This past spring, the internet was gleefully stunned by the drum stylings of Yoyoka Soma, an 8-year-old girl from Japan whose size suggests she could comfortably cradle herself inside her kick drum, if she preferred hide-and-go-seek to rock ’n’ roll. In the viral video, Soma flawlessly traverses the pounding nuances of her favorite song, the Led Zeppelin classic “Good Times, Bad Times.” Knocking the cowbell centerpiece metronomically and grinning widely, the adorably bobbed Soma miraculously mimics the drum track laid 50 years ago by John Bonham, the burly, beer-swigging Brit who’s considered one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. Upon seeing the video — which has garnered well over three million views — Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant marveled at her talent, saying, “That’s a technically really difficult thing to do.” Speaking on behalf of his departed drummer, Plant added, “I think he’d be amazed.”
Soma’s clip is just one of thousands of videos submitted from around the world over the past seven years to the Hit Like a Girl contest, an amateur female drumming competition designed to inspire female empowerment and spark a rebound in the struggling musical instrument industry. Contestants create a user profile on the Hit Like a Girl website, then upload an approximately three-minute performance video to YouTube. There are several categories — straight drum-set performance, concert percussion, marching percussion and others — and separate contests for adults and girls under 18. A panel of industry executives and esteemed female drummers serve as judges, with the results of public votes also considered. Scholarships to performing arts programs, free gear and other prizes supplied by more than 60 sponsors are up for grabs.
“We have girls from as young as 7 to women as old as 70 that participated in the contest this year,” says Hit Like a Girl co-founder David Levine, who owns the cymbal manufacturer TRX Cymbals. Levine adds that more than 50 countries and a wide variety of musical genres were represented among this year’s 500-plus contestants — an all-time high. He says he hears gratitude for the existence of Hit Like a Girl from participants and others just learning about it, “pretty much every day.”
The idea sprung out of a chat Levine had with Mindy Abovitz Monk, a drummer who founded Tom Tom Magazine, which strictly covers female percussionists. Abovitz Monk contacted Levine about advertising, and the conversation morphed into a brainstorming session about how to expand the underrepresented and underserved female drumming market. “I just kind of threw out, ‘Why don’t you do a contest?’” Levine says.
Abovitz Monk put her weight behind Hit Like a Girl so she could “have more help creating a hype machine around girls and women drummers globally.” Levine says he hoped the contest would provide a boost to the musical instrument retail industry, which has been floundering of late. (Analog drum kits alone saw a 50 percent decline in the number of units sold between 2004 and 2014, according to a study by the National Association of Music Merchants.) The pair also engaged Phil Hood, the publisher of DRUM! magazine, to help organize and promote Hit Like a Girl.
“Although women make up 50 percent of the population, they’re less than 10 percent of drummers,” Levine says. “So we thought it was a tremendous opportunity.” (A 2013 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women make up only 26.9 percent of professional musicians, singers and related workers; a University of Iowa study confirms that women are an even lower percentage of drummers.)
Levine works to promote the contest year round, including organizing appearances by winners and contestants at events like this past summer’s GearFest, a musical instrument and gear trade show in Indiana, and November’s Percussive Arts Society’s International Convention, which typically attracts more than 55,000 attendees. He’s also preparing to host a U.S. tour of the winners of this year’s inaugural Hit Like a Girl China contest, which drew 750 competitors. Entries for the 2019 U.S. version of the contest will open this fall.
Over the past seven installments of Hit Like a Girl, Levine says participation has steadily increased, and Soma’s clip this year was the most-viewed video yet. Soma began playing drums at age 2 in part because her parents are musicians — they started their own family band, with Soma manning the drums and her brother on keys. She wrote in an email interview that she loves playing the drums because “It rocks!” and practices two hours each day so she can consistently “take care of the groove.” Soma was surprised when her Hit Like a Girl submission, filmed by her father in their home, went viral, adding that she thought she was in a dream. She hopes to one day tour the world as a drummer, and she says that the Hit Like a Girl contest, which she heard about from a friend, gave her added confidence and the ability to be exposed to other drummers across the globe.
The contest has inspired more mature musicians as well, like TaRiesha Fayson, 31, who lives in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Fayson’s mother taught her to play drums at their church when she was 8 or 9 years old. “I have a big family, and my mother and stepfather struggled a lot,” Fayson recounts. “We always lived in an apartment; we never had enough bedrooms for the kids, so there was definitely not enough room for drums — or money for drums.” Fayson used “whatever I could find” for drumsticks, though she eventually procured a real pair, practicing on buckets or paint cans her stepfather, a maintenance man, had lying around their home. “I couldn’t use the pots and pans; I think my mother would have killed me.”
When she was about 20, she saved up enough money working overnight security jobs to buy a kit, keeping it in a storage unit where she practiced. After just a few months, someone broke into the storage unit and stole the drums. Fayson continued playing drums off and on at church for a few years, but she eventually began to gravitate more toward the keyboard.
In 2014, Fayson, who was working as a special needs assistant at a local school, heard about Hit Like a Girl and considered entering, but she was intimidated by the quality of the other contestants’ videos. “I just didn’t have the funds to get to a studio and have someone come and record it,” she says.
Months later, her cousin texted her a screenshot of the Hit Like a Girl website announcing that Fayson had made the finals. “I’m trying to figure out how because I didn’t submit a video,” she remembers. Her cousin was the culprit, entering Fayson without her knowledge, supplying a video of her performing at their church that he had shot on his iPhone the prior summer. “None of the music was organized; we were just jamming,” Fayson says, “and that video actually won the contest.”
“It helped me see that I was a pretty talented drummer,” Fayson offers about her experience with Hit Like a Girl. She won first prize in the over-18 category for drum-set performance, taking home a slew of prizes, including a new drum kit, without which she might not be drumming at all today. Hit Like a Girl, she says, “refreshed my love for drums” and “redirected my entire life.” She was offered a gig at the House of Blues in Shanghai, China, where she remained for a three-month residency — the first time she’d ever traveled out of the country.
Now a full-time professional drummer, Fayson is endorsed by David Levine’s TRX Cymbals, as well as by M2 Custom Drums. “I’m being exposed a lot lately,” she says. “I’m staying pretty busy.” She plays constantly; personal performance highlights include the Derby City Jazz Festival at the site of the Kentucky Derby and shows with guitarist Ariel O’Neal, who’s played in Beyoncé’s live band.
Levine says he’s seen anecdotal evidence that the number of female drummers has been on the rise since the inception of Hit Like a Girl — and there is some research that bears that out. Guitar Center reports that over the past decade the company has seen more than a 10 percent increase in overall product sales to female customers, and a 9 percent jump in drum sales to women. Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, an organization that sets up lessons with famous musicians, says female enrollment has leaped 25 percent over just the past four years, with many of them playing drums. And the Berklee College of Music has seen an 11 percent growth in female enrollment since 2004, with a 5 percent uptick in women pursuing percussion degrees.
“When we started the contest, I felt that our goal was to change men’s minds about female drummers, to be more accepting and more inclusive,” Levine says. “But I realized this year the goal is really to change women’s minds about them playing drums, and give them permission, in a way, to do what they want. Once they do that, men are going to have to get used to it.”
Another Hit Like a Girl champ, 17-year-old Rebecca Webster of Westport, Connecticut, seconds that sentiment. “There’s not a lot of female drummer role models for me to look to,” Webster says, ironically, given that it was her grandmother who originally turned her on to the instrument.
“When I was in my early 50s, for reasons I never understood, I suddenly became obsessed with wanting to learn how to drum,” says Maida Webster, 74, Rebecca’s grandma. “Twenty-plus years ago, a 50-something-year-old woman looking for drum lessons was really an anomaly; I went to multiple music stores and they looked at me like I was crazy.”
She found a drum instructor willing to give lessons in her home, and she continued playing for a few years. By the time her first grandchild, Rebecca, was 13 months old, Maida was playing beats with her own hands on a kitchen counter while Rebecca determinedly tapped the beats back to her. When Rebecca was 9, Maida gifted her granddaughter her old drum set.
Rebecca, now a conscientious high school senior, has been playing ever since, but she says discovering the Hit Like a Girl contest made her feel less like an outlier: “I always knew that I loved music, but it probably wasn’t until around the time of the contest where I realized I actually wanted to pursue this as a career.”
Two years ago, Webster’s father urged her to enter Hit Like a Girl, and she won first prize in the under-18 drum-set performance contest. She describes her playing style as “tasteful,” explaining that she simply “tries to play what the music needs,” but in her submission clip she executed a medley of drum tracks by the jazz-rock-funk fusion act Snarky Puppy, in an uncharacteristically showy but controlled frenzy.
Webster, who is applying to colleges now, wants to major in jazz performance, and after graduating she hopes to make a living by touring, doing session work, and maybe even getting into producing. “I just want to stay in the game as best I can,” she says.
On a recent Wednesday evening at The Bitter End nightclub in Downtown Manhattan, Webster played the drums for an all-female pop-folk act, the Isabella Rose Trio. A few songs into their set, they eased into a cover of The Pretenders song “Brass in Pocket,” the 1979 hit where Chrissie Hynde assures the listener she’s “gonna make you, make you, make you notice.”
Halfway through the tune, Webster added a couple of original fills, and like thousands of newly determined female drummers around the world who’ve entered Hit Like a Girl, she’s using her arms and using her legs to make you notice.