The beat always goes on

Severed fingers can't stop Johnny drumming

ROBERT JOHNSON
Last updated 12:00 04/07/2012
03MANdrummer01.jpg
WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ
BACK ON BEAT: Drummer Johnny Robert returns to drumming after major hand surgery.

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Johnny Robert lost some fingers at a sawmill, but that hasn't stopped him getting behind the drums, reports Robert Johnson.

Eleven hours of surgery and more than 200 stitches later, the doctor told him he would never drum again.

The doctor was wrong.

Johnny Robert, 23, was working at a sawmill last year when an unfortunate series of events led to a cutting saw claiming the musician's tools of choice.

"I was cutting some wood and started to clear up the off-cuts from around the saw blade. As I reached forward I tripped on a floor board and my foot activated the hydraulic press, starting the saw."

Unfortunately, the promising drummer lost his thumb, half his index finger, and two middle fingers on his right hand.

Where most of us would yell, faint, cry, or all of the above, Robert's first thought was, "oh crap", followed by an inspection of his open wound.

"I was amazed by all the veins and bones, it looks pretty complex in there."

He was transferred to Hutt Hospital where he underwent an 11-hour surgery involving hundreds of stitches, finger reattachment, and multiple skin and muscle grafts.

Doctors tried to use leeches on Robert's hand to get blood circulating through his newly attached fingers, an experience Robert describes as "pretty crazy".

After five days, his fingers had to be removed. They did not respond to treatment.

Robert believes in looking at the bright side of life, never taking the easy option, so when he heard the bad news from the doctor, his response was predictable.

"I just laughed at him and said, I will drum again, even if it's with only one hand."

The worst-case scenario never crossed his mind, and the fact the doctor had written his drumming days off only gave him added desire to prove him wrong.

Robert was unable to drum for eight weeks, with five of those spent in Hutt Hospital.

Remarkably, he played a live show with The Rascal Kings just nine weeks after the accident.

"I'd been off them [the drums] for so long that I just needed to get back to it. I started practising a week before our live show, it felt great to play again."

He says the support he received from friends and family aided his speedy recovery.

"My mum and my friend Kate spent the whole five weeks in Lower Hutt with me, they kept telling me if that I wanted to get back into it, I could do it."

The accident forced Robert to change his drumming style, because it was near impossible to grip his right drumstick.

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His hand therapist took measurements and sent them to a company in Australia, who designed a prosthetic glove specifically for Robert.

The glove is made of a stretchy material that fits over his existing fingers and includes a sleeve across the back to hold a drumstick.

While most of us would think it would have a negative effect on the end product, Robert thinks the opposite.

"To be honest, I think it makes me a better drummer than before. I have to remain really focused and my drumstick is always held securely in place."

Despite all he has been through, and having to put up with constant playful comparisons to one-armed Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, he feels he is a better person for what happened.

"The old saying really is true, you don't appreciate what you have until you lose it.

"Every day I'm still drumming is a good day for me."

His reason for taking up the drums?

It's in the blood.

His father Gary drummed when he was younger for about six years, playing in a band called Plan B.

Younger brother Dylan, 19, also shares the rhythm, having drummed for Palmerston North band Depths, before starting his own project.

Robert has been drumming since he was 10, learning the basics from tutor Ted Frickleton while at Freyberg High School.

Robert's style is inspired by drummers such as Tyler Hawkin of the Foo Fighters, Tool's Danny Carey, and Abe Cunningham from the Deftones.

They are musically in tune, and to be able to play with such power and poise is impressive, he says.

He has not eased back into drumming since the accident – quite the opposite.

He spends a large amount of his time playing functions with covers band Twisted, and is working on a new project named Dick Tracy, which he classes as a "kind of party-rock band".

Robert works at the Rockshop, and is heading back to UCOL next year to complete a bachelor of visual imaging, another one of his artistic passions.

The idea of opening his own drums school came to him shortly after the accident and materialised after he secured a place on Broadway Ave above PowerHouse Tattoo Studio.

Try Drumming was born.

Robert and business partner Rhys Fuller, 23, also a drummer, with a foundation certificate in jazz, feel the name encompasses what they hope to offer.

It's all about giving it a go.

"We want to make learning the drums enjoyable and different for each person," Robert says.

Robert says the approach they take to teaching is different.

"We get to know them and find out what style and music they like. From there, we tailor a curriculum to suit their strengths and interests."

The drummers share an eclectic taste in music and, in Robert's mind, are able to teach pupils what they want, with no restrictions.

"If somebody comes in and wants to learn a riff for drum and bass, we will listen to it and teach them.

"The same goes with genres like metal, rock, or even jazz, we like it all."

He began teaching primarily to see if he had the patience to be a tutor.

A month later, with beginners under his wing, the patience is there, along with the knowledge that teaching is a two-way street.

"It really is a personal development tool. I'm learning all the time and then passing on that knowledge."

His goal is to instil enthusiasm in his pupils and take his teaching into schools through workshops.

"Drumming is my passion, it's an escape from everyday pressures and worries, I'd love to inspire others to enjoy all aspects of music like I do."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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