The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer approached and asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. Picasso politely agreed, swiftly executed the work, and handed back the napkin —but not before asking for a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked: “How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw this!” “No”, Picasso replied, “It took me 40 years”.
As a young musician, I was very much influenced by this story and by the genius who believed he still had much to learn 40 years into his career. I believe Picasso was not referring to a method of schooling or apprenticeship but a mentality: one that requires you to undergo a constant renewing of the mind. To have a never-ending thirst for what is new. My musical life has been continuous voyage thru a kaleidoscope of cultures, expressions, styles, and instruments. Now as a teacher, I want to impart to my students and my own children the same kind of learning; a journey of discovery that is never finished.
In my childhood, my father – a fine drummer and percussionist himself – taught me the basics by having me accompany him on hundreds of percussive instruments in many styles of music, often while playing alongside his LPs. He had a unique way of pressuring me to achieve: he would take me to clubs and concerts where we would both jam with the musicians. My parents furthered my musical “education” by taking me to countless concerts, and by playing music from a wide variety of countries and genres in our home on a daily basis. When the constraints of living in an apartment frustrated me from further exploring drums and percussions, I learned to play several of the instruments I heard at home — the guitar, mandolin and banjo — as well as a myriad of less reputable instruments such as the bagpipes, zither, and the portable harmonium. I also learned to sing.
Oddly, this rather un-academic formation worked and by my teenage years I was able to hold my own among accomplished musicians. I was fluent in contemporary western music (rock, blues, jazz, country, and folk) but also quite fond of and familiar with such varied music and rhythms as Afro Cuban, Latin American, Middle Eastern, African, Caribbean, Polynesian, Indian, and East European. To this day I incorporate elements from these cultures in my playing, no matter which style of music I’m performing.
I want my two girls, and my son, to learn Music Theory and to play an instrument for all the accepted “good reasons” – because it will enhance their reasoning performance; promote their higher brain functions; and help the development of their emotional intelligence. But mainly I want them to enjoy themselves! To be immersed in music is a fascinating and enlightening way to live. It fosters sensitivity, creativity and individuality, and hopefully, triggers a passion for learning more. I’ve been on that trip and never really came back.
This passion for learning is shared by the best musicians out there. Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Milford Graves all traveled to Africa and India to learn more from indigenous percussionists. The great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is well known for having taken “breaks” during his career to re-learn his instrument and start anew. Likewise, I still seek and discover drumming and percussion techniques I haven’t heard, and young players that take my breath away.
I am hopeful that everyone can experience the kind of epiphany I had after hearing John Coltrane’s “Olé” recording. I had obstinately tried this tune and many other progressive jazz recordings before, but they had always sounded to me like a bunch of random notes, sounds, and noise. But on one particular day I was listening to the tune over again and it clicked — I suddenly got it! In a fraction of a second I “re-heard” a lifetime of jazz and appreciated it for the first time. I literally thought my brain had doubled in size. More than finding a key to modern jazz, a mental barrier had broken down and I was being flooded with a new comprehension.
So how to send my own kids down this path? Ultimately, it all goes back to listening to music, all kinds. But do I let them freely wander thru the often dull and unimaginative music the industry offers, or do I push for the Beatles, Coltrane, and ethnic music? I have no doubt that my passion for music and my ability to play in many styles really began one Christmas morning some thirty years ago. I found myself the ecstatic owner of a cassette player and some pre-recorded tapes. Next to the obligatory children’s lullabies and fairytale tapes, my parents had thrown in a dozen or so others — among them The Doors, Julie Driscoll & Brian Auger, a Folkways country and bluegrass compilation, the Red Army Choir, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Alan Stivell, and some Latin America music compilation. I didn’t like it all immediately, but I loved all of it, ultimately.
So I did something similar with my kids. While I listened patiently to Barney and The Wiggles, our car and living room remained my domain. In these places my kids went through the bluegrass sounds of the Stanley Brothers and (ahem) the freewheeling improvisations of Coltrane’s “Live at the Village Vanguard”. They came to many of my performances. And it seemed to work. Yes, I do hear my girls play and sing-along to Hillary Duff and High School Musical; and yes, they still cringe at John Coltrane. But they also happily go to their piano lessons. And then go downstairs on their own to practice renditions of “My Favorite Things” and “Ode to Joy”. I am ecstatic when they explain why they “Just don’t like Dave Matthews!” and would prefer driving around to the sound of Norah Jones.
In fact, I am just about the happiest father right now, fine-tuning this article while my daughters are playing music upstairs: digging Clifford Brow, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Zion Harmonizers from the jazz CD I burned for my younger daughter’s Black History Month class project.
Richard Lee is a professional drummer/percussionist and instructor. He can be reached at RichardLeeDrums.com.