CHICAGO — When Kaylee Preston hears the phrase, "hit like a girl," she grabs her drumsticks.
That's because the 25-year-old lifelong Northwest Sider, who plays in Chicago-based bands Rabble Rabble and Bleach Party, is one of 23 finalists in the international "Hit Like A Girl" drumming contest. The Portage Park resident is anxiously waiting to learn what judges think of her talent.
“I’d just spontaneously combust. I’d like light on fire,” she said, laughing when asked how it would feel to walk away with first place when the winner is announced on Thursday. “It would mean the world to me, I work really hard every day.”
The contest, in its fourth year, is open to girls and women around the world who make less than $30,000 a year as percussionists. Contestants are required to submit a detailed personal biography and a three-minute video showcasing their skills behind the drum set.
During an open voting period from April 10-22, musicians were able to promote their videos through social media and the contest website.
On April 23, with a final count of 1,532 votes, Preston learned she was a finalist.
“I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster,” she said. “Most of the 99 percent of feedback I’ve gotten so far has been really, really positive and awesome.”
Preston has a few jobs, including one working at a Whole Foods cheese counter, and she earned a degree in anthropology from Northeastern Illinois University after graduating from Lane Tech College Prep. But Preston considers herself a musician first, and the jobs are just a means to support her music.
She said although she's applied to "Hit Like A Girl" each year since its inception, “Never have I tried so hard than this year.”
This time around, she said, she felt she finally had the resources, like more time free for practice, a better honing of the craft and the technology to put her video together to give her the edge she needed to secure a spot as a finalist.
Linze Rice says drumming came naturally once Preston started:
Though she's now gaining some recognition, Preston said she's been a musician at heart since spending her days as a child listening to her parents' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" cassette by the Beatles.
As she began to connect her internal rhythm with the music, Preston said she was introduced to Led Zeppelin, another sound staple in her household.
“I knew I wanted to be a drummer for as long as I can remember,” she said. “The first time I heard Led Zeppelin, my whole body, just like, got goose bumps.”
It was then she knew drums were her fate.
After years of living in apartments with her parents and siblings, where a drum set would have disturbed neighbors, her family settled into a house.
She was about 14, and the new digs combined with an upcoming graduation from eighth grade could mean only one thing to Preston: Her drum set dream was finally about to come true.
Her parents bought her older brother an electric guitar for his graduation, so Preston knew when it was her turn, there was only one gift she wanted. On graduation day, she got it.
Once she started to play, she said the emotional and physical charge of hitting the drums felt completely natural.
“It’s like a mind and body experience, where my mind and my body are both working together so successfully and so passionately, that I can’t even describe it,” she said. “I guess I just get in the zone; there’s nothing that is matching.”
She said now, with over a decade in drumming under her belt, she's dedicated to helping other young girls or aspiring drummers who are women achieve their dreams, too. Preston said she even gave away her very first drum set to an aspiring drummer looking to get her start.
She said the world of women drummers isn't without its problems, but overall it's a supportive atmosphere.
“Most of the time I realize that if I’m putting out positive energy and I’m being very friendly and very outgoing and supportive of other women musicians, then I get the same thing back,” Preston said. “It’s great, it’s awesome.”
Debi Pomeroy, a drummer and former member of one of Chicago's earliest all-women garage rock bands, The Daughters of Eve, wrote on Preston's contest profile page: "I am so happy to know so many young women are drumming up a storm. It was not easy in the last century to do something that wasn't the 'norm' for a girl. You are a terrific drummer."
On tough days, Preston said she goes back and reads that comment to gain confidence.
Richard Giraldi, who plays bass with Preston in Bleach Party, said he has been an admirer of Preston's work since the early days of Rabble Rabble.
In July 2013, Preston answered a Craigslist ad for a drummer that ultimately united her and Giraldi, who'd followed Preston's career for his music blog Loud Loop Press.
He said Preston works thoughtfully and creatively to bring energy and her own flair to the band when writing music or playing a show. Either way, it's evident to anyone who meets Preston, she treats drumming like an art form, Giraldi said.
"She's super energetic on the drums, and she's super passionate, and you can tell that," Giraldi said. "Her main thing, I think, is she really is a genuine drummer, she's like a bona fide drummer."
Although Preston said by now she's moved past the feeling of having to compete with other drummers who are women, she still feels the pressure to prove herself as a percussionist in a generally male-dominated field.
Preston said that in order for women to be taken more seriously in the drumming world, they'll need to put in extra time, effort and education.
Still, she said her biggest pet peeves as a musician is being called a "female drummer."
“I definitely get a little bit irritated when people say they’re paying me a compliment, like ‘You’re the best female drummer I’ve ever seen!’” she lamented. “I don’t want it to be just, 'Oh I’m a female drummer. Why am I not just in the category of drummers?'”
Yet she remains undeterred by how others may perceive her, she said, and is steadfast in her mission to become the best drummer she can be.
She hopes her efforts will pay off on Thursday when judges announce the winner.
Prizes include complete six-piece drum kits, new cases, bags, cymbals and sticks, and the chance to win a stay at the Musician's Institute over the summer. Some contestants will also win tickets to a Cirque du Soleil show, "Amaluna," which showcases Didi Negron, a Hit Like A Girl spokeswoman, world-renowned percussionist and advocate for women who are musicians.
“I think the time [for women] has come and it’s happening already,” Preston said. "If I don't win this year, I definitely will next year."
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