As drummers we’ve long battled identity issues that never seem to go away, no matter how far we advance our art. For years the famed drummer Bill Bruford has pointed out a certain “pitched-instrument bias” on the part of the public, other instrumentalists, and even ourselves. Among the topics in his latest book, Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer, Bruford explores the phenomenon of drummers being disrespected “despite the fact,” as he recently told me, “we all know a band is only as good as its drummer, etc.
“In all this,” he added, “the language used to describe drummers and the language they use to describe themselves is pivotal.”
Bruford was in fact prompted to write me following the publication of a piece in Modern Drummer in which we used certain verbs to describe playing the drumset that, he argues, support long-standing prejudices that harm our reputation on a macro scale. My immediate reaction to Bill was to say that I believed our readership was hip enough to not take offense at the occasional use of terms like bash or slam. But as I thought more about his contention, particularly in light of current events that have forced even the most open-minded of us to rethink how we speak about those with different backgrounds from ours, I began to reevaluate his comments.
Language is a powerful thing, more powerful, I believe, than many of us consider. Particularly as Modern Drummer has put more energy into our internet presence, I’ve struggled with how to react when social media followers choose to leave thoughtless or insulting comments about our posts or the drummers featured in them. I suppose it’s debatable whether there’s always been a percentage of people who care little about tempering their public commentary with a level of decency. But in the era of online, it sure seems like folks don’t think much about the words they use anymore, even if they have a valid point to make.
Don’t get me wrong, I get as much of a kick as the next guy when airing personal grievances in a snarky online post. It’s one of the reasons that I maintain separate private and public social media pages. I have no problem proclaiming that Senator What’s His Name is nothing but a big poopie-head—when I know that the only people who see it either share my view or, if they don’t, will put up with my comments because we’re actual flesh-and-blood friends, and they know and accept my proclivities. If, on the other hand, I wanted to share my misgivings about the senator in a public forum, I’d choose my words much more carefully, and hopefully communicate a fair and nuanced assessment.
So back to this issue of how we drummers are spoken about. I’m going to bet that it hasn’t been very long since you last had to grit your teeth while someone told a stale old “drummer joke.” While this may not rank as an impeachable offense, it does, as Bruford says, suggest larger problems, namely that even after the remarkable intellectual, physical, and creative feats of musicians like Chris Dave, Vinnie Colaiuta, Antonio Sanchez, and, for sure, Bill Bruford himself, old biases and ignorant attitudes remain, and diminish our perceived value.
No doubt, we must be careful not to wholly avoid certain words at the expense of accurate reportage. Sometimes there’s no getting around saying that a particular drummer is truly slamming, banging, or pounding the instrument. But perhaps it’s more important than ever to try to use more precise language and not just the words that will garner the most likes on Facebook. Because if we don’t treat ourselves like the true artists that we are, we have no right to expect anything different from others.