One of my friends is in a band, which means whenever she plays a gig I get to assume the role of ardent fanboy. Mostly this entails sitting in a noisy bar and shooting her encouraging looks while I sip the suds of a paint-peeling microbrew. Which is fine by me. I get to watch up-close as she makes real, honest-to-goodness music come out of her guitar, which is a brand of magic that still thrills and mystifies me. Of course I’m easily impressed. There’s that.

Being a music lover is part of the appeal of these live shows, yet there’s also something else at play: an appreciation of music as an actual language, every bit as complicated as Mandarin Chinese but way easier to tap your toes to. Most people who become musicians, even on a small, barroom-sized scale, learned the language of music at a young age. I wish I’d developed my passion earlier, or I’d be pounding drums with Megadeth and reading fan mail on a private jet bound for Amsterdam.

This friend — let’s call her “Shreddy,” because she shreds — was destined to be onstage. She played various instruments from an early age, honing her fluency in the musical language by rockin’ the flute and numerous percussion instruments in her school band. That’s key. Linguistics experts say it’s much easier to learn a second language if you start while you’re young, and this extends to music as well. If Shreddy had just now decided to start noodling with her guitar, her playing would sound like mine: A key being scratched against the rusty exterior of a beat-up Ford Pinto.

I look back on my lack of musical training as a missed opportunity. Music has always had a profound effect on me. Many was the night I would lie in bed with a pair of headphones and cruise on Eric Clapton blues licks or the soaring crescendos of a movie’s orchestral score — but by the time I got my first electric guitar I was too old, my interests too scattered, to summon the necessary attention span to learn. Strumming an E chord made a dirty, urgent scream erupt from my speaker, the kind that made my arms break out in gooseflesh. Yet after five minutes of aimless strumming I didn’t hear anything that sounded like Van Halen and the guitar was left to its place in the corner, next to my Game Boy and a rolled-up pair of Superman socks.

Stupidly, I’d spend the afternoon playing “Mario Kart” on the Super Nintendo console instead of teasing out rock riffs on my Fender knockoff. In an alternate universe I stuck with the instrument and can now play the searing solo at the end of “Free Bird’ with no more effort that it takes to make an omelette. That does me little good, because I don’t live in that alternate universe. I live in this one, and in this one, being incredible at “Mario Kart” doesn’t do much for your fame or reputation. People don’t pack Madison Square Garden to see you beat your previous lap time on Luigi Raceway.

Luck has it that it’s never too late, for music or for anything else. Shreddy has two siblings who decided to pick up instruments later in life, and now they jam together — her brother on bass, her sister on piano. I’ve yet to attend one of these casual jam sessions, but from what I’ve heard they sound marginally better than rodents trying to escape from a flaming elevator shaft.

Being a fan of virtually all rock instruments and wishing I could play them all, when I learned of this sibling power-trio I naturally noticed there was a void waiting to be filled. Sure, they can play the skeletons of some Motley Crue and Pat Benatar tunes, but where’s the impact, the wallop, without a limb-flailing skinsman attacking a drum kit? As a thirtysomething I’d long figured my skillset was more or less cemented: I can write, sort of, and I can do impressions, sort of, and if I really concentrate I can refrain from slapping people when they say “CYOO-pon” instead of “coupon.” Having not made inroads on any new skills in years, I suspected that was pretty much it for me.

Now I long to learn the drums, but there are problems with this potentially half-baked dream. One is space. I don’t have any. Cramming a drum kit into my abode would be like trying to stuff a giraffe into a Sucrets tin. The laws of physics aren’t exactly on my side, here.

The second problem is noise. If I lived in a farmhouse out in the country, then hey, no sweat. Unfortunately for my musical aspirations, I live in an apartment building in a city, and I imagine my neighbors would be quick to protest if it was 8 o’clock at night and I was pounding out the beats to “Caught in a Mosh” by Anthrax. Quicker if I was doing it badly.

There are options, though. Electronic drum kits are small and don’t make a lot of noise — you wear headphones and have the sound piped directly into your cranium. That may be worth looking into, and not just because it’s valuable to be fluent in the language of music. Most people, in most corners of the world, respond to this language in some form, and while it would be amazing to tap into this universal electricity, that’s not the only factor driving me here.

Simply put, I don’t want to become stagnant. Some people, as they age, become calcified in their thoughts, opinions and motivations, and they stop reaching for new things — “expanding” is what the new-age types call it. When you stop pushing against the boundaries of who you are, those boundaries begin to shrink, until one day all the possible yous have been reduced to one definitive you, a static image in a dynamic world. Picking up drum sticks is a small way of fighting back against that. It’s a way of saying, “I swim or I die,” and then swimming as hard as I can.

Now that I think of it, “Swim or Die” would be a pretty sweet song title. See? I’m tapping into the magic already.

— Jeff Lagasse is an editor at a Portland media company and a future drummer for a ballistic metal band no one will like. Look for him to appear in a seedy bar near you, or contact him at [email protected]


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