Chasing Dreams (or Setting Them Free)
I don’t come from a very musical family. No offense to my family. Sure, one or two of my sisters tried the obligatory clarinet (which we rented), my sister, Mary, still has a beautiful voice, and my son, David, is awesome on guitar. But none of my siblings stuck with instruments long-term. No one’s fault. There simply wasn’t time, money, or opportunity in those days to make a go of it—especially in a large single-parent family. However, in elementary and middle school, I was a drummer. Which is to say, I wasn’t very musical either—but I could keep a beat and played snare drum in both the school band and orchestra.
I started drumming in 1964, the same year the Beatles made their debut in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. America was mesmerized by them--and so was I. What better source of inspiration for honing my drumming skills? I sharpened those skills for the next two years of elementary school by pounding on a drumming pad—a small piece of plywood covered with a black rubber pad to mute the sound, maintain parental sanity, and give the drumsticks sufficient recoil to perform drum rolls, triplets and paradiddles (a quick succession of drumbeats slower than a drum roll using alternating left and right hand strokes). The drum pad was set at a slight angle to simulate a snare drum.
Eventually, I asked my father (okay, I begged my father) to get me a real drum, or better yet, a set of drums. It was a big ask. My request became a ritual. My strategy was to wear him down. (I’d seen my sisters use it effectively.) He finally caved.
One evening I thought we were going to the music store to buy a new snare drum. Instead, he drove to our old neighborhood and stopped at our former next-door neighbor’s home. They were a musical family and happened to have an old snare drum they were willing to sell. I remember when they took it out of its musty old black hardcover case. It was a white pearl-colored snare drum—a beauty in its day. Now, not so much. The drum head was warped and the calf-skin surface was worn from extensive use.
To adjust the sound, I tightened the calf-skin with the drum key which warped the surface further. It didn’t matter. It was better than a rubber drum pad because it was a real drum which, by extension, meant I was a real drummer.
In middle school, I was one of several drummers that played in the band and orchestra. Yet, the real prize was to be chosen to play in the Stage Band where you would play an entire set of drums. I decided to try out. If they saw my potential, surely, they would teach me how to play a full drum set.
On the first night of auditions, the band director set the drumming order so he could evaluate the talent. I was the youngest drummer and the last to go. I watched the upperclassmen as they played with the band. I noticed how natural they looked behind the drums, how they positioned their feet on the bass drum and cymbal pedals, gripped their drumsticks with authority, adjusted the sheet music on the stand, and took their cues from the band director—and I listened to how they played. Oh, how they played!
I noticed something else: their supreme confidence and comfort behind the drums. I had neither. They were at home here. I was in a foreign land.
My turn was coming up. My throat tightened. My stomach rolled like I was on a cheap roller-coaster. The truth confronted me. I could not compete. I wasn’t on a level playing field. I didn't deserve to be on the field. I never had a private lesson. Never sat behind a complete set up drums. Never realized that at this level I needed to come ready to play a set of drums—no one would teach me to play.
The band director turned to me and said, “You’re up.” I froze. I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said, but I'll never forget how I felt. Small. Embarrassed. Lost. Left behind. I passed on my big opportunity—and crept out of the room.
It was a long, lonely walk home in the dark that night. I felt my dream slipping away. Reality and illusion collided--and illusion never had a chance. When I graduated from middle school, I never drummed again. It was not due to fear, disappointment, or disillusionment. I suppose it had more to do with evolving interests.
“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing
that it is not fish they are after.”
Henry David Thoreau
I wonder if my desire to be a drummer had more to do with self-expression than drumming. In high school and beyond I pursued self-expression in different ways, primarily through gymnastics, photography and later, writing—where I found greater fulfilment and eventual success.
Why did my memory transport me all the way back to a middle school dream this week? I’m not really sure. Perhaps to remind me that when chasing a dream, any dream, it’s wise to understand what you’re actually pursuing—because there are times when dreams should be chased—and times when they should be set free.
SOMETHING TO CHEW ON: Did you ever have to give up on a dream? Are you better off for it? How? If you had achieved that dream, how might your life be different today?
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