Little Drummer Girl:
Pursuing Passion While Overcoming Adversity
for Advanced Composition, East TN State U, December 2011
When you think of a drummer, what image pops up in your head? According to the article “Not Bad – For a Girl” published by the newspaper The Guardian, this image is society’s view of drummers: “The image of a drummer is of a geeky bloke in shorts with arms like a weightlifter.” But what about girls? How many people ever picture a girl when they think of drummers? Unfortunately, playing the drums is still considered a male activity. Any female who expresses the desire to play drums is laughed at because it is widely believed that girls can’t play drums as well as guys.
Helene Stapinski is a female drummer whose story was told in the article “Not Bad – For a Girl” (The Guardian). Her story is an example of the adversity female drummers have to overcome: “A female drummer, taking what is perceived as a male part, always has a lot to prove. ‘When I [Stapinski] was in high school I would say I played the drums and the boys would laugh at me. It was sort of a joke.’” I know how it feels to have my drumming skills doubted based on my gender. I have now been playing the drum set for five years, and it was a long time coming.
My mom noticed my natural rhythmic talent when I was six. I had gotten ahold of two pens one Sunday morning at our Presbyterian church in Macon, Georgia, and as my mom was talking with a friend I was tapping away at the wall close by. The tapping interrupted my mom’s conversation and she looked around for the source; when she saw it was her daughter she was pleasantly surprised. Since my mom had studied music education in college, she could easily recognize musical talent and was sure that I had the natural talent for drumming. She was right.
Because of my family’s financial situation I was given only a pair of drum sticks and a drummer’s practice pad; but from age six to nine, I happily began teaching myself rhythms with the supplies I had. I would go to an empty room in our house, set my drum pad on the floor, put on head-phones connected to a portable CD player, and jam out to Disney’s Tarzan soundtrack (it had songs full of fun rhythms). After a move from Georgia to Ft. Campbell, Tennessee (where my father joined the Army), and after starting ballet lessons at age nine, drums were no longer my primary passion.
Just over two years later my family and I experienced our first military move from Ft. Campbell, Tennessee to Scholfield Barracks, Ohahu Hawaii. After my short ballet career had ended, I was asked by my church worship leader (my mother) to learn how to play the Djembe (an African hand drum). I had never heard of a Djembe, much less had the opportunity to play one. But at thirteen years old, I had taught myself how to play this exotic drum in just a month. This was the beginning of my drumming career on church worship bands.
It wasn’t until I was fifteen and we had moved again from Hawaii to Ft. Meade, Maryland that I began playing the drum set. Since I didn’t have a drum set of my own yet, I played whenever I could at the Army base chapel where my mom was given the worship leader position. It didn’t take long for me to realize that learning to play the drum set would be much harder than learning to play the Djembe. Putting together the sounds of multiple drums and making it sound good and on tempo is much harder than playing just one hand drum. But I wasn’t going to give up no matter how much of a challenge it was.
When I was seventeen my dad bought me my own electric drum set, giving me the ability to practice whenever I wanted. There was no noise to bother my family (or neighbors) because the sound went through headphones. Since I was able to practice much more often, my skill level increased, but not as much as I had wanted and expected it to. Even after a year of having my own drum set I still felt insecure when playing in front of an audience. I didn’t feel like I could ever be as good as the drummers I heard in the alternative and rock music I was constantly listening to. Drummers like Shannon Leto from the band 30 Seconds to Mars, Joe Rickard from Red, and Chriss Hesse from Hoobastank.
One reason I didn’t think I would ever be as good was because all of the drummers in my favorite bands were guys. Would I ever be strong enough to do the complicated fast rhythms that these male drummers do? Not only does playing drums require arm strength, but also hand strength. I wasn’t strong enough to play the drum set well until I was twenty. It took a year of serious playing for my hands to build up enough muscle to hold onto drumsticks while playing fast rhythms. I can’t count how many times drumsticks have soared through the air because my hands weren’t strong enough to hold onto them. It was very discouraging.
It was even more discouraging when I was eighteen and had been teaching myself how to play for a year, but still didn’t feel like I was making much progress. I began to think that I would never be able to play the rhythms that male drummers could play. In January 2009 my family was still living in Maryland and I had been attending and getting involved in a Baptist church. In early January the church was having band auditions for the Sunday morning worship team. I decided to audition on the Djembe and on the drum set. After I played my Djembe to the song “Unveil” by the worship singer/songwriter Jeff Deyo, the worship leader told me I did an excellent job and “had the touch” for hand-drum playing. Next, I played the drum set to the worship leader playing “Open The Eyes of My Heart” on the piano. I knew I didn’t play well at all and the worship leader confirmed it when he didn’t offer any compliments on my playing and never asked me to play the drum set during the six months I was a member of the church.
Even though I was rejected on the drum set, I was given the opportunity to play the Djembe on the Sunday morning worship team. This opened the door for me to also play on the youth band that met Sunday nights. One afternoon during youth band practice, I told the worship leader that in addition to the Djembe, I could also play the drum set. He skeptically allowed me to play at practice and that night at the service. Along with being nervous, I didn’t have the skill to play very well yet; and I didn’t play well that night. In fact, I played horribly. During the first song, “God of This City” by the popular worship music artist Chris Tomlin, I was aware of every single mistake that I made – I missed cymbal crashes, got off tempo, and almost dropped a stick causing me to pause and try to catch up. I was embarrassed that I had claimed to be a drummer. No one told me I didn’t play well, but I recall awkward silences after the service; I was never asked to play drum set at the youth worship service again. Instead I just played the Djembe (a drum I was very good at playing).
Although I was discouraged I didn’t stop playing. I couldn’t. Drums were a part of who I was – and who I still am. When I was eighteen I began my first year of college. Because I was living in a small dorm I couldn’t bring my drum set. My set remained packed up for almost a year and I didn’t play at all. Near to the end of my freshman year, I unpacked my drum set at my parent’s apartment that was located ten minutes away from my school, East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee (my family moved there after my dad got out of the Army). Even though the drum set was electric and I could wear headphones to cover up the sound, I couldn’t play very often because of the neighbors living below us who could hear the banging of my bass drum pedal.
Throughout that time I became very out of practice. For the first half of my sophomore year I didn’t have access to a drum set at all because my parents moved to Nashville, Tennessee which is just over five hours away from Johnson City. But during the second half of my sophomore year I decided to bring the set to my dorm (a different and larger dorm than the one I had lived in my freshman year). I played very often and began to get my strength back. Toward the middle of the semester I was invited to try out to play drums for Northpoint Community Church, a friend of mine’s church. He told me they were in desperate need of a drummer. I agreed to attend a Sunday service and after meeting the band I was excited to try out. I could see that the worship leader was skeptical of my ability to play the drums.
“I’ve never met a girl drummer before,” I remember him saying.
This comment got me thinking about how rare female drummers are. The fact that his skepticism about my skill level was influenced by my gender was slightly aggravating. I’ve never had much interest in feminism, but the idea that girls can’t play drums as well as guys gets my blood boiling. Nevertheless, I got my chance to prove to the worship leader and the band that I didn’t have to be a guy to play drums well – and I played very well. I’ve been the drummer at Northpoint Community Church ever since.
Mine is just one of many female drummers’ stories about our unique journeys to becoming very talented drummers. Fortunately I had the support of my parents who always encouraged me to keep drumming. Many females who at one point wanted to be drummers got so discouraged by the lack of support that they gave up. According to the article in The Guardian: “Emma Gaze, who plays with arty all-girl Brighton band Electrelane, believes a lot of potential female drummers get discouraged: ‘You’re constantly striving against a barrage of criticism and a lot of women do give up.’”
Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of famous female drummers. The first one that comes to mind is Jen Ledger from the Christian rock band Skillet. There are also Meg White from the band White Stripes, Maureen (aka Moe) Tucker from the Velevet Underground, and Elisso Bello from the all-girl band The Go-Go’s. This is just a short list, but there are many more. Female drummers aren’t given much publicity because society is still having a hard time seeing that girls can drum just as well as guys.
In conclusion, female drummers have to prove their abilities to male critics; but even though it is unfair and sexist for female drummers to be doubted and judged, playing drums is worth it. Natural drummers are born with the desire and talent to play the drums and should not give up no matter how unsupported they are. I know that nothing will stop me from becoming the best drummer I can be.
“Not Bad – For a Girl.” The Guardian. January 29, 2004. Web.
Youtube.com – “Skillet - Jen Ledger Drum Solo - Awake and Alive tour - New York - High Quality.” Run-time: 2:26. October 23, 2009.