During my second hear of high school, my body started changing. I grew taller. My voice got deeper and grainier. I felt stronger, and I carried around a lingering urge to break things. Naturally, my growing muscles and angry hormones made me fall in love with drumming all over again. I suddenly had access to faster, louder sounds. I could shake the room the kick drum. I could drown out the loudest electric guitar riff with a snare and open high hat. It was an exciting time to play drums, like I was given a new super power.
One evening at church, I met with the church worship band to practice our set list for the coming weekend service. For the first twenty minutes of practice, the guys in the sound booth would run through each stage mic, checking the levels. Each musician would play a riff or sing a quick run into their microphone. But that night, the sound guys skipped right over me, moving from the bassist to the backup singers. At the next break, I broached the subject with a sound guy while we were chatting back stage.
“Hey, we didn’t check the mics on the drums,” I said. “Are they sounding OK?”
The sound guy chuckled. “Oh, we don’t turn those on for you,” he said. “You play loud enough as it is.”
Talking to the sound guys made me realize that I had garnered a reputation for that one really loud drummer, and my teenage level self-awareness told me that was a good thing.
I’m the loud drummer, I thought. I’m so loud I don’t even need a microphone.
One of the songs we were playing included a refrain in which all of the other instruments dropped out, leaving only the voices with the drums. We jokingly referred to the maneuver as a HAHCK-appella. On the first run through, I led into the interlude with a giant drum fill, slamming my sticks onto the high hat and snare in cut time. The drum stick snapped in half. Wooden splinters bounced around my Plexiglas drum cage. Our worship pastor Kevin turned around when he noticed I had stopped playing.
“You’re breaking sticks now?” he joked. “C’mon get another pair, let’s do it again.” He counted us in and we started from the end of the second verse.
Sweat rolled off my chin. My forearms throbbed. My heart danced in my chest as the band swelled. My sticks snapped over the drums, and it felt like I was making thunder. I led us into the interlude with an earth shattering drum fill. I played on as the singers chanted You, you are God, you are God, you will reign forever. I struck a crash cymbal, rounding the toms again with a gratuitous fill.
Suddenly, I felt my foot pedal go limp. I pumped my foot again, but the something felt different on the floor beside the drum. Kevin stopped playing and turned to me again.
“Did you break another stick?” he asked. I crouched on the floor to see what happened. The pedal was fine, but the kick drum had torn the kick drum, punching a clean hole in the middle of the canvas.
“I think I broke the kick drum,” I squeaked.
“You broke it?” asked our worship pastor. “What does that mean?”
“I kicked through it,” I said sheepishly. The sound guys began to snicker from their dark sound booth.
“Do we have a new bass drum?” called out Kevin back stage. “Our drummer keeps destroying things back there.”
Suddenly being the loud drummer didn’t feel so cool. It turns out bass drums are really expensive, and any drummer would tell you that they’re not suppose to break for anything short of a death metal concert, let alone a Sunday morning worship service. Everyone on the worship band was much too gracious to rub my nose in it, but it still makes me queasy when I think about how much money it probably was to replace the drum I destroyed during a song about how awesome God is.
When I wasn’t playing a full drum set, I was playing my djembe. In case you can’t picture it, a djembe is basically a giant bongo drum - a thin membrane stretched over a large wooden frame with an open bottom that looked like a cannon. The djembe was a popular alternative for smaller worship services because it could still produce the basic sounds of a drum set. The section of the drum in the middle made for a dampened, echoing bass drum, and the part of the drum closer to the rim made for a decent snare drum.
My parents used to take us to a homeless shelter in downtown Chicago. My dad led a small acoustic worship service for the attendees, and to back him up, I brought my djembe. On this particular weekend, we were joined by Ken, a skilled guitar player from our church. Ken expertly noodled on his hallow body guitar while my dad delicately plucked his acoustic guitar. I kept time quietly with the djembe, using a simple no-frills drum beat.
In the middle of the service, my dad extended an invitation to the men to come forward and share their story in the microphone. One by one, still wearing snow boots and heavy winter jackets, the men living at the shelter approached the microphone and shared moving stories of jobs lost and families torn apart by alcohol and drugs. Modest claps and weary Amen’s were heard around the room. With no one else waiting for the microphone, my dad stepped forward.
“Would anyone else like to share? We got time for one more.”
A man in baggy jeans stood up from his metal chair. Our eyes followed him as he sauntered up to the microphone. Through his dark sunglasses, he looked out over the room of metal chairs and plastic tables. The man croaked some words into the microphone, but his voice was to gravely to make out what he was saying. Then without warning, he adjusted his beanie and began to sing. On that day, I’m going to wear a robe. The man’s chest heaved deeply. He took long thoughtful pauses between each line of his improvised song, repeating the simple phrase On that day, I’m going to wear a robe. Even though his sunglasses were dark, I could tell his eyes were shut tightly from the wrinkles in his forehead.
On that day, I’m going to wear a robe. His song continued as he took the microphone with two hands. I stole a glance at my dad, who started to look worried. Then suddenly, the guitar amp started to whine. The guitarist Ken took it upon himself to jump into the man’s improvised song with a blues riff. The man turned and nodded over his shoulder, singing on. My dad whipped his head around to study the notes Ken was playing, and after a few seconds, joined in with a gentle strum of his own. With hesitation, I tapped the sides of the djembe to keep time. After another refrain, we concluded the song, and everyone in the audience clapped while the man shuffled back to his seat. While packing up or instruments, we talked about the incident.
“Did you know the song he was singing?” said my dad to Ken.
Ken shrugged. “Nope. I think he was making it up.”
My dad reeled with laughter. “I thought he was just going to share a story. I didn’t know he would start singing.”
If not for Ken’s keen musical ear, I don’t think either of us would have had the confidence to jump in and close the song out.