's that I compiled especially for her 50th birthday in April. It was such a plentitude of music that it took her until a couple of weeks ago to listen through all of them with her full attention (she loved them all, with the exception of the inclusion of a Paul Simon song, whom she dislikes).

Despite evidence to most folks' contrary, I have been anything but lazy during my sabbatical. I'm sure my mother wishes she had a daughter with more practical energy, such as window washing, tub-scrubbing or the completion of other household tasks, when in reality, I can barely manage the responsibility of one weekly dinner. It's not laziness, sloth, or disinterest in what's going on at home, nor is it a lack of proper prioritizing. My body took quite a while to heal from major surgery. My mind is aflutter with more than I can even process, most days. I don't get out enough. Skeptics would say "You're just addicted to the internet." Not true.

For example, the power mysteriously went out this morning for almost 2 hours. I didn't obsess over Facebooking. I made my son's lunch, fixed his breakfast, got my room in order and, with a full battery on my laptop, began to augment, in Microsoft Word, an email that went from a simple thank-you note into virtually a publishable chapbook, that I'm not even sure I'm ever going to send to the intended recipient. (And yes, I called Com Ed to report the power outage.)

I know exactly what people are thinking: "Hey, genius, if you're so fucking SMART, why can't you hold down one, or don't you, like, GET A FUCKING JOB!" I'm sure I *could,* somewhere, even in this shitty market, being miserable again and back on 3 anxiety pills a day before bedtime, but bringing home a paycheck, like Craig, who also holds a BA in English-Writing from Knox. Again, I stress, it's not a product of laziness, addiction or disinterest in the world or the wish not to augment the support of my family. "No one cares about your damn blog!" All I'll say on that is that John Lennon was pretty pissed that his Auntie Mimi threw away his drawings and poetry when he was a kid, his school failed to train him as a proper artist, and he had to earn his chops all by himself before being "noticed." (PS--personally, I thought his poetry, though whimsical, largely dragged, not being a fan of rhyme, and his drawings, even into adulthood, were sophomoric because he never received proper training. As he grew with Yoko, his drawings got better. But he found his niche. Music and songwriting.)

Now half-way through Imagine: How Creativity Works, I'm learning SO much about my brain processes and trying not to let bipolar delusions of grandeur over-inflate my ego. At this juncture, anyway, I'd recommend the book to any right-brainer who is embarking on a new career path, any artist who questions his/her talent and gifts, and trying to, as I told Tatus, comprehend why, the Lomotil incident aside, I failed at my last job. "It's all in the mind, you see..." --George Harrison

Wow. I just thought I was a shitty, crazy quasi-drummer with a useless degree...

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