The Exposition of Ears And Hands

“Apparently, I can’t hear my phone.” – Pete’s Diaries, December 11th, 2002 (at Pete Townsend.com: http://www.petetownsend.co.uk/ )

It was one of those nights in the late seventies when the up and rising musicians of the South side of Rio de Janeiro were all excited to watch – and sometimes take part in – one of the shows that eventually took place at Ipanema Theater, which was rent in a cooperative effort by members from a few local bands.

The show had not yet started when all the apprehensive players had already detected the infectious presence of a certain band-leader, Di Castro, widely recognized as “Penetra” (Brazilian slang for “uninvited guest”), and his band mates, who were well known for swarming stages of such shows to play no matter being permanent non-contributors.

While all were eying him, even before the first band got ready to go onstage, the hall was shook by the tremendous power of a blazing drum solo by “Peninha” (nickname based on Donald Duck’s crazy comic-strip cousin), drummer for Di Castro, who had emerged onstage out of nowhere to be instantly all over the drumset and simply mesmerized the audience with his talent. They had done it again, no one dared to take them off from the stage after the impact of that start.

Many years later, maybe in 1998, I was in the backstage of a local artist’s show and one of the roadies, a rather angry looking bloke, seemed vaguely familiar to me until I recognized him as “Peninha” (whose name I don’t know, to this day). As I approached to greet him, he gave a dirty look in my direction, but I could never figure it could be directed to me, as it was, indeed. When I talked to him, he seemed almost ready to either attack me or run away, and he just mumbled a few disconnected words of recognition as a response to my salute and went on with his business.

I was aghast, since to my recollection he had always been one of the nicest and funniest guys around, always joking and making fun of everyone else, especially musicians. The keyboardist with the act he worked for was a friend of mine who also knew Peninha from the assault days, so I asked him what had brought Mr. Hyde to front. He told me that Peninha had suffered from a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome, could not cure it with physiotherapy and the ensuing surgery had been unsuccessful to the extent of making his hand (I’m not sure if right or left, but then…) incapable of even holding a drumstick well enough to play on a drum.

I froze. My eyes were full of tears, and I immediately looked around for Peninha, who saw me talking to our mutual friend, acknowledged the situation, gave me the saddest of grins, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if to tell me it was alright, yet hopeless. He later developed a back problem due to too much effort carrying stuff around, and died two years ago when it affected his neural system.

As terrible as it may seem, the fact remains that all the pain Peninha went through had started with a wrong approach to playing drums, no matter he did it brilliantly, as few I’ve seen to this day (and maybe will ever see). Seems that maybe he didn’t know well enough about how to prevent such damage, or maybe, just as me, he did know and just followed his own invulnerability act, as many of us currently do.

Right now, as I write this sad but necessary lines, my left ear rings continuously, as it has been ringing since mid-December, as a consequence of a case of tinnitus – no matter since the early eighties I knew perfectly clear about that being a possibility and also of ways to avoid it.

Being a drummer can submit our system to some heavy abuse, either from repetitive efforts or from their derivations (the sound of a snare drum rimshot crack every once in a while is a whole lot different than the very same thing repeated hundreds of times during a playing session of any kind). What we do exposes us to acquiring such “maladies d’amour” (love diseases), but of course no one will be willing to stop doing the one thing they love the most in order to avoid getting sick.

So the best thing would be to be well aware of what kinds of illnesses we are bound to be subjects, the ways to prevent those and also how to be ready to face them once they are presented to us once we only learned about them when it was “too late”. While that may seem easy enough, as in fact it is, in theory, dealing with the precaution measures that should be taken in real life, on a day to day basis, and incorporating them naturally to our playing routine may get to be a harder task, one that demands humility, method, discipline, attention and courage.

Since I am not a medicine doctor or a physiologist, I’ll not go into any length about theory regarding the clinical aspects of the main problems known to affect us drummers. But I can tell you they incide upon the two most useful tools of our trade: The ears and the hands, especially the left ones.

The conditions from affected ears are tinnitus and hyperacusia, both acquired from damages caused to the inner ear due to continued exposure to sound levels above 85 decibels.

Hands are mostly affected by the aforementioned carpal tunnel syndrome, a conditon that can arise from repeated efforts involving fingers, hand and wrist motion under conditions of stress (positioning the snare drum correctly can entirely avoid it, since it most usually affects the left wrist – in fact I have not heard of drummers suffering from that on the right hand unless they are lefties with inverted sets).

Other than that, I’ll provide you with links where you all can go and check out what it is all about for yourselves, an attitude I strongly encourage you to pursue. Here are the links: Hearing problems: H.E.A.R. | Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers, at: http://www.hearnet.com/index.shtml; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Medical MultiMEDIA Group – A Patients Guide to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, at: http://www.medicalmultimediagroup.com/pated/ctd/cts/cts.html.

As far as giving you my own personal information goes, I can only tell you about how those have eventually affected me and also give some tips that I’ve found useful in order to avoid them and other physical problems and thus turn the experience of drumming into a more pleasurable and risk-safe one. We’ll meet next month with “Dealing safely with the wear and tear of drumming”.