Moving back home, I have found myself wanting to reconnect with some people from my upbringing here. One person who has been at the edge of my consciousness but out of reach was Barb Evans Harvey, who was our teenage neighbor and first babysitter and later, my drum teacher.My parents wanted their children to take music lessons, and drums seemed like a place to start because Barb was giving lessons and the only investment would be for a pad, a pair of stick, and a book. I think she charged 75 cents for a half hour. Even as she was a great babysitter (more on that in another blog), she was a great teacher, to whom drumming seemed to be not just a matter of rudiments and technique but a reaching out to each student to help him or her find what they needed both for life as well as percussion.
I know she talked to one boy about his secret love. (Because it was me. She never told me but tried to get me interested in him. It was hopeless. I only loved drums.) She boosted the confidence of a girl who had a miserable family life, got her into a state drumming contest where she won a blue ribbon.As for me, she taught me that it was okay to be a girl, to be different and to stand up for oneself, three things that didn’t come easily to many girls in the 1950s. When I was in seventh grade, the junior high band director decided to assign first chair by try-outs in front of outside panelists. In the ensuing try-outs, I earned the first chair drum position, ahead of eighth and ninth grade BOYS. I was pleased on the inside but publically, I was utterly embarrassed. Girls were not to be first chair drummers. They were majorettes who sat in the drum section during concert season so that they could twirl a baton during marching season. They played cymbals. They did not write cadences and carry the lead snare drum. Ninth grade boys were not thrilled with this decision, and the band director, looking at me, barely four foot tall then (in fact, I was three feet eleven inches), must have had misgivings but stuck to the decision. Barb was thrilled for me and convinced me that this was perfectly natural, that girls could be anything they want to be. I have to say that at the time, I sure didn’t see any lead snare girl drummers at any other schools. I have to say, I am thrilled today to see how many high school drummers are girls.
And since I was thinking of going to college, she thought I might be thinking of majoring in music. She said I really should pick up another instrument (piano, which I eventually did, and had no talent for whatsoever, though my piano teacher had such hopes for me) but that one could major in percussion. No one had ever told me about having majors in college. She was the first.She taught us to be percussionists, not just drummers. Along with rudimentary solo drumming and learning all the patterns on a set for popular music (swishing on a top hat for dance band, clicking on the big symbol for the four beats of rock), she also taught marimba and tympani, glockenspiel and all the rhythm instruments of Latin America. This was before trash cans and steel drums came to the Midwest, or we would have learned those too.;
During those lessons, she taught me about so many things, both by example and by preaching. I learned about my parents’ 1940s music that I later turned my back on for a decade or two till I realized there is room in our lives for the Beatles and Big Band, for the Twist and the Foxtrot. I learned rock rhythm and the names of all the instrument makers (Gretsch, Slingerland, Zildjian). How to repair a cracked drumhead. (Popsicle sticks and tape) How to clean cymbals to make them gleam. I recall how she would show me or tell me something and then look very closely at my face, as though looking to see whether her words were sinking in and if so, how deeply If they weren’t, she’d find a new way to explain. She was good at handing out advice that for years reverberated with meaning beyond percussion, as in this poem that I wrote in the 1970s, published in the 1980s, and still find truth in today:ON POETRY AND DRUMS
When I hear "symbol," I slip back to eight years of drum lessons:the top hat's wide slash, the sizzlers' swish,
pushing bronze cleanser round my Zildjian ridges
for a gleam to match the crash.
|Daun Kendig's box drum,|
by Russ Kendig
And I can't talk about them. My drum teacher, herself
the only woman drummer at any high school, told my sister
and me, "Don't get stuck hold them. It's limiting.
Hard on your ears. They always want to give them
to the girls. And you have to slam them to your armpits
to get them to stop."
By my junior year of high school, I had had it with band. All those straight lines and screaming band directors during marching season and standing, counting, and waiting for a few measures of playing during concert season. I had won a blue medal in drumming at state and found solo drumming to be much more exciting than standing around, counting, waiting to join the band. However, there wasn’t much call for solo drummers who could take down a long stroke roll. And my all-girl basement bands always fell apart within two practice sessions as my friends were flutists, bassoonists, all manner of brass players, not a guitar player among us, and since it was the ‘60s by then, we clearly weren’t making it.
So I quit high school band. I did not give up my drums yet, but they languished. I was not about to make the same mistake in college and join marching band or orchestra, and without those, there was no life for a musician.By the end of my first semester, I wanted to major in English, Spanish, and Theater. And then, my senior year, in a pinch for money since my college in its infinite wisdom, cut my aid by $200 just as my sister was beginning college, I sold my beautiful red sparkle Slingerland set to pay tuition.Yet, I always considered myself a drummer and felt the early lessons in the underlife of the band, the rhythm of the soloist, the whole realm of percussion informed my life and even my poetry. I wrote about drums and one drumming. My husband, who spent his youth playing guitar and making fun of drummers, embraced this aspect of my history and bought me as gifts two beautiful drums, an Irish bodhrán that he managed to bring home in his suitcase from Dublin without my knowing, and a Native American drum from a master drum maker among the Navajos in New Mexico. When my sister died, I acquired two beautiful hand-made box drums my father made for her, who also took lessons from Barb. Visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see the exhibit of famous drummers’ sticks, I bought a pair of official Rock HOF sticks. And when we lived in Boston, I made it one summer to the all-afternoon outdoor drumming session at Berklee College of Music.
Then I heard about Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist from Scotland, who “has carved a new place for solo percussion,” as her website puts it, in part by commissioning drum compositions from composers all over the world and by introducing the world’s many percussion instruments into classical orchestra concerts, including her moving performance with the Toledo Orchestra many years ago, which I witnessed. When I saw an exercise to write a poem to a particular group of people, I wrote, “To the Percussionists,” which you can read at the end of this blog.So drumming has been a minor key in my life, but a constant one and one significant for a poet, I think. Like Wordsworth, I would have my days bound each to each by a natural piety and by not giving up the good stuff, even if I am not good at it all. Yet in the past 40 decades, Barb had not been a part of my life. I always meant to visit, yet as those of us know who move away, there is seldom enough time to be with our parents, our siblings, our aunts and neighbors when we visit, and looking up and getting to an old friend’s house goes to the bottom of the agenda. My mom was in a crocheting group with Barb and reported on her, that she had raised four children, was independent as always, still fast-married to her first love, Ned Harvey, who had gone off to Vietnam and came back and married her while I was away at college.
But when I came home to live, she was one of the first people I looked up, and we have definitely reconnected though we have so many differences, we could be from two different countries. For one, she quit playing and teaching percussion decades ago and seemed to have no current interest in drums whatsoever when I asked. I suspect all along her interest was not the instrument but the act of teaching, which she clearly did as wisely and well the rest of her life with her four now-grown children and the many grandchildren who visit often and carry on deep and meaningful conversations with her and Ned about nouns and cookies and rockets, during my last visit.
Meanwhile, I contacted many of her former students--here's a shoutout to Barb Colvin Schade, Dewayne Fulton, and PHS's best head drummer and cadence-maker ever, Stan Anderson!-- wondering if they remembered her. Most, like me, had lost touch but had fond memories of lessons in her parents’ basement, lessons in music and rhythm, but in argumentation and thinking, giving and commanding respect. Many of us are women, who appreciate the model she provided to us of a girl who was confident and knowledgeable, totally able to stand on her own two feet and lead or to stand with others and march with them, staying in step. She was never a follower, never a sheep, and she taught me not to be. For that, I am grateful to her and for the many lessons I got from her growing up, all of which to me are sheer poetry, as we say.
NOTES:“On Drums and Poetry” was published in Teaching English in the Two Year College, 1986.
“For the Percussionists” was published in Motif: Writing by Ear, 2009.
For The Percussionists
Especially Evelyn Glennie
though it's big enough to include some,
a thrum for them despite all the drummer jokes,
like the classic, "What do you call someone who
hangs out with musicians? The drummer,"
or the one where God only thinks he is Buddy Rich,
for the ones who, by definition, "strike bodiestogether." They don't blow or stroke, but strike,
as flint or a match or up a band. So we're not essaying
just rockers propped up behind Slingerlands, nor only
the marchers who hold it together in eight measures
of flams and flamacues-- but all the percussionists,
who have taken on tympani, marimba, xylophone,glockenspiel, claves, cowbells, and chimes,
the bongo, crotales, vibraphone, whole racks
of Almglocken and triangles, bass or tenor tom-toms,
on floors or straps, with mallets, sticks, brushes, or pedals,
and cymbals: finger, sizzler, the swish of the high hat.
For their patience in the pit, nodding, counting for pages,their sticks on their thighs, practicing paradiddles
or clicking them out on their teeth, molar-grinding
a roll, syncopating the left and right side of their jaw.
Then they're on: a few bars of rumble, natter, ca-ching,
perfect snatch of underlife in the crescendo and they're off again.
Music schools told me percussion wasn't enoughand though I loved melody, it wasn't my bailiwick,
not in my pad, not what we were deaf to in 1962.
So this is for the ones who stuck with striking
and knew that losing one stick never made them maestro,
who make me want to shout, your solos are life
without all the boring parts, the quotidian,syncopated and amplified. Your hands,
are our hearts, battered from three extra beats,
a skipped one, a fillip, a thrill before
the snares are flipped off to rattle
in the hush of a French horn's long and sad calling.
I love how Glennie went out beyond Sousa
and Elgar, traveled to the percussionists
of Singapore, Korea, and Indonesia,
the gamelan orchestra of Jakarta,
the indefatigable Lakota paw wow players.
I don't mean appropriation but potlatch.
We have to gather the tribes so each can listenfor its arrhythmia and reset our hearts
while we read the lips of the people
around us, our conductor and colleagues
who give us the cues, then bring home the lubdub
that will lift us and move us along.