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    Wooden Warrior

    Note: This is an essay about drumming that I wrote while I attended UCLA in the summer of 2006. It's a bit of a departure from what I usually blog about, but I really like the piece and it's fun to mix it up once in a while. Hope you dig it.

            Long and slender, honed from a hickory tree somewhere in upstate Vermont, bearing the scars of a hundred thousand collisions, a single drumstick lies in repose next to it’s partner. The pair are identical twins, but like all identical twins, upon closer inspection, they reveal glaring dissimilarities. Both sticks are of the same make and model. But the one on the left is new, and hasn’t been used. No marks mar its perfectly smooth surface. The one on the right, though, has seen many nights of battle.
            The grizzled warrior and the green wanna-be. They were both created precisely the same for the exact same purpose. But one is a seasoned veteran, a go-to guy with the strength and the guts to get the job done, with the wounds to prove it. The other is as yet untested, unscathed, and absent of any je ne sais quoi. It has yet to fulfill its purpose. Its only purpose. The two wait together, alone, on the head of a drum.
            The responsibility of a drumstick is seldom appreciated, and that is because of its perceived transience; that is, if one breaks or slips out of hand, there’s another one to replace it. While that remains true, it doesn’t take more than a small shift in perspective to awaken you to a stick’s importance. Simply imagine a drummer trying to play without them. No sticks, no drums. No drums, no band. No band, no music. No music, no nothin’. A new definition in Webster’s New Dictionary of Modern Music should read: “Drumstick; the simplest piece of equipment that will, should it permanently fail, bring an entire evening of musical expression to its knees.”
            A drumstick endures a tremendous amount of constant abuse yet remains functional. Particularly in the genre of rock and roll, where volume, power, and intensity, dictate, to a substantial degree, the music’s appeal. And nowhere are power, volume, and intensity more sinisterly demanded than in the role of the drumstick.
            From the moment a stick is set into motion, it enters the strange and marvelous musical battlefield of rock drumming; one part creative expression, one part exhausting workout, one part psychotherapy, one part focused aggression. Playing the drums in this environment is as physically, mentally, and creatively challenging as any performance art form. Constantly in motion, a drummer’s limbs act as the conduit for his energy; energy born in his heart, focused by his mind, stored in his body, and explosively released through his arms and legs. And the only thing between a drummer’s hands and his instrument are his sticks.
            Hitting a drum demands plenty from a stick. But the true brutality comes from hitting the cymbals. Built like weapons, cymbals are sharp, heavy disks of metal, and they’re made to be hit hard. No other musical apparatus shares these attributes. They are the only instruments that can be thrown with any accuracy from fifty feet and kill you if they hit you. They’re like sharp, giant metal Frisbees.
            Many drummers tilt their cymbals towards them, and hit them with glancing blows. Cymbal manufacturers and technicians alike recommend this, for this method supposedly produces the best sound and also prolongs the life of the cymbal. But like some drummers, especially rock drummers, I am of a different school. My cymbals do not have much appreciable tilt; they face me pretty much edge on, so I hit them pretty much edge on. Music snobs will sometimes remind me that striking a cymbal in this fashion does not necessarily produce the most volume or the best sound from the instrument. The self-appointed musical aristocracy will occasionally go so far as to frown upon the practice. My retort to such drivel is that there’s no right or wrong way hit a cymbal, because how you hit is part of what gives you your own sound, your own style, indeed your individuality. How you hit a drum or cymbal is one of those intangibles that remain outside the parameters of technique and form. And besides, it feels great to hit a cymbal edge on. And that’s why we play music. Because of how it feels. That usually shuts them up.
            When a cymbal is tilted towards the drummer, the blow of the stick is deflected over a relatively wide area. More of the stick hits more of the cymbal, like the palm of your hand coming down flat on a table. When the cymbal lays edge on, however, the physics are quite different.
            Imagine taking the table, tilting it on its side so that the top is perpendicular to the floor, and now hitting the edge of it with the palm of your hand. Very little of your hand hits the table, and very little of the table gets hit. But the force is the same. This focusing of force into a smaller area causes much greater stress on both the table (the cymbal) and your hand (the stick).
            The majority of this force is brunted by the stick. With each blow, the stick receives a small battle scar, a proud symbol of its strength and purpose. After many of these hits, and many scars, the structural integrity of the stick begins to weaken. But like a secretly injured quarterback who’s in pain but still performs at the top of his game, the stick plays on. Many thousands of hits later, the stick is splintering with every blow, minute shards of wood flying off of it like the spurting blood of a pummeled boxer. Around the drums lies a splattering of sawdust, more silent evidence of countless brutal assaults. The casual observer might surmise that I had spent my time cutting planks of wood with a circular power saw, where sawdust is an inevitable by-product, instead of creating music.
            Cymbals are struck tens of thousands of times in a night’s performance, from a variety of angles and through the entire range of force; from glancing blows to heavy handed hits. I like to employ a fair amount of theatrics in my playing. A technically simple but visually effective maneuver is to raise one or both arms high above my head en route to executing a cymbal crash. Raising the arms high over the head is largely for dramatic purposes, because I don’t strike through the cymbal. Instead, as the arms are coming down, the elbows bend and the energy gets transferred to the wrists. The motion is similar to cracking a whip. The power comes from the whipping motion through the elbow and wrist, not the shoulder. But it looks good. And it feels great.
            Given the choice, I’ll always pick up a used stick as opposed to a brand new one. There’s something comforting about using a stick that’s seen some action, like an old pair of running sneakers that are past their peak but not yet over the hump of decline, and still feel great on your feet. When I look at one of my sticks that’s adorned with the remnants of battle, I see all the hits, I feel all the action, and I connect.
            My stick is an old friend who I’ve been through a lot with. It reminds me why I do this. It makes me feel proud that I’ve created so much music and moved people with nothing more than my sweat, my imagination, my creativity, my drums, my cymbals, and this old piece of wood.

    ©2006 Clint Piatelli. All Rights (and hundreds of thousands of brutally aggressive collisions between drumsticks and cymbals) Reserved.

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