“Exquisite Torture”

by Omar on August 8, 2009

in Editorials

Do you remember the first time you were absolutely blown away by the ability of a drummer? Maybe you were a wee little lad (like me) who saw Peter Criss' monstrous kit (at least to me it was) and watched how seemingly gracefully he handled the whole thing. Or maybe you heard a song for the first time on the radio who's drumming sounded just amazing, really fast hands, great technique, who made you beg the question, "Who the heck was that?!" Or maybe you watched Buddy Rich vs. Animal on "The Muppet Show", and after picking your jaw up off the floor you exclaimed, "No way! How can anyone be better than Animal?" (Ok, this was also me 🙂 ).

Of course, this type of experience is not limited to drums. My alter-ego favorite instrument, the piano (no I can't play it - yet) has on several occasions made me just watch in awe as the keyboardist painted a most wondrous story. Rick Wakeman is my favorite keyboardist, as he not only has just 'sick' chops, but as I hear his playing I not only see (or hear) his technical ability, but I also hear how he crafts and phrases the notes and chords, and how he interplays between the different keyboards - an absolute master.

We can go on and on! We may have read story after story about how, when seeing certain guitarists for the first time, the observer immediately wanted to play the instrument. Seeing or hearing Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eddie Van Halen, among others, influenced entire generations of artists with their wizardry of the strings.

So we see our favorite drummer, or keyboardist, or guitarist, and what do we do? We air-play, of course! We want to imitate our favorite musician. Next, if we're so fortunate, our parents afford us our instruments of choice (or we work for it, which is even sweeter). So we go about learning to play, either via lessons from someone else, or self-teaching ourselves with CDs, DVDs, or other self-instruction media. We're so excited as we embark on our journey towards becoming 'monsters' of our instruments, just like our 'idols'.

Well what happens? For many of us, we never achieve Neil Peart or Eddie Van Halen status. Some lose interest, and others, because of more pressing obligations, stop lessons entirely. Still others, if their goal was to play in a band and become rich and famous, are for the most part disillusioned with the competition and the cruel reality that the music industry can be. Some of these, still for the love of the music, end up playing in local bands ("not that there's anything wrong with that!"), hoping maybe one day to be discovered.

During all of this time, we may go back and revisit our first jaw-dropping experience. We may even have been fortunate enough to see these players live. We may also have picked up on other favorites, and tried to learn their style of play. Alas, but we just can't do it! These players make it seem so easy, so fluid, so effortless. And after much effort ourselves, we come to the realization that we just can't play like these guys (or gals, a la Sheila E.)!

But all in all, these scenarios aren't necessarily bad. We may delight in the virtuosity of our favorite players, and be content with that. I've discovered a wonderful phrase that captures the essence of our amazement of these players: 'exquisite torture'.

I'd like to say that I came up with that phrase, but it was not I. It came from one of the special features on the DVD "Nights In Rodanthe", a fantastic movie adapted from the novel of the same name by Nicholas Sparks. Some of us may know of Mr. Sparks' penchant for writing stories of romantic tragedies (i.e. "A Walk to Remember", "The Notebook", etc.). Drumming aside, this is a movie that should be watched with a loved one, so you can appreciate what you have while you have it, because you never know when that special someone won't be there anymore. I haven't given anything away because Mr. Sparks' novels follow this theme for the most part.

In the movie, one of the main characters is actually the house where most of the movie takes place. It's a spectacularly beautiful house on the beach, a survivor of many natural disasters. In this house there is a particular room that has many mystical artifacts: statues, pictures, and the like. In one of the special features of the DVD, Diane Lane, who plays one of the main characters, states that her character goes to this room and sees all of these artifacts, and it reminds the character of something (or things) that are elusive to her, as if the things she wants to embrace are within reach, but she just can't quite reach them. To the character, it's like 'exquisite torture'. There is beauty, there is elegance, and she's always drawn there, knowing that these items represent to her things that are just beyond reach - 'exquisite torture'.

When she used that term, a light switch went off in my head. This is exactly what happens to us admirers of specially gifted players! We love what we see, we want to play like them, we practice long hours, but it's just quite not reachable. We cover our favorite drummer, or guitarist, but as many times as we play it, something's always just barely missing. We know the notes, we know the groove, but it's just not the same. But we keep watching! But we keep listening! Why? Because we're masochists! We'll watch these players over and over again, knowing we'll never play like that! Oh but we just love it anyway!

So really, 'exquisite torture' is more of a positive thing. Some of us actually attain a level of play that is very satisfying, and if we play in local bands and the crowd reacts in a positive way, that may be good enough for us. Many of us continue to wish we played like our favorites, but we're content with either just watching (or listening), or playing to a level that we're at peace with.

Of course, there's another extreme. In the article "The Emergence of Air Drumming", I wrote about those who may never even own a kit, but they sure feel like they can play! If you watch some of these air drummers, it looks like they would know what to do when placed behind a kit. But if they were to play for real, they'd soon realize they've been had! Let's just call that being tortured in an exquisite way, so to speak. I do believe air drumming is a good teaching tool, however.

But seriously, do we really need to play like our favorites to enjoy playing? Of course not! Everyone is different - we each have something to offer. We're all unique, and even though we may never achieve Thomas Lang or Mike Portnoy status, we'll sure have fun trying! 'Exquisite torture' - hmm, I think I can live with that!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony N February 18, 2011 at 10:14 am

Hello Omar, I just stumbled upon your “Exquisite Torture” article. And although it looks like the article is about two years old now, it was like meeting a long lost friend. I can relate to everything you wrote. I drummed in the marching band through junior and high school. Eventually achieved first chair. I got very proficient at it if I might say so of myself. Peter Criss was my hero, then Alex Van Halen, ..then came Neil Peart. I played in a few local bars bands after graduation for several years. Then I switched over to the guitar and my efforts to become a great guitarist began. Same scene, different players. Ace Frehley, then Ted Nugent, then Molly Hatchet…then along comes Eddie Van Halen and I think I’ve reached the summit of talent only to discover Yngwie Malmsteen. My “ah ha” moment was when I realized that there was no summit. No limit. Eventually life swooped in and obliterated my delusions of musical grandeur. I still play and study and learn on a daily basis. Eric Johnson, Albert Lee and Yngwie are a few of my current favorites as well as John Coltrane. I strive to be the best amateur guitarist that the general public will never hear. And, I’m ok with that. Currently, I am 46 yrs old married male with 3 kids, two grown and one 17 yr old boy subsequently with severe Autism. But..I keep a pair of drum sticks in the house and after all these years my paradiddles are still tight and fast. Thanks for the very well written article. But most of all thanks for firing up the old memory machine. Best Wishes, Tony N, South Carolina

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Omar February 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Hey Tony.

So glad you liked the article! Even today it’s just as relevant as when I wrote it.

Neil Peart wrote in one of Rush’s songs, “Prime Mover”:

“The point of the journey, is not to arrive”

So really, it’s a journey with no end, a quest to get better and better all the time. There’s always fun to be had, which makes the journey more enjoyable!

Don’t be a stranger, Tony! Thanks for sharing your story. 🙂

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