Saturday, November 21 2020

looking back on drumline

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Last week I wrote an entry looking back at some stories from playing drums. A few days after I published this short essay, my phone buzzed with a Facebook message. The message from my best friend in high school, Omar.

"Just finished reading your stories about playing drums," he writes. "I'm a little offended you didn't include our incredible (yet short lived) drum line... for shame."

Omar wasn't actually offended, of course. After so many years of being glued to the hip in high school, his sense of humor is still unmistakable to me, even over text. His light hearted chiding inspired me to dedicate a whole story on its own to drumline, and if Omar asks, we can just tell him that was the plan all along.

The truth is that the CLA drumline was probably the coolest thing I was ever involved in. Nobody before us had ever done anything like it. We didn't have any faculty help, and we didn't start with any money. The idea to start the school's very first organized drumline was born out of our midday jam sessions in the band room. Standing over a dented snare drum clamped to a crooked stand, I was demonstrating some of the new technical techniques I was exposed to in the private lessons I was getting at church.

"This is a five stroke roll," I explained. "Two taps on the right, two taps on the left, and then a final tap on the right. TAK-TAK TAK-TAK TAK."

"That doesn't look too hard," grinned Omar.

"Yeah, but watch," I said. "Watch how it sounds when you do it faster." With careful precision, I quickened the pace. My drumsticks rattled on the snare drum, making an even, militant roll. TAK-TAK TAK-TAK TAK-TAK TAK-TAK. Without saying anything, Omar took out a pair of drumsticks. He clenched his jaw and tightened his grip. His sticks flashed on the snare drum. TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK.

"You see?" Omar smirked. "I can make the exact same sound just going left to right. I don't have the technique, but I have the speed." He brought his sticks onto the drum again, playing the same beat in double time. His arms formed a blur in front of him. TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK.

These midday competitive jam sessions in the band room gave us the idea to start a new band in school. I don't remember who used the term drumline first, but we were immediately fixated on the idea. Omar and I began to meet regularly to compose cadences and routines. Neither of us had the know-how to make our own sheet music. Instead, we'd compose our music at night over the phone through beat boxing and finger tapping. I made a snare arrangement based off a song I heard in one of the Halo video games. Omar made several drumline adaptations from his live DVD copied of Stomp and Blue Man Group, which I was sure he had committed to memory. We made drummified versions of songs like "Carol of the Bells", Switchfoot's "Stars", and Ozzy Ozbourne's "Crazy Train".

We handed out some fliers, announcing our first tryouts for the CLA drumline. Omar's brother and my sister showed up out of obligation. A few younger kids from the beginner band trickled in to the small room attached to our school's gymnasium. Without enough practice pads and drum sticks to go around, we handed out pens, chopsticks, and hard cover text books.

There was a guy on my church praise band who heard about our blossoming drumline. Being the band director at the much larger Lake Zurich high school, he offered to gives us first dibs on some old equipment they were phasing out - a set of marching band snares that were short of some parts, and an old busted set of quad drums. I accepted his offer just in time for him to fish the quad drums out of the high school dumpster.

The next school day, Omar followed me out to my car. Together, we wrestled the scuffed quad drums out of my trunk, then collected the loose washers and screws that it had shed on the drive over. Between periods in the dark storage closet of the band room, Omar labored over the broken quad drums. At our next practice, Omar walked into the empty gymnasium with the drums strapped to his chest, filling the room with a thunderous drum fill.

Throughout our weekly practices, we formed a natural pecking order. With his mighty quad drums, Omar led the line of bass and toms. I lead the snares, complementing the noise and energy with structure and precision. If one of our drumline members proved themselves worthy in practice, we'd allow them to challenge someone else for their spot in the line with a drum battle.

We had our first gig at the annual CLA pep rally. For fifteen minutes, we'd be allowed to walk out into the center of the gym before the entire school and play whatever we wanted. We chose our best five cadences. We used old briefcase straps as makeshift harnesses. We had to tie down and duct tape the giant bass drum to Juan, who was only in eight grade at the time.

The gym roared with applause as we marched out to the center of the gym. I remember hearing people scream so loud, I could barely hear myself play. It was clear that nobody cared that our drums weren't matching or that Omar and I were just shouting instructions to each other. The energy was palpable.

One of the arrangements we played was a beat we called "Wipeout", based on the surf rock classic. Apart from the rolling drum intro, it shared little resemblance with the original. We used the song as an excuse to let our secret weapon Omar cut loose. While my snares kept a basic rhythm, Omar drilled the smallest tom as he approached the front of the line. I waved my stick, signaling the snares to drop out. Omar clenched his teeth, filling the silence with one of the most spectacular drum solos I've ever seen. Even though he was the only one playing, he made it sound like there were six other musicians accompanying him.

Our first gig at the pep rally was an electric success. Our membership doubled. We had more access to instruments and practice spaces. We kept the club going all throughout our senior year, making appearances at basket ball games, holiday concerts, and the talent show.

Taking the time to remember the humble origins of our high school drumline made me realize how special of a friend Omar was. I truly miss having someone so energetic around. Omar didn't have an apathetic bone in his body. He was competitive, genuine, and had an unquenchable passion for leaving a lasting impression on our tiny high school.

Drumline was awesome. Here's all the clips I've managed to track down. Help yourself.