My friend Danny asked me this morning if I would give a sermon about drumming. That is sort of an unusual request but intriguing, nevertheless, so here is what I assume is the first sermon in history on drumming. According to science, this universe began with a sound, what everybody calls the “big bang.” Another way to put it would be to say that millions of years ago the blank page of the universe exploded and the beat began. Soon what emerged from the thick soup of particles were rhythmic pulses vibrating through empty space, and then came the formation of galaxies, solar systems, planets and us.
In the beginning was noise, and noise begat rhythm, rhythm begat everything else. If you hit something, you make a noise. If you hit it the second time and the third time, you’ve got rhythm.
Now some fifty thousand years ago noise and rhythm came together and we began to talk. Our brains, after a lot of evolution, developed certain capacities. We had the capacity to remember. We had the capacity to create symbols. We had the capacity to create tools.
Everywhere we looked, we saw rhythms, patterns moving through time in the cycles of the stars, in the migrations of animals, in the growing and withering of plants. Rhythm was the heart of mystery.
Noise meant danger, possibly death, and this is an understanding that is rooted in the oldest parts of our brains. When we hear a noise, something in us in our collective unconscious gets scared. There is terror in noise. And in that terror there is power. In one of her books, Jane Goodall tells of a chimpanzee who discovers the powerful effect of two empty kerosene cans banging together. Within weeks he became the troop’s dominant leader.
What makes rhythm, what makes a beat, is repetition. The first law of rhythm is repetition. It’s a cycle that recurs or repeats. There is no rhythm without repetition. Once you’ve observed enough repetitions you can say there is a pattern, and patterns are something we’re taught to scan for. What science has given us in the last century is an increasingly rich knowledge of the rhythms that rule our time on this planet. Rhythm piled atop rhythm, the on/off rhythm of neurons found in a brain, the butterfly rhythms of the heart, the mysterious rhythm, the returning birds back from their migration. We are embedded in a universe of rhythms, which means we are embedded in a universe of time.
We live on a planet that completes its cycle around the sun every 365 days with a moon that cycles around us every 28 days, and we rotate around our own axis every 24 hours. Most of us have little appreciation, however, for just how deeply we are dancing to these rhythms. The cycle of light and darkness is fundamental to all of our functioning on this planet. We are active during the day and quiet at night. But there are all sorts of other rhythms going on. Blood pressure, respiration, pulse, etc, etc. all are influenced by the planets’ daily revolution. Our hearts beat between 60 to 80 times per minute. Our lungs fill and empty at about a quarter of that speed. But these are only the most obvious bodily rhythms.
Science knows one bit thing about rhythm, and it is called the “Law of Entrainment.” It was discovered in 1665. A Dutch scientist noticed that if two clocks were placed next to each other, within a very short time they would lock up and tick in perfect synchrony. Why? The best theory is that nature is efficient and it takes less energy to pull things together than to stay in opposition.
So one way to think about the connection between those big universal and planetary rhythms, and the personal rhythms of our own bodies is that we are entrained with these larger patterns. We are pulsing in sync with them because nature is efficient and we are a part of nature.
Now I could go on like this but I really want to get to the point. And the point is that one of the rhythms of our lives is the seasons, and seasons are not just arbitrary. It’s not just saying that this is one season and that’s another. There are distinct differences between the seasons and I don’t think anyone beyond the age of five needs to be taught about this.
What I don’t think we value, however, is the beauty of that rhythm; that is, and I say this with all due respect to anyone here who lives in Florida, seasons are wonderful. I was talking to a group of younger children a few weeks ago and I asked them, “What’s your favorite season?” And everybody had a different answer. But I said that my favorite season is the one that I’m in, and that I don’t sit there during winter saying, “Gee, I’m waiting for spring.” Well, I do once in a while. But there’s nothing like a good blizzard when you can’t do anything, and the cold makes us appreciate the warmth that comes later. I think that each season, in itself, is the most beautiful.
Now this is a certain way of looking at life, and it’s not the usual way that we look at life. The usual way that we look at life is always looking forward to something else, always hoping for something different, hoping for something better. We never appreciate what we have. And so, if I say to you that we’re now entering the season of autumn, the fall season, or if I say to you that you are now entering a new stage of your life, say, as Danny is going through at this moment, he’s not a child anymore but becoming a teenager, each stage of life should be appreciated for what it is. I am going to be speaking at length about this on the High Holidays, and I think as simple and obvious as it sounds, we don’t do it. We don’t enjoy, and I mean that literally, we don’t get joy out of, the rhythms of life, and that is our biggest mistake.
So here is the Jewish calendar telling you that it’s a different season. The Jewish calendar, following the rhythms of the moon, keeps pointing to the seasons and there are holidays that mark each of the seasons that mark natural events.
We are losing our sense of the power of nature. We are not in touch with it. In the summer we go from our air-conditioned cars to our air-conditioned houses, to our air-conditioned offices, and we try not to feel the heat. In the winter we go from our warm cars to our warm offices to our warm houses. We try not to feel the cold. But Judaism keeps pointing us back to these different seasons, saying, “This is spring, this is fall. Understand the rhythms. Find joy in each one as it comes.”
Now what does this have to do with drumming? What it has to do with drumming is that drumming is about rhythm, and I’m suggesting to you that there is rhythm to our lives and that we are so busy thinking about the melodies, the notes that we’re putting on the pages, that we’re forgetting about the beat. We’re forgetting about the back beat. We’re forgetting about the beat that underlies those melodies, that actually gives melodies shape.
I think that we need to take time during every season to appreciate it.
Now let me try drumming from a different point of view. Let’s talk about our ears. The ear is the brain’s antenna. It is a part of the brain poking out into the world, always on, scanning for information in the form of vibrations. What we call sound is simply the limited spectrum of vibrations that this antenna can register. Now drummers produce certain kinds of vibrations, certain kinds of sounds.
The brain scans the air for information, searching for a pleasing pattern, finds none, and declares the sound noise. Drummers are noise-makers, not tone-makers. One of noise’s most interesting qualities is the ability to create rhythms, and rhythms are of sufficient interest to us that information about them is rooted to a whole other part of the brain than information about tone, melody or meaning. Rhythm is one of the things we are coded to listen for.
So what we need to do is to separate what is noise and what is sound. In our lives there is a lot of noise. Think about being in your car and turning on the radio, and you’re flipping the dial to noise and noise and noise. But if you settle down into one channel and listen you will start hearing sounds, comprehensible sounds, whether they’re music, or the news, or whatever. We have turned that noise into sound simply by focusing.
I think that’s one of the lessons that we can learn from drumming. What drumming does is to establish patterns, to establish sounds, and drumming is not just noise. It is a rhythm of sounds.
In our lives we have to turn the noise into sound. We have to turn the sound into meaningful sound.
So my two lessons from drumming are these: We have to hear the rhythms and we have to separate the sounds from the noise.
G-d is, in a sense, the Ultimate Drummer, trying to teach us the rhythms of life. We have to listen.