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How Finger Drumming Works
by Alex Rose
reading time


It's no secret that Harvard Professor James Wood, whom Cynthia Ozick once extolled as the antidote to all that is wrong with professional criticism, has held a distinguished place among the world's leading literary theorists for some time.  Only in recent weeks, however, has it been revealed that Professor Wood is also no slack when it comes to finger drumming. 
What is finger drumming? 

Simply put, finger drumming is a recreational pastime wherein a performer taps out rhythms on non-musical yet acoustically resonant surfaces such as countertops or wooden desks in a manner suggestive of professional drum beats.  The rhythms may be executed in a variety of ways, with each digit or palm area loosely approximating the range of percussive voicings found on a proper drumset—bass drum, snare drum, tom-toms, etc.  Advanced finger drummers may also employ the use of available household objects to emulate specialty items; plates and cups serve as fine substitutes for cymbals, bells, crotales, tambourines or woodblocks. (See Fig. 1.)

Figure 1

In a recent video apparently shot by one his children and posted on YouTube, the esteemed professor offers an exemplary, if rudimentary, introduction to this long neglected artform.  If you haven't yet seen the clip, you may view it here.

We may draw from Professor Wood's demonstration the following:

It is essential that all finger drumming performances appear spontaneous, lest they suggest inauthenticity.  Any evidence of premeditation or careful planning for a given event is as verboten as lip syncing is to an arena rock concert.  Much of a listener's bedazzlement (or annoyance, depending on the intent), is predicated on the assumption that the finger drummer is performing "naturally," i.e., without extensive preparation or rehearsal. 

Indeed, there is a sharp drop-off point between amateur and professional performance in general: both are contingent upon the audience's expectations, the former being very low, the latter very high.  No one knows what to do with performers who fall in-between. (See Fig. 2.)

Figure 2

Part of what makes Professor Wood's performance laudable is that it is only kind of good.  If it was exceptional, it would welcome the vaguely disturbing question of how such skills had been acquired.  Think of the child at camp who has grown adept at blowing spit bubbles.  At first, his cabin-mates are impressed—they are envious of his bizarre talent and wish to learn the secrets of the trade.  In time, however, it becomes clear that an unnervingly high degree of concentration and discipline had actually gone into perfecting the subtle suction between the cheeks, the swift rolling of the tongue, the gentle push of air that sends the tiny saliva sphere aloft.  The spit-blower's glory is short-lived.

Similarly, he who spends great stretches of time cultivating his finger drumming technique is regarded by most with a degree of suspicion.  The expert finger drummer is much like the adult who builds model trains or sews Star Trek emblems onto his clothing.  Nothing about these hobbies are particularly threatening, but we'd prefer to keep our children away from those who practice them.

On the other side of the spectrum is the professional performer of otherwise marginal skills.  Mimes, jugglers, dodgeball champions, puppeteers and the entire cast of King of Kong all fall within this category.  The 19th century Frenchmen known as "Le Pétomane,"; who made a lucrative career out of performing melodies with his own flatulence, is without a doubt history's greatest example.  Anything less than total virtuosity would have relegated him to the status of a psychopath.

Rather, Wood achieves the ideal balance.  It's clear, for instance, that his fingers are not quite as dexterous as he'd like them to be.  He attempts ambitious maneuvers that are well beyond his reach, but fudges the strokes with enough gusto that the listener understands the intent. 

More impressive still: when he botches a drum fill and accidentally overshoots the measure, he does not chide himself with frustration and start over (as a practicing musician might), but simply follows through and continues the groove, placing the downbeat on the two or the three of the subsequent bar rather than the one.  The result is something of an impromptu rubato—a meter far less constrained by the strict temporal boundaries that rhythm typically demands.

We may call this approach "free metrical form." (See Fig. 3.)

Figure 3

The finger drummer, in his playful, makeshift recreation, adopts a level of metrical fluidity unavailable to the professional.  By dropping and adding beats, shifting tempi, or ambiguously vacillating between time signatures, he exercises a liberal margin of error that reads as quaintly charming rather than embarrassingly incompetent. 

This is no easy feat.  Wood implicitly demonstrates that he is eminently aware of what good professional drumming sounds like, but has not put in the dork-level hours necessary to emulate it with precision.  Were his skills much better, we would cease to find them cute; were they much worse, we would wonder why he was making his kids videotape him. 

Alex Rose is a co-founding editor of Hotel St. George Press and the author of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales.  His work has appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, Ploughshares and Fantasy Magazine. His story, "Ostracon," will be included in the 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories.
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Comments panel
timothy flapp 4.18.2009
are you for shizzle? this piece ROCKS!
Alex 4.21.2009
The story about kid that blew the spit bubbles comes straight out of my camp experiences. It's a bit sad when these hard-earned but useless skills use up their fifteen minutes.
Glen Binger 5.7.2009
This is awesome. I love the diagrams. Good work!
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