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Drumming For Life: They May Be Sitting But Drummers Are Working Their Asses Off.

May 17, 2013

AlexSmithDrummer01smallText by Chesney Davis. Top image by Rick Kauffman. Bottom image by Jenna Spitz.

To be a great drummer, you have to work hard. You have to put up with sore arms and calloused hands from spending hours behind a set every week. You have to be in tune with the audience while performing and sometimes out of tune with any worrisome inner monologue that might trip you up. You have to be brave to put yourself out on display.

You have to turn yourself inside out.

What happens mentally and physically in those moments before and during performances for many drummers is extremely personal.

“Music puts you somewhere else,” says Dr. Lois A. Butcher-Poffley, sports psychologist and assistant professor in the Kinesiology Department at Temple University. “It takes you to a different level.”

A former dancer, Butcher-Poffley often works with musicians on performance quality. She adds that while drumming is an inherently creative medium, it is also very physical.

“There is a fitness component, no question,” she explains. “There is a lot of upper body work. While there is a lot of hitting, there is also a lot of moving across the body. There is spinal motor movement and gross motor movement. You have all limbs going.”

Alex Smith (above), the drummer for Cold Fronts, says, “It’s a total body workout and it can be a mental workout too if you want it to be.”

Smith says the danceable, energetic element of his band’s music is important to him because connecting with dancing audience members helps him find where the beat and tempo fall just right.

“I think about if I was dancing or if someone is dancing to the drumming,” Smith continues, “how would they react or what you would want to feel as a dancer?”ChrisNorrisSmall

In order to achieve the multi-functionality drumming demands,  Butcher-Poffley says a high level of coordination is needed.

This is part of what Christopher Norris — known on stage as “Flood the Drummer” — aimed to teach his students last year at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia.

“What I did was look at how we can raise awareness about the physiological and biological effects of drumming,” Norris says. “How sustained drumming has aerobic effects on the heart. How long, concentrated periods of drumming bring both your left and right brain to synchronization, allowing the human to experience higher levels of human consciousness.”

The self-taught drummer, who has performed with the likes of Herbie Hancock, taught elementary school children how to play the drums using his own non-traditional teaching method. While many drummers learn using sheet music, Norris encouraged his students to take the lead in their own drumming education by creating their own rhythms. He instructed his students to build a paradiddle, a basic drum pattern. His students went on to create their own game mirroring the rhythm using basketballs. They called it “paradribble.”

“It’s interesting that he’s taking it from that perspective and it’s great, because music is fundamental,” says Butcher-Poffley.

She asserts that beat is in all of us.

“You have a beat from the second your heart forms as a fetus,” she continues. “Everybody has that rhythm. Beat is fundamentally derived from heartbeat. All physical skills that we have tend to be rhythmic.”

“Your body tells you a lot of stuff automatically,” affirms Paul Albrecht, a professional drummer and instructor who has performed for 42 years.

Albrecht has arthritis and carpel tunnel syndrome but still performs on a regular basis. Although he says his hands hurt most of the time, he keeps drumming.

“Once you’re in the zone, that other shit disappears for a while,” he says.

Butcher-Poffley knows about the zone. Some call it the sweet spot, others call it an altered sense of time. She explains it’s the same euphoric feeling when everything happens as it should.

“Albrecht is so in tune with his body and so in tune with his hands,” says Butcher-Poffley. “And those hands, they know that beat.”

Because he’s in the zone, she says, he doesn’t pay attention to the pain.

“If you don’t keep using your joints,” she adds, “the synovial fluid doesn’t lubricate them. And if you don’t use it, you will lose it. So the fact that he’s still drumming is really good for his hands even though it hurts.”

Tony Rossi, drummer for both Nothing and Hippie Cult, agrees that staying fit helps.

“Even at practice, I’m drenched in sweat,” he says. “So I have to build up my stamina and endurance.”

Rossi says he truly values the mental clarity that 10 years of drumming has given him.

“If I wasn’t a drummer, oh my god, I don’t even want to know who I would be,” he says. “It definitely puts me in the zone, to be organized and focused, and not stressed out about everyday bullshit. I don’t have to think about rent. I don’t have to think about paying bills. I don’t have to think about this person or that person and what’s going on in the world. It’s like this is my time to escape from reality.”

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