Archive for 2012

Old students, new licks

I just spent some time with a friend and former student who came by my studio to visit. Ben was a student of mine through high school, and is now a year from leaving college for graduate school. He isn’t a music major, but is playing in five bands, doing some spec studio sessions for friends and has been studying drum set since he got to campus three years ago. While he was at my studio, he showed me some of the ideas that he has developed over the last three years. He had managed to incorporate a number of styles and techniques into a recognizable personal style that was tasteful and controlled but very funky and perfectly matched to the music. His knowledge of studio techniques and approaches was very perceptive, with the fresh perspective of a young but experienced player. I watched very intently, so I could steal as many licks as possible… To top it all off, as a side project, he built a snare drum as a gift for me!

It was really a treat to see Ben again, and to see how much he had grown musically. The rewards from teaching are intangible (except for the new snare drum!), but most satisfying, indeed!

Picking Pockets

Working in a band that plays a lot of originals with a near equal number of covers from a wide variety of genres is an interesting situation. I spend a lot of time trying to mimic or at least closely emulate other drummers while at the same time trying to maintain my identity by making parts that are uniquely mine. This requires doing reality checks early and often, since my “personal expression” must always take a back seat to serving the song.

One of my role models is Brian Blade, who does both of these things superlatively, and seemingly almost telepathically. I have heard him play live several times over a period of a decade, and he is always creative and fresh in his approach and yet, never, ever steps on the song, but rather enhances it.

Billy Ward, another of my favorites, is of the same quality and bent. Having played in many “pop” music settings, movie sound tracks and the like, Billy puts himself at the service of the music, whether it is Joan Osborne, B.B. King or his own jazz/fusion trio. Billy is ever the creative spirit, but always, always playing for the song. I try to listen to these two role models every chance I get.


The dilemma for me as a percussionist is time management. I always sit down at the drum set first, and then look around guiltily at the marimba, xylophone, timpani and vibraphone. I play all of them, but never feel as though I put in enough woodshed time on the keyboards or timpani. Since the drum set is my first instrument, followed by timpani, I will always be drawn to those instruments first, out of habit.

Having said that, I know that my playing and teaching life is richer for having studied mallets. It helps me as a drum set player and teacher to understand and teach phrasing, melodic development, harmonic structure and song form, to name just a few things. As a drum teacher in Raleigh, I have students who play in every kind of band or ensemble imaginable. They need to know how to follow a song form and how to create fills that create smooth transitions. They also have to be good at sight-reading. Understanding song form and fundamentals of music theory and harmony can help drummers and percussionists to do those things better.