A couple of weeks ago an idea flashed into my brain one morning as I ate my cereal — wouldn't it be fun to put together some sort of "fast hands" challenge that I kick out into the social media world via Liquidrum and see if it has any legs? Who knows, maybe the broader percussion community will engage and we'll all have some fun together?
If you're reading this and you took part in the #liquidrumfasthandschallenge I must tell you I couldn't care less how fast your hands are. Or mine. Or anyone's really. That wasn't the point. The point was sort of a social experiment. You know, who would participate and what would they do with this silly challenge?
I kicked things off by creating a superbly boring 8-on-a-hand-ish exercise that was easily digestible. I then challenged my archenemy, Josh Quillen, to play it faster than me. My hands aren't that fast, admittedly, but neither are Josh's so I thought it was a safe way to start.
Josh ended up doing what I imagined he would do. He created. He created something out of the limited bits and pieces of information that I gave him. He turned a mundane 'fast hands challenge' into something quintessentially him, something with meaning, and put his version out into the world. And then he challenged someone else. And so on and so forth.
I watched the challenge spread like a very polite wildfire over the following days. We had close to 50 versions on Instagram and probably 20-25 on Facebook — not exactly viral but plenty of community involvement so I was happy. And the versions were all radically different. Some involved dogs, some mentioned birds, some didn't involve sticks at all, some took place on alternative instruments (keyboards, flower pots, sleigh bells, and cheeks), some were meditations on life, and some defied belief altogether (Mike Burritt's entry, specifically, has accrued almost 21K views on FB since posting — check it out here). And certainly, some were straight up renditions that tested the speed of the hands. Nothing wrong with that.
But I was amazed (and delightedly) how quickly hand speed became somewhat of a side note. What was more interesting was the thought that people put into the effort. People told their stories through their vids. Performance identities emerged and superseded hand speed. It was wonderful. It became meaningful.
I'm recapping all of this because I think it serves as an important illustration to who we are as percussionists and musicians. Your technical skills alone don't (and shouldn't) define you. They are vehicles, nothing more and nothing less. They're a launching pad, not the destination. Sorry, but your hands aren't that interesting.
Note that I didn't say your hands aren't important. The development of your hands (fill in the blank accordingly if you're a non percussionist) is, of course, absolutely critical to your ability to tell your musical story. But your story is the interesting and meaningful part. That's where we get to see the you in your music-making.
I'll end with an anecdote that has nothing to do with music but paints the picture well.
I had surgery in May 2017 to remove a cancerous tumor in my colon. The surgery went well. The doc did a great job. I'm very, very fortunate that we caught things early on and that all is well.
I have some distance now from that event and have been hoping to run into my surgeon at some point soon. Because if I do here's what I wouldn't tell him — I wouldn't tell him thanks for making the incision on my stomach so straight. I wouldn't say thanks for the great staple/stitch job you pulled off when you closed me up me. I wouldn't say thanks for getting me out of the OR in 90 minutes when you said it may take 2 hours. No, I wouldn't say any of those things.
I would say this — I would say thank you for giving me more years with my beautiful wife. I would say thank you for allowing me to see my kids graduate high school and college. I would say thank you for giving me a shot at meeting my grandkids one day.
You see, my surgeon's skills aren't interesting to me. But what those skills enable him to do for me and for others, is the most interesting and meaningful thing I could possibly imagine.
Work your hands, build your abilities, geek out about technique — there's nothing wrong with any of that. But be sure to use those things to tell your story. That's where you'll find meaning. And at the end of the day, that's really all that matters.
Todd Meehan is the founder of Liquidrum. He currently serves as the Associate Professor of Percussion and Division Director of Instrumental Studies at the Baylor University School of Music. Todd has performed as one half of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo since 2006 and was a founding member of So Percussion.