By Erickka Sy Savane
Terri Lyne Carrington was just seven years old when she started playing drums. It was immediate love because it was something that she was good at. With practice she got even better, and by the time she turned 11 years old she had already lined up a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music, and was holding her own with jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Fast-forward to her early 20’s and Terri cemented herself as a beast behind the drums when she became the house drummer for 80’s late-night talk show King, Arsenio Hall. From there she’d expand her skills to include musical director, composer, teacher (she’s currently a professor at Berklee College where she also holds an honorary doctorate degree), and record producer. She’s a three-time Grammy Award-winner, and the first female artist to win a grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental recording.
“I never knew where it would take me when I started,” says the drummer, now in her early 50’s and considered one of the greatest female instrumentalists of all time. “But when I think of the life that it’s afforded me, I feel it’s my purpose to share my experience and encourage other young black girls to play an instrument.”
Now Terri doesn’t expect that every young girl who picks up an instrument will have the instant connection or the uber successful career that she’s had, however, there’s still plenty of reasons to play. Travel and exposure being at the top of Terri’s list!
“I have friends from all walks of life, all over the world. I’ve played for Heads Of States and for kids in orphanages in Kazakhstan as well as India, where they come in from off the street to take showers once a month. So there’s a pretty big range of experiences. Traveling through music widens your perspective of the world, and it’s very different from, say, traveling through the military.”
One key difference, says Terri, is that it’s a lot of fun.
“It’s wonderful to make a living creating something from nothing in front of a group of people; and it feels great when people come up to you after a show and tell you how much you inspired them.”
If that weren’t enough, there’s the added benefit of getting paid for it.
“Some people choose to play as a side hobby at weddings or clubs on the weekend, but there are also career options such as engineering, composing, teaching, and music therapy. It’s been proven that music helps to heal Alzheimer’s and dementia, and is great therapy for cognitive, motor and social skills for Down’s Syndrome and stroke patients. In general, you can get back as much as you put in with a career in music,” Terri explains.
It also builds confidence.
“I really urge parents to encourage their young girls to stand strong in front of their male counterparts. Music is a great example. If you can hold your own in band, you’ll be more confident in other male-dominated environments, whether it’s in the office or another profession,” Terri says, adding that in the last 20 -30 years we’ve seen advancements in the number of female doctors and CEO’s, but we’re still lagging in terms of female instrumentalists.
It’s beyond time for change. But how do we make it happen? Especially, when arts programs are the first to get cut?
“Parents definitely have to do their due diligence and seek out programs outside of school,” says Terri. “Find churches and community-based organizations that support music.”
There’s also the issue of challenge. It’s not easy to learn to play an instrument. Even pop icon Alicia Keys will tell you that she spent more time learning to play the keyboards than hanging out with friends.
“Allow yourself more time when you feel like you can’t do something or want to quit just to see what happens if you don’t. We also have to look at our personality traits to see if we are the type of person to persevere when it gets tough or if we like to give up,” Terri says. “For women, we may be accustomed to certain ways of being socially, and playing music may not always fit into the existing roles or stereotype we see of ourselves. So we have to step up to the door, and through the door, to make change.”
Ultimately, who is to say if playing an instrument will be the end-all-be-all for our young girls. However, just knowing the opportunities that exist in this world could mean the difference between buying yet another Disney Princess doll or video game, or perhaps picking up a second-hand guitar, keyboard, bass or flute. It’s worth a try!