The Pen is Mightier Than the Drumstick, said I

Then I spent a week at the Ontario School of Piping, where my name tag distinctly said DRUMMER. Not mother, not writer, but DRUMMER. To be honest,  I started drumming with our pipe band  a few years ago to hang with my children. I ended up at this school  in large part to chaperone my teenaged piper (and carry her instrument, according to her), then signed up for classes to avert the temptation of gadding about Toronto spending money having fun while she worked her butt off realizing her dream. Worlds collided in a skirl of drones, snares and clinking bottles as musical callings clad in Highland traditions waged war on my introvert’s soul. And it was perfect. Here’s why:

In addition to awesome instruction that revealed the can-do’s for my drumming, I discovered this sparkler of a gem: week-long  immersion in Highland pipes and drums literally drowns out the rest of the world, giving my brain on one level a rest from routine while allowing other levels to explore and create new connections.  Among those connections are these little nuggets that work not only for drumming, but writing as well.

1. Ego. Check it at the door if you want to learn or accomplish anything. There is always someone better, and when you become the best, someone is working like crazy to take it away from you. Don’t worry about them, but about you: develop your talent to YOUR goals. That’s truly being the best.

2. Give yourself permission to suck. Because on some level you do. As does the little phenom sitting across from you, and the gold medal winner instructing you. We all have something we’re good at and something we need to do better. Criticism is like ye olde haggis – sounds frightening and looks God-awful, but nourishes in a way like no other.

3. We learn better with wine. Or Scotch. Or Diet Coke. Or an herbal tea. Whatever can be shared during Happy Hour, room chats, or pre-dinner mixers, enabling conversations that tell us we’re not the only ones feeling awkward or overwhelmed, that offer advice for how to navigate a complex tune, or give a safe space to perform and share. Writing and music practice are solitary pursuits, but they don’t have to be solos all the time.

4. Let it flow. The pen, like a drumstick, is an extension of our arm and our personality. If we’re tense or afraid, nothing moves. Relax. Open. Trust. Relax some more. Dropping the stick every now and then is good. It’s better than holding on too tightly.

5. Practice. Remember those grammar exercises from school?  Spelling tests? Hated then, but appreciated now. Same with drumming. Three minutes is an eternity when repeating rolls, taps, buzzes… but over time, the connections are made and the notes meld, the words blend … and music is made.

6. Build up to it. Going from zero to eight hours of writing a day is going to cause aches and strains, just like suddenly drumming for an afternoon non-stop when you’ve barely touched the sticks in months is going to make your muscles and brain feel like road kill in a matter of hours. Start with small measurable daily steps, and when those become comfortable, add more time, speed, or another challenge.

7. Good food. Recharging from a hard day of work, be it learning left-handed flams or fleshing out a new character, is much easier with a quick tasty filling meal to ease the tummy rumbles. Fresh premade meals or a trusted soul who can whip up some comfort food? They are as valuable as instructors in ensuring the success of any creation.

8. Be brave. My drumming instructor told me this in an effort to loosen my grip on the sticks. In reality, courage was needed to step into the room at all, with some  of the best musicians in their field in the world. I could have said I wasn’t good enough to be there. But because I went, I learned from them, and now I’m better. Same with writing. Stand in the presence of the greats; if they truly deserve your adoration, they’ll welcome the opportunity to share a teachable moment, or two, or 10 …

9. Record the experience. Have your camera or phone fully charged and the memory clear. Use audio and/or video to store lessons and performances. Take photos. Write a funny song or poem. Journal. Message others about what you’ve learned and experienced. Lessons continue long after the schooling ends.

10. Believe in yourself. Own your talent and choose what to do with it. If it’s to improve the quality of your work, then invest the time and sweat equity, wholeheartedly. Workshops and lessons to impart wisdom, a few minutes a day, every day to keep the momentum going. You’re worth it.

I will never be a champion musician, but I can be a drummer good enough to enjoy and share the experience.
I may never win a major award, but I can be a writer skilled enough to enjoy and share a good story.
That is what those five days of school taught me.
And, that I should drink more, since relaxation is good for the flow.

You bet I’m going back next year.

Thanks for reading.

Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series.