“Why don’t you play like a man,” said the conductor. All eyes turn on me, the WOMAN with the bass drum. Outraged and embarrassed, I recalled my Dad’s voice. “Zaneta, if you’re serious about playing the drums, you’re going to have to play better than the GUY next to you.” As a little kid, I had no idea what he was talking about, but something stuck with me that day. Every so often his words would return, at times when I realize being female percussionist is different from male percussionist. In fact, many girls aspiring to play drums will be discouraged from playing percussion and if they do continue, will face gender discrimination. But I argue that every woman should play percussion. It is one of the most empowering and liberating experiences a woman could have. And though I have met many jerks in my career, I have also had the fortune of meeting wonderful teachers and artists. Women and men, who remind me that I belong to a community working towards making the world better for future generations of women.
In America, there are many attitudes surrounding female percussionists. Studies show that people associate instruments with gender and drums are considered masculine. Therefore, the most common issue is finding support. Many girls are steered away from drums because it’s not gender appropriate. As a teacher, I still encounter parents who fear allowing their daughters to study drums. Another challenge that girls face is being hyper-sexualized. From ads to Youtube videos, it’s easy for young women to be more concerned with how they look than how they sound. Above all, the hardest challenge is gender discrimination. In school, it is common to view girls as inferior musicians, unless they can prove otherwise. For a young girl, this machismo chops competition can determine whether they are accepted or bullied. So why should women play drums?
Playing percussion is empowering and builds confidence for life. Teaching for Girls Inc. NYC, I saw girls who struggled to communicate, but through drumming they were free to express themselves without fear of bullying and judgment. Learning percussion forges a natural mind-body connection, which also develops spatial logic, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, improving academic excellence. In addition, group drumming offers girls the opportunity to work cooperatively instead of competitively. Girls learn how to work toward common goals and cultivate discipline, humility, and responsibility. Finally, girls need healthy outlets to channel their emotions and through drumming they can share their feeling without stumbling through words or language.
For aspiring girl percussionists, I recommend getting informed, start playing, make friends and be fearless! Get to know the history and develop preferences. Resources, such as Tom Tom Magazine, Modern Drummer, drummergirl.com, and drummercafe.com, offer history, forums, and sound clips. The next step is to find a teacher nearby through recommendations, websites, and music schools. There are great female and male teachers, look for someone who makes you feel comfortable. Once you start playing, make friends, join a class, or even apply for a music camp. Finally, be fearless! Get out there and perform at a friend’s party or a retirement home, share your music.
We are living in a time when being a female percussionist is more radical and awesome than ever before. So find some drumsticks, make instruments out of household junk, and play music. Remember, as a female percussionist, you belong to a group of musicians, who are boldly changing the world and music forever. Be proud and keep on drumming.
Zaneta Sykes is percussionist, educator, and composer. She currently teaches through the Park Slope Percussion Studio and resides in Brooklyn. Read more about Zaneta in Issue 8 of Tom Tom Magazine. SUBSCRIBE.
Photos by Zachary Maxwell Stertz