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Commentary: Drumming has played a vital role in music throughout history


I was fascinated by a performance at Jazz St Louis by drummer Allison Miller. Bob Bennett, artistic director of Jazz St Louis, refers to Miller as one of the best drummers today and makes no reference to the fact that she is a woman. I googled female drummers and found that there are and have been many, but Bennett reminded me that Miller leads the pack regardless of gender.

Just to mention a couple of famous female drummers, I was fascinated by Viola Smith who it was said should have a documentary about her written to tell the full story of this musician. Possibly the first professional female drummer, Smith began performing in the 1920s, later playing in the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and made her Broadway debut in the original run of “Cabaret.” She has been compared to the famous Gene Krupa whose 1937 recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing” elevated the role of the drummer from an accompanist to an important solo voice in a band.

Another drummer who is more known for her pop status as a singer and drummer as well was Karen Carpenter. A critic once referred to her drumming as having a solid feel that was just right for her elegant pop.

I then called upon two of my favorite famous drummers here in St. Louis to get their take on drumming. Rich O'Donnell, retired principal percussionist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, says drumming has a history of spiritual and meditative exercise and shouldn't be taken lightly. One must relax to play the drums which then gives a sense of discipline and becomes very energizing.

O'Donnell was the director of the electronic music studio at Washington University from1980 to 2018. He invented a revolutionary playing technique with new type sticks and new pedals. SeeSaw drumming is based on reciprocal motion which allows him to play twice as fast as his normal technique.

Matthew Henry is director of percussion studies and assistant professor of music at UMSL. Henry says, "Anyone can watch someone drumming and realize that they themselves could pick up a stick, hit the drum and get a sound out of it immediately. I think that's what makes drumming so intrinsically attractive to people. The lack of complexity it takes to make a drum sound is pretty unique in an acoustically based ensemble of instruments...you don't have to have a reed, mouthpiece or worry about being in tune. Couple that with the rhythm of our body and brain (heartbeat, stride, blinking, breathing) and ‘Voila!! We have liftoff’."

Specializing in non-Western percussion, such as the drumming of the Malinke ethnic group of West Africa and Cuban styles, Henry has presented numerous clinics, master classes and residencies on these topics. In addition to educational engagements, Henry performs regularly around the St. Louis area. Performance credits include The Who, St. Louis Symphony and many more well recognized artists and groups.

And of course, drumming dates back thousands of years. Before drum sets were invented, other percussive instruments were used and even before that, one's own body was beaten to produce musical sounds as was the ground. Drumming sounds were used for communication and often as an accompaniment to dance. Some of the earliest drums date back to 5500 B.C. and were made of natural materials such as alligator skins. Drums and percussion instruments play a rhythmic role in nearly every genre of music, spanning centuries and continents.

Here is a brief timeline of the history of percussion instruments from1475 on:

Instruments in the Middle Ages consisted of bells, jingles, side drums, tabors, tambours and timpani. Drums were played by the king and his guests quite often being accompanied by other musicians. Drums were also played at weddings, festivals, social events and at times of despair.

In the Renaissance from 1600 instruments consisted of tabors, timbrels, long drums, jingle bells, snare and monk bells--although many were the same as those of the Middle Ages, they were highly improved. Drums were used in the military and in times of battle. During performance drums were mostly played along with the accompaniment of a singer and dancers.

In the Classical period from 1820 instruments consisted of kettle drums, vibraphones, snare, gong, whip, triangle, marimba and tambourine. During this period orchestral music and symphonic bands lead by composers had completely taken over. In orchestras, cymbals and bass were added to give songs more excitement and energy. In most orchestras the snare was the main percussion instrument

In the Twentieth Century and now Modern Times bands that used a drummer need only one instead of four or more. Music was no longer limited to concerts, opera houses, clubs and domestic music making.

Technological advances led to new styles of music such as techno, rap, pop, etc. Recording music made distributing it to the public easier and much faster.

Whether you are you are a music scholar or have no real sense of rhythm--everybody's heart beats and occasionally skips a beat for one reason or another. And as the song says, "The beat goes on."

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.