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The Bard's Path
The Beat of a Heart, the Beat of a Drum
by Anne Coffey
“I don’t think it’s as easy as it looks.”
I am sitting on an uncomfortable folding chair, sweltering in a Memorial Day heat wave. The weather is always beastly for our annual pilgrimage to Irish Fest. If it isn’t blazing hot and humid, it’s cold and pouring rain.
My companion is distracted. He hasn’t heard me.
“I don’t think it’s as easy as it looks,” I repeat. I swipe a fly off my arm and take another drink of my Black and Tan. The smell of burnt funnel cake wafts on the air.
My companion shrugs.
“I don’t know. I think it looks pretty easy. It’s just beating the drum with a stick.”
I sit back in my chair and regard the man who is the topic of our conversation. He is a bodhran player, performing in a group on the stage before us. For the past forty minutes, he has been battering disconcertingly moving reels and jigs out of his drum. He cradles the large, circular frame of the instrument in his left arm. He teases the beats out of the drum with a stick he holds in his right hand. The speed in his right wrist fascinates me, and the delicacy. His eyes are closed and his face is expressionless. He is sweating profusely with his labor.
My companion and I listen to the music in silence again.
I am surprised and mortified by the strength of the emotion rising within me. The drumbeats reach into my chest cavity, and suddenly there is no room for anything else. I am scooped clean. All of my muscles, sinews and tissues are replaced by the drum’s voice. I want to dance, pound the ground with my fists, and weep, all at the same time. There are other people dancing, though I see none of them struggling to maintain their composure as I am. They look happy, a little drunk, in their Pog Mo Thoin t-shirts and shamrock hats. I do not join them. Instead, I duck my head, breathe deeply and concentrate on counting the blades of grass at my feet to keep from crying. Then I rub my eyes.
I look up at the bodhran player again, and wonder how he can keep from crying as he pounds out those perfect rhythms, those steady beats. Isn’t this the heartbeat of the universe? This is the sound of Brigid’s smiths hammering, the sound of Aonghus Óg’s swan wing sweeping, the lapping of Manannán mac Lir’s waves. This is the eternally moving, eternally creating rhythm that functions as the infrastructure of our existence. It shapes the tempo of our heartbeats, the pulse of our language, the architecture of our movement through space. And the bodhran player is alone in its creation. Doesn’t he tremble at the responsibility of constructing that rhythm? Doesn’t it terrify him to be alone in the creation of that cadence, to have all the other instruments looking to him, listening to his beat to define their own actions? It would terrify me.
Now I am the one who is distracted. My companion digs his finger into my arm to regain my attention.
“I’m going to learn how to play a bodhran,” he says casually, “I’m going to buy one and learn how to play it.” I do not doubt his sincerity, buttressed though it is with much Guinness.
“You should learn, too. We could learn together,” he says.
I shift in my chair. I take a drink of my beer. Despite how moving I find the music the bodhran creates, it hasn’t occurred to me to actually play one. I am a dancer. I interpret the beat. I am at the mercy of the beat. I do not create it. I shudder a little at the thought of the responsibility of it.
I realize that I am uncomfortable with the thought of going near an instrument that releases such emotion within me. I am uncomfortable with the thought of being responsible for setting the measure that everyone must follow.
“Let’s go watch the dancers,” I answer, rising from my chair, turning my back to the performers onstage. I am ready to leave this music, this discussion, and the challenges they both present to me.
Irish Fest is three months past. And true to his word, my companion has bought a bodhran and learned how to play it. Despite my misgivings, he buys me one, too, and sits me down on a warm August afternoon to teach me how to do the same. I cradle the drum in the crook of my left arm, just as I have seen the musicians onstage do, and then grab hold of the stick, which I learn is called a tipper.
I am nervous as my companion shows me the first basic movements. My hand trembles a little as my tipper skips over the drum’s skin, easing its way into a gentle 4/4 rhythm, a reel. I listen intently to the practice CD that plays on the stereo. I find my way into the structure of the song, lose it, find it again. Playing the drum feels different than I expected. I expected to be required to lead. But rather than leading, the music asks that I practice a deep discretion and restraint. Suddenly I realize that I do not have to create the rhythm. I am participating in it, as the melody instruments set the beat. I do not have to be John Bonham. I do not have to swing out there on my own, driving the whole force, controlling it, creating it, setting the rhythm for all the other instruments to follow. I can listen, I can interpret, I can translate. I can dance with my fingers rather than my feet.
I take my bodhran and my learner’s CD home. When I practice, I dance. I dance for joy.