Top Drum Teachers Share Their Secrets

Drumming Instructors Roundtable

What happens when you put four of the San Francisco Bay Area’s premier drum teachers together in a small room? If you ply them with enough Starbucks and bagels, you’d be surprised at what they reveal, especially when it’s a diverse group of pedagogues like noted percussion author John Xepoleas, ex-Four Non-Blondes skins woman Dawn Richardson, DRUM! Magazine music editor at large Wally Schnalle, and world-renowned vintage snare collector Mike Curotto. Not only did they share their hard-earned wisdom, they did so without throwing a single punch.

DRUM!: How do you inspire your students to practice?
Schnalle: There’s what we do to inspire them and what they do that inspires them. And when they have successes, then they start moving faster.
Curotto: Or when you play it for them and they see that they can play it. If you do it in the non-ego way … I always like to start something slow, like, ’Look, I’m doing this slow. I’m going to dazzle you with it in about two minutes.’ Then I play it at the full speed, so hopefully it registers. That’s one way — maybe they see the teacher being able to play it, but explain it in a way that gets to them also.
Xepoleas: If they’re going to practice something, if it’s something they feel they need that’s going to get them to the next step, you know, you shouldn’t have to force them to make sure you’re on the ticket. This is what this student needs; this is what he’s looking for; this is why he’s here; and that’s why he’s going to practice it.
Schnalle: But what I’ve also had experience with is if you show the kids a paradiddle or a nine-stroke roll or something, I’ve actually had kids go, ’Pffft! Yeah, what am I going to do with that?’ Then you set up the drum set and go, ’Here’s a couple of things,’ and then all of a sudden they go, ’Ohhhh, hey, that’s a cool thing.’
Richardson: It’s sometimes hard to always show them the application of why this is good for you. You know, it’s like eating broccoli.

DRUM!: What’s the best way to generate business?
Xepoleas: I’ve had articles in magazines and books and things — all that kind of stuff helps, but the word of mouth is like …
Richardson: Yeah, and [pointing to Schnalle] we taught at the same store together …
Schnalle: And I think those are both of our experiences.
Richardson: Yes.
Schnalle: But now I think it’s word of mouth, and being at home and, you know, I took out an ad in the Yellow Pages and whatever else I do that keeps my name out there. But, you know, just recommendations, and now people finding everything on the Internet.
Curotto: There are five ways that I generate business: Being at a store, some kind of advertisement, word of mouth, return business, and then the fifth way is if they see you play. I [met] one of my drum teachers [when] my parents were at a wedding — he was playing drums.

DRUM!: How good of a living can an instructor expect to make?
Curotto: My viewpoint is: This is not a hobby. I already have a hobby: I collect vintage snare drums. So I’m going to run this like a business. Personally, I get 48 hours notice to cancel and I’m not going to bear the brunt of the soccer coach calling in a last-minute practice. You give me 48 hours notice, you get the privilege of making the lesson up. Because they don’t understand that now I’m giving you two hours of my time: The hour that you bailed, and the hour that I have to open up to make up. Also I tell them that it’s going to take a while because I already teach 50 hours a week.
Schnalle: It’s like, where do you put that extra hour?
Curotto: It’s kind of hardcore, but it’s business.
Xepoleas: I think you have to run it like a business, but I think you teach about twice as much as I do [to Curotto]. I think you can make a great living at it just depending on how much you’re willing to teach, but I think the ticket for all of us is to teach — for me, I manage, I perform, I record, I write books and …
Richardson: Doing a lot of things …
Xepoleas: To be able to do a lot of different things, to put it all in the pot, it makes it more exciting. I actually limit my teaching to 20 hours a week because I wouldn’t be able to do the other things that just make me happy as a person. I used to teach more and, for me, personally, it was too much — I lost the passion for teaching.
Schnalle: I can remember saying this, “If I could just pay my bills playing music, I’d be a happy man.” And on that level I just have to take stock and say, ’Dude, you did it.’ I’m certainly not rich but I’m happy doing what I’m doing and paying my bills.

DRUM!: Do students seek you out because you’re known for a specific drumming style?
Schnalle: I’d say it’s like 50/50. Some of the adults are like, “I shouldn’t have given it up when I was in high school,” and they come and they want to go back to it. But the older students will come to me because they’ve developed it to a certain level and have heard me play or whatever. Then there are junior high or younger kids that — even though I give them a CD — have no clue what I do or how I play outside that room where I spend that half hour with them.
Richardson: I think it’s about 50/50 for me, too. Some people might come because they know the reputation or they want to play rock music mostly. And then there is the other half that it’s just geography. It’s like you’re the person in the area that gets recommended a lot and, you know, little kids don’t care. Anybody can be teaching them a paradiddle. I think it’s just having a positive experience for them when they’re there and kind of just being focused, right?
Curotto: That’s an excellent point. I tell older students, “Look, you’re the CEO of whatever company you’re at, I know this is your ’golf,’ so you’re not trying to get in a band by next week. Do what you can, we’ll have fun.”
Richardson: Right.
Schnalle: At first I expected students to have the same passion I had. Then I realized everybody comes at it with a different level. I had a cat, years ago, after like six lessons we’re trying to play eighth-notes in time with the metronome and it was not even close, and I eventually had to say, “This may not be for you.” We were really trying hard and it wasn’t happening. But I bit my tongue and then months later he would come in so gleeful, and so happy like, [imitating a student who is totally stoked] “I got through this Stones tune this week …” [Appreciative laughter from all]

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