Queer Percussion

Sarah Hennies

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting cheap little bells from thrift shops and flea markets. At first, I was doing this for the purposes of making music, but now it just feels compulsive. After the first few were purchased, I started noticing low quality bells for sale all the time, and always for very little money. This begged the question, “Why were these made in the first place, who originally bought them, and why are they now worthless ?” 

There’s a lot to say about why being a percussionist makes you a different kind of musician than other instrumentalists. Unlike other musicians, we are not defined by our instruments—any contemporary definition of percussion encompasses a wide array of instruments and objects, and there is an expectation that almost anything could be asked of a percussionist in a piece of modern music. Therefore, it’s the only discipline where you have the power—if you want to and realize you can—to define yourself. I could do nothing but ring crappy little bells on stage, and I could still be accurately called a percussionist.

Percussion is also a discipline that is overwhelmingly considered to be “for boys.” I recently began asking myself why I chose drums as a nine-year-old, when I showed an aptitude for just about any kind of instrument. I had wanted to play piano when I was five, but was never given lessons. Why drums, then ? Why not still piano four years later ? Even as I write this, I have some regret that I never became a pianist.

I can only guess as to what was going on in my head at the time. For years I told people I picked drums seemingly at random, because Rikki Rockett was my favorite member of Poison, my favorite band in fifth grade. This is already a pretty gay thing to say, but for a period in the 1980s, hair metal made makeup and women’s clothing seem sexy and masculine. And, after having realized my enjoyment of New Kids on the Block was not a “boyish” trait, I deemed hair metal to be a safer thing to love.

I was drawn to music at an extremely early age, long before my single-minded obsession with hair metal from ages eight to twelve. What music did I love before I got into hair metal ? A brief list : 

New Kids on the Block
Debbie Gibson
Culture Club
Belinda Carlisle
George Michael

A typically feminine list for a girl or a hilariously gay list for a boy.

What was the difference between five-year-old me and nine-year-old me ? The answer seems obvious to me now as I enter my forties : puberty. If you’re a gender-nonconforming person then it’s puberty that changes your body in ways that you do not understand or identify with. It is well documented that the emotional health of transgender children is dramatically improved if their transition begins before “natural” puberty takes place, putting a pause button on things like deepening voices, body hair, and Adam’s apples. A recent study specifically showed that the likelihood of a transgender child attempting suicide is dramatically reduced if they are loved, supported, and given access to medical care that will facilitate their transition.

Did I gravitate toward drums because it affirmed my boyhood to everyone around me ? I was a natural at the instrument. I took to it immediately and learned fast in the context of what else was going on in my life : near constant bullying at school, an emotionally absent father, and an emotionally abusive mother. These conditions created a child who believed deeply that something was wrong with me, and that whatever it was badly needed fixing. I now can’t think of any other reason for my asking for drums other than the logic that drums = boys, and being a good drummer means being a good boy. Repressed trans women do things like this all the time ; we get married, have children, join the army, along with other “manly” things in an effort to cure ourselves of our womanhood. It never works.

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered punk rock and fell in with an older friend group. I started playing drums in their bands. This made it possible to completely check out of school—and the frequent bullying that came along with it. I hated everyone and everyone seemed to hate me, or at least found me to be an easy target ; the weakest, shyest, most awkward of all the kids.

These older kids, in college, were into bands like Fugazi and Superchunk, who I loved ; When they became my friends, it was the first time I felt as though I’d “found my people.” That said, I was still a frequent target for jokes, and I believe these drunk and stoned record nerds kept me around for two reasons : I was the best drummer and I was the weakest, shyest, most awkward easy target. 

The preferred insult of the day in late 90s Louisville, Kentucky, was “art fag.” A not-so-subtle undercurrent of homophobia throughout my school years is now apparent to me, but was lost on me at the time as I found men repulsive and therefore did not think I could be gay. It was around this time that I started listening to experimental music, by people like John Cage and Harry Partch (both queers, coincidentally). I vividly remember the bassist in my band when I was seventeen saying to me as I made him listen to Xenakis’s “Eonta,” “You’re into some weird shit and that’s cool, but I can’t do this.”

As long as I’ve been a drummer, I have always felt like the weirdest person in the room. As a teenager, I knew I was different from the other kids. In college studying percussion, I couldn’t relate to the other percussionists. Even before I transitioned, I still felt like “the weird one” in my trio with two other nearly identical-to-me-at-the-time percussionists. But there’s another side to this that is unrelated to gender. Was I drawn to percussion because percussion is weird ?

The last ten years of my musical output have been almost totally devoted to exposing the amazing and surprising sonic world of percussion instruments that is revealed if we just listen to them. Outside of a small group of colleagues, this is profoundly different from what most percussionists are doing, and yet we are all percussionists. A cursory Google Image search of “percussion quartet” reveals a depressingly consistent series of photos of groups of men wearing the same clothes and doing the same things. When the predominant system is so brutally homogenous—straight, white, cisgender, male—there is no space in “the percussion world” for anyone outside of that model. If you’re young, into percussion, and female or weird or both, you look at what’s around and you subconsciously learn that you are not “one of them.” This heartbreaking reality is the primary focus of this essay.

For several years in my late twenties and early thirties, I was a pretty good distance runner. But after running two half marathons and sending myself on a lot of long, hard runs during a difficult time in my life, something clicked and I just stopped. I felt like I’d had enough. 

In late 2017, I was trying to get back into it, but running is extremely difficult when you’re first starting out. It’s even harder knowing that you used to be good at it and now you’re struggling to run even a mile or two without getting tired. That summer, I was huffing and puffing and wheezing through what used to be a really easy three-mile run, hating how hard it was—and also myself for letting my body get out of shape—when a woman, running towards me in the opposition direction who looked to be in her late 60s, gave me a big smile and wave. The whole interaction lasted maybe half a second but, as she passed, I felt a charge of energy and started smiling. I felt like she was saying with her silent wave, “This is hard, isn’t it ? Good job.” Maybe she was just saying hi, I don’t know. But this is something that runners do to one another and it seems insignificant until you’re really struggling and someone does something nice, and for whatever reason it helps.

In that moment, I suddenly became aware that this is what representation for queers, and especially trans people, is all about and why such a seemingly small thing is so important. Just being visible and present in society is extremely hard for trans people, with very little opportunity for positive reinforcement. It feels incredible to be recognized by someone who identifies with your challenges and experiences. And, if that person is in some position of power, like on a stage, it can be, quite literally, life changing.

The moment I realized my own transness was during a concert by a British band called The Spook School at the NYC Popfest. I heard their singer, Nye Todd, say, “What’s next ? Oh yeah, another song about being transgender !” and, suddenly, a wave of emotion and self-realization came over me. I used to listen to their album and cry, and I would say to my ex-partner, “Why is this making me cry ?” She would shrug at what she perceived to be my trademark hypersensitivity. How had I not realized he was trans ? How had I not realized that I was trans ? 

Fifteen years earlier, I was obsessed with the Anohni album I Am a Bird Now in which she sings repeatedly :

One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful woman
One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful girl
But for today I am a child
For today I am a boy

Anohni was using male pronouns and using her now-dead name, despite having made an album that is blatantly about transition. There’s a lot to say about my own repressed, unaware state at the time, but would it have been different for me if Anohni hadn’t waited ten years to publicly declare her transness ? To be asked to be referred to as “she” ? Would it have opened the door for me to ask, “Is that me, too ?” Of course I can never know for sure, but I do know that not saying it didn’t make it any easier.

Of course, I have nothing against Anohni for that. People can and should manage their identity and transition in whatever way is best for them, and I would never direct anger at someone for the time and manner in which they choose to be out. It’s just something I’ve noticed and thought about in the context of my own life.

When I first came out and began transitioning, I didn’t really want to be a Trans Composer. I was already several years into my current practice and just wanted to keep doing my work. But as I looked back at all the work I’d made over the last ten years, I realized that it was all “trans art.” Every last note I’ve ever written and played is single-mindedly obsessed with my trans-ness. I just didn’t realize it. It was that person on stage saying, “I am trans” that triggered my emergence from a lifetime of subconscious repression.

This is how I got started making music with the little bells. Similar to how I didn’t immediately understand my emotional response to The Spook School, I didn’t know why I wanted the bells. I just kept buying them because they were cheap, and I liked the sound, and I’ve always liked the idea of making art with trash. But why was I drawn to making music with discarded objects ? 

By the time I began collecting bells, I was already aware of the tendency for my music to reveal something about me before I consciously realized it myself. I didn’t really know what the bells were for at first ; I just bought them and played them with the assumption that they would reveal their purpose to me in time. Now I can only think of the bells in all their worthlessness and complexity as a very thinly veiled sappy metaphor for discarded queer life, and for the past few years that has felt like the right thing to do.


This essay was written for Queer Trash : The Symposium at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn, New York, on September 22, 2018. Originally a conversational lecture-performance, the text has been slightly reformatted for context and clarity.