My first memory of a structured music environment comes from the fourth grade at Nativity, a Catholic school in Washington, D.C. The overexuberant nun insisted that we bend our thumbs at a ninety-degree angle, open our mouths, and stick the top of the crook between our lips so that they would form an oval. That was how we were supposed to sing the hymns and old Americana songs such as “Oh Shenandoah” that we were taught. It felt like torture to me, and I discovered early on that I often did it wrong. Even when I managed to get it right, I still could not carry a tune.
In high school, I went through the rite of passage that many kids go through: choosing an instrument to play. In my school, there were only two types of instruments: guitar and piano. I chose guitar because it was not what my sister played. I studied classical guitar and learned enough chords and strums to play a little folk music for church and a handful of other of the simple and popular songs of the early Seventies. I was barely competent. And, compared to other musicians, it was clear that I lacked a sense of complex rhythm and would never make it solo as a guitar player. I became the quiet backup player, happy to have my little time in front of people and sing the simple melodies as well as I could. After high school, it would be another 30 years before I played the guitar again.
As a young adult, I was slow to find my sense of rhythm; I did not learn how to dance until I was in my early twenties. Frequently, I attended music festivals, music clubs, free concerts and the like. At these festivals, where I had begun to perform and emcee, I was exposed to the drumming community. I had the privilege of seeing some of the best female drummers, including Edwina Lee Tyler, Olufunmilayo Jomo, Ubaka Hill of the Drum Song Institute, Jaqui MacMillan, Nurudafina Pili Abena, and Alessandra Belloni. But even though I loved seeing the women and admired how powerful and free they seemed to be, I was afraid to touch the drum. I believed that I could never learn the tempo or feel that I had the stamina to keep up with the rhythms if I played with others.
I was told by various drum teachers and students that my first drum should be one in which I could hear my heartbeat. To use the drum as a kind of meditation tool appealed to me. When I finally did buy a drum, I chose a Native American frame drum called a Four Winds drum. The only rhythm that I had to pay attention to was my own; it was not about being in a show, and there would be no worry of making a mistake.
I took my first workshop with a drummer and music therapist who used drumming and percussion as part of a treatment protocol for addiction and mental health issues. I loved the concept of using percussion and vocal exercises to deal with anxiety and stress, and I found the practice just physical enough for me to be grounding. I continued to study facilitation and eventually blended that work with storytelling and poetry. I spent two years working with a storytelling partner in assisted living and nursing facilities in the Baltimore area. Some of the people that we worked with had profound disabilities.
When the residents of the facilities arrived in the room where we worked, it was hard to tell if they were present, or if they understood why we were there. I remember one small and wrinkled woman who came wheeled in by a staff member. She sat bent over in her wheelchair with barely enough energy to tilt her head or to extend her fragile bird-like hand to take the shaker that I offered. My partner and I both noticed how sad she seemed to be. But when we came with our drums and bells and shakers and rain sticks, she smiled. We were told that she did not have visitors, had been institutionalized most of her life, and had eventually been abandoned by her family. The staff found her response to the music extraordinary, and there was a kind of awakening in that audience.
After attending a poetry workshop and finding it unsatisfactory for my learning style and assuming that there were others who needed a different approach as well, I created the Free Fall Writing workshop. The sessions began with percussion and continued with writing exercises done in meditative silence. In addition to percussion facilitation and drumming, I had studied Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, which presented the concept of spending hours in silence “seeing” an object before drawing it. The combination of drumming and silence offered a perfect balance for my mind to focus on where it needed to be before I could put pen to paper.
I blended my practices into an experience that was very kinesthetic but that did not allow for small talk. Integrating percussion into the experience was like offering a portal to the participant’s inner self, unearthing memories and producing unexpected pieces of writing. I discovered, however, that most people have questions and want to know what to expect, so I abandoned the practice of no extraneous talk after the first year.
When I introduce the interactive music experience to a new group, I tell them that the group percussion is a metaphor for their neighborhoods: Dundalk could be the bells; Reisterstown, the wood; Columbia, the shakers; and Baltimore City, the drum or the heartbeat. If the participants are not musicians, it sounds a little crazy. People feel uncomfortable or do not trust themselves. They become self-conscious and look at me as if I have two heads. Once everyone has an instrument, even those who did not want to look silly are playing. And if there is at least one person holding the bottom or the main beat and everyone else is willing to let go of a little control, then this cacophony shifts to music and a profound inner listening occurs. People start to trust what they hear.
It is important for me to create an environment where participants can be vulnerable and can access their writing. In the early years when we let the writing do all of the talking, I noticed there were lots of tears. There is an instrument for that, usually a long rain stick or an ocean drum, and there is breathing. There are still tears, but these days I notice that folks are more wary about being overexposed in person and may not share their work.
Recently, I gave a non-traditional keynote address where the audience played with me during the introduction. When we were done, a woman thanked me for the music. “You never know who you’re going to touch,” she said. She shared that her husband had been taken seriously ill a couple of days before and she had been so worried that she could not sleep and barely ate. She told me that my program had helped her to relax and that she needed that because it had been a rough couple of days. Once after a church performance, a woman grabbed me and hugged me, thanking me profusely for my “ministry.”
I had never looked at what I do that way and found it humbling. It took distancing myself from the narrative that I could not sing and had no rhythm to understand that I could hear music in my head. The gift in that is profound, and I watch what happens when strangers come together in a shared experience of making music and writing stories.