My Kit: Rae Amitay’s Meditations On Drumming

Rae Amitay is the vocalist and drummer for Immortal Bird and drums for Thrawsunblat. Follow her on Twitter.
I run my fingers along the drum key nestled in my pocket and look out at my band from behind my kit. A quick glance at my ride cymbal notifies me of an impending threat to its stability. I adjust the stand and tighten it until my thumb knuckle turns white. The bass rumbles and churns out thick pools of sludge. I wipe my palms against my jeans, ignore the sweat dripping into my eyes, and count off.

I was a drummer long before I ever sat behind a kit. Although piano, tae kwon do, and figure skating took up the majority of my childhood, I can remember pulling out the center armrest in the back of my mother’s car and tapping my little hands along to whatever classic rock song was playing. My mother is the one who heard the potential amidst the thudding and said: “You have good rhythm, you know. You could be a drummer.”

I couldn’t have been more than eight years old. ‘Drummer’ was such an abstract occupation. I only knew Animal from The Muppets, and Ringo Starr. I could be a drummer, too? How? That was a question I didn’t ask until much later. For the next several years, I continued to tap my hands and feet along to whatever music I heard, but I wasn’t a drummer. Not yet.

At fourteen, I was crossing everything off the angsty teenager checklist with remarkable fluidity. I decided to quit figure skating competitively, and I was directionless, depressed, and worst of all, living a life devoid of challenges. My musical taste was reflective of my dissatisfaction, and I’d go for aimless walks around my neighborhood listening to Deftones, Converge, Tool, or whatever band I’d lucked into discovering at school or the Record and Tape Exchange near my house.

I was at an age where kids usually start honing their musical taste, so I was fortunate enough to have a few counterparts who shared my affinity for metal. The songs I was tapping my limbs along to were gaining complexity and speed. There were times where I had to pause in order to figure out exactly when something switched time signatures and left my hands a fluttering mess of confusion.

That’s when I finally put the pieces together. This was music I loved, but it wasn’t enough to just listen to it anymore. I wanted to be a part of it. My weapons of choice would be drum sticks.

Luckily, my parents were on board, albeit hesitantly. I headed into my first lesson with Pat Lash at Twinbrooke Music, unsure of what was to come. After covering the bases (“This is a snare drum. This is a hi-hat.”) we were ready to play. Pat knew I felt confined by the numbing repetition and theory-based curriculum of my piano lessons, so after going over a healthy number of rudiments and rhythms, he asked me if I wanted to play a song. As “Gimme Shelter” began to play, my stomach turned. What was I going to play once the drums kicked in? “Just follow me,” Pat said, as he began playing a simple 4/4 groove. I followed suit, hesitantly at first, but then something happened. I locked in with the beat, and I fell in love.

With every measure I drummed, I felt stronger. As soon as I grew too comfortable, Pat would encourage me to try adding a fill or switching up my snare hits. I could feel my mind wrapping itself around these new possibilities, as my hands and feet worked to keep up. After that lesson, drums and I were inseparable. I had an identity. I was a drummer now, and I was hell-bent on becoming a great one.

As high school went on, I continued to push myself by auditioning for jazz band, learning Tool and Porcupine Tree tunes, and tapping away on my practice pad while watching Steve Smith instructional DVDs. I discovered Berklee College of Music, and in the months leading up to my audition, my bond with drumming grew even stronger. Berklee taught me volumes about the multifaceted and precarious nature of the music industry, and the risks (or rewards) of choosing music as a career path. I took some things for granted – I still recall acting like a complete brat in my double bass drum studies class with the incomparable Dave DiCenso. But for every cringe-worthy memory, there are dozens of wonderful ones. Receiving private instruction from Rod Morgenstein for three semesters and seeing the unadulterated bliss on his face each time he played. Attending a Steve Smith master class where I sat so close to him I could see the sweat on his brow. Playing so hard that I fogged up the glass windows of my practice room and walked out dripping sweat.

I will always wish that I’d practiced more, gone to more drumming clinics, taken better notes, and been more of an open vessel. Being given the opportunity to study music is the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

Post-college, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve gone on tour with several bands, which is how I learned that the only thing better than playing drums in a practice room is playing drums in a new place every night. I still prefer playing live to being in the studio. Live, no one is snapping you to a grid, fixing a weak snare hit, or adjusting the velocity of your kicks. Recording an album is a chance to show people your absolute best. Playing live is a chance to show people what you’ve got, in that moment. It’s also a chance to learn your weaknesses. I’ve played some shows that have been downright humbling.

But I think that’s such an integral part of the process. Drumming is an art where you can feel your progress almost immediately, but it’s also not afraid to knock you down when you’ve been slacking on your warm-up routine or drinking too much before a gig. It’s like any relationship, really, except there’s always going to be a return on your investment.

That’s something I love so much about drums. When I practice, I get better. The more I play, the better I feel. Who doesn’t crave that consistency? Ever since picking up my first pair of sticks almost ten years ago, I’ve been in a constant state of adoration for this craft. It’s given me a sense of identity and purpose. Drums are the love of my life, and I raise my sticks to many more years together.