Ms. Carolyn Whaley
Friday September 17th, 2021
The woman in picture with the grinning child (6th grade me) is Carolyn Whaley. She was my elementary school (4th-6th grade ) music teacher who taught me how to read rhythmic notation and instructed me on snare drum for concert band recitals, competitions in music festivals and later on in Stage/Jazz band performances on full drum set. The other pictures are of my first improvised drum solo in front of an audience, which was at her request for the end of year concert. Without her hands on instruction and patience guidance, I would never have wanted or thought that I had the ability to play in a band, play in front of an audience, record an album, tour the world or better yet, teach anyone to possibly be able to do the same. In short, she shaped my life. And in doing so she saved it in many ways. She gave me a gift I already had, and showed me a map to doing the thing that still brings me the most joy in the universe. As I look to begin my 17th year teaching drums, my 20th year in FU MANCHU, my 28th year as a “professional musician” and my 40th playing drums over all, I want to tell the story of how it began for me, and why it continues. She is the pivot point in that story, the essential hero that alters the course of what could have been into what turned out to be.
In 1981 I was already bitten hard by the drum bug. I had a Premier Snare Drum that I lugged on a hand cart in a case half the size of my body to school 2 days a week for instruction. Wednesday and Friday were the best days of the week because they were band days, the only days that mattered to me in school. I also had a gigantic rubber practice pad that I practiced all of my notes and music assignments on when my parents couldn’t put up with the noise anymore. But I would also set up a bunch of pillows in a circle on my bed with the practice pad in the middle and play to records. I would turn out the lights in my room, put on KISS “ Alive” or Blue Oyster Cult’s “Extraterrestrial Live” and pretend I was the drummer in concert. Or put on Dire Straits “Making Movies” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and try to remember the moves. The changes and the timing and the segues. I didn’t know the details or exactly how it was being done, but I could feel it all somehow intuitively. Most importantly I knew I WANTED to do it, though I had not a clue as to how I could ever accomplish it.
So it was a morning in my 5th grade year on one of those important Wednesday’s or Friday’s that I lugged my snare drum early to school and took it to the multi-purpose auditorium to leave for the days session. Ms Whaley was already there which was unusual as she would always arrive later before the days instruction at 10AM. She was behind a curtained portion up on the stage where we always had class. She saw me arrive and said “ Scott, come on up here I have something I want to show you.” So I climbed the stairs and there sat our 32 inch concert band bass drum with a stand next to it that had our two concert band hand held crash cymbals sitting on it. Attached to the bass drum hoop on the floor was something I had never seen, which looked like the bottom of a metal shoe. A bass drum foot pedal As I took a moment asking “ what is this?” she said “Have you ever thought about trying to play the drum set? I think you might be able to do it. Of all my students you seem to be the most engaged in your instrument. So if you will set up your snare drum, and you can stay a little after class today we can try some beats out. I have this to show you how beats are written…” and she handed me a well-worn copy of Carmine Appice’s “Realistic Rock” book. On the cover was an artist’s rendition of a wild haired Carmine surrounded by drums and cymbals. When I opened the book to the end the actual pictures of him playing were even better. Well if learning what was in this book could get me THAT, the of course I was all in!! “Yes, yes I will stay today!! Any day you want me to!!” She laughed “ well we could only do it 2 days a week” and so we made a plan to meet later that day.
I of course couldn’t wait for school to end that day, and I had visions all that day of me playing the drum solo in KISS’s “100,000 Years” by that afternoon. Needless to say that wasn’t my reality. Ms Whaley gave me 4 basic beats and told me how to read them, talked about tempo, counting and the co-ordination I needed to figure it out. And none of it worked. This was no bedroom concert or album play along where I could screw it up and the real drummer would handle it. I was stepping all over myself, dropping sticks, playing things in the wrong place and speeding up, slowing down with nervous anticipation. I was completely let down and dejected. Nothing worked. Not a single thing went right.
“Don’t worry Scott it’s not always easy the first time. I would like to call your parents tonight at home and see if they might be able to bring you in early on the next band day and we can try again before class. Would you be able to get here early for that?”
To this day I do not know what she saw that I didn’t see or why she was so insistent on my trying again. Afraid to let her down, let alone myself, I agreed with muted enthusiasm to come in early on the next day she was there. That night when she called the house I remember her talking to my father and they seemed to have a good conversation so I assumed I would be going early the next band day, even though I was apprehensive just to screw it all up again.
The next band day finally came, and that morning I was dropped off walked up nervously to the band room and went inside. The drums were already set up and Ms Whaley greeted me with a smile. “ Are you ready to have fun?” was what she asked me, putting me immediately at ease, with not a mention of the previous sessions results. I had a clean slate. “ Yeah I’m ready lets do it!” We started slow and she allowed me to take my time. First the hi-hat counting slow eighth notes. Then the first bass drum beat on the count of 1. The “and “beat next by itself on the hi hat. “Now just play 2 with your right hand and put it with the snare drum, and play the “and” beat on the hi-hat by itself after. Then stop.” Stop? There were more notes left on the page to play. “No I just want you to play up to the and of 2” So I did. It seemed like it worked but I couldn’t figure out why she kept asking me to do it and stop. Just when I was about to get impatient, she said “ Ok now just play up to the ‘and’ of two then go back to one and do it that way four times if you can.” So I played to the ‘and’ of 2 and when I went back to the count of one and repeated it she stopped me again. “ Whats wrong?” I said. She smiled and said softly “ Can you do that again?” I did it the total of 4 times and then it clicked: I was actually playing a beat. An actual magic 2 and 4 back beat. I didn’t want to stop. I still don’t.
At that moment she opened the flood gates. I learned fast after that, I devoured everything I could music and drum related. Modern Drummer Magazine was a Christmas gift request. MTV was new on the air and so I heard AND saw what was possible. What I couldn’t figure out in notes, I watched and copied. Emulate so you can replicate. New drummers to watch with awe came at a furious pace. One day it was Alex Van Halen with his 4 bass drums and flaming gong bashing “ Unchained”, the next it was Jeff Pocarro with his cool laid back manor and magic right hi-hat hand playing “ Rosanna” .Everything that came at me I tried to at least play once, and most of it I more or less could. I was never going to be an athlete because I hated practice and I wasn’t a natural so I disliked sports even more. But this I would leave my friends and skip dinner for, locking myself in garage during summer and sweating like the guys on tv to the music in my head. Over the summer of ‘81 I heard Motley Crue, Butthole Surfers, TSOL, Judas Priest, Black Flag, Frank Zappa..all for the first time. How do I get my head around this? I tried it and couldn’t, but it made me want to strive. I remember coming back the beginning of my 6th grade year and talking about all this new music with Ms Whaley. She could see the change and enthusiasm in me and said with raised eyebrow “ That’s great Scott, but don’t forget the education you still need even if you love music. You can’t have one without the other” She was always there to keep me on track.
Flash forward to the end of that year and this picture. Our last school concert of the year. I played stage and jazz band the entire year and learned about Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Tony Williams, Max Roach, Art Blakey and other giants whose shoulders we still stand on. At the end of the show, Ms Whaley said “I would like to call special attention to a student of mine. I’ve never had someone like him and I don’t think I ever will. I gladly want him to accept my student of the year award..” And she turned to me. I had only been half paying attention..I was still buzzing from the applause given to me by the parents and teachers for my above mentioned solo and performance. Now this. So that’s genuine -I -couldn’t -hide -it -if- I -tried happiness on that kids face you see. It reminds me of what I want people to feel about playing the drums when I teach now. All because of a teacher who because of time and circumstance, I never got to see again before she passed. Had I been able to, as an adult ,I would have hugged her hard as I could have and said “ You will never know the immeasurable amount of good you have done in my life”
Thank you again and again and again, Ms Whaley.