Drumming and Timespace

Today I carved out an hour to play drums. Well, in the end it wasn’t quite an hour. After I’d accepted a colleague’s invitation to meet a special guest in a lecture room two floors away at the same time as my session was due to start in a drum kit practice booth (only available by the hour, on the hour), and since I finished three minutes early so as not to hold up the booking for the next guy, it was closer to 50 minutes. Then taking account of the portion of that time I spent rearranging the kit (why do all the other drummers in the college have the stool so damn high? And why do they insist on putting the floor tom unreachably high and totally level with the floor?!), and the time I spent stretching out, removing jewelry and rolling up shirt sleeves, it was actually nearer to 40 minutes. But the point is that I found the time, and I managed to spend it playing the drums. Alone. In a room. Just me and the drums. Plus the briefly distracting feeling that I was being watched by one of the junior members of the Facilities Team courtesy of the CCTV camera conspicuously sprouting from the otherwise bare wall. So it was that despite, and perhaps partly because of, the presence of Big Brother that I removed my shirt to play. It’s not that I dislike getting sweaty when I drum – indeed, that’s often a part of the pleasure– but I harbor an intense dislike for having patches of perspiration spread across my abdomen, back and arms in a blue formal shirt as I return triumphantly but increasingly meekly to my shared office, parading my bedraggled, (albeit invigorated and enlivened) academic figure through a sea of students confused by the figure of a man in a blazer looking like he just fell out of bed, ran to work in yesterday’s clothes, and forgot the way to his desk. Most students, I’m sure, actually don’t notice or care that I am there at all as I emerge from the drum booth and retreat (fully clothed) to my labours, while others make eye contact, acknowledge the sparkle in my eye, and smile. One or two have seen me like this before, and they grin knowingly. Others seem confounded as to why I could appear so happy to be at work in the middle of the day/first thing in the morning/late in the evening/at all.

If I practise early in the morning – as I am occasionally wont to do – a student waiting outside the drum booths for a lesson to start in a nearby classroom will see me stumble from my drumming as though from an intensely dramatic sleep, blinking and gasping in the light of the college day, and say to me “was that you in there”? to which bemused incredulity I reply “yeah, I love playing the drums”. Usually when I say this, my interlocutor beams, as if my visibly good mood has dislodged a subdued memory that they loved playing music once too. Music has for many, though, has become a habit, a string of classes, assignments and assessment activities, and my impression is that the jaded 19-year-olds who see this exaggerated, distilled version of me in the mornings are somewhat cheered if mildly perplexed by the apparition of a man with serious glasses, marking to get to, and rapidly greying hair, clearly in a state of near euphoria resulting only from the fact I’ve been hitting things rhythmically with big chunks of wood for an hour (well, 40 minutes).

It’s not that I never find another soul strolling the college corridors in music-steeped satisfaction. But students for the most part look permanently wired and tired. It’s either exam time, or it’s exam preparation time, or, as one student regretfully opined back in December “there are just so many parties to go to”. The strenuous social demands on the typical undergraduate student/intern/songwriter notwithstanding, I realise I could do more to encourage students to get (back) to loving time with their instruments. They’re all “busy”, even though most don’t quite know yet what that really is (I do understand, it’s all relative). Like many whom I suspect are reading this blog post, I have an inkling about hectic, since this month I’m teaching classes in two institutions, supervising dissertations, editing two books and a special issue of a journal, writing four papers, developing a new journal, applying for three grants, planning summer conference travel, writing for a blog, learning repertoire, rehearsing and gigging with two bands, and trying to be home each day in time for my toddler’s bath, whilst managing the endless swirling mayhem of five email inboxes. But if the students aren’t tired then they’re usually hung over.

Which is why, as someone who came to be doing everything I’m doing or planning to do through being a drummer, playing drums is now at my core, and I need to tend to that. It’s not even that I want to play drums. I actually have to do it. And it’s too easy in a crazy schedule to let that go, or to forget what it entails. Owing to pressures of time to which my days and weeks and months and years are now routinely subjected, I have out of necessity nailed the swift descent (or maybe ascent, but it feels like a gorgeous, delicious, enveloping drrop) into mindful/unmindful awareness of only the now at the drums.

I didn’t work on anything intentionally during my practice today. I began with no plan but to play. Everything else I do is so deadline- and goal-orientated that to aim for something concrete beyond the now would have killed this session. Tomorrow I have to learn a bunch of songs for an Aerosmith tribute, and there will be time for that then. Today I sat at the drums and played for a while as hard as I could, laying down big, fat grooves that were as close as I could get to Bonham and Grohl whose awesome pounding rhythms I have in my brain and my veins. I then calmed down a bit and turned to something more subtle, letting my fingers work through some triple-bounce practice. This evolved into semi-consciously focusing on the feelings in my hands, and then working on figures in sevens and eights, threes and fours, allowing my subconscious to take my drumming where it would. I was in full “flow” as Csikszentmihalyi (1990) famously explains.

I drummed in what Salomé Voegelin describes as “the sonic now… an expansion of experience in timespace (2010: 164). Georg Gadamer describes this kind of play – playing playfully, and sincerely – thus: “play does not have its being in the player’s consciousness or attitude, but on the contrary play draws him into its dominion and fills him with its spirit” (1975: 113). He goes on: “play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play” (107). Getting lost is the point, or as I previously mused in print (2013), maybe it’s getting found. Gadamer also goes some way to capturing one of my favourite aspects of drumming like this: “the ease of play – which naturally does not mean that there is any real absence of effort but refers phenomenologically only to the absence of strain – is experienced subjectively as relaxation (109). It is doubtless in part the anticipation of this relaxing afterglow that draws me time and again to this mode of drumming. This practice, the “timespace moment”, as Veogelin calls it, for me is transformative.

It’s not a process in the sense of leading towards a defined outcome. The point of this play is that things happen in this timespace that just don’t happen elsewhere. I feel like I’ve tapped into a way of being supra-alive that is only attainable through drumming. I wonder if this is healthy, and if I’m just being selfish. It’s possibly like being addicted to running, or dancing, or to anything really. Do I feel entitled to this experience? Certainly I do not. But I know I have now reached a point in my life where drumming is so much of who I have become that I have to keep doing it to be me. I don’t deserve it. But I do feel I need it. The thing is, it’s so damn good.

Students come to music college either having had a taste of this thing, or ripe for their first descent into it. And I want to open that door for them. I think we as teachers have to enable them to find this kind of experience. Since we are training students as entrepreneurs, as theorists and as social scientists, then the least we can also do for them is to help them feel the magic that comes from just making music. I exhort my students – stressed, anxious and assessment-focused as they necessarily are most of the time – each to make time, to find space, re-engage or first discover the love, the joy, the total oneness of completely living the moment.

So take your shirt off if you have to, close your eyes, and indulge in creating timespace moments in music. Not because “you’re worth it” and not because it’ll help save the world, but because while we’re engaging in higher education and in refining our motor control and our minds, we wrong ourselves by ignoring a very real way in which musicking heightens our being. And that kind of musicking might just be reason someone started music college in the first place. It might also be the reason people keep doing music for the rest of their lives.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow. New York: Springer.

Gadamer, G. (1975) Truth and Method. New York: Seabury.

Smith, G.D. (2013) I Drum, Therefore I Am: Being and becoming a drummer. Farnham: Ashgate.

Voegelin, S. (2010) Listening to noise and silence: Towards a philosophy of sound art. New York: Bloomsbury.

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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.

One thought on “Drumming and Timespace”

  1. Really enjoyed this post, thanks Gareth!

    I am particular encouraged by the idea that you’re trying to retain your core drummer-ness despite all the other activities and pressures. I always feel guilty that I let my saxophone chops atrophy while doing all these other tasks – to the extent that it was difficult to justify my self-view of ‘professional saxophonist’ in light of the increasingly rusty technique. Fortunately, this balance is now improving and I actually find that I am a better teacher having developed coping mechanisms and efficient practice techniques/routines. So, although I never get to that moment of ‘play’ as you describe, I do find that I have a more realistic experience and one that helps me sympathise with the competing pressures felt by my students – particularly in the HE context.

    I’ll keep my shirt on, though, I think.

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