The Instruction Book (R)evolution
Once the cornerstone of every student’s musical education, standard print method books are experiencing a tectonic shift in the digital-centric modern world. And while “adapt or die” is the mantra of writers and publishers everywhere, no one has felt the change more intimately than Dave Black, Alfred Publishing’s vice president and co-author with the late Sandy Feldstein of Alfred’s Drum Method, Book 1, the best-selling drum instruction title in the company’s 90-year history. On the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, we picked Black’s brain on everything from catering to new readership expectations to what prospective authors need to know about getting published.
DRUM!: How did Drum Method compare to other drum books at the time?
DB: Back in 1987, the Haskell Harr Drum Method had been out for 50 years, and Elementary Drum Method, by Roy Burns, had been out for 25 years. Those two methods had been widely used, but it had been 25 years since a major snare method had come out, and so we felt we could update those two books. It was the first drum book to include full-length solos after each concept taught, so there’s a total of 23 full-length solos suitable for contests. We also introduced rolls in a way that was easier to understand (particularly the 7-stroke roll). Something else unique to the method was the fact that we incorporated actual drum parts from Sousa marches and well-known concert band pieces. It was the first book to show how rudiments such as 5-stroke rolls and flams were used in actual drum parts. A VHS video that correlated to the book was also made available, making it one of the first products to ever have that element. And, we actually taught a lesson live on camera. In keeping up with the changing times, the video was later released on DVD and is now available digitally for your iPad.
DRUM!: How has the method book world changed in 25 years?
DB: Students and teachers now want to have full audio and video to accompany their basic methods. They also don’t want the “one size fits all” approach anymore because we live in a world where you can download the music you want without being forced to buy something you don’t like just because it’s included on an album. As such, Alfred has created the world’s first-ever customizable band and string methods. That technology will soon be utilized with other instrumental methods such as drum, guitar, bass, and keyboard publications. Students and teachers will be able to choose a number of features (starting rhythm, rudiments, choosing matched or traditional grip, etc.), as well as the ability to swap out some of the play-along tunes contained within their printed book.
DRUM!: Are student needs different today? If so, how?
DB: We’ve already talked about the importance and impact technology continues to play. We also have to remember that students, educators, and schools are currently faced with a tremendous amount of challenges. Most states are experiencing difficult budget crises which have resulted in the elimination of school music programs and outside music activities. As a result, tools, such as videos or DVDs, will give students (especially those in rural areas where a teacher is not accessible) an opportunity to see how to set up, hold, and take care of their instruments, as well as hear how a passage or exercise should be played. It doesn’t take the place of a good teacher, but it’s better than nothing.
DRUM!: What impact has multimedia had on the printed book market?
DB: Technology is playing a bigger part in education than it ever did before. Tools such as the online SmartMusic program are being used to help teachers assess their students’ performance abilities. Audio, DVD, and music software components are now included in most of our method books. These components include games, exercises, ear training, and testing. Tempo-changing technology now gives students the ability to be able to speed up or slow down a particular exercise or passage. Many of our books are also available digitally on iPads, Kindles, and Nooks. Moving forward, most new publications will automatically include a digital version, or will be released as just an e-book.
DRUM!: How have new media innovations altered how you select what ideas get published?
DB: The market over the last 25 years has become saturated with drum books. I often see something I think is interesting or unique, but I have to ask myself if it’s the right fit for Alfred. I’ve seen many things over the years I thought were good, well-thought-out ideas, but I didn’t accept them because I knew they wouldn’t sell enough copies. So, if a publisher rejects something, it doesn’t always mean the idea is bad. It may simply mean it’s just not the right fit for our catalog. The digital press has changed the way we make decisions on what to publish. It has given me the opportunity to publish in areas we haven’t touched for years, such as steel drum pieces and percussion ensembles. We didn’t publish those types of pieces in the past because with traditional offset printing, you would have to print at least 500 copies in order to get a good print price. If you only sold 100 copies the first year, you’d have 400 copies left that you paid for and would have to warehouse. With the digital press, however, if I predict a publication is only going to sell 100 or 200 copies, then I can print just 100 or 200 copies. Something I would have rejected five years ago because it didn’t have a big enough market or was too esoteric, I will now publish because I don’t have the expense of having to print hundreds of copies that might never sell.
And, because of programs like Sibelius and Finale, people are now able to submit manuscripts that are already engraved [with music notation]. We will clean them up, but we don’t have to pay to engrave a publication from scratch, and so that helps keep our costs down.