The small white room is throbbing with energy. Sharp and startling cracks rip through the air, crashing, thumping, and whizzing around my ears, burrowing into my skull. Arms flash and slice, wrists snap, and fingers flex and grip. It all happens so fast; his hands a blur, a whirlwind. The sound and constant activity seem overwhelming, suffocating almost, until my senses adjust. The primal thrumming that is so encompassing also feels somehow ethereal and transcendent. In the back bedroom of his little suburban ranch house in Manatee County, Florida, Dr. Louie Simon is going through his daily ritual on the drum kit.
His calm demeanor, slow stride, and overall stillness during the rest of the day belie the spurting energy and lightning-fast, frenetic display in his bedroom-studio. Seemingly the stereotypical picture of a Literature Professor, silver-haired, khaki-panted and bespectacled, Dr. Simon is a bit of a paradox. Appreciated by students and friends for his laid-back vibe, he becomes a different person when he drums.
He didn’t start out as a Literature Professor. That was his back-up plan after circuitous route through many bands and musical adventures, some of which continue today.
But he lights up when he recalls that one of his earliest memories is of his parents playing the just-released album, Meet the Beatles, in 1964, when Louie was three: “Though of course I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, Ringo’s bass drum and Paul’s bass were resonating through the hardwood floor, up through my feet, and into my body. I wanted to know what this joyous feeling was, and I never wanted it to stop. This was magic; it still is.”
Every year, for the next two years, Louie begged his parents for a drum set for Christmas and birthdays. They obliged, at first buying him toy drum kits with paper heads that were broken and useless a few days later. At eight, he declared to his parents that he really wanted to learn how to drum and he needed a “real” drum set. At Durdel’s music shop in Toledo, the drum teacher advised they purchase a rubber drum pad and a pair of heavy sticks; give it six months and if he was still interested, then consider renting a snare drum to start with.
Without prompt or pressure, Louie says he practiced on his own every day after school for an hour or two, and every weekend 2-4 hours a day. His family was supportive and no one ever complained, accepting his chaotic banging as a part of their new normal. Louie practiced on and on, gripping his sticks so tightly he formed blisters that would break and cause raw spots on his fingers. When he eventually got a full drum kit, his right shin would ache and burn from keeping the beat on his bass drum pedal.
Now that he has been playing for fifty years, he sees drumming as a psychological practice. He thinks of what he does as “drumming meditation” which helps him maintain his sanity. A few years ago, studying drum solos from the swinging 40s and 50s, he noticed the poise and power of drummer Philly Joe Jones. He says, “his hands are flying all over the drums but from the torso up he looks like he is sitting down to dinner. He’s playing at crazy speeds, but there’s no sign of tension or stress. This was my ‘aha’ moment; I realized drumming was a mental challenge more than anything else, a matter of keeping cool while pushing your hands and feet to the limits.”
I can see this in his own playing. He sits down, eyes closed, body erect. When he begins to play, his upper body remains almost still, his wrists and rotate in infinitesimal, quick flicks; he is controlled, yet relaxed. “The more tense you are,” he asserts, “the harder it is to play.”
Comparing it to Zen Buddhism (which he studied and embraced in high school), he states, “Your hands are going faster than what your logical mind thinks your body is capable of doing. Your mind wants to say No, you can’t do this.”
Relaxing both physically and mentally is key. When he senses the beginning of psychological tension he works to quell it. “You can’t get your body to do what your mind won’t allow it to do; so you have to turn off the negative thinking.”
Like the Buddhist practice of detachment, Louie says, the mind must be detached from what the hands are doing; you observe without self- judgement. Practice then becomes the study of identifying one’s limitations, locating where mental and physical resistance begins, and working to eliminate them mentally.
This is where the and calm and collected English professor meets with the frenetic drummer and finds his groove.