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I Drum, Therefore I Am: Being and Becoming a Drummer by Gareth Dylan Smith (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 446-448 | 10.1353/not.2014.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Relatively few scholars pursue the study of percussion instruments, likely because the primary instruments of most music scholars are voice, string, wind, or keyboard instruments. Similarly, popular music scholars often fail to include thoughtful discussion of drums. There are a few notable exceptions—Steven Baur, Theo Cateforis, and Ingrid Monson have each contributed to the conversation on the role of drums in popular music. The work of Gareth Dylan Smith (no relation to this reviewer) suggests that the tides are shifting. He successfully completes the difficult task of writing the first monograph concentrating exclusively on kit drummers in I Drum, Therefore I Am.

Smith focuses on the identities of drum set players, seeking to answer the research question “how are drummers ‘drummers’ and how do they learn to play?” (p. 2). Adapting a new framework for discussing identity, which he terms the Snowball Self, Smith examines ways that learning, experience, gender, and ethnicity influence drummers’ self-conceptions. He employs various qualitative research methods; namely, he uses questionnaires and personal interviews to collect data from both teenage and adult drummers in and around London. The author combines ethnographic, sociological, and music education methods, along with pop culture sources that range from drummer biographies to the famous Troggs Tapes (a recording of in-studio banter containing heated arguments between band members), in order to paint a much-needed picture of what it entails to become and to be a drummer. A drummer himself from the age of thirteen, Smith is uniquely qualified to lead the way in drum-centric academic scholarship; trailblazers in the discipline are often practitioners of their subjects. Smith draws not only from his experiences of playing in bands but also from his involvement in education by including anecdotes about lessons and classes he has both taken and taught.

In his first chapter, Smith not only outlines goals, methodologies, and background scholarship, but he also explores some of the myths and stereotypes attached to drummers, observing that they are among the most teased, ridiculed, and misunderstood instrumentalists. Chapter 2, “The Snowball Self,” serves as an in-depth description of Smith’s framework for theorizing identity. Drawing from G. W. F. Hegel (specifically Phenomenology of Mind [1807; reprint, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1910]), Etienne Wenger (Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998]), and others, Smith views identity formation as a cyclical process in which different levels of identities—meta-identities and contextual identities—grow and change through both active and passive forms of identity realization and learning realization. The diagram on page 22 excellently illustrates his theory, showing that all types of realizations can flow to and from one another, and that they all affect identity. The words “time,” “culture,” and “space” appear in the background, reminding the audience that these three factors are at play in the Snowball Self. Smith’s model is particularly well suited to providing insights into how identity works because the theory allows for so many factors to both influence the active, dynamic nature of identity and highlight the individual nature of it.

Smith then investigates how drummers get started in their trade in his third chapter, “Learning to Play Drums.” He demonstrates that drummers participate in most types of learning (including formal, informal, group, visual, and aural learning). Next, he explores how drummers negotiate a small canon of revered performers in order to position themselves among one another, showing the role of influences on drummers. In chapter 4, the author revisits the complexities of identity before explaining what drummers do and how that changes their self-understanding. The Snowball Self model reveals how multifaceted and complicated drummers’ identities can be, but Smith also points out trends in drummers’ lives to show similarities. For example, he notes that many players begin drumming in their teens, find the activity to be very important in their lives, and eventually must slow down or stop drumming altogether because of either the physical stamina required by the instrument or changes in life priorities.

Smith titles chapter 5 “A Part, and Yet Apart” after drummer Bill Bruford’s album of the same name, in order to demonstrate the ways that drummers are members of...

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