Sunday, November 12, 2006

Practicing One's Craft

My senior year in high school, we designed a tee-shirt for our percussion section which prominently displayed in a logo, "Stick it!" Six of us in that section spent countless hours working on ensemble pieces which we would take to divisional and state competition. Though quite different in our personalities, we learned to become "one" whenever we played together. This afternoon I attended a concert by the Ethos Percussion Group which took "sticking" to new heights. Over fifty different percussion instruments lined the stage from traditional snares and toms to African and Indian drums to the more bizarre Japanese bowl, gongs dipped in water, and even fenceposts broken up to create different sounds.

What was so wonderful about this group was the breadth of their work--from Steve Reich's incredibly syncopated, "Drumming" to Samir Chatterjee's, "Rite Rhythm." Sounds from Guinea, West Africa, merged with the offbeat work of John Cage and Lou Harrison. Each member of the group looked like one of my friends: Yousif Sheronick was a more slender version of Alex Schmidt, David Shively was a dead ringer for Dan Strickland with an afro, Eric Phinney was a stouter, quieter Rick Stephens, and Trey Files looked like Louis Gibberson with my haircut from the seventies. Together, they created a unique sound honed in the studio.

In my experience, many drummers are just that--drummers. A number can't read music and they are trained simply to keep a beat and sometimes to show off when on stage. But these guys were all classically trained as chamber musicians, totally dedicated to their craft. Eric, for instance, had given himself over to a decade of study to Indian drums--just so he could play pieces like Chatterjee's. Their understanding of their instruments was equalled only by their careful attention to one another: at one point in "Drumming" they had to pick up the speed, at another to carefully slow down. These four guys gave "drummers" a good name.

Careful attention to one's craft is in short supply these days. The speed of our culture, the accessibility of goods, has made people impatient of anything not quickly acquired. But good percussionists take decades to develop, carefully and laboriously learning rudimentary skills, practicing their instruments, and hopelessly practicing hour upon hour in a kind of solitary confinement. The result is a thing of beauty--something that looks easy to do. But, like all good craftsmen, the appearance of ease belies the reality: great music (as well as anything of great beauty) takes a lot of hard work which the audience never even sees.