I'm new in town. The only time I venture out is for work, and then I sit in the back, figure out who everyone is and scribble in my water-stained, crumpled notebook.
This was my plan, anyway, when I arrived at a drum circle event last Friday at the J. Ben Harrill Recreation Complex in Holiday. Sallyeanne Dalton, the class instructor, did not like this plan.
After receiving a greeting hug from Dalton, I found myself in a metal folding chair with a drum, about 2 feet tall and covered in beads and knotted thread, between my thighs. I had to hold the drum slightly off the ground for it to make noise.
The sounds my hands made striking different parts of the skin at the top of the drum — a tap to the middle made a bass note, while a tap at the edge was a higher tone — echoed through the bottom of the drum, and the patter was released though an opening in the bottom. Hence the need to constantly hold the thing up. Dalton called it "the African ThighMaster."
The drum circle drew a handful of people, with a couple leaving halfway through. There are usually more, Dalton said, but others had been scared away by rain earlier that day.
They were in a small room tucked into a corner of the rec center that could be described only as stark. The walls were white painted bricks, and the pale linoleum floor was scuffed. Two sets of windows stretched from ceiling to floor, letting in a little light, but the day was cloudy.
Dalton did what she could. She laid out a small, rectangular rug on which to set drums of different sizes. She tied tapestries in deep jewel tones to the walls. Once people filtered in and began to play, the room was so filled with thunder and laughter that it didn't seem quite so dour.
Dalton walked us through different beats, sitting next to whoever needed help. She left me after a little while, saying, "You're a natural!"
We progressed from beats to songs, and Dalton used different drums and occasionally a flute to accompany us. After a while, I didn't hear discordant thumps. I heard music.
Dalton taught us different ways to memorize beat patterns. Using sentences, for example, helps her. She used "put beans on it," with the first two words said quickly and the last two slowly, to illustrate. It did help, and as I struck the drum I muttered under my breath, "put beans on it" over and over.
The words kept me focused, and that's one element of drumming I learned very quickly: You can't let your mind wander in random directions and expect to sound decent. Drumming marked the first time in a long time that I had had to focus on only one activity. I didn't have time to take notes, look at my phone, open my planner. And I liked that.
Between songs, though, I found myself wondering about Dalton —why she loves drumming, how she started. As she walked around the room, she told us about a motorcycle accident she had 10 years ago. She was on a cross-country trip in Onawa, Iowa, when her bike wobbled, throwing her to the pavement. Ever since, she hasn't been able to bend her left wrist, yet she remains a drummer.
"When it's your passion, you find a way," she said with a smile.
There was an overwhelming sense of belonging in that grim room in Holiday. People hugged you, learned your name. They taught you an art they treasured dearly. They praised your progress. They asked with genuine feeling when they would see you again.
For two hours, I wasn't new in town. I wasn't there just for work. I wasn't hidden in the background, observing others enjoying themselves.
For two hours, I was a drummer.
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.