Top Drum Teachers Share Their Secrets

Curotto: The fact that he’s trying …
Xepoleas: I have students who come to me in junior high and high school who are coming to me specifically to be in one of those bands, so they need to know how to read charts and they need to know how to play all the styles. I don’t particularly take students who just want to come in and learn songs. It’s not fun for me. I don’t think they’re really benefiting from it. Along the way, if it comes up, I’ll help them.
Curotto: Right.
Xepoleas: But my reputation is kind of, “Okay, he’s going to give you a real solid foundation,” and I tell them when they all walk in the door that if you want to become a professional musician — great. That isn’t our priority but my goal is to get you to sound like one. My expectations — I don’t care if you’re 12 — but if you do things right and you approach this right and you hit the drums right and you know how to phrase, you can sound like a pro drummer. And it’s not going to happen overnight, but that’s my goal for you. And I think people see that and go, “That’s a little different approach from Andy down the street or Fred over there,” you know what I mean?
Curotto: What you brought up, about how you don’t take anyone younger than 12? I used to not want to take six- and seven-year-olds, but this year I just had a little revelation. My daughter is 18 and she’s a dance major in New York and doing very well, and when she was three my mom started her in tap and ballet, and that just hit. So consequently, I’ve taken a couple of six-year-olds. I even have a four-and-a-half-year-old — and you’re not going to believe this — this guy is playing eighth-notes to a metronome at 100 [bpm], and tapping his foot on the floor, and counting.

DRUM!: Do you all have strict policies about students learning the rudiments on pads before you’ll let them get on a kit?
Xepoleas: Oh, no — old-school.
Richardson: No, no.
Curotto: Nah.
Schnalle: [Not getting to play on a drum set right away] was my experience, too. And I will still do that if they’re willing. If they don’t have a drum set yet, I’m like, “Let’s work on the pads for a little while until the drum set’s right,” but a lot of times it’s like, “I got a drum set for Christmas.”
Richardson: Yeah, they already have one.
Xepoleas: At the first lesson I’ll explain it to them: “We’re going to work on the drum set, I know that’s what you’re here for, but there’s other parts of it. There’s the part on the practice pad to get your hands going, and there’s this reading part. If you work on all three parts you’re going to have success,” but I’m not going to be like an old-school teacher — “Maybe if you work on these rudiments and spend years” — because they’re not going to hang in there.
Curotto: I tell the student I can get you ready to play a drum set in two to four weeks. And my goal there is to get them to read eighth-notes so that we start on Funky Primer [by Charles Dowd]. Funky Primer starts with eighth-notes, so at least [it takes] a gradient approach. And I tell the parents, so they don’t get shell shocked, that doesn’t mean I’m going to force you to buy a drum set.
Richardson: I try to do both things, too, because when they get on the kit, then they’re worried about the coordination of doing all the things with their body. So if you can get them to think like, “This is the time when you’re just going to work on your hands,” because you know when they get on the kit everything goes out the window. You can’t think about everything at the same time, so usually I get everybody on, like, the first day because they’re sitting there anyway.
Xepoleas: “A couple of months” seems like the magic number. I say, “I’m going to give you this page of beats. Make a drum set.” When I was a kid, put two books on the edge of a bed. Here’s your hi-hat, here’s your snare, hit the floor [stomps foot on carpet to mimic bass drum] get this coordination and when you come here I’ll let you play drums for a few minutes and get the feel for it. And if you stick with it, and you show your parents that you’re doing it, your parents are going to want to come in and hear you play the groove — they’re going to be more inspired to get you that set.
Curotto: The first lesson, at the end, we just jam. If the kid is totally raw, [I’ll say] “Just hit the drums.” I tell them, “Play as loud, as soft, as little, or much, or as fast as you want to, just do something,” and then they get an idea of what it’s going to be like to be on a real drum set, and maybe that plants the seeds of, “This is going to be fun,” or maybe not.
Schnalle: So how often do you have to change heads?
[Group laughter]
Curotto: Yeah, tell me about it.

DRUM!: What is your setup in the studio? One kit? Two kits side by side?
Curotto: I just have two drum sets and this little station next to it. I use that Roland electronic thing through a speaker for the pad, and I have a pad on a stand I can put up next to them. So we do a little padding and just sit right over two drum sets, the stereo and the DVD and the TV if we need it for DVDs. You’ve got to be able to show them, inspire them.
Richardson: That’s what I do, too, so when we’re doing pad work they can put the pad on their drum set and I also have a snare drum where I can stand in front of them so they can see me, my hands.
Curotto: But I think you’ve really got to have two drum sets.
Xepoleas: Absolutely. I have more of a rock set, bigger sizes, that’s all miked up and it can be recorded. And next to it I have a little bebop set.
Curotto: There you go.
Xepoleas: And so for the jazz students who really want to play jazz, I make them play on that so they know what it’s like to play on a 18" bass drum with two heads on, and the beater coming back off. It’s going to sound different.

DRUM!: Did you all learn the ropes on the job or did you style yourselves against instructors you once had?
Schnalle: I think I’ve modeled myself after everyone I’ve taken lessons from. One of the things I still think about is some teacher going, “Always do this, and never do that.” And that voice is in your head when you’re playing, and later on you go, “Oh, was it me misinterpreting that teacher in the beginning or was it just them being wrong and absolute.” So I always try to make sure there is a strong understanding and that I’m not speaking in absolutes.
Xepoleas: Don’t we always want to be evolving as a teacher? You may bring in the influences from teachers that you had, like you said, what you do want to teach, what you don’t want to teach, and things that come along the way — and learn from students.
Curotto: My original teacher that helped me to become a pro, Mike DeLucca — I kind of formed my teaching like he [did], but I studied with another guy, George Marsh — great drummer. I copied a thing that he did. He would write down what he gives a student, and that’s what I do. I have every student’s name and all the information — I write down what I give them.
Xepoleas: You write it down separately or in their book?
Curotto: Separately.
Xepoleas: Really?
Curotto: Yeah, first of all it works well when they forget their books, either on purpose or they forgot. I say, “Oh, no problem, I got copies of the book and here’s what we did last week.”
Xepoleas: You’re insane.
Schnalle: He’s writing out everything twice for the student, and for yourself, and the monetary things as well.
Curotto: That’s only at the beginning of the month.
Schnalle: You need a secretary, man.
Xepoleas: He’s got 50-plus minutes he has to fill up.
[Group laughter]

DRUM!: Have any of your former students gone on to major gigs?
Xepoleas: One of my students, well, I only had him for a brief time but he played in Counting Crowes. He came to a lesson one day and he was totally frustrated, like, “I’ve been in this business for so long and I don’t know what I’m doing, blah-blah-blah.” I get a letter from him like six months later — “I’m living in a mansion in L.A. and I’m in this band and we’re recording our first record — keep an eye out for it.” The next thing you know I hear this tune, “Mr. Jones,” on the radio.
Richardson: Who? [Steve] Bowman?
Xepoleas: Yeah.
Richardson: [laughs]
Schnalle: I once got a phone call, it was a message machine that was like, “Hey Wally, I’m in the offices in New York at Wind Up Records.” It’s this kid [Adrian Robison] that plays with Strata now. He hadn’t taken lessons from me in two years but I was on the list to get the phone call. And then he came back before they did their second record — “I want to take some lessons — tighten it up for the next record.” He came to the lesson in a tour van and stuff, and I went out: “Let me see the tour van,” and it’s this white, beat-up old ’70s van. I go, “Do you get tour support?” And he looks at me all excited, “Yeah, $20 a day.” He was way into it.
Richardson: Sweet!
Schnalle: But I had another kid that’s in Stomp! now.
Curotto: Oh yeah, I had a kid in Stomp!
Schnalle: And one of my ex-students played with Lauryn Hill for a while.
Curotto: I did a couple of months’ lessons with Paul Bostaph who went on to Slayer [see pg. 131]. But please don’t misprint this because I tell students this if they ever ask: Paul is a great drummer and already knew how to play. He just wanted some extra things to learn when he was just finishing one band before he joined Slayer.
Richardson: Let’s see, [nodding at Schnalle] we both taught Jen [Carlson of Angry Amputees]. She’s toured. I haven’t had any big rock stars yet, but they’re coming.

DRUM!: In ten words or less, what’s the best piece of advice you would you give to anyone contemplating becoming an instructor?
Curotto: I got the perfect answer: You’ve got to be doing what we’re doing or better.
Schnalle: You have to have a sense of responsibility toward the students — be responsible for what you teach.
Xepoleas: If you’re passionate about it and have an overwhelming desire to do it, just be responsible, be the best player you can be, be a good person, and you’ll be successful.
Richardson: I think all of us are doing this because we love the drums. If you don’t love it I don’t think you can survive.

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