And Now for Something Completely Different

What would you do if fear weren’t involved?

This was the question my friend posed as we sat in her car last year mulling over what I should do about a particular situation that involved putting myself out there.

When I allowed myself to disconnect from the fear of rejection, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  Although things did not end up working out as I had hoped, I was glad that I had taken a chance.

Many of the most rewarding experiences I recall have involved pursuing things I wanted that first required me to break through a wall of fear. I am always hesitant to leave my comfort zone, but have found that when I have moved past a gnawing fear of failure, I have never regretted it, even when the outcome is different than what I had envisioned.

A recent example of this was when I decided to take up the drums — at age 46. 

Like many kids in the 70s, I played a variety of instruments in grade school: piano (until I got kicked out of lessons in 2nd grade due to insolence), violin (because I was told in 3rd grade that my hands were too small to play the instrument I really wanted to play — the guitar), saxophone (can you say Pink Panther?), clarinet (so squeaky!), and finally, guitar.

I love playing the guitar and still play today.  Some of my fondest memories have involved getting together to play and sing with other people.

I have always been fascinated with the drums, though never asked to play when I was in school. The drums have a different meaning; they are less a collaborative instrument that brings people together (Kumbaya!) and more of a middle finger to convention.  In my mind, there is something viscerally appealing about the rebellion associated with drummers and drum sets.  I have wanted to play drums for as long as I can remember.

But starting to play in middle age, as a woman?  What would people think?  I am a person who takes comfort in belonging to the herd, so the thought of invoking sneers from some in my herd was enough to give me pause.

Aside from the fact that the Stepford wives in my neighborhood might look askance at female drummers, honestly, there are so few to be found in popular culture.  Only five women appear on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, and I only recognize one.

I have to credit my former mate with giving me the push I needed to move from thinking about it to actually doing it.  I mentioned in passing that I had always wanted to play the drums, but said I was too old and it would look weird.  She pointed out the distortion in my worldview and strongly encouraged me to start.

I thought about it and decided to follow her advice. 

I began by taking lessons with a local guy who was a drummer with a number of well-known rock bands back in the day.  He was very good at teaching the basics, and over the year that I worked that with him, I saw that he had an eclectic group of students.

My first teacher

The client whose lesson was often right before mine was probably in kindergarten.  He had a pushy mom and was actually quite good, though I could often hear the teacher redirecting him when his five-year-old attention span was growing thin.  Who could blame the kid for wanting to get back to his T-Rex building set instead of continuing to slog through rudiments?

The guy whose lesson was right after mine was a burly, rough and tumble 40-something who seemed to be dying to fist bump me as we passed each other in the hallway every week.  We usually had a little chuckle when we saw each other, like, “Heh, heh … we’re both old people taking beginner drum lessons!”

Last summer I took lessons with another extremely talented drummer, a guy I had followed on Instagram.  He was very sweet; he was also probably more than 20 years younger than me. Working with him was a lot like driving a Mercedes the second time you’re behind the wheel.

My second teacher

Being a novice at my age has required a little humility.  I have gotten more than one curious look as I have walked in for a lesson with drumsticks in hand or mentioned to someone that I have started playing the drums. 

The payoff is that I get to do something I love.  One of my favorite things to do in my free time is to put on headphones and smash away to songs like “Highway to Hell,”  “Comfort Eagle,” or “Come Together.” There is just something so fun about leaving the realm of the suburbs and acting like a member of AC/DC for a half hour.

In the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fred Rogers talks about “positive ways to deal with your feelings” and recommends pounding on the low notes of the keyboard as a harmless, healthy way to blow off steam.  I’m not sure those living with and/or near me appreciate the Mr. Rogers approach to anger management.

There is definitely a case of role reversal going on with my son.  In my house, it’s the teenage boy who is shouting from another room, “Can you take it down a peg?” To be fair, it is ridiculously loud, thought I actually think more parents forced to tolerate their teens’ grating behavior on a daily basis should try this. (“Oh really??  You don’t feel like emptying the dishwasher? I just remembered I forgot to practice today!”)

My son isn’t the only person who detests the racket.  My next door neighbor gave me a tight smile one day and said, “Sue!  You’re getting better at the drums!”  I had to give her points on her passive aggressive ploy.  Then again, my drum set is right up against the part of my house that borders her dining room. 

Noise pollution notwithstanding, I always feel better when I have had some time to practice and disconnect from whatever stresses I have going on.  Things are clearer when I come back.  As with any hobby that provides an escape from everyday life, I am a better person afterwards.

A 51-year-old and her drums

And at the risk of sounding like Jack Handey, it’s good for the soul during a life stage when many people feel stuck.  After all, middle-aged men buy red sports cars to feel more alive; lesbians buy navy blue drum sets.

I won’t be appearing on any Rolling Stone lists anytime soon. I can keep a beat but haven’t spent enough time practicing the fundamentals to be particularly skilled. If I were 15, I might try to get some people together to hack away in a garage band. (My age confers certain benefits though, like actually owning a garage.) Who knows. Perhaps that’s still somewhere in my future.

I recently saw a little clip of Anna Wintour advising people to “own who you are, without apology,” and I think this is wise counsel.  I may not be the next John Bonham, but throwing appearances to the wind has allowed me to add a layer of enrichment to my life.