his own music
14 October 2004

One of Damian's first toys was a plastic musical bear with four colored lights plastered across its round body. When you pressed a button on its belly, it played B-I-N-G-O and A Tisket, A Tasket as the lights blinked more or less in time with the music. Sound 'n lights, simple stuff to amuse the toddler set. Around age three, Damian developed an interesting game with the toy: he'd press the button and clang his cymbals along with the tinny sound. Musical? Maybe.

He's always liked plonking on the piano. He'd bang on a few keys over and over, creating his own rhythms but never exploring the range of sounds. And when Heidi (our old OT) gave Damian a toy keyboard, he played it in the car incessantly but again, he always limited himself to a few notes repeated in different patterns. Musical? Who knows?

He clearly loves music, loves making sounds. Musicians often show early aptitude. Those whose parents foster this have more chance to excel later. It's not something we'd ever force on our child but if he's got the inclination, it's worth noting and nurturing. And it seemed like he might. But then again, he might not. That plonking? Never terribly melodic. And yet. He had an uncanny sense of rhythm. Maybe an interest in melody would come later?

We gave him a learning keyboard a couple of years ago for his birthday. If you set it to teach mode it'll light up the right keys to play a song (A Charlie Brown Christmas), or you can set it to sing out the notes ("C sharp! A flat!") instead. Dan showed Damian all the neat learning tricks. Damian ignored them in favor of figuring out what numbers to press on the pad to get the keyboard to make cool space sounds or fun drum beats.

This past Christmas we bought Damian a kid-sized guitar; he'd been dragging the adult one around the house like a prize, brushing the strings to make a loud dissonance, it seemed like maybe he should have his own. But the pint-sized one went unused until spring, when we got a wonderful floor time therapist, an exuberant man with a boyish sense of fun (who moved to Chicago at the end of the summer and is sorely missed by all). Damian loved playing with him. He especially loved when they made up songs. One would strum the guitar and they'd both belt out the lyrics ("There's a Froggie in my pocket! Oooo yeah! Sittin' in my pocket yeah! Ribbit ribbit ribbit yeah!") That's when Damian started subjecting us to serenading us with his down-n-dirty rock-n-roll concerts, complete with guttural voice a la Bob Seger. Still, he had no interest in learning chords or working on melody. Just strumming and belting out imaginative lyrics. Very cute but not calling out for guitar lessons.

Musical? The interest was there. The aptitude? Maybe. Just maybe. But what instrument?

Well, duh. Listen to your kid. Literally.

He was drumming on everything. The back of the car seat. The table. Me. ("I'm not a drum, Damian." "You are too a drum, Mommy! See? I'm going to drum on you now. You're a drum!") Every day these past few months, he'd take out a spatula and an egg beater and wail away on the butcher block counter. And then look at me with a smile. "Recognize that song?" (Turned out it was Doe a Deer from his preschool graduation concert.) And when he'd play his keyboard - which he started doing a lot this summer - he'd always switch it to the drum sounds.

Hmm. Interested in rhythm from early on. Plays every instrument as if it was a drum. Insists I too am a drum. You think he's telling us something?

About six weeks ago, I asked him, "Damian, would you like a drum?" Imagining a bongo, something small that he could use instead of the butcher block counter. His answer? "No, I want a drum kit!"

As in full set of drums. As in whoa baby.

Dan and I thought maybe we could check out drum pads, the kind of small device kids often start on. Or maybe even full-sized but electronic drum kits (you can turn down the sound, the drummer can wear a headset, they can be quiet.) So one Sunday about a month ago, we stopped by Sam Ash, poked our heads in the drum department.

Damian made a beeline for the first full-sized drum kit. Picked up a couple of sticks and started drumming. And damn, but he sounded good. Over the course of the next half hour, he tried one kit after another, enjoying the sound and the chance to go all-out on full-bodied drums.

While Damian was falling in love with the clash and clang of the real thing, Dan and I had a chat with the well spoken drum salesman. He showed us the electronic drums (a thousand bucks???) and the pads (is that IT?). He also showed us a good starter kit - and by starter, I mean a perfectly respectable full sized but maybe a tad small set of drums that happens to be a decent price. He said that Damian has talent, he could tell by the way he used the sticks on his rolls. He gave me the name and number of a drum teacher who comes to your house. Said this guy is good. Not only that, but when a stingy father refused to upgrade a talented boy from pads to real drums, the teacher went out and bought the kid a set with his own money. That's the kind of involved teacher I want for my kid.

Still, though. Are we really doing this? Are we committing this not-insignificant chunk of change and completely rearranging Damian's bedroom for something so new and unknown? He's not a teenager, he's a kindergartener. Can he know that this is important to him? Can we?

The next day I called the teacher. He said he could start as soon as we had the drums set up. He approved the choice of kit, said it will last Damian a few years until he's chosen his sound (jazz, rock, blues, heavy metal (!)) and needs a more specifically geared setup.

Well then. After school that Monday Damian and I went to go get us some drums.

Damian now has a drum kit in his bedroom and three lessons under his belt. The guy at Store #2 said he's a natural. His teacher says he's got excellent rhythm and great ideas. He picks up patterns right away, copies them and then adds his own flourish. His eyes smile and his face comes alive as he plays. And when his teacher leaves at the end of the lesson, he too looks excited. Thrilled, even. He told me last week that Damian is one of his best students. Picks things up faster even than the older ones.

I hesitate to say that Damian's found his calling. He's so young and this could easily just be a phase. He could branch out into other music, other non-music, who knows? And it's not like he obsessively returns to the drums again and again during the day or eagerly races to play when he gets home from school. He enjoys it, that's clear. A lot, even. But he hasn't fully owned it yet somehow and maybe he never will. And that would be okay. The last thing we want to do is shoehorn him into a career path or even an avocation that he may excel at but may not be his true passion, because what's the point of that?

Then again, maybe it is his passion. Maybe the hesitance we see is just a kind of shyness, the lack of confidence we see in so many arenas. He was irresistibly drawn toward the sets in both stores, itching to try each and every one, caught up in the rhythm and the reverb. But now there's a set in his very own bedroom, looming over the toys and the books. If I were six years old, I too might be intimidated.

I can't - and don't want to - predict where it will lead him, but this, the lessons, the drumming, is a goodness in and of itself. It teaches him motor planning and concentration and gives him the thrill of performing. It's funny; when I tell people about Damian's new drums, most of them look at me like I've lost my mind. They say things like, "Couldn't you have picked something less loud?" and "You'll be sorry!" They're so far off base. You don't get to choose your child's interests and aptitudes. I believe we have an obligation to give this to him, to offer this path and see how far it takes him. He needs the chance to try it on for size. So what if it's loud? I can live with that. That's what earplugs are for. And no, I won't be sorry. Far from it. I love this. I love that my child who has had so many deficits, so many people working toward bringing him up to the level of his peers, teaching him the things that come naturally to other kids, that this child has something he can do better than anyone. An honest to god brightly shining talent.

And when he's playing, he looks so happy.

My little drummer boy.

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