She's Got Rhythm

By Susan J. Behrens '86 PhD / January / February 2006
April 21st, 2007

Three years ago, at forty-three, I took up drumming. I tell people it's my midlife crisis. My husband says it's my solution to my midlife crisis. Who knew I was having a midlife crisis!

It all started at a bat mitzvah. When the band set up, I noticed that the drum kit was empty. Then the girl's uncle Harry got up and sat behind the drums. I was in awe. Normal people could do that? It looked fun. I'd seen countless bands in my twenties, and I never once thought a drummer looked like he was having fun.

My musical background was limited, at best: fourth-grade recorder and a traumatic six months of guitar lessons at twelve. But when I turned forty I took up running, accompanied by my portable CD player. Perhaps Uncle Harry was in my head because as I put in my miles, I began to separate out the drums from the rest of the music. I started to run to and for the drums.

I mentioned casually to friends, "Hey, I think I want to take drum lessons," and waited to see if they laughed. Most seemed encouraging, even envious. Then I spied a flyer on a lamppost: "Drum Lessons." I made an appointment with a jazz musician half my age, who'd moved to New York City to pursue his dream of making it big in the music world. For the time being, he was walking dogs, bartending, and giving drum lessons.

What dream was I pursuing? My attempts at tennis should have discouraged me from trying any activity that required coordinated movement of all four limbs. And I didn't know if I could keep a beat. Slowly, I worked at it: left and right arms crossed, hands striking different drums; right foot on bass; left foot at the ready. Apparently I did have a sense of rhythm.

The jazz drummer didn't last long; he made more money walking dogs. Then one night at the college where I teach, I spotted one of my students unloading a drum kit. I asked if he would give me lessons; he said he'd be honored. The dynamics were strange, reversing our roles as student and teacher. They were also unsettling. Whenever I "got" something, my student-teacher would exclaim, "Wow, I can't imagine my mother getting that!" I'd throw him a mean look and laugh. Once winter break was over, though, his schedule got busy and I urged him to concentrate on his coursework instead.

So I was drumless. Was it all a flash in the pan? I didn't really get too deeply into this foolhardy project anyway: all I owned was a pair of drum sticks. Then one day I came home and there it was: a drum kit. Used, fresh off eBay. My husband had bought, shipped, and set it up on the sly. Grateful and terrified, trapped by my big mouth and this Pearl Rhythm Traveller Drum Kit, I went to the local music store and asked for the name of a teacher. They sent me to a local rock musician.

Now here was someone closer to my age - just ten years younger - a drummer with his own band (Sound of Urchin). He was endlessly patient when I would moan, "I should have started when I was five." But he praised me like crazy, and I would go home, practice, and "get it." The feeling of accomplishment is astounding. I don't "get it" like John Bonham, but I get a whole lot. I am a part of the songs I love, the songs I dance and jog to. I bring favorite tracks to my lessons, map them out, and learn them. I'm the band's second drummer.

I'm keeping my day job, certainly. This is a hobby. But I am pursuing a dream: not to play in a band, not even to play for my friends. My ultimate fantasy is of me, in my basement room, with a CD playing. I am doing this for me and it's a goofy, challenging, surprising dream to follow. At forty-six now, I am still working on it.

Susan J. Behrens teaches linguistics at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.


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January / February 2006