Symphonie Fantastique, is a program symphony that was written by the French composer, Hector Berlioz, between 1830 and 1845, that tells the story of an artist gifted with a vivid imagination, who has poisoned himself, while in the depths of despair, because of unrequited love. The unifying musical theme, present in all five movements of this symphony, is referred to as the idee fixe, here on referred to in this article as “fixed idea”. The fixed idea in Berlioz’s work is the object of his affections, and the listener is continuously impacted by her exciting theme and presence throughout the piece, despite the absence of words or visual stimuli, since it is recurrent, and will not relent.

As with the theme of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, there are themes that I have identified that run relentlessly through my own life, most prominently the fixed idea that my musical career is not so much about the big show, as it is about the relationships and experiences that lead up to those brief moments on stage.

Sam Ruttenberg and Sean J. KennedyI am demonstrating the BEST use for a Slapstick
to Sam Ruttenberg (State Theater, NJ, 2007)
“Remember these times guys, they’re special, they don’t happen very often…” I heard these words backstage at the State Theatre of New Jersey, in New Brunswick, New Jersey while I was on tour with The Strauss Symphony of America, doing a short series of concerts along the East Coast which included stops at Lincoln Center in New York, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and Verizon Hall in Philadelphia. The speaker was percussionist, Sam Ruttenberg.At the time, to be quite frank, I thought he was being melodramatic. Someone was taking a picture of the various sections of the orchestra for archival purposes during intermission, and as drummers, naturally we were clowning around, throwing insults at each other and doing all of the things people generally accuse drummers of doing… things we vehemently deny. Even though I initially pushed his comments aside, later, while driving home that evening, the words echoed perpetually in my head, and have stuck with me ever since. Whether it’s because I worry about time as a musician, who is literally aware of time, or because I’m concerned with the passage of time as a father, who is watching his children grow up way too fast, Sam’s phrase has made me appreciate events in my musical past and to be attentive to the special times I’m in the midst of now, making sure I don’t take too much for granted.

A good drummer friend of mine, Darrell “Bubba” Goslin, with whom I studied music with at West Chester University in the early 1990s, recently passed away. We met when I entered my first year as a music education major. Being a percussion major, I was obligated to participate in the university marching band for a few semesters, and after evaluation by the staff, I was awarded the spot of bass drum two in the battery. The drumline had at least 10 snares, 4 tenor players, 6 bass drums and a handful of cymbal players. For a listener, there’s nothing better than when a well-rehearsed marching percussion section this large is playing a cadence or just grooving in some parking lot on a fall afternoon. However, when the group is having trouble executing parts, it can be an excruciating experience for the listener, as well as the performers, and most of all, the instructors.

Bubba was center-snare, and for those not familiar with marching percussion hierarchy, in orchestral terms - he was the concert master of the drumline. All of our parts at that time had been composed and arranged by WGI Hall of Fame member and DCI legend, Mark Thurston. A few times a week Mark would come to the university and teach us some new parts that he had written, demonstrate them, tell us some jokes and then move on to his next college band or drum corps obligation. This inevitably meant that the marching band staff or student leaders would work on refining the parts. As a result, Bubba commonly stepped into the role of instructor even though he was in the drumline.

During one particular afternoon rehearsal session, the bass drum line was having a lot of difficulty executing a sextuplet pattern. The pattern was something like this:

Bass Drums - sextuplets

There were many issues plaguing the basses that day. We were hungry, annoyed because some of the guys weren’t concentrating, and frustrated with the amount of time it was talking to get this short pattern clean. Beyond that, the snares and tenor players were throwing verbal jibes in our direction (I know, hard to believe!).

Then something wonderful happened — Bubba stepped in and worked alone with the bass drummers, while the others took a break. From the minute he began working with us the entire mood changed. Genuinely caring about the bass drum line as people, he treated everyone with respect. Even if he did utter an insult it was light-hearted and used to alleviate mounting tensions. After about 15 to 20 minutes we had it down, Bubba stepped back into his spot in the snare line and we resumed practicing as an entire drumline again.

Why did I mention all of this? What does this have to do with my fixed idea? Well, I was playing drumset a few weeks ago with a music-minus one track, 19 years after the bass drum line debacle. In the middle of the track I was playing along with, there was a spot to improvise…for some reason I began playing this rhythm as the motif of my solo:

Sextuplet accent pattern

This rhythm unconsciously had held a lot of meaning for me because as I played, I returned to that parking lot at WCU, and smiled. The echo of my fixed idea resounded as I remembered a group of players who overcame a challenge, because of the laid-back but expert guidance of a young drummer named Bubba. Of course the goal of that day was getting the rhythm correct, but what I really got from that learning experience was much deeper and more meaningful than just the kinesthetic feeling of performing. Goslin-KennedyDarrell "Bubba" Goslin and I [1994], He insisted that
I share his lip balm, mainly to drive me nuts.
Teaching Downingtown Indoor Drumline.
I learned that people who are passionate about what they’re doing can have a profound, positive impact on others, particularly when they execute every action with respect. Every time I play that sextuplet pattern now, I try to perform it with as much feeling and passion as possible.

Sadly, Bubba is no longer with us, but those memories of the parking lot rehearsal at West Chester University will be with me forever. The music was simply a by-product of very positive and meaningful experiences. I really have no recollection of any specific performance when we actually executed that difficult bass drum pattern on the grid iron, but every time I play it, I am awestruck at the impact of learning it.

Another example of my personal fixed idea, in which the experience and relationship was more meaningful than the end performance takes me back to high school, the winter of my sophomore year, 1987. I had begun taking drumset lessons from Ray Deeley, once a week during lunch in the high school band room. After strengthening my reading and rudimental chops through the Haskell W. Harr books, Mr. Deeley recommended that I get Rick Latham’s Advanced Funk Studies drumset method.

Somewhere very close to the beginning of the book there is a groove based on this accent pattern:

AdvancedFunkStudies accentpattern

Having only played drums, formally, for a few months at that point, the above rhythm was daunting, to say the least. I could play it terribly slow, but could never get it to groove or move past a snail’s pace. At that time, beyond drums and school work, I also worked at the local grocery store. I had the coveted job of working 6:00-10:00 a few nights a week, keeping the parking lot clean and free from run-away shopping carts. It wasn’t a bad job for a high school kid, I was outside, free to roam around the parking and pretend that I was actually working. Unbeknown to my employer, since it was winter and I had a big coat on, I was able to stash a pair of drumsticks inside my coat, just in case there was a drumming emergency in the parking lot at 9:45PM on a Thursday in February. Many nights I would find myself around the side of the building, out of view of the manger, hitting the shopping carts with my drumsticks. Shopping Cart One such night, I was practicing the above pattern from Advanced Funk Studies, which I had been trying to get it faster for weeks at that point. Then it happened, on that frigid February night in a barren, windswept parking lot, I achieved funkiness! It was one of the first times in my formative years that I had hit a proverbial wall and finally gotten over it due to consistent practicing. Besides laying down some serious funk on that shopping cart, I now fully grasped the concept of hard work. Of course at the time I didn’t realize it or care about the journey, I was just happy that I could play the stinkin’ pattern! Like the memories of Bubba and the drumline in the parking lot, my own funky shopping cart fixed idea reached well beyond the “big show”; the journey was more valuable.

I suppose some of this wisdom can only come with age, but I am often reminded of some musically life-changing experiences that have much more meaning now. In youth as well as in the hustle and bustle of reaching our goals, our minds get clouded with things that we think are really important; however, as time marches on, though we rarely remember what the goal may have been, we most often retain lasting memories of the journey to get there.

So, bring your cameras everywhere, be it a real camera or mental camera, jot down your memories of relationships and experiences in order to “…remember these times guys, they’re special, they don’t happen very often.”

Sean Kennedy Philadelphia-area drummer, Sean J. Kennedy is equally at home on the concert stage or in the teaching studio. Due to his versatility, Kennedy has been able to record and perform with some of the world’s best musicians, including Bob Mintzer, Liberty DeVitto, Ricky Byrd, Donald Nally, Richie Cannata and the late Dr. Frederick Fennell.

In June 2009 Carl Fischer Music Publishing released “Rock Solid: Drums” a rock drumset method book co-authored by Kennedy and Liberty DeVitto. Kennedy holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in percussion performance, and endorses Bosphorus Cymbals, Vic Firth Drumsticks and Evans Drumheads exclusively.