Thursday, May 10, 2012

AKA Drummer: prosthetic left foot tied to the high hat pedal

I started played piano when I was a kid. Quit the lessons but kept playing, mostly Scott Joplin & stuff I learned by ear. I can read music though I can't sight-read. I played the French horn and marched in the Lexington Patriot's Day (April 19) sunrise parade with the chaotic combined junior high band in 1975, Lexington's bicentennial where President Ford appeared. I played five-string banjo in my early twenties, and went on pounding out the many lengthy Joplin piano rags I'd memorized. But I really wanted to play drums.

Piano and drums are both percussion instruments: striking makes the sound. I played piano on enough tabletops to drive my school friends insane. I took a few drum lessons in high school but I was too self-conscious to continue. To make that much noise.

Flash forward almost thirty years. My cousin Scott called me just before my above-knee amputation. "You still want a drum set?" A buddy of his was willing to trade his old kit for Scott's banjo. "I'll bring it this next trip."

Scott was my right-hand man that year, or rather, my left-leg man. He drove out to come to appointments with me, and then for the Big A-surgery itself. He delivered the drums the day before my vascular surgeon set the amputation: ten days away. 

I went home. Picked up the sticks and cranked some music: The Offspring: This was my anthem of that time. Turn it up to eleven. Wail along. That was what those ten days was like. The week I started drumming.

It didn't matter that my left leg was gone soon after; I wasn't coordinated enough to use the high hat pedal anyway. It was enough to pound these huge, deep drums, keeping the beat with my right foot on the kick pedal. (There weren't any cymbals. I learned that's typical, like keeping your girth and stirrups when you sell a saddle.)The kit is old and massive--a 26" bass drum and a big tom almost the size of some basses. It's a 1939 Radio King set, wooden, re-finished by Scott's friend. I can't imagine its history. If only it could tell the stories of those gigs and parties.

I got my prosthetic leg and gingerly pressed it on the high hat pedal. I went to the local music store and shopped for cymbals. I changed the heads. I cracked my first drumstick and learned to keep spares handy. I played along with Three Doors Down's "Kryptonite" until my daughters were howling "That's too LOUD!!" I put my broken drumsticks in a vase. I tried to keep my left foot on the pedal.

Eventually I jammed with electric musicians in my neighborhood. Loud and fast. Loud and slow. But always loud. I use my left hip to move my leg to work the high hats; I tie my prosthetic foot to the pedal with a shoelace. Drums are very much like horses. Years ago when I learned to ride racehorses out of the starting gate, I often lost my stirrups in the hard leap forward. Until I learned to balance and stay with the horse, I had attached the stirrups to my boots with rubber bands. Like trying to stay with the fast rhythm as I ride the music. The old drums are as full of speed as ever. They have an intricacy that you can't think about too hard, that you have to feel out instinctively.

It's a blast. I guess it helps that, here in middle age, I'm finally ready to make some noise. Just ask my daughters.

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