The Inner Game Of Teaching Drums
Being a drum teacher offers a good source of revenue directly related to your love of drumming, but it’s not for everybody. You must like people, communicate well, and have the patience of a saint. And if you have a temper, you can stop reading this article. Game over.
Sure, anyone can have his or her buttons pushed, but if you can’t wear a poker face when a student frustrates you, it’s time to find another line of work, because it’s not actually about you. Your student may be struggling with other things in his or her life. A sympathetic and supportive teacher can help in more ways than simply teaching the drums: by building a student’s confidence and helping him or her accomplish goals.
If this sounds like you, then read on.
A Well-Rounded Teacher
If you think French horn players are hot, you’re in. Drum teachers who played in school band, concert band, wind ensemble, jazz band, marching band, pep band, and the musical theater pit band probably have the kind of experience that can help prepare and guide grade, middle, and high school students through their school band programs. You never know what advice a student might need.
However, there are many different kinds of drum teachers. Honestly appraise your abilities. Take a sheet of paper and list your experience, strengths, and weaknesses as a drummer that you think may help (or hurt) you as a teacher. Consider the following important points.
Reading And Transcribing
You may already be disqualified if you aren’t strong in this area. Unless a student seeks a particular skill, like speed-metal drumming, you’ll need to read well and be able to explain clearly how to read notes to your students. Band directors often foolishly assign advanced material for drumming auditions, and if you can’t read it easily, you certainly can’t decipher it for your students.
Beyond Drum Set
Students often bring in pieces for school band programs before concerts and auditions, so you’ll need to be able to instruct them on snare drum, timpani, mallets, and marching music. Often, the notation of these idioms uses special symbols with which you must be familiar.
Know Your Limits
If you play drums well only in one style, you can still market yourself as a specialist. Otherwise, if you accept students you’re not qualified to teach, you’ll just steal their money. It’s best to be clear about what you can and can’t do, and pass a student onto a more qualified teacher when you can’t help them. That shows you’re truly interested in your student’s well being and not just their check. That concern will be appreciated, and, if you believe in karma, will be rewarded.
Your ability to spin heads behind the kit doesn’t actually matter as much as being able to explain concepts, choose appropriate material for a student’s level, and encourage him or her during lessons. If you teach advanced students, however, your drumming skills are vital.
Most universities and high schools require teachers to have a music degree. So do some music stores and schools, although many are content simply to hire teachers who don’t make their students cry. If you want to teach at a store, frequent it and get to know the owner or manager – some stores advertise for teachers, but many rely on word of mouth. A professional résumé is necessary to quantify your background.
If you teach independently, you have to do your own marketing, bookkeeping, and advertising. In return, you keep all the revenue. If you teach in a store, the owners usually handle much of the paperwork in exchange for a cut of the lesson fee. This percentage varies, and may seem high, but it’s important to remember that a busy store with a lot of traffic can keep your schedule full without the hassles of doing everything yourself.
No matter how long you teach, continue to refine and improve your teaching method, knowledge, and playing abilities. Speaking with other teachers and taking lessons from drummers you respect can be helpful, even if you disagree with some of their methods. All those experiences can help you decide what works for you and what you think can help your students.
Tools Of The Trade
One or two practice pads and a drum kit are essential, as well as a selection of sticks, brushes, mallets, and a metronome. You will need manuscript paper, which you can print cheaply from online sources. A stereo with an auxiliary jack is very useful for playing CDs and iPods, and for amplifying a metronome enough to be heard while a student plays (you’ll also need cables to hook up your iPod/metronome to the input jack of your stereo).
It’s useful to have two pairs of headphones and a Y-cord when teaching in music stores in which several studios are squeezed next to each other. You’ll need a bell kit, xylophone, or keyboard percussion instrument for teaching mallets. While it’s nice to have a set of timpani, it isn’t practical unless you teach a lot of serious classical percussion students. A former teacher of mine had several large Roto Toms that he cleverly and inexpensively adapted for timpani instruction. Teaching drums can eventually damage your hearing, so it’s wise to have earplugs or isolation headphones on hand. It’s also a great motivational tool to have a DVD player or computer to use videos to educate your students about the drumming greats.
Teachers have access to many great books that go beyond classics like George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control and Ted Reed’s Syncopation. You will need a selection of snare-drum books covering reading, rudimental playing, and orchestral snare drumming; drum-set groove books covering rock, jazz, and Latin; a couple of mallet books and a timpani book or two; and other books designed for specific skills such as hand drumming, double bass, or Afro Cuban drumming.
I’m a bit unusual in that I don’t use that many books in my teaching. Instead, I’ve written hundreds of lessons for my students in Finale notation software. I like to customize my approach with students and not require parents to buy a library of books at the very first lesson. It can make your teaching more unique and ultimately help you define your teaching ideas more clearly.
If you teach in your own studio, you’ll need to create a lesson policy regarding student absences. Be sure to get phone and email information for your students and/or their parents. If you occasionally miss a lesson because of a gig, it helps to give students as much notice as possible and offer a makeup lesson so you don’t lose income. You’ll also need a book or file system where you can keep a record of payments. Keep accurate records of your income and teaching-related purchases so you can write legitimate expenses off against your income taxes. If you are paid in cash, it’s helpful to provide receipts so you can prove to a student or parent when they’ve forgotten a payment.
Evaluation And Methodology
It’s important to learn a few things about your student to determine how to proceed with their instruction. If a student is a beginner, you’re in luck – they probably don’t have any bad habits. If they’ve had a little experience, you may have a student who can already read music. Either way, you’ll need to evaluate the student’s drumming and reading skills. Ask them to play something easy, like alternating strokes on the snare or a simple rock beat, so you can check their grip, stick heights, stick angles, dynamics, and look for unnecessary motions. Give them something simple to sight-read. If they pass this pop quiz, give them progressively harder written material to see where they begin to have problems.
Ask more advanced students what they are interested in learning, in case it’s something very specific. Evaluate them and see if they need to develop other skills. Design a series of preliminary exercises so they will be ready to approach their desired goal. For example, drummers with a weak foot should focus more on single-bass technique before delving deeply into double bass. Usually, I’ll give a student like that a few double-bass beats to work on so they get a taste of it while we develop their single-foot technique.
My approach is somewhat rudimental and oriented to technique, so I initially want to teach the correct grip and how to play straight-up-and-down strokes of matching height. I’ll usually teach a few basic patterns like single and double strokes as a warm-up that we’ll use to begin their lessons, and give them a basic snare exercise to begin working on their ability to read notes and rests. If they’re young, I may focus on snare for a while before venturing to the drum set. Even though teenaged students are often only interested in learning to play the drum set, I still take a “vegetables before dessert” approach. We’ll do the drum set stuff after working on their snare material.
Getting A Grip
Though I play both traditional and matched grip, I initially teach students matched grip in a palms down (German) position, since it is easier to adapt from snare to set to keyboard mallet instruments, and also because traditional grip is more difficult to learn. I teach traditional grip to students auditioning for their school marching snare lines, since it is often the required grip for that style.
I have students play introductory material with their fingers closed around the stick – not a death grip, but lightly – even the ring finger and pinky. This teaches more accurate stick timing and height control required for good dynamics. Students develop muscle memory quicker from a firmer grip, since the wrist has to articulate each stroke more, which helps them learn the feel of different sticking patterns. A looser grip is beneficial when playing faster, or playing diddles, buzzes, or learning Moeller strokes, but I discourage my students from playing fast until they can do exercises without errors for many repetitions at slow and intermediate speeds.
Every student must learn to practice efficiently. Their progress can usually be predicted based not just on the amount of time they practice, but on how slowly and carefully they do it. Focusing on the tougher parts seems obvious, but many students will play from the top to the bottom of an exercise without focusing most of their efforts on the parts that need the most work.
Muscle memory is largely programmed subconsciously over time, so it pays to encourage students to be patient. After a day or two of slow and careful practice the new pattern will begin to transfer into the student’s muscle memory and will become easier to play more quickly. You can’t rush the development of synaptic connections except by programming the pattern as perfectly as possible and getting enough rest.
For students who habitually fail to practice at home, lessons can serve as a practice session. Since students like this may just be bored by what they’re working on, try changing tactics by moving to something more fun to play. Give them a solo they can master quickly and mention that it’s something they can “show off to their friends.” (See the music sidebar on page 50.)
Years ago, I had a student who frustrated me. He wouldn’t count, didn’t practice much, acted bored, and kept fighting every suggestion. Rather than continue to push him, I decided to give up and stopped caring. Surprisingly, after a month or so, my more laid-back approach worked and he started to improve. Today, he’s a good reader and a solid rock drummer with good chops.
Positive reinforcement is a powerful thing, but can lose its effect if you overuse it. I use it during the early stages of learning to steer the student toward a better performance. I then tend to critique their performance more as their abilities increase. How you say something can be the difference between a motivated ten-year-old and one who suddenly starts crying. “That’s better, but let’s work on playing your left-hand accents as loud as your right-hand accents.”
I’ve failed some students – failed to motivate them or share the passion I feel for drumming. Sometimes I’ve taken the wrong approach to motivate a student, which has turned them off. I’ve also bored them by spending too much time on an important skill I felt they needed.
In the process, I won the battle but lost the war by not giving them material that would have kept them interested in drumming. Like music itself, there are many times when having a prepared repertoire of material is necessary, and other times when improvising is useful. Using only one of those techniques makes for a very limited approach.
If music isn’t simply written on the page, and is actually what’s between the notes, a successful teacher isn’t just about the lesson plan, but is also about the interaction between teacher and student. If you don’t respect and like your students, you’ll have a much harder time teaching them. It’s important to challenge students, but it’s also good to allow them to succeed and to feel good about themselves and their efforts.
Remember, a great teacher will eventually work himself out of a job, and a bad teacher will do the same thing, only much more quickly.
For students who may be hesitant to read, break them in gradually by giving them an eighth-note beat sheet that doesn’t require deciphering rhythms. I use a page like Ex. 1, where everything is beamed together in one “layer,” not something in separate layers with different notes and values that can confuse or intimidate a student.
Counting Out Loud
This is one of the most important things a student can do to eliminate mistakes and truly understand note values (the lengths that notes and rests last). Counting out loud can also help a teacher quickly spot the reason causing the mistake.
Unfortunately, some drum teachers and band directors teach students to count the exact rhythm they are playing – such as 1 e ah 2 3 & ah e & in the first measure of Ex. 2 – which presupposes the student already understands the written rhythm. Since they rarely will, they often guess.
It’s better to teach a student to count using the smallest note in the exercise, and allow larger notes to span the appropriate number of counts.
For example, if a rhythm is made up of sixteenth-, eighth-, quarter-, and half-notes and rests, it makes the most sense if the student learns the piece by counting the smallest note value they’ll encounter, which in this instance is a sixteenth-note.
So, when counting 1 e & ah, each sixteenth-note or rest will last for one count, an eighth-note will last two counts, a dotted-eighth will last three counts, a quarter-note will last four counts, a half-note will last eight counts, and a whole-note will last sixteen counts. This method is relatively foolproof.
Make It Fun
You can teach important skills covertly without a student even knowing they are learning something useful just by making it fun. For example, a student can learn important skills like timekeeping and song form by playing along to a simple song. Using transcriptions can also reinforce reading skills. Teaching a student to play a drum solo can help him or her learn new skills to show off to friends – peer approval is a strong motivator.
Ex. 3 is a simple solo that requires a few different skills. First, the solo teaches the student how to use a commonplace accent pattern that he will likely run into again. It employs a paradiddle to reverse the sticking, a common technique in rudimental solos, and teaches an easy way to move the accents from the snare to the drum set.
Ex. 4 is a slightly more advanced solo that teaches students to count triplets, learn to spot a one-measure repeat, follow first and second endings, and uses a common linear triplet pattern (played RH LH RF).