The Art of Practicing


Photo and words by Keeli McCarthy

Name: Keeli McCarthy

Age: 39

Hometown: Glendale, AZ

Lives In: Seattle AZ

Drum Set: Roland TD-1K

Sticks: Vater Rock

Fav Drum App:

Fav Food: Mighty-O donuts

I practice one hour each day. Twenty minutes devoted to rudiments on the snare over various patterns on the bass and hi-­hat feet. Thirty minutes practicing things I’ve learned either in my bi-weekly lessons or that I’ve picked out of a book of R&B/soul grooves. Then ten minutes of free play.

But before I can begin playing, I must set up my kit: five minutes to arrange the two sheets of plywood on my bed. Lift my electronic kit onto the plywood, hook in my pedals, hoist up the old kitchen chair, plug in my headphones, pull out my sticks and sloppy sheets of notation. Climb up, sit down, and begin playing. Wobbling on my bed, my head almost hitting the slanted ceiling, I can be mostly assured that my downstairs neighbors will not complain about the thumping of my bass and my pedals. The obstacles to being a drummer in a tiny attic apartment with sound ­sensitive downstairs neighbors feels almost invigorating, like a practice in nimbleness, in tenacity, a daily love letter to the act of playing.

I came to drumming as a serious endeavor at the age of 39, and that number throws people off. We are accustomed to musicians who get their start as scrappy youngsters, who pick up shitty kits and splintered drum sticks and draw from a core of youthful vigor to eventually blossom into accomplished, mature musicians. When I was 31, I took my first lesson and bought a secondhand kit, but my devotion did not last the year. My partner at the time was obsessive and solitary, an accomplished musician, and I think I saw drumming as a way to worm into his world and communicate in a way we didn’t as a couple. Inevitably, he had little desire to join in with my instrument, and the disappointment stung; my desire to play didn’t withstand the shame of being a beginner next to his towering ability. I quietly sold my kit and continued with other artistic pursuits.

People ask me what kind of drumming I do. I variously tell them I play motorik, second line, or fractured soul/R&B. Or try to explain the gut ­deep voodoo mysteries of strange time signatures. But this is all speculative: right now I am a beginner. I am putting in the time to learn that which will determine what kind of drummer I will be some day, but these hours of practice could end up producing an extremely mediocre drummer who still can’t play a really good snare roll. The act of practicing is not necessarily a creative one; it is an investment in future creativity. I read somewhere that it takes approximately ten years or 10,000 hours of playing to an expert level of performance. I ache when I read those numbers. I ache to move past the beginner stage of developing limb independence and bass pedal speed. I ache to play with freedom and fluency. But there is a certain humble beauty in being a beginner and practicing as an investment in the musical language. I fumble, and I yell often in frustration, but each evening I commit to pulling out the plywood, I acknowledge that beauty.

My relationship to my drums is something I don’t recognize from that first time around. Time has shown me what I want to gain out of playing an instrument, and the hours I put in feel like a slow­burning prelude to something magical that I trust will burst forth some day. I see glimmers of it every so often when I play something that feels so right it brings tears to my eyes. I think I’m in this for the long haul, but I can’t really know. Each hour I commit to being (and becoming) a drummer feels valuable, and I can’t see myself losing that sense any time soon.

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