Autoethnomusicosophy: Experiencing Drum Kit Performance

I’m planning a study into the performed experience of playing drum kit. The study will be conducted from an autoethnographic perspective, and will explore the intensity, banality, madness and surreal-ity of twice-daily musical performances of a Pantomime musical theatre production. The study will be contextualised from ethnographic and philosophical perspectives, and is perhaps helpfully explained in a haiku that I wrote when trying to Tweet about my nascent research in this area ahead of giving a talk in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year:

I am a drummer
Drumming is when I am me
Then is who I am

Adages concerning writing-about-music, and dancing-about-architecture notwithstanding, and the irony of the heightened relevance of these in a piece on an intended study about embodiment – the planned principal output of which will hopefully be a book – not lost of any of us, I shall proceed.


The study is a development of my previous research on identities, practices and learning of kit drummers, published in 2011 (doctoral thesis) and 2013 (significantly edited, Ashgate book version of thesis). That study explored several aspects of being a drummer, through a socio-cultural-psychological lens, via interviews and questionnaires carried out with drummers, and in my personal reflections on the data (I too am a drummer). Through presenting and discussing various evolutions and hybrids of this prior work and my intended new study at research seminars and conferences (e.g. University of Cambridge, 2012; IASPM world conference, 2013; Case Western Drumming Conference, 2014), it has become clear that a crucial missing element of drumming scholarship to date is the presence and experience of the performer as an embodied agent.

Elements of this aspect of making music are discussed to an extent in work that theorises meaning and value (e.g. Berger, 1999; Custodero, 2010), in writing on identity and selfhood (e.g. Smith, 2013), in creativity (e.g. Burnard, 2012), and in ethnomusicological work (e.g. Becker, 2004; Keil & Feld, 1997). I touch on embodiment in (my) drumming in Appendix D of my 2013 book I drum, therefore I am, in a short essay that was first published as a blog article (DrDrumsBlog.com). However, the centrality and vitality of the performers’ experience in performance is largely absent from the literature, despite being (I contend) so central to individuals’ musicking. Harris Berger (1999), in Metal, rock and jazz: perception and the phenomenology of musical experience, touches on the importance of this experience, but is vague and ultimately superficial in his treatment of this subject, asking “what is the drummer’s experience like?” In conversation with fellow musical colleagues and students over two decades, it has become apparent to me that there may be a deeply individual – yet shared, mutually understood, ad under-articulated – set of ways of in which the experienced phenomena of musical performance are vital to understanding aspects of meaning in a musical life.

This study may be important, I suggest, in at least four ways:

  • There is a distinct and significant gap in the literature accounting for performers’ experience in music. The proposed phenomenological account will provide insight into what happens when a drummer drums. While findings will not be generaliseable, this account, as the first such study, will provide other musicians and artists with a starting point for comparison, contrast and challenge.
  • In Higher Music Education, and in Higher Popular Music Education, I work to prepare musicians for lives in music, as professionals, as career musicians. As a senior lecturer in popular music performance, I consider it my professional and ethical duty to provide students with an honest and reflexive account of the physical, mental and emotional experience of performing at the drums, since these elements are present in any person’s experience of performance. This project will enable me better to do this.
  • As Module Leader for a master’s degree module entitled Performance Research Project, I am keen to develop and demonstrate my own profile in Practice-as-Research (hitherto limited to two speculative conference presentations). Carrying out the project will enable me to speak with greater integrity on the paradigm, and will provide students with an immediately tangible and relevant example of this type of work.
  • Following this project, I intend to undertake further PaR study as a drummer, using the medium of film. This additional dimension will provide greater accessibility and potential impact to the work.


This study uses an autoethnographic approach to an ethnographic study of drumming in the context of a one-month run of a professional musical theatre production (pantomime). The study will take place in at a regional theatre in Essex, over the 54 performances of the show and the four days of rehearsals leading up to the first performance. After each performance, I will take extensive notes (around 500–1,000 words) describing my feelings – emotional and physical – and my intellectual response to the experience of drumming. I will include in the writing, reflections on any aspect of my life, or the professional environment, that is relevant to me at the time. These may include conversations with colleagues, the journey to work, my family life, dietary, health and fitness issues, financial concerns, etc. Since drumming never happens in and is thus not experienced in a vacuum, it will be necessary to provide as full a document as possible of the performance experience, for the resultant monograph to carry adequate meaning.

This study is guided by the influential (outside of research in music) and pioneering writing of Merleau-Ponty, especially in Phenomenology of perception, where he urges us (1945, p. 12) to consider the “the importance of another type of intelligibility” than that which focuses on cognition and Descartes-ian notions of knowledge. The proposed study is in part a response to Merleau-Ponty’s assertion that “it is this pre-objective realm that we have to explore in ourselves if we wish to understand sense-experience” (1945, p. 14). I will be focusing on the phenomenological, following Merleau-Ponty’s observations regarding “empiricism’s subordinate truth” to “the practice of perception… the organization of the living present” (Berger, 1999, p. 243). I hope to articulate something of “the sonic now… an expansion of experience in timespace” (Veogelin, 2012, p. 164). I am keen also to explore “the emotional investment that generates the complexity of a timespace moment (Voegelin, 2012, p. 171). Thus I aim to account “for the concept of presence in performance (Tusainen, 2012, p. 146), exploring the ways in which “action and awareness merge… doing and thinking are fused together and we can be fully present in the moment of musical creation… we can devote our entire selves to the musical experience” (Custodero, 2010, p. 72).

Acknowledging the triadic nature of the autoethnographic methodology described by Chang (2008), my approach differs from her preferred process in that my interpretive orientation will be primarily philosophical rather than cultural. This approach, I argue, is necessary in order to understand the embodied nature of the music performance experience. This area of research is in itself arguably a cultural phenomenon, as arts-based research increasingly embraces the body as a source of particularised knowledge (e.g. Friberg, Parekh-Gaihede & Barton, 2010; Stewart, 2007); while I acknowledge this trend, orientation to this meta-perspective will not feature prominently in my work.

The study will take the form of what Reed-Danahay (1997, p. 2) identifies as “autobiographical autoethnograpy”, accounting for my own experiences as an ethnographic researcher in a particular musical/social/cultural context. As Berger (1999, 123) acknowledges, “what is primary for human research is the lived reality of meanings”; it is insight into these that I plan to produce in this research, in keeping with the writing of ethnographers such as Mark de Rond. The writing will be a vital part of the research; I mean to produce evocative and engaging text that reveals to readers as much as possible of the particularities and depth of experience felt, thereby avoiding being “dishonest. For it is thus that readers become privy to the writer’s experience” (de Rond, 2008, p. xii).

Further literature that I plan to consume for this study includes:

Benamon, M. (2010). Rasa: affect and intuition in Javanese musical aesthetics. New York:Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2011) Supersizing the mind: embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. New York: Oxford University Press.

Damasio, A. (2000). The feeling of what happens: body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London: Vintage.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1975). Truth and method. London: Bloomsbury.

Gallagher, S. (2005). How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Green. L. (1988). Music on deaf ears: musical meaning, ideology and education. Manchester,

Manchester University Press.

Heiddegger, M. (1926). Being and Time. Trans. J. Macquarie & E. Robinson. London: Blackwell Publishing.

Schusterman, R. (2008). Body consciousness: a philosophy of mindfulness and somaesthetics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Any further recommendations would be most welcome!


I plan to incorporate findings and understandings from the study into my teaching on various modules at the two institutions where I work, especially the master’s-level Performance Research Project module that I lead.

Published outputs planned following this study

  • Monograph (gunning for 2017)
  • Journal article on the methodology and rationale for the study (hoping 2016)

I aim in the monograph to produce a text that is evocative as well as descriptive, and that is as inviting and engaging as it is informative. I hope this work will prompt and inspire others to undertake similar studies, with alternative methodological approaches and a range of theoretical orientations (including, for instance, wellbeing, cognitive-psychological, cultural-theoretical, feminist perspectives, and a deeper focus on the educational implications of investigating embodied experience in musical performance). As well as developing research in this area to make (a) film about my own performance, I plan to work with students and colleagues across and beyond HE institutions to develop inter-disciplinary and cross-field explorations of this most fundamental aspect of musical performance.

Any thoughts, comments or criticisms on the above will be very welcome.

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Gareth Dylan Smith is Assistant Professor of Music at Boston University, founding editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education, and a drummer. His research interests include drumming, meaning and value in music making, teaching and learning in popular music, and eudaimonia. Gareth lives online at www.garethdylansmith.com.

2 thoughts on “Autoethnomusicosophy: Experiencing Drum Kit Performance”

  1. Hi Gareth,

    Have a look at David Sudnow’s ‘Ways of the Hand’. For your purposes the first edition (1978) may be of more interest than the second edition (1998) in which he dampened the philosophy and ethnography for a wider audience,

    “Ways of the Hand tells the story of how David Sudnow learned to improvise jazz on the piano. Because he had been trained as an ethnographer and social psychologist, Sudnow was attentive to what he experienced in ways that other novice pianists are not.”

    Kind regards


  2. Hi Gareth,

    Thanks for sharing the outline of your research. Have you considered the possibility of including possible contributions from a neuroscientific perspective, such as reports of brain scans of drummers playing or even imagining to play? I don’t know if there is any already available (after all, an fMRI scan is not exactly easy to adjust over a drummer and his drum set! But maybe there is some other portable device or, as I suggest, imagined playing can be a source of analysis). In any case, what do you think about the neuroscientific point of view in general relative to your questions?

    All the best,


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