Every Thursday night, community members flock to watch performers play jazz-inspired tunes on stage at the student union. Amid the haggle of peach-fuzz speckled faces on stage, David Penman — with his grey bushy facial hair — stands out from behind a West African hand drum, called a ‘djembe’.
The 69-year-old wasn’t always a drummer. But that changed when he started struggling with mental health about 15 years ago. His job as a chemistry teacher at a secondary school in nearby Glenrothes was not helping. He found consolation in the Buddhist scripture, which pushed him to fight for early retirement fifteen years ago and teach himself hand drumming.
The Fife-native has been rocking out with the student music collective JazzWorks for the past seven years. He said that playing with the group has improved his mental health, connecting him with new people — many of whom are St Andrews students — and different experiences.
“Joining societies helps, it takes you out of yourself. You’re not as worried about the pressures you might be feeling at the time”, Penman said. “It is a way of not necessarily forgetting your troubles, but at least enjoying yourself in the moment.”
Born and raised in Fife, Penman gained a biochemistry degree from the University of Edinburgh in the 1970s before spending 30 years teaching chemistry to young adults at Glenwood High School. But that was never his passion.
“It might not have been a great idea”, Penman said. “I should have tried some different things first.”
Increasingly, Penman also began struggling with his mental health, making it hard for him to keep teaching. As a way to cope with his struggles, Penman started practising Buddhism 20-years-ago. He chanted mantras, praying for early retirement and the time to focus on himself.
“I was chanting as a way out”, he said.
Penman’s oldest son gained an interest in spirituality around the same time. Now, the whole family practice ‘Nichiren’ Buddhism, a Japanese-based branch rooted in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, an influential Buddhist scripture.
Penman has also developed leadership responsibilities with a local Buddhist organisation. They host monthly discussions. In the past, Penman has brought a few student musicians along to chat and chant.
“It has opened me up to speaking to a lot of different people”, Penman said. “Being a teacher, I always used to be quite shy and reserved.”
Meanwhile, Penman rekindled his passion for music after he stopped working. He received a cheap guitar from his parents as a birthday gift when he turned 10-years-old. But that never clicked.
After he retired, he discovered another instrument that did: hand drumming.
“I was always a failed guitarist”, Penman said. “I realised I wasn’t going to do any good with that, so I tried using hand drums.”
A fellow Buddhist and fiddle player lent him a djembe, a type of hand drum with roots in Ghana. Djembe drums are traditionally used in drumming circles, though Penman has adapted the instrument to folk and jazz.
Soon, Penman’s friend also encouraged him to get involved with the St Andrews music scene through the Folk and Trad Music Society.
Meanwhile, his younger son, a pianist, started to inspire his interest in jazz. When a Folk and Trad society member informed Penman that there was a student jazz session, he jumped at the opportunity to become involved.
Penman said that the sessions serve as an outlet for his emotions, while having the added benefit of keeping him active.
“I do feel as though I am much more open now, whereas when I was having mental health problems, I wanted to isolate myself”, Penman said. “Joining the jam sessions was part of that. It helps open me up to new people and new experiences. It has helped my mental health a lot.”
Over Penman’s time playing with JazzWorks, a lot has changed. Jazz night used to be held in the Brye Theater, an artistic and cultural hub in St. Andrews, rather than in Union. Penman said that he preferred playing at the former.
The jam sessions have also started to include fewer St Andrews locals. “That is a disappointing thing to me. I want some of the other people to come back again”, Penman said.
Along with playing at jazz night on Thursday, Penman also plays with the Folk and Trad Music Society on Tuesdays, and at the Byre for their monthly Saturday jams.
“I hope more people like me, who are locals will come back to the JazzWorks sessions which are regularly at the Union”, Penman said. “I’ve always found it very welcoming to play with students. They are prepared to put up with anybody. They are open to all influences.”
Among Penman’s most notable influences are Richard Micheal, a former professor of jazz at St Andrews who taught both Penman’s son and granddaughter and facilitates the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra.
“He is a big influence, not just in jazz, but for music in the University”, Penman said.
When he jams with JazzWorks, Penman prefers improvising over sets rather than playing set lists of songs.
“I like the way it all develops organically”, he said. “Someone starts a tune, and we all join in. Everyone starts playing.”
When he plays folk music, Penman tries to emulate that same dynamism, drawing on groups like the English folk rock band Fairport Convention. Richard Thompson, who started with the group, is one of his favourites. “Groups like that taught me that folk can be quite dynamic if you’d like”, he said.
JazzWorks has become more experiential over the years, he added, making the music they play increasingly rhythm-driven, contemporary and improvisational.
“It’s not just the standards that they play. They play a lot of new tunes. It’s really nice”, said Penman. “I do prefer more driving rhythms, and there has been more of that in recent years.”
While many jazz musicians opt for a drum kit, Penman has stuck to his hand drumming, though he said he would like to learn both instruments.
“But I don’t think my wife would allow me to have a drum kit in the house”, he said
All the same, Penman plans to keep jamming out with students and stay involved with the university’s music community. If a student happens to make it to a session, he said he would love to connect.
“It’s always good to see new people”, Penman said. “When I play the drums, I am sending out vibrations to get people to interconnect.”
Photo: Tara Philips