Cajon is Spanish for box, and it’s also what I got for Christmas a few years back.
Not just a box, mind you, but a box-shaped drum. The mellow accompaniment of this cleverly designed instrument is remarkably well-matched to an acoustic set with guitar and piano. Unlike the potentially overpowering presence of a drum kit (think: drum solo), the cajon is part of the ensemble – a voice in the choir, you might say. Seated upon this quirky box, I am discovering things about music (and myself) that I have never realized before.
For starters, music theory isn’t the same as playing the drum. I know a lot about music from jr. high band and years of piano and voice lessons, but this head knowledge did precious little for me the first time I sat down to play the cajon. I remember tapping out the rhythm of little x’s on a page, but mechanical is the word that comes to mind when I try to play those little x’s on my drum. I may be able to crank out an accurate rendition of little x’s in succession, but there is so much more to artistry than accuracy (can I get an Amen?).
Playing alone is not the same as playing with other instruments. My home-grown drum solos rock my little house, but when I’m playing along with others, they just don’t sound the same. Maybe it’s because on my own, I set the beat. I choose the groove. And I give myself lots of grace because no one else is listening. As part of the band, I have to behave. I have to rock steady. When I let loose, I can’t leave my band members behind.
The real challenge for me, however, is playing the drum on songs that I have been singing for years. You would think that familiarity would make it easier, but it doesn’t. As soon as I start thinking the words or even picturing the lead sheet in my head, I lose the groove I’m in. It’s an entirely different experience to make music atop my cajon than from behind a microphone. Words don’t help – they complicate.
This has been so obvious that the musicians I worship with have started to tease me about my inability to walk and chew gum at the same time, and for a master multi-tasker, this news is almost devastating. What do you mean I can’t sing and keep a beat?! But I can’t. And it’s blowing my mind.
The Apostle Paul says something in Romans 12:2 that makes some sense out of what I’m discovering with my drum.
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” (NLT)
I’m finding that when I try to think the way I’ve always thought about music – even when I try to put music theory into practice – all of my passion gets lost in the mechanics. My mind has been trained to think in words and notes, but for the cajon to do its work I have to follow and feel. I think this is what Paul is saying, too. It’s one thing to study and think and strive and try to do things God’s way, but it’s something else altogether when God takes hold of me and shifts my thinking – changes my mind!
This kind of transformation – the stuff of new beginnings – isn’t something we have to muddle mechanically through. I can’t make this transformation happen – I can’t force rhythm out of words – but the God who formed me can move me from theory into practice by changing the way I think.
Kevin Costner’s character in the film Bull Durham is asked to coach and train a gifted young pitcher for a career in the majors. This easily distracted youngster has a crazy-powerful arm, but absolutely no focus. It seems that the harder he thinks about placing the ball, the more erratic his pitches become. What advice is he given by his appointed mentor?
“Don’t think, just throw.”
When he follows his instinct and lets the ball fly, it’s a beautiful thing! When I listen to the guitar and piano and allow my hands to join in with the rhythm I find there, well – I just might have a drumming career in my future. Don’t think, Brita – just go with the flow.
For a forty-something to take up something new isn’t always easy. Can’t walk and chew gum at the same time? You’re in good company! Embrace your awkward new beginnings, as messy as they may be.
Don’t force it. Just let it flow.
Yielded to the work of the Spirit and open to new ways of thinking, the rhythm that emerges will be worth the investment of your time, energy and effort.
Drum or no drum.