I first started playing drums sometime right after my 6th birthday. My dad, after months of being constantly begged, finally decided to buy me my first pair of drumsticks from a local pawn shop.
From that day on, everything in the house became some kind of percussion instrument. I remember drumming on every hard surface I could find, experimenting with timbres and textures, somehow managing to land free lessons with a kid who lived across the street and played on the drumline where I eventually went to high school.
I learned the correct way to hold the sticks, how to think about rhythm and sticking patterns, and even how to do some of the flashy stick tricks I’d use much later on in my playing career.
When I first wanted to join the school band in 6th grade, my teachers were amazed that I knew so much without any formal instruction. I eventually went on to study music for my undergraduate degree, perform with world-renowned musicians, play under the batons of some of the most respected conductors in our day, and eventually earn a living through teaching music full-time.
But of course, any parent who has had a child who played a musical instrument knows that all of this comes with a great cost: lots and lots of noise.
I am often surprised when I hear some of my students tell me that their parents don’t let them practice in the house. Of course, being a music educator who teaches instruments to students beginning in fifth grade, I’m no stranger to the piercing squeaks and squawks of a beginning clarinet student.
I’m also no stranger to the fidgety kid in class who can’t stop drumming on everything he can get his hands on. But what always surprises me is when students tell me that they’re not allowed to practice in the house because it’s, “Too much noise.”
Of course, not all of these claims are true. Students are students, and in the first few years of learning to play an instrument, students will make any claim they can conjure up to get out of practicing.
But when I discover that some parents really do forbid their children from practicing in the house because the noise is just too unbearable, I hurt in a very deep way for these children.
My music career has granted me opportunities that I will be forever grateful for, and as my creative life begins to take shape in many ways, I am always grateful to be brought up in a home where making too much noise and getting dirty was always acceptable.
I was the kind of kid who wanted to paint and then would accidentally spill everything all over the kitchen table. I was the kind of kid who would practice my drumming late into the evening when everyone else was trying to sleep. I was the kind of kid who would make my parents endure stand-up comedy acts and ticketed magic shows in the living room to try out my personality.
I was the kid who would make my parents and older brother read pages of fiction about characters I made up while doing my math homework. I was the kid who wanted to hack away at the piano during adult conversations, climb trees, and ask a million times why I couldn’t stay out late and play with my friends on a school night.
All of this I owe not to any sort of naturally endowed intelligence on my part; all of this I owe to two people who never told me that I couldn’t make too much noise in the house: my parents.
Today, I live a highly meditative yet very creative life. Much of what I do is born out of a natural curiosity for the world and how it works. In some sense, I still feel like the kid who isn’t afraid to make a mess every once in a while, except now much older and much more curious.
Those who know, me will tell you that I’m always talking about some new idea I read, or that I’m constantly reinventing some aspect of my life. My apartment is infested with books, and my friends have all already grown accustomed to my habit of sneaking in a piano concerto on the hip-hop playlist at our parties.
I do Jui Jitsu, I write a blog, I still play percussion, and I’m all too used to talking way too much in conversations. I recently picked up skateboarding again and I still would rather go to the symphony over a football game any day.
All of this natural curiosity for creativity, however, I consider to be a product of one of my greatest strengths: not being afraid of making too much noise.
Paradoxically, this strength isn’t something that I can claim any personal credit for. It’s something that was gifted to me very early on when my parents showed me the greatest kind of love they could possibly every show me by refraining from ever telling me to, “Be quiet.”
There’s an interesting pschological phenomenon known as learned helplessness, “in which an organism [is] forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, [and] becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.”
This has been demonstrated in animals in the famous study conducted by Martin E.P. Seligman in the 1970s. More recent research has contributed to the conversation by illustrating that chronic stress, particularly in the developing brain of a child, has immensely adverse affects on long-term memory and learning.
Imagine being a child who wants to do nothing else but play an instrument, or paint a landscape, or get dirty because of a natural curiosity, and imagine never being able to follow that curiosity all the way through to the end.
Over time, this kind of subdued creativity becomes a kind of learned helplessness of its own. Children learn that the answer is often, “No,” and that curiosity isn’t all too convenient and therefore not worth pursuing.
Being the creatures of habit that we are, this mentality becomes learned over time and eventually, that creative spark dies out. Without it, we take less risks, we question our decisions less, we become trapped in careers and lifestyles we don’t truly enjoy, and we are left feeling like something was taken from us.
But as a fellow creative friend of mine once said, “Feeling trapped and frustrated when you’re not a Syrian refugee is not seeing your situation clearly.”
This is perhaps a lesson we can all be reminded of from time to time: our natural curiosity about the world isn’t always all that convenient for us. At times, it may require that we change everything about the way we live, all because we can’t stop thinking about a certain project or idea.
It may require that we move our lives to a different country, or begin a new career, or see the world in a different way, or question our beliefs, or at the very least, listen to our kids play drums for hours every day.
My younger brother, who naturally also picked up playing drums at a young age, now plays in a band and performs frequently. He recently had a show that I attended with my parents. We all sat together as my brother’s band performed their set and we reminisced after about what it was like to grow up with so much noise in the house.
My mom, who turned 56 last month, smiled in her usually big smile and said, “Why would we ever tell you to stop playing? It’s your passion.”
Despite the many trials and tribulations my family has endured over the years, in those moments, I was reminded of why I was so grateful for my family and particularly, for my parents.
Sometimes life is noisy, and sometimes it isn’t all too convenient to be who we are. But what is most important, and what will always live on within me because of my parents, is never being afraid of making too much noise.
Even after all these years, I still find myself asking a million times why I shouldn’t stay up late on a school night to work on something interesting, and after all these years, there’s still no one around to tell me that I can’t.
By Gabriel Fernandez – Special to the Herald-Post
Gabe Fernandez is an El Paso area educator, musician, and career strategist for new college graduates.
He writes at www.gabefernandez.net.