I learned to drum in Ubaka Hill’s DrumSong Orchestra at MichFest. I’m sure she wouldn’t even recognize me as a two-time participant (that’s peanuts — although I did have the honor once of doing vocal improv on stage with her and several other women at a concert she did at a church in St. Paul), but from her I learned how to play some basic, passable, serviceable rhythms on the djembe, rhythms which have given me much joy and have helped me to express many songs and chants. It was in those sessions in the tent on those hot August days that I began to understand myself as a drummer, and eventually to claim and own that part of myself.
I also enjoyed Ubaka’s talks on social issues and philosophies of music and sound and drumming. In one of these, she discussed the tendencies of men and women to choose higher or lower drums. Women, she proposed, often liked to play big, low-toned drums to compensate for, or balance out, a high vocal range. Through the drums they could express those parts of themselves that vibrated with deep notes, and men often sought the same balancing with smaller, higher-pitched drums. She drew the connection between the tones of the drums and the chakras, and suggested that women would benefit from playing the smaller drums too, because their sounds resonated more with the higher chakras. … A theory, and reasonable enough, in my opinion.
At the time, though, I remember thinking that I was more drawn (or at least equally so) to the higher-pitched drums and other instruments. I hypothesized that I feel the urge to fill in the high notes because of my low alto singing voice. I’ve always felt self conscious about my upper cut-off, and sometimes, while singing along with a fearless soprano, I feel a blankness where no sound comes out, and wish that I had some way to externalize that feeling, to express it in a vibration that can be heard. When I play high notes on my guitar, or uke, or on a sharp, tight doumbek (which I only wish I could play), it gives me such a feeling of satisfaction, like that pent up sound is finally being let out. The feeling in my chest is as the excess air hissing out of an overinflated tire.
The other night after I was playing the guitar for a while and leading a dance, someone who’s a good guitar player told me she noticed I play only my high strings, never the low ones. I told her my theory about the high notes and the low voice. She didn’t dismiss it, but said that in her opinion, the way I was playing did not make me sound commanding. I said I didn’t want to sound wishy-washy … ! She said it wasn’t that exactly, but she noticed the absence of low notes when I was playing.
I’m a guitar student without a teacher who takes advice and feedback and instruction wherever she can get it. I take it to heart and try to use it to improve myself and my playing as much as I am able. I consider this information. To me it feels like maybe a lack of foundation in my playing, maybe the instability of my fundamental insecurity about whether I will be allowed to play at all, and if I am, whether I will just embarrass myself. Maybe I need to just get over it.
I want to be able to play all the notes. I want to embrace and love every part of myself. I want to shake off that dang insecurity that keeps me down as a musician! So I’ll keep working on it — get knocked down and get up again (in the words of Chumbawamba — I really love that song, not even kidding). My ego gets some message that it interprets as a need for shame. I lose confidence in myself, I think I’m a total loser idiot, I sulk … and eventually I just put it out of my mind, lalalalalalala, and go back to doing the thing I love doing and being goofily grateful that people let me do it. Hm, yeah, I think a little more confidence would soften up that cycle a lot.