Wichita Falls, 1961: I was the head of the drum section, and in my senior year of high school I was voted “Band King”, and had a large picture in our yearbook, The Bearcat. Last summer, I’d spent two weeks at a drumming camp in Arlington, Texas, led by two older guys and Emmory Whipple, who was three times state Rudimental Champion.
The military style of playing a snare drum, very crisply, is called “Rudimental” drumming, because there are 26 drum rudiments. They have fanciful names, such as five-stroke roll, double paradiddle, flamaque. Combined, you can play any rhythmic pattern that can be written.
Playing the rudiments cleanly and quickly came easily to me. I encountered a space where I was just looking at the music, hearing in my mind what it should sound like, and my hands creating that sound. All the while, I sat back, like an engineer in a control booth, adjusting this, regulating that.
I was pretty good. That’s why it was so upsetting.
For the regional try-outs, I’d chosen a drum solo called “The Downfall of Paris“. As my name was French, perhaps I should have paid more attention to the omen. But I liked the song. I can still hear it, in my head, echoing down the corridors all these decades since, the stacatto cadences of the Downfall of Paris.
And I can remember the rain. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I halfway thought, hoped, and feared that I would go to State. It was possible. Our band director, Mr. Raeke, didn’t say much, but he seemed to think it possible, too. I admired Mr. Raeke. He was cool, meaning he dressed neatly, wore a crew cut, had clean features, smoked, was quiet with a cynical sense of humor. A bit like Peter Gunn, except he never beat people up, being the band director rather than a private eye.
I’d practiced and practiced. I knew the solo backwards and forwards. The contest was in Wichita Falls, a big city near our town. The day was rainy as we drove to the contest, a gray day. And as I stood in the hallway, outside the room where the drumming judge would score me, I felt both confident and very nervous.
Finally it was my turn.
I went inside. There were a few steps down, and a music stand, and a thin fellow with wiry hair. I placed my music on the music stand, and adjusted the snares on the bottom of the drum. I was ready.
“The Downfall of Paris,” I said. I began to play. And in the ninth measure, right on the Flamaque, the very tip of my left stick, descending, caught the tip of my right stick, rising, and I’d made a mistake.
It threw me. I should have continued, but I’d stopped.
I began again.
Oh! At the exact same place, the exact same thing happened.
I stopped. The judge looked at me expectantly, but I didn’t begin again. The contest was already lost. I’d not be going further. I’d not be going to the state contest.
The judge, perhaps attempting to be kind, told me some information, which was in fact wrong. He told me that the seven-stroke roll should always be started with the left hand. Of course, that’s one school of thought. But I’d already mastered the other school. I could do the roll perfectly starting with either hand.
But not today. Today my head was burning, the contest was lost, and a confusion roared in my ears as I tried to listen politely.
And then I left.
I stood on the porch of the building, just out of the rain, smoking cigarettes, and thinking darkly of self pity. Mr. Raeke came to the door, looked out. He saw my face, and I guess that told him how the contest had gone. He said nothing, but went back inside.
Some time later, we drove back to our town. I didn’t talk much. As it turned out, I gave up drumming not long afterward, and never did it again. On the drive back, I didn’t say much because I knew that a corner had turned, that my life had changed.
And that I was a different fellow, going home. And I didn’t know who.