Let there be rock
Really, let there be rock. I argue in this piece that too often we do not. Educational institutions frequently permit an unfulfilling simulacrum, but we fail all too often to grasp the core of rock music and allow it to happen, or to insist that it happens, in schools. I write a little about me in this post, because it is a first articugolation of an irritation that has been brewing inside me over 16 years of teaching in primary, secondary, tertiary and higher education.
I am a drummer, and I teach music at a school of contemporary (popular) music. This year I’m also studying there for a master’s degree in music performance. This combination of being the teacher and the taught has helped me see more clearly who I am as a musician. While I love playing drums, there are particular conditions that make the experience for me the fullest consummation of human experience. These are generally met when the following align:
- I am playing drums in an ensemble
- I can play what the music requires
- The band is comprised of competent players
- We’re all listening and feeling intently
- Our commitment to and immersion in the moment are complete
- I can move as large as I need
- The volume in the space is loud, and I am enveloped in sound
- We are playing rock music
In short, all is well with me when I rock.
My drum teacher and undergraduate mentor, Peter Fairclough, used to pose a question to his students. He would ask, “Who gives you permission?”[i] Pete’s idea was that a confident, successful musician enables (permits) her- or himself. I took from his advice that I should have enough ability in my wrists and fingers to do whatever I wanted on the instrument. But asking Pete’s question now, of myself and on behalf of students who I know love to rock, the answer, or part of it, lies below.
A rock aesthetic[ii]
Anyone who has ever attended a rock concert, watched part of one on YouTube or is old enough to have seen MTV when it lived up to its acronym will know the stereotypical image of a rock drummer. It’s a look that that has been perfected, parodied and perpetuated through the Muppets’ Animal, and I take pride in knowing that when doing the best at my job of drumming I am every piece of that stereotype and more. A drummer’s thrashing, gurning, sweating, pounding, immersive, infectious, sensual, primeval behaviour is not an affectation for audiences or cameras – most rock music, after all, happens far from a photographer’s gaze, in rehearsal rooms, dive bars and garages. It’s not that we’re all adrenalin-crazed lunatics who can’t control ourselves. It is an intrinsic phenomenon at the core of the genre. That level of energy is essential to – it is the very essence of – rock. To rock is to rock. It is not to swing, to rock-and-roll or to pop (although these are not mutually exclusive). Rock is a qualitatively different music(king) from jazz, funk, or ‘acoustic’ (an irony being that the un-miked drum kit is always the first thing banned from an ‘acoustic’ night, on the grounds that it would be inappropriate).
Drummers in rocks bands old and new – John Bonham, Keith Moon, Dave Grohl, Patty Schemel, Taylor Hawkins, Scott Phillips, John Fred Young – move big, hard and fast. We are glistening, shirtless, thundering away, and the groove that comes out of us is tremendous. Put these guys in a stadium – or any venue that takes more than a few hundred people – and you need to mic up the kit for it to be heard over the PA through which every other sound from the stage is relayed. So while a Conga Player might make ‘too much’ noise for a school classroom, and are unmanageable in a bedroom or many a classical concert hall, they are only doing their job of rocking.
(Just to be crystal clear, as I suspect the above could be misinterpreted: I am not saying that drummers should not play quietly, or that we should not be able to do so. Of course we should ideally master our instrument at a variety of dynamic levels. I can play quietly, and I do; I have been complimented on my energetic and dynamic playing beneath an upright bass and the un-miked voices of a cast of three actors in fringe theatre spaces with a capacity audience of 60 where the trio takes up a quarter of the stage. But in that context, as so many others, I cannot and do not rock.)
School of rock
I have witnessed as a teacher far too many situations in a classroom where the sound from a moshing, windmilling guitarist is electrifying, the Marshall JCM800 kicking out a crunchy Gibson Les Paul growl accompanied by throbbing Fender bass guitar from deep in the bowels of an Ashdown cab and a singer belting out heart and soul; but the drummer is tickling the crash cymbals and tapping the snare, with obligatory wallet placed on the head to dampen the overtones (i.e. the actual character of the sound), wearing a look of timidity and regret, as the instrumentalists around him or her enjoy something more like an authentically rock experience. The whole ‘performance’ drips with insipidity as a tip-toe-ing drummer who should be battering the beats for all s/he’s worth is artistically diminished and weakened through fears for ears (despite plugs), insufficiently insulated rooms, and ridiculous, perpetuated piffle about ‘the pocket’ and how you should be able to achieve the same intensity without playing hard. It’s nonsense and demeaning.
This crime is compounded, and a pedagogical, aesthetic and epistemological felony committed, when drummers are asked to rehearse at lower volumes than they will need to perform. This is really no less absurd than it would be to have a 400-metre sprint relay team practise for championship sport by strolling around in tiny circles on a grassy patch of small, suburban garden. It is no less prohibitive or destined to bemuse, frustrate and fail than it would be to train Formula 1 racing drivers exclusively in go-karts and expect them to ‘scale up’ on big days. Any time that drummers are required, by design, to give less than 100% emotionally, physically (and thus musically) in their playing, we underserve them.
When visiting popular music education facilities around the UK, I have questioned the efficacy and symbolism of double glazed windows between rehearsal spaces and quiet, suburban streets. When my punk band, the Eruptörs, rehearsed at a college for a gig the next night (to promote another event at the college), we were told by senior management we were too loud – apparently we could be heard through the ‘soundproofing’, outside the building and across the street in a restaurant. We were not too loud, though – we were preparing for a gig by playing our instruments the way we would do in the show. And the drums weren’t even miked up (so I couldn’t really hear the kick drum, but I let that go for the sake of expediency in this instance). So on what or whose grounds were we ‘too loud’? If schools of contemporary popular music cannot accommodate or manage normative usage of their own equipment in styles that they purport to teach, then priorities (or claims), I suggest, need re-thinking.
A key issue is the recognition of individuals’ needs. Individuals are each good at doing certain kinds of things, and less so at doing some others. I pack cars and vans well, I make a great cup of tea, and I can really rock hard on the drums. Other stuff is just not worth the effort these days – I have decided (legitimately, I feel) to specialise and excel in a handful of things, rather than be increasingly mediocre at many. So when it comes to the final ‘recital’ for my master’s degree in popular music performance, I am going to rock the hell out. I will not compromise, because a request to rock is not too much to ask.
This is not to say that I promote a world view that privileges the desires of (me as) an individual over those of anyone and everyone else; but I stake my claim on some music education terrain for me and bunch of people like me who need nothing more than to Rock Out. I say ‘need’ where I could say ‘want’, and accept that the two are intertwined – Bourdieu would blame my habitus[iii], and Campbell perhaps my enculturation[iv]. I blame my parents, my nan and my uncle John, among others – whatever the hell it is that means I crave loudness, speed and a modicum of (perceived) safety. When playing rock drums, the adrenalin meets eudaimonia[v] and flow.[vi] Success for me can be measured in part by the need after a gig to change my trousers, my underwear and my t-shirt. If I don’t need this, then something has gone very awry. This is also at the core of rock drumming.
Students are each different people. Some of us are rockers – in physique, in preference, ingrained. It’s about what students are good at, and about facilitating and affording them the chance. This is but one small piece of the music education puzzle, but it’s one far too oft overlooked. Some students aren’t built for the shot put, so we might have them do long lump or chess. Some drummers are not built for jazz, drum corps or concert band, but if we give them permission to rock, some incredible things may well happen. In the words of Angus Young, and because rock music is ‘magical and rad’[vii] I implore my music education colleagues: please, let there be rock!
[i] Fairclough, P. (1997). Permission. ASC Records.
[ii] In this necessarily short article I have glossed over a body of work in this area, not least the writing of Theodore Gracyk, e.g. Gracyk, T. (2007). Listening to Popular Music: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Led Zeppelin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
[iii] Bourdieu, P. (2005). The social structures of the economy. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[iv] Campbell, P.S. (2011). Musical Enculturation Sociocultural influences and meanings of children’s experiences in and through music. In M.S. Barrett (Ed.), A cultural psychology of music education. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 61-82.
[v] Norton, D.L. (1976). Personal Destinies: A philosophy of ethical individualism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[vi] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
[vii] Black, J., Grass, K. & Lynch, L. (2006). Kickapoo. [Recorded by Tenacious D]. On The Pick of Destiny [CD]. Northridge, CA: Epic Records. (2005).