December 18, 2010

Paradiddle universe

Truth be told, I was a snare drummer first. Yes, at the age of nine, when Flynn Park fifth-graders signed up for a musical instrument that they wanted to learn, I wound up with the drum.

My actual intention, like most boys, was to play the trumpet. But I remember gathering in the school cafeteria, and the music guy (who had a toupee that was more shag-carpet than hair) looking in our mouths like so many gift-horses, considering my under-bite and crooked teeth, and crushingly informing me that I would most certainly be getting braces, so the trumpet wasn’t practical.

Inconsolably sobbing, I was offered, maybe even assigned, the drum.

This was at least a year before I expressed interest in that other ultracool instrument, the Highland pipe. I set about getting completely underwhelming instruction in the drumming rudiments. I learned a flam and a paradiddle well before my hands were placed on a chanter.

The music guy didn’t actually do the drum teaching. Instruction was from an obviously very talented woman, who had the worst (or best, depending on your preference) arse-to-torso ratio of any person I’d ever seen – at age nine, anyway. She seemed to know every instrument there was, and I was her only drumming student at Flynn Park. I think she took at shower in pure Charlie perfume; such was her fragrant embrace around me when she worked my hands, trying to teach me the art of the roll, the ratamacue and the red-hot flamadiddle. It was all in the wrist, she cooed.

I vividly remember her frustration with me, her indolent, prepubescent percussionist, as we prepared for the big spring concert at which the little school orchestra would perform an outdoor show (pictured above). With her dimensions, one would suppose that she would go for “Hot Crossed Buns.” No sir-ee. She was determined to have us first-year squealers and bangers do a heartfelt rendition of the “Theme from Shaft,” which had been at the top of the 1971 charts.

She became completely exasperated with my inability to play the drumming interlude/solo that went ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa ta-da-ta-da-taaaaa ta-da-ta-da-ta-daaaaaa at about 120 BPMs. I completely blew it in the concert (that no one but my diligent paparazzi Pop attended), and I can still see her shaking her head at me mid-performance, what with her giant hoop earrings, crispy pre-disco-era hair and upturned glossy hooker-red lips.

Amazingly, I continued to “play” the snare drum for another two years, much the same way that I continued to “learn” algebra. While doing that, I found my musical calling in piping, but there too I was an early wilter – the local band I was learning with, when I let it slip that I was a “drummer,” immediately tried to move me to that, to offset their dearth of bodies at the back end.

I’m sure that my Dad must have stealthily intervened and insisted that they keep teaching me piping, so I was rescued from the dregs of practice chanter students and eventually committed myself to actually trying. Early wilter turned late bloomer.

All told, I’m glad that I tried my hands at drumming. For me, what the instrument lacked in melody, it made up in theory. When I started the pipes, I could already understand note-values and time signatures, notwithstanding wondering where all the rests went. Because I sucked so bad at it, I appreciate just how difficult the instrument is.

I’ve occasionally considered picking up the sticks again. I’d love to experience for real a pipe band’s back-end. But, like my lovely first music teacher, it’s all in the rearing.


  1. I also picked the drums back in that 5th grade band class. 2 needle point sticks and a small wedge shaped rubber drum pad. Got home that night pretty fired up till my dad saw them. Next day took them back to school and came home that night with a clarinet…..

  2. This was a close-to-home memory lane stroll for me, Andrew! I started the flute at age 10 … like you, I was denied my first interest, the trumpet, due to braces. After several months of flute lessons at school, I became interested in the GHB thanks to the discovery of a few dusty LPs in my father’s closet – Black Watch “Highland Pageantry” foremost among them. We were lucky enough to find a piping teacher by calling Carnegie Mellon University and getting in touch with their alumni band (no CMU piping program at the time). And here I am today!

    Great photo you shared – I agree with Colin, and why not? The dress is stunning! Thanks for the blast-from-the-past regarding “Charlie” perfume too – I loved those ads back in the day!

  3. I find it funny that two people were denied the instrument I took up either due to possibly getting braces or already having them. I actually wanted to play drums (I’m a piper), but when I was eyed and the teacher (maybe the same heavy backsided one) saw my bird lips she said french horn or trumpet. As all I could think of was Charles from M.A.S.H. playing French horn, I chose trumpet underbite crooked teeth and all. In 6th grade came the braces, and yet I still made All county and All State with the thing. I guess it’s discouraging to hear people “decide” what we should play. You’ll always try harder if you are enjoying it, rather than struggle with something you don’t even want to do in the first place.

  4. Delicious irony in this piece….I’m not referring here to your somewhat vague attraction to the relationship between the top and bottom parts of your teacher…that’s a matter for your own conscience, and perhaps a rather more detailed examination of your youth by her Julieness.

    But I must remind you of the time, when after a band practice, I was so chuffed with myself for having created a jazzy piece in 5/4 time (later to be named Craig Colquhoun) that I sang it to you in the bar, all full of my self diagnosed cleverness. I awaited your response expecting something like…”sounds great”.


    What I got was….”you sing that like a drummer….if you want to be a drummer , be one”. OUCH. But now I see the source of this crabbiness. All is forgiven. At least they taught you the note values, which is pretty much a helluva lot more than I got from my early tuition. And you did progress to the music of the garden, as my Dad called it.

  5. Bill — apocryphal. What I remember saying was, “You should name that after a drummer,” or, maybe, “Randy Jones was a great drummer for Dave Brubeck.”
    CRM – you may be right. I did a search and she seems to have done quite well for herself as a jazz musician in NYC.

  6. apocryphal my arse…this reminds me of Capt MacLellan complaining that you could never get the last word with Seaumas MacNeill in a discussion in the Piping Times…any what’s this it a teen acronym for something I should know

    and it was Joe Morello

    godawmighty that teacher was hot!

  7. Your little story has been embellished. Never said that. I remember quite liking that tune, and looking forward to playing it.
    Interesting that “Take Five” wasn’t written by Dave Brubeck, but by Paul Desmond, who willed the rights to the song to the American Red Cross. It gains more than $100k in annual royalties.
    CRM — yes, all the kids and their newfangled texting are down with that one, right Colin?



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