I’m a traditionalist. Maybe it’s all of those years in Catholic school, but I like ritual and tradition. But in the case of drumming, my focus on a particular ritual may have diverted me from the main objective: counting.
In my first racing season I had become enamored of the drummers, I noted they tended to wear strange hats. Our drummer at the time donned a knitted fish hat when she was drumming. I asked her why, and she responded enigmatically, “This is the hat I wear when I drum.”
As the season went on, I realized many, but not all, of the drummers were wearing strange and often gaudy hats. Someone finally explained to me that it was a tradition, particularly in Asia, for the drummer to wear a distinctive hat so that the spectators on shore could identify the teams in the water.
I knit, and it wasn’t hard to find the fish hat pattern online. But I thought it might be a breech of dragon boat etiquette to usurp another person’s drumming hat style. What would happen if every drumming decided to wear a fish hat? Anarchy!
So I started looking for an alternative hat to knit. Since we are the Alameda DragonFlyers, I figured I could adapt a pattern I found for a fly hat, and went about knitting up samples.
Meanwhile, on the actual water, coach Sue was putting me through my paces as a drummer-wannabe. To review, drummers don’t set the pace of a race, they follow the strokers who sit in the front row and do set the pace. So, the drummer not only has to keep a steady even with the stroker – although I would let my friends who were coxswains believe I was their equivalent.
Although I’m rhythmically-challenged, I could follow the stroker if I focused completely. But as I had noted in races last year, a drummer is also an ad hoc coach for the duration of the race. I wanted to be inspirational, but every time I tried to inspire, I lost the beat.
Despite my lack of rhythm, the team was generally supportive. Most of them admitted they were just happy they didn’t have to get up there. And they must have had some respect for how hard I was trying. I would sit in the car at stop lights trying to beat the dashboard along to the music on Sirius. I would practice counting (1-2-3-4-5, up-up-up-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, keep it strong) as I dozed off at night.
I even googled dragon boat drumming to watch videos of drummers in action. I doubt many people have put so much effort into mastering dragon boat drumming.
I was surprised to find a reasonable amount of drummer hating on the internet. Lots of paddlers complained they are just excess weight. In many race venues they are no longer required to actually drum. In a race setting, it’s hard to recognize the beat of your drummer from the others. Paddlers might do better just concentrating on watching the stroker and the feel of the boat.
But dragon boat rules say each racing boat must have a drummer. However, the drummer doesn’t have to be on your roster, so they can be recruited from other teams or even off the street according to one tale I read.
After several weeks of practicing, coach Sue finally determined I was ready to drum in the CBDA Sprints. I’m not sure coach Lisa Marie would have agreed, but she would have at least given me an E for effort. And our team was still short of drummers.
While I may not have been an unqualified success on my first outing, I didn’t seem to do any harm – we placed the same as we had placed the year before. And the dragonfly hat was a big hit, although I found the antenna kind of annoying to wear.
As it would happen, I ran across our former drummer and her fish hat at the sprints. She admired the dragonfly hat, and I mentioned that I had an ambition to make a fish hat, but the pattern seemed intimidating. She said the pattern looked worse that it actually was and that I should try it.
So with her blessing I started the fish hat the next day.