Notes on Timekeeping

by Ryan Harper

Again, the muted stroke. Again. Again. Bounce and roll. My fingers, loose today, left more than right. Traditional grip is responsive; matched, passable. Twenty more until dinner. Chicken and rice. An evening walk. Tomorrow, car appointment. Back to work at hand. This, now—the pace of the car pistons idling. Veins in hand at the outer rim of machination. da-da-DA-da. No. da-da-da-da. I bring the sticks lower. The roll does not leave the room—a secret, a drag. 

For forty-five minutes per day, five days per week, it is rudiment time. With a rubber practice pad, sticks, metronome, and stopwatch, I run through a variety of sticking patterns known to all percussionists, playing each for one unbroken minute, at the fastest tempo I can manage without breaking form. Single strokes, double strokes, swiss army triplets, ratamacues, paradiddles, flams, flamacues, flamadiddles, and a handful of my invention, these rudiments train my hands to move differently in relation to one another. Notwithstanding the goofy onomatopoeic lexicon, they are not much fun. They are grossly repetitive. They have to be; I want to keep my time well.

In one sense, the rudiments are automatic. After years of practicing them, they extend into and out of my hands with the same thoughtlessness of my fingernails. But I cannot check out mentally when I play them. If I did, my practice would inure bad habits. How easily the body creates shortcuts for short-term gains—say, a slight hitch in the wrist, which allows one to play a little faster but yields a subtle arrhythmia or unwanted accent. Paradoxically, the more comfortable one becomes with a rudiment’s basic sticking pattern—the more it verges on instinct—the faster one can play it, and thus the more difficult it becomes to catch the small miscues. I was quite full of myself the first time I played sixteenth-note paradiddles for 60 seconds at a 200 beat-per-minute tempo. But when I recorded the feat and played it back, slowed down, I realized the notes were not perfectly even. For a few weeks, I slowed the exercise by a few metronome clicks, listened to myself better in the act, corrected the unevenness, built back up to speed. 

It is a bizarre demand on my attention that I must watch and listen so carefully to myself going through motions I could do in my sleep. I sometimes pine for a routine on either pole of the spectrum of self-consciousness—for my practice to be more like breathing, or more like hiking along a precipice. I want the practice to be merely, carelessly human, or monumental, hazardous—something that might cause injury. I sometimes wished I ached the next day. I wish it were Whiplash.

When people find out I am a drummer, they usually ask me if I’ve seen Whiplash. The 2014 film tells the story of Andrew Neiman, an aspiring young drummer working his way through a selective New York music conservatory. Aside from the drum set itself—which induces all varieties of physical pain—Neiman’s chief obstacle is Terence Fletcher, the volatile director of the school’s jazz ensemble. Fletcher tortures his students—ripping young musicians’ egos apart with loud invective, hurling epithets, cymbals, whatever instruments of violence are at hand. Like the students, we viewers are not supposed to like him. However, we are supposed to understand his abuse as a species of devotion. He tortures unto excellence. When in the climactic scene, Neiman asserts control of the band from Fletcher and performs a gargantuan, blistering solo (excellence in Whiplash always seems synonymous with speed and volume), the line blurs between student and pupil. Fletcher is forced to acquiesce, angry but approving. There is violence in Nieman’s eyes as he attacks the kit—part rapprochement, part patricide. 

Alas, I am an American male, so these devices register and even titillate me. But they do not resonate. 

The first problem with Whiplash concerns its antisocial portrayal of playing music. Richard Brody articulates this well in his 2014 review of the film: “[…] Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement.” Not only does Andrew have no present musical community, Brody notes; he also has no sense of a past community—a lineage of players, a cloud of witnesses from whom to draw. “There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history—no Elvin Jones, no Tony Williams, no Max Roach, no Ed Blackwell.” Andrew’s, and the film’s, singular musical exemplar is Buddy Rich, whom Brody dismisses as “a loud and insensitive technical whiz, a TV personality, not a major jazz inspiration.” 

However partial Brody’s take on Rich might be (Buddy’s performances with Charlie Parker in 1949-1950 suggest that the “whiz” had more in his toolkit than snarky Johnny Carson interviews), it contains truth enough. There is a reason it is difficult to find YouTube clips of Rich wherein he and his thunder are not the feature. It is no accident that Rich is as famous for his venomous tirades against his own band as he is for his playing. Buddy Rich isn’t just a model for Neiman’s playing but also for Fletcher’s teaching, and the two seem connected. 

The juvenile individualism and shame-based pedagogy are horrifying enough. But they are related to another problem: Whiplash’s vapid sense of the cultivation of excellence—even excellence of the film’s own stupid, Buddy-ish standards. How, according to Whiplash, does one become a good drummer? Bleed more. Sweat more. Squeeze speed out of the sticks. Pound it out of the skins. Play until muscle failure. Close your eyes to everyone and everything but your own pain. It must be physical pain—visible, demonstrable, evidence of your dedication. Brody thinks Whiplash is a bad jazz film. Jazz studies scholar Nicolas Pillai, taking issue with Brody’s review but leaving unquestioned the film’s masochistic understanding of skill-building, believes it is not a jazz film but a horror film. The nearest approximation to Whiplash in my memory is the evangelical Passion narratives with which I grew up. Excellence resides in the blood, through the blood.

Teachers of excellence—the excellent teachers and the teachers of excellent drummers—would be horrified by Whiplash’s bloodlust because they know becoming a good player requires learning how to minimize labor—or, rather, how to share the workload with the instrument.  Alloyed cymbals and drumheads contain tension aplenty, and with it, a great deal of potential energy. One does not develop dexterity, quickness, and endurance by waging a shock and awe campaign on the members of this assembly—brutalizing the instrument until it submits to one’s body, which brutalizes itself in the process. Watch a Buddy Rich solo. Watch his core, his hands—the centeredness, the economy of motion—visible even through the pyrotechnics, even when (especially when) he is drenched in sweat. Drumming requires delicacy, lightness, attention to the subtle physics of things struck and striking. It requires learning how rebound works—what a stick can and will do if you permit the set’s surfaces to transfer their tension into the stick, the hand, so that the latter can use the tension in subsequent strokes. Drawn blood and clenched fists signal that the members are laboring against each other.  

It is no surprise that a film that regards musicianship as individualistic and adversarial in nature would also misconstrue drummers’ partnership with their instrument. This means it also misses the primary, more difficult, more subtle, more frightening obstacle to drumming excellence (making it, by my reckoning, a bad jazz film and a bad horror film, since it gets both the craft and the conflict wrong). Drumming comes with its share of aches, like any physical activity. But pain of the bloody, cramping variety is not regular, if one is practicing well. 

I wish it were this sort of pain. I wish it were as simple as bleeding on the snare drum. The obstacle is not pain. The obstacle is acedia.

Wendell Berry is well-acquainted with the prevailing tedium, the long slog. Long before many American Christians were thinking about their religious tradition in light of environmental responsibility and ecological virtue, the Kentucky farmer-poet was wrestling, as only a tender of actual land could, with the problem and promise of Christianity’s environmental legacy. Berry often promulgates what he believes are the redeeming aspects of his religious tradition as it relates to humans’ right relationship to the non-human world. But he also lodges serious criticisms, naming deficiencies in the tradition that involve and extend beyond environmental causes. 

In his essay, “The Gift of Good Land,” Berry laments the dominance of what he calls the “heroic mode” in the Bible and in cultures informed by Christianity. “The extraordinary actions of ‘great men,’” Berry claims, serve as the dramatic center of biblical stories. They focus on singular people in especially trying circumstances, doing singularly difficult things. Courage and strength, at once moral and physical, are the heroic mode’s chief virtues. Berry concedes their usefulness; sometimes, life demands heroism of this variety. However, most of our days do not demand such discrete, monumental performances. For most of us, everyday life—Berry’s preferred term, pulled from Christian liturgical time, is “ordinary”—neither produces nor requires the isolated courageous acts prized in the heroic mode. 

Belonging as it does to “a different dramatic mode, a different understanding of action, even a different understanding of virtue,” ordinary life creates and demands the conditions for the cultivation of excellence that is inconspicuous and durational. Courage, yes—but courage over time. Fortitude, yes—but fortitude for the prevailing tedium, the long slog. Perseverance. Endurance. This is the unheroic excellence of the farmer, in Berry’s assessment—the sort that yields responsible relationship to the earth. But it is also the excellence pursued by anyone devoted to “good workmanship or ‘right livelihood.’” To be sure, Berry’s “heroic” biblical tradition extols species of everyday virtues—for example, in the Sermon on the Mount and the letters of Paul. But the tradition provides precious few examples of their cultivation and sustenance—perhaps a reason Berry, invoking “right livelihood,” lightly recommends Buddhist alternatives. 

I wonder how Berry’s Christian options would change if he reckoned more with Catholic monastic traditions or with feminist and womanist theology, not simply Protestant biblicism. In any case, Berry detects a lack in his Christianity regarding everyday moral excellence. Moreover, he implies that even the spectacular virtues of the heroic mode are predicated on the daily labor of habit formation in ordinary time. Heroes of the battlefield do not simply, suddenly, have heroism. A culture obsessed with endless action sequences and end products elides this fact. Popular films, as a rule, must gloss over it (see, for example, the ubiquitous “training montage” of sports movies—whose frenetic jump cuts and blood-pumping soundtracks belie the boredom of becoming strong). If a people thinks it can skip ordinary excellence to attain heroic excellence, it will attain neither. 

When I am practicing well on my drum set, I should annoy my neighbors, not primarily because I am loud, but because I am repetitive. While the physicality required to maneuver around toms and cymbals might lead me to work up more of a sweat than I would with a drum pad, the set work is challenging mostly because of the concentrated repetition required. I devote much of my set time to limb independence—playing different patterns concurrently with different appendages for extended periods, patterns which can require much my mental effort but very little brute force or speed. Teaching my right hand to pay no heed to what my left hand is doing, teaching my feet to keep time in one meter while my hands explore other meters—the members cannot muscle their way to such thoroughgoing, communal independence. And short, coordinated bursts do not build collective memory. Practice must be a series of reiterative trudges that likely would sound like a broken record to a person outside my window.

Playing along with old jazz recordings provides me the closest approximation of gym-level exertion, but even with pieces that are physically demanding beyond my capacity, it does me no good to grunt, clench, hope to endure. I attempted that approach as a young drummer, trying to keep up with Tony Williams’s ridiculously fast but graceful ride cymbal on Miles Davis’s Four & More album, hitting and hitting until my fingers and wrists locked, until I had to use my shoulder to force the stick into the cymbal—raucous, asymmetrical, all the nuance of a monkey with a ball-peen hammer. The pain made me feel alive—I was doing something hard! —but it was unsustainable, and had I persisted in pushing through it, counterproductive. I had to find recordings a few ticks slower—tunes that forced me to think and work but that I could play without ceding my form. I had to play such tunes for long, long stretches. Eventually, I could stay with Tony. 

These days, I undertake all of this practice for improvements so incremental that I can’t be certain about them. All of this—for improvements that might not overtly manifest themselves in any of my live performances. And gone are the days when I was playing multiple gigs per week—when I possessed a reasonable hope that my ordinary hours of practice would pay off in a handful of extraordinary public moments—seconds, minutes. All of this—improvement at a craft less and less discernibly public—especially during a pandemic. All of this, again. Again.

For nearly all of us, the COVID-19 pandemic bears no relation to the heroic mode. There was not and is not any radical, singular act of courage that eradicates the virus. There is no sacrifice of the grand, redemptive variety—no giant to slay, no discernible bullet in front of which we might leap and save the world. There is not even a cross—no obvious point of intersection between physical effort, visible suffering, and evident success. Even frontline healthcare workers, whose excellence verges closest to the heroic mode, have put on virtue of a mundane variety—quietly relying on their years of training as they care for us, doing so even as many members of the population they serve neither recognize nor honor their work. 

The many members refuse masks, vaccinations, reject the very notion of a public health, coordinated or uncoordinated. They labor against each other, against us. Nothing in their moral formation has prepared them to believe excellence could be so common as wearing a small piece of cloth over our faces or accepting a free shot. Nothing has incentivized them to perform any common act for a long haul—to practice, again and again, the unassuming, minor tedium that might resolve things. Minus the pain, the blood, the weaponry, these practices do not look like the acts they associate with excellence—moral or otherwise. I know some of these people. While a good deal of their macho posturing is mere bravado, hides a good deal of cowardice, and evinces a good deal of civic irresponsibility, I believe some of them would make a sacrifice for the public good if the sacrifices were more…sacrificial. More strenuous. More noteworthy—in the mode of their known heroes. So hungry are they for recognizable, “heroic” modes, they have transformed their rejection of ordinary measures into courageous resistance. Having eschewed masks and shots as paltry weapons of heroes, they have transformed them into formidable instruments of villains. If the stakes of the COVID struggle are indeed high, they imagine that the weapons, like the heroes, would be loud, aggressive, spectacular. Anyone who tries to convince them otherwise is either lying about the stakes or about the rules of engagement—probably, in either case, to some nefarious end. Resistance to that end becomes their high-stakes struggle—hence the hyperbolic comparisons of mask-and-vaccine mandates to Nazism. There is a fight whose terms they recognize. The members require not so much a moral equivalent of war as they do a moral equivalent of a war movie. Or of Whiplash.

Little in our civic formation leads us to recognize, let alone cultivate, the kinds of excellence we need to survive a pandemic. This troubles me, not only because of the formidability of the current virus but also because a flourishing democracy requires the same ordinary virtues. If we are to survive, in every sense, we must reevaluate the stories we tell and the kinds of excellence we celebrate through them. I think of the long focus and patience of those who prepare food, from the field to the table. I think of the improvisational expertise and emotional dexterity of those who care for our physically and mentally compromised neighbors. I think of those same neighbors—persistent self-advocates, compassionate creators of informal networks of mutual care. I think of the tenacity of the hewers of wood. I think of the social and psychological acumen of parents—especially mothers—whom we either idolize behind the veil of sentimentality or ignore in their concrete, quotidian brilliance. I even rethink my conventional heroes—the great athletes cycling through their pre-dawn drills, the great writers drafting, through a season, sentences no one will read. I think of the drummers, not on their overlit stages but in the softer shadows of their practice rooms, not bleeding but boring their way to virtuosity.

Again, today, the muted stroke. The right is strong, the left feels sluggish. Odd. If one member is asleep, I must slow it all down. Minute thirty, and I am flagging. I am reaching for the end, the day’s next episode. But this is the appointment. The work at hand draws me back down—roll in secret, keeping the time. 

About the author

Ryan Harper is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Colby College’s Department of Religious Studies.  He is the author of My Beloved Had a Vineyard (Poetry Press of Press Americana, 2018).  Some of his recent poems and essays have appeared in Consequence, Tahoma Literary Review, New Mexico Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. A resident of New York City and Waterville, Maine, Ryan is the creative arts editor of American Religion Journal.

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