Drumming and Drugs
by Tom Mendola

The physical and mental problems associated with drug use are well enough documented. My purpose here is to zero in on what it does to a drummer’s abilities. What I am about to tell you, I know from personal experience and observations of students and fellow drummers for over 40 years. When I say “drugs” I am also including alcohol as a drug.

Part of the rhythmic skill of a drummer is mental “time sense” and it is the most important natural ability a drummer has. Time sense is the drummer’s ability to perceive the even space between beats continuously and where the center of the beat is. Under the influence of drugs that ability is damaged. Natural steady time becomes uneven. Residual effects of drug use continue to effect the time sense.

If the student is currently using drugs or if there has been a history of frequent drug use, I have been able to observe the consequences after a few lessons. The first area it shows up in is the area of steady time.

I have taught children the basics of time and after three or four lessons they can keep steady time with a pattern on the drums. Mind you, it is not complicated or technical but it is steady.

On the other hand, I have taught the same concepts to teens and adults at the beginner level. It has literally taken these students months to be able to do what the children have done in a few weeks because of drug use while learning the instrument.

I have had to insist to these students they stop using drugs while studying and hoped that with practice, their natural time sense will take hold. Some have not taken my advice and I have had no choice other than to stop teaching these students because it became futile to continue.

When I have taught intermediate and advanced students who used drugs, some struggled to focus their concentration on exactly where the center of the beat was while using a metronome. With some of these students, self-doubt kicked in. This became amplified by drug use and they became discouraged. I am sorry to say that some of these talented students gave up drumming.

I have followed the careers of several great drummers who I knew to be habitual or former drug users. I would question how they were able to perform at their highest level of ability while under the direct or residual effects of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heron, LSD, etc. sometimes in combinations.

I knew of one drummer who could hardly stand up at a recording session because of the excess from the night before. Amazingly, right after the count off, he was able to focus himself mentally and sight-read the whole session. He turned in a phenomenal performance. That album went on to be one of the best albums of drumming ever recorded. No, I will not say who it was.

In my observations of others and within myself, I found a common denominator. All these drummers developed their natural time sense at a young age and had strengthened it with many hours of practice and playing before they started using drugs later in their life.

For some, their mental ability with time became so strong that they could override the mental and physical effects of the drugs. However, this did not last forever.

Over the years, I continued to observe these drummers. Their playing became less fluid and more solid. They began to state the time louder and harder as if they were having trouble feeling time because they were playing through a fog of drugs. They weren’t floating with the time as they had earlier in their careers. In addition, their technique was not as flawlessly executed or less technique was being used. Their reaction time also started to slow down and technical deterioration continued to progress.

They began looking unhealthy and many developed physical problems related to drug abuse. Some died prematurely as has been the case with some of our most talented artists. This list is long and the losses great.

At some point a drummer will be confronted with the choice of using or not using drugs and this usually occurs early in one’s life.

It seems easy enough to give the advice of “just say no”. In reality, if one can do that, it is the best choice. Unfortunately, not everyone is emotionally strong enough to choose wisely and peer pressure can be great.

The gift of music is a high no drug can match. The more in control you are of that gift, the more you touch others to embrace music. That brings joy to the listener and fulfillment to artist.

In the long run, drug use only brings sadness and broken dreams to everyone.

© 2008 by Tom Mendola - All Rights Reserved.