It could be chemical. That’s why Western doctors primarily treat migraines with drugs. I have been on so many I can’t remember the number. I keep a list in a notebook, an accounting of what I tried, at what dosage, and when. The newest drugs are called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors. CGRP is a protein in the trigeminal ganglia nerve, a nerve that’s responsible for facial sensation and that contributes to migraines by dilating cranial blood vessels or inflaming the meninges, the membranes covering the brain. The drugs contain antibodies that either block the receptors for these proteins or the proteins themselves. I’ve tried one of these drugs, injecting myself in the thigh monthly. I imagine the proteins as puzzle pieces floating inside me, the antibodies as giant balloons that get in the way so that the puzzle can’t lock together. But in my body, the drugs made no discernible difference.
Perhaps my body holds on to things for so long that it has forgotten it’s still holding on. Sometimes this is what physical therapists tell me about my shoulders and pectorals, other parts of my body in pain—that my muscles shifted after a repetitive stress injury, tensing up. Though I have mostly recovered from it, the muscles surrounding the location of the injury continue to overcompensate, a muscle memory too strong that my body needs to be coaxed into uncurling its grip.
My body has been tense since at least high school, a time when I fought often with my parents and hid in oversized clothes. When I was 16, I started seeing a rheumatologist to deal with the matter of my aching shoulders. What if I had started drumming in my youth? Would I have learned to carry myself with more ease?
I buy “Stick Control for the Snare Drummer,” a slim volume of drumming exercises by George Lawrence Stone, first published in 1935. The cover features an illustration of a colonial drummer in a waistcoat. “Practise at all times with relaxed muscles, stopping at the slightest feeling of tension,” Stone wrote in the introduction. “Remember, the rhythms in ‘Stick Control’ are ‘conditioners.’ They are designed to give control. Control begins in muscularly relaxed action.”
I don’t understand what this means at first as I practice single beats and triplets. When I begin taking lessons, we spend a lot of time on my grip, how a drummer holds her sticks. How she should hold them is loosely. It is a lesson that I learn over and over.
One afternoon, Scott teaches me the two-stroke pulse in his studio, a technique to play two beats quickly. I whip my wrist, come down with the drumstick at the edge of the hi-hat. My left foot presses down on the pedal to keep the lips of the clamshell cymbals together so that they won’t sizzle, so that I generate a crunchy thwack. Then, I snap up at the wrist, on the grid of the metronome, letting the tip of the stick drop. What I’m supposed to do is let the stick fall freely while still cradling it in my hand. But it’s difficult to will my body to let go.
“Think of it like you have a string at your wrist and someone is pulling it up,” Scott says.
To play two beats in succession, you could hit once and hit again with the same force. But this becomes tiring, not to mention impossible, at higher tempos. You’ll hit a speed ceiling. Hence the two-stroke pulse: Hit, snap at the wrist, let the stick drop. Gravity will create the second note, but only if I let it.
“Get it for free,” Scott says.
It may sound easy to pull off this move. It is not. Your fingers must have control of the stick on the way down, but the moment you make contact you must relax them as your hand rises. “Humans naturally want to control,” Scott says, reminding me again to relax. It’s true. I want to control everything. But too much control makes one a bad drummer. Too much control can’t save you from the things you can’t control.
The point of drumming is not to be perfect. You are not a metronome that perfectly keeps time. You are a kind of glue that holds the band together, sensing where they’re at, where they’re headed. The more important skill is recovery: getting back to the beat when you’ve made a mistake. “There are no wrong notes in jazz: only notes in the wrong places,” Miles Davis famously said. Drumming is like that.
For someone like me—the eldest child of immigrants, a daughter of an anxious mother who was the daughter of an anxious mother—this is perhaps one of drumming’s more important lessons. Perfection was not something that anyone explicitly demanded of me, yet I felt its insistence. I imposed it on myself. I never raised my hand in class unless I knew the answer; I scarcely tolerated the shame of being wrong. I demanded order in the things around me and in myself. It was a way of trying to exert control. In my teens and early 20s, years sunk into a stubborn depression; I felt often at the precipice of falling apart. Functioning required keeping composure. It required vigilance.
The point of drumming is not to be perfect.
In his book The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, Sarno wrote that while there is no laboratory proof that tension headaches and migraines are psychosomatic, “the clinical experience of treating them as such is impressive.” He cites psychoanalyst Franz Alexander, author of the 1950 book Psychosomatic Medicine, who believed migraines were connected to repressed rage. “Others at the time reported that migraine patients tended to be perfectionistic, ambitious, competitive, rigid, and unable to delegate responsibility,” Sarno wrote. Perfectionism and goodism play a part in chronic pain disorders, Sarno argues. While this may not be true for everyone, reading this I felt a spark of recognition. “Those same characteristics are enraging to something in the unconscious.”
Perhaps in drumming, I unmake some of my rage by accepting imperfection. It’s about staying the course. When you’re playing with others, the rest of the band relies on you. The worst thing you can do when you make a mistake while drumming is to stop. Scott reminds me of this in our lessons. I’ll play along to a track and miss what I was supposed to play, pausing for too long.
“When you mess up, keep going. Just keep going,” he says.
The next time it happens, my limbs play something else instead. Mistakes can sound great sometimes, even better than what you had meant to play.
I go to my weekly drum lessons no matter what. I go when I don’t feel well. I go when I’m tired. I only cancel if I’m so nauseated or overcome by pain or fatigue that I must lie down. I go when I haven’t practiced; many times I have not. I’m a bad student. I feel that I have disrespected my drums when I don’t practice. But my teacher tolerates me. I keep going. Just keep going.
Even if I haven’t practiced, about twenty minutes in, my body will remember what it did last lesson. By the end of the hour, it will play a song I had forgotten. It knows what to do without my thinking about it. That is the magic of muscle memory. A body has its own intelligence. A body remembers. When my body plays something it knows, a feeling of wonderment and joy blooms inside me. I surrender my mind. In this way, I start to trust my unwell body. This is a testament to the brain-body connection, that though my body has betrayed me with its pain, it amazes me too.
When I leave my lessons, I feel better, lighter. Drumming can soothe pain after all. A 2012 study found that performing music—singing, dancing, and yes, drumming—triggers a release of endorphins and elevates pain threshold. But drumming, to me, has its own particular magic. Here is the thing about pain, or at least, my pain—it manifests as a wave, a pulsing in my forehead. Playing the drums can feel like waves too. Songs are built on cycles, patterns that repeat themselves. When I play the drums, I can feel these two waves at once. I’m riding the wave of my pain, and carried by the swell of the song.
Fifty lessons in and nearly two years from the first one, I learn the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps.” I practice at the kit I’ve pieced together in my living room when I can, which is to say when my neighbor isn’t home. When the garage door in my apartment building clatters open, I look out the window and check to see if my neighbor is backing out of the driveway. Yes. Now is my chance. I open my notebook, the one that I bring to every lesson, and set it on the music stand. In its pages, in Scott’s handwriting, are the exercises and songs I’ve been learning. In the studio, we’ll listen to a song and Scott breaks it into parts, writing the notes down. In these moments, I’m aware of how much I have to learn; he can hear things that I cannot yet, picking out every piece of a drum kit.
I turn on the stereo, cue up the song, put in my earplugs. I press play and rush back to my drum kit. It’s karaoke drum time! I play along with the track. I love the way “Maps” opens with the trilling of guitar, how the drums come in next, rolling and rolling. I love playing the syncopated kick drum and bouncing the stick on the ride cymbal as Karen O sings the devastating chorus, “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” I play hard, my arms flying up and swinging back down.
The song captured me before I knew how to play it, but I love it more now that I know it in my fingers, my wrists, my arms, my legs. I know it in my body, a body I’m still learning how to love.
Melissa Hung is a writer and journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Longreads, Pacific Standard, and Body Language (Catapult 2022). She is the founding editor of Hyphen magazine. She grew up in Texas, the eldest child of immigrants. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @melissahungtx and at melissahung.xyz.