More cowbell: You can totally teach an old dog some new tricks

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“You can totally do this!”

The attractive young hippie named Lisa seemed convincing as she smiled into the camera and offered these encouraging words. She was confident and enthusiastic, but I still had my doubts.

Lisa’s video was one of the first to pop up when I launched a Youtube search for beginning drummer lessons. Lisa, a bohemian type with a pleasant laid-back vibe that exuded flower-child cool, seemed absolutely certain she could transform anyone into a snare-snapping, cymbal-crashing drummer in just a few easy lessons.

I was about to put that theory to the test.

What prompted my web search was the news that the drummer in our church band was dragging up. The rest of the band members put out some feelers, but after a few weeks we came up bupkis.

When it seemed we might never find a fill-in, I was struck by an idea as we were wrapping up rehearsals one night. Maybe I can ditch my bass guitar and dare to settle in behind that intimidating set of Roland TD-4 V-Drums. All-electric, with black wires and cords hanging out, black rims, big black rubber plates where the shiny cymbals usually stand, the drum kit always looked to me like a huge menacing tarantula poised in a striking position up on the stage.

The one little problem with attempting to take on that venomous arachnid was that I had never played a set of drums – any set of drums of any kind – in my entire life. Well, okay, my parents bought me a set of pee wee drums for Christmas when I was a kid, but those only lasted a few days before I discovered it was a dumb idea to substitute screwdrivers for drum sticks.

Anyway, how on earth could a burned-out, middle-age putz like me pull off learning how to play the skins from absolute scratch? How could I go from being a complete novice to grooving with the band in front of a congregation full of living, breathing – mostly awake – fellow Methodists?

I had played acoustic, electric and bass guitar with church bands for quite a few years, so I wondered how hard could it be? Maybe some of that time spent playing other instruments could hasten my development as a drummer. Or, I could end up making a complete fool of myself and being exposed as an embarrassment and a laughingstock. I mean, more than usual.

Driven mostly by the notion that there’s something a little sad about seeing a drum set just sitting there and not being played – even tarantulas need a little lovin’ – I decided to give it an honest rip. The first thing I did was hold an impromptu audition with our music leader so he could assess my natural sense of rhythm and advise me whether he thought there was any shot at me becoming a serviceable drummer before I even started wasting my time and energy trying to pick up any skills.

Perhaps only because he’s polite, he listened to me bang around for a few moments. And though my efforts sounded much like a 3-year-old clanging on a set of kitchen pots and pans, he gave me the green light. With no line item in the budget for “lessons for beginning drummer who probably won’t amount to much anyway,” the next step was to do an internet search for free lessons, with the emphasis on “free.”

That’s how I met my new groovy cyberspace friend, Lisa.

I drilled and drilled, took the tarantula home and practiced mornings and nights, heeding Lisa’s observation that musicians “don’t just fall from the sky.” I even took a cue from stories I had heard of basketball stars who learned how to improve their weaker-hand proficiency by walking, talking, eating and sleeping with a basketball in their grasp. I started toting around a pair of drumsticks and tapping out cadences on countertops and assorted pieces of furniture. My wife drew the line when I tried to bring them to bed.

Soon our leader, flying on pure faith, gave me the nod to start practicing with the band. A week or so later, I found myself in a spot I never thought I’d ever find myself: laying down a fully amplified beat in front of our congregation, driving the tempo, essentially responsible for holding together the entire foundation of the musical component of our service. Perhaps even a few souls were at stake. Not that I felt any pressure or anything.

The intimidation factor shot through the roof when I was tapped to do the solo for Little Drummer Boy during advent. I was just praying a stick wouldn’t go spinning through the air and pin someone against a pew.

To be sure, I’m not the most proficient percussionist, but I can generally keep the beat, add in a fill here and there, and deliver more cowbell if needed. It helps that the object of contemporary Christian music is not to make like Dave Grohl – or Buddy Rich for you old-timers – it’s to set the mood and generate the energy for a worshipful experience. So, in that sense, once your ego is removed from the equation the stress level sinks. Just let the Spirit take over and you can’t go wrong.

That doesn’t mean I don’t accidentally clack a rim every once in a while. And my friends in the congregation, in their ongoing effort to give me grief, let me know they’re keeping track of the clacks. I’m planning on making it like a college drinking game and challenging them to put a 20-spot in the collection plate every time they hear a clack.

My only drawback is that in my old age I think I’m developing carpal tunnel syndrome, which will probably lead to a lot more clacks but should be good news for the budget committee.

The new year is off and running and I hope you gather up the faith and courage to do whatever it is you feel called to do in 2014. I’m proof positive that Lisa is right: “You can totally do this!”

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