The well-known drummer/teacher reflects on his sixty-year love affair with the drums.
Thanks to my parents, Americo and Anna DiCenso, Santa Claus brought me my first drumset. It was a toy kit complete with tin shells, paper heads, and a picture of a clown on the bass drum head. That drumset was the best Christmas gift I ever got; today it’s the only gift I still remember from my childhood. At the time I was so excited that I was speechless. All I wanted to do was play those drums. It was 1947 and I was six years old. That was the beginning of my love affair with drums that has lasted to this day.
I can’t remember what prompted me to ask for drums that Christmas, but an event that happened three years later is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. I was at a parade; I remember a drum section marching by me to a crisp and very exciting street beat. The rhythm, sound, precision, and energy got inside me, and I still remember the feeling as well as the goose bumps it gave me. I wanted to play drums and re-create that feeling.
I also remember my cousin Barbara, who lived in New York and had a Gretsch drumset. When I visited, she would let me play her drums to records. (Cassettes and compact discs had not yet been invented.) She and her husband also took me to the Metropole Nightclub in New York City to see Gene Krupa. The magic, showmanship, and musical genius of Gene Krupa was so exciting and amazing that I will never forget that special memory. That experience strengthened my attraction to the drums as well as my desire to learn how to play them.
It was 1951 when, in the fifth grade, I started drum lessons. I was ten years old. Although I had one very good friend who lived across the street, I had a strong feeling of not fitting in or being connected with my schoolmates. I had no experience or interest in sports or other activities that seemed typical of kids my age. However, my involvement with drum lessons and music gave me a sense of doing something special—something that not everyone could do—something I knew I could do, and do well.
I am amazed when I think of how different a drum lesson was fifty years ago compared to today. The first year or so I took a bus to Quincy High School for a weekly half-hour class lesson. Approximately ten kids in a class lined up behind desks with a piece of wood on top of each desk. We had a pair of drumsticks and a copy of The Haskell W. Harr Snare Drum Method–Book One. This was the extent of our equipment: sticks, a book, and a block of wood. The teacher also played on a block of wood and wrote on the blackboard. It was not very exciting by today’s standards. Somehow, though, I found it interesting, and exciting. I found something that made me feel connected to something very special. Drums and music gave me an identity or a sense of being somebody, which is a feeling I did not have prior to my involvement with drums and music.
During the next eight years, I studied with Stanley Specter; then I studied with Richie Pearson; and, finally, with Charlie Alden. I was very fortunate to have studied with very competent, caring teachers who made the learning process an easier, more positive one. Moreover, I was blessed with parents whose whole-hearted support greatly enhanced my being able to accomplish my goals.
During the eight-year period from 1951 to 1959, I was able to apply what I was learning by participating in my junior high and high school music programs. These programs afforded me an opportunity to gain knowledge, competence, and priceless experience, not the least of which was performing with The Massachusetts All-State Concert Band.
When I think of the huge influence public school music education had on my life, it angers and saddens me to see how many public school systems have either drastically cut back or eliminated the arts from their curriculum. It seems to me that if we, as a culture, neglect the arts, we neglect our soul; therefore, we neglect a crucial part of what makes us human. I hope we do not allow this to continue.
On weekends during my junior high and high school years, I performed with various local bands at functions as well as nightclubs, bar rooms, and a variety of venues, some of which were real nice and others that were real dives. I also performed with The Quincy Symphony Orchestra and on local radio and television shows. The wide range of hands-on experience and the knowledge I gained proved to be of great benefit to my performing and teaching skills.
One of the many lessons learned from the various musical situations that I experienced came from a rehearsal with The Quincy Symphony Orchestra, where I played the concert bass drum on a particular composition. I had to count what seemed like a thousand measures of rests. On measure one thousand and one, I had to play a very important and very loud quarter note. Well, not only did I not play that note very loud–I didn’t play it at all. I missed it! The conductor stopped the entire orchestra, thanks to me. He asked, “What happened?” “I don’t know,” I said, “—I got lost.” Well, after three more attempts, three more times of missing that bass drum note and my face turning at least three shades of red, I found that bass drum note.
Reading the drum part was not the problem. But reading the drum part is not enough. The drum part is only one of many components, along with the melody, harmony, expression, etc., that make up the music. The lesson learned is: If I hope to play the drum part, enhance the music, and follow the conductor, I must know the music. This lesson applies not only to playing drums in a symphony orchestra, but to playing in any style of music. At the end of the day we must play for the music. The music is the story, and if we want to be a part of the story, we must know the story.
Teaching drums was not on my list of goals when my junior high school band director asked me to teach the drummers in the band how to read music. However, I accepted the challenge. In so doing, not only did I learn what and how to teach, but that I had the capacity and desire to do it. Moreover, I found it very rewarding. I was fourteen years old and in the ninth grade; it was 1955, and I’ve been learning and teaching ever since.
It seems as though I went from ten to eighteen years old before I knew it. I also discovered that life got more interesting and more complicated rather quickly. I found myself coordinating school, drum lessons, piano lessons, gigs, rehearsals, a part-time job, and teaching drums, among other things. Somehow in the midst of all the above, I discovered girls–and I liked them! I found one in particular, Mary Ellen Chiminiello, whom I courted, off and on, from 1956 until she became my wife in 1961. We were blessed to have found each other, and blessed three more times with three wonderful sons.
I graduated from high school in 1959. I had started working part-time in 1958, and in 1959 I began working full-time for my drum teacher at the Charles Alden Music Company in Boston, Massachusetts. I joined the Boston musicians’ union in 1959 and performed in a variety of situations including show bands, society dance bands, and swing bands.
My teaching practice was doing well, and my day job evolved from working as a salesman at Charles Alden Music to being a salesman at the Harris Fandel Company. (Both were distributors of musical instruments and accessories.) Eventually I became sales manager and then general manager at Harris Fandel. My involvement in the music industry, servicing music dealers in the North Eastern portion of the United States from 1958 to 1981, gave me twenty-three years of invaluable information and experience. I was able to see, first-hand, how some folks created and maintained successful teaching operations as well as viable retail operations. I saw how teaching enhances retail and retail enhances teaching. I also observed why some folks were successful while others were not.
In 1982 I decided to open my own drum shop in Quincy, Massachusetts. For twenty-three years, Dick DiCenso’s Drum Shop provided the drumming community with sales, service, and instruction of the highest caliber. In March of 2005 I sold the drum shop to the South Shore Music Company. I had already resigned from the musicians’ union several years earlier, and eventually stopped performing. As I continue teaching at DiCenso’s Drum Shop and settle into semi-retirement, I’m better able to focus on teaching drums and living a less complicated life.
At sixty-six years of age, I find myself having a stronger-than-ever passion for doing what I started doing when I was fourteen: teaching people how to play the drums and experience the joy of participating in creating music.
To read about the concepts and methods Dick DiCenso has developed over his long and successful career as a drum instructor, read his Teacher’s Forum article in the current issue of Modern Drummer magazine. Visit DiCenso’s drum shop at www.justplaymusic.com/drums-percussion