Our Job Isn’t Just to Turn Out Professional Musicians
by Rick Mattingly
As I look back over my years of private teaching, I am proud that several of my former students have been successful in pursuing music careers. Some majored in music in college, and one is now a college percussion instructor himself. Others didn’t make drumming their profession, but they still play gigs, and music remains an important part of their lives.
A student I consider one of my biggest success stories, however, has never played a gig in his life, or even played with a school ensemble or garage band. But he loves playing the drums—and I came very close to telling him he should quit. That would have been a tragedy for both of us.
Around the time he started high school, he signed up for lessons at the music store where I taught. He had only a practice pad and sticks, so I started him out with a snare drum book. Right off the bat I had doubts about his potential. He was having trouble getting the sticks to rebound off the drum; his sticks were basically colliding with the drumhead. When we went to the first page of the book—quarter notes and quarter rests in 4/4—he kept getting confused.
I had seen kids start out slowly before, so I wasn’t overly concerned. Sometimes it was just a matter of them being nervous during the first lesson or two until they realized that I wasn’t going to yell at them if they made a mistake.
The second lesson didn’t go much better, though. Neither did the third, the fourth, or the fifth. I don’t mean to imply that he wasn’t making any progress at all. He gradually relaxed enough to get rebound from the stick, and he progressed to 8th notes in 4/4. But after two months of lessons, he had accomplished only what an “average” student usually achieves after two or three weeks. I hated to admit defeat, but I felt that I was morally obligated to advise this kid that drumming was not his thing and he was wasting his time and money.
When I walked into the store the following Saturday morning, intending to advise him to quit, I saw one of the salesmen taking a new Ludwig drumset off the shelf. My student was standing there beaming with delight. “Look what I just bought,” he said. There was no way I could break this guy’s heart by telling him he should stop drum lessons.
We went to the studio and spent the entire lesson working on playing straight 8th notes on the ride cymbal while playing backbeats on the snare drum. By the end of the lesson he was starting to get it, but he couldn’t keep it going for more than two measures. The first time he actually played it for two measures in a row, though, I saw a look of pride on his face that made me very ashamed of how close I had come to advising him to quit.
By the following week he could keep the pattern going for four or five measures. He had obviously been practicing, so we started working on playing 8ths on the cymbal with the bass drum on beats 1 and 3. The progress was slow, but he was getting it. It took another three weeks before he could play 8ths on the cymbal, bass drum on 1 and 3, and snare drum on 2 and 4. But I can still see the look on his face the first time he pulled it off.
We settled into a fairly consistent routine of mastering one new variation a week, starting with adding the “and of three” on the bass drum. Gradually he worked his way up to learning two new patterns a week. After about a year, he had a reasonable repertoire of beats. A lot of students accomplished that much in two or three months, but that didn’t matter. The reason for private lessons is that they allow each student to progress at his or her own rate.
Besides learning more patterns, something else was happening to this student. At first, he was very introverted, barely saying a word and never making eye contact. But gradually he started opening up and looking at me when I was explaining something. He would even initiate conversations about the drumming on the music he was listening to.
One day he told me that his parents were letting him have part of the garage for a drum room. His dad helped him fix it up with paneling and lighting, and one of the salesmen at the music store gave him some drum and cymbal company posters for decoration.
After a couple of years, he was playing pretty well. So I asked him if he had any friends at school who played guitar and who he could start a band with. He said he had no interest at all in playing in a band. He was perfectly happy coming home from school, playing drums in the garage until dinnertime, and then doing his homework.
He took lessons until he graduated from high school and enrolled in a trade school. I would see him occasionally when he would come to the store to buy sticks. He was still playing his drums in the garage and loving it.
Being professionals ourselves, we are obviously pleased when our students show an aptitude for drumming, and we’re proud when they’re successful. But our job isn’t just to turn out professional musicians. Playing an instrument can enrich people’s lives in innumerable ways, even if they never play a gig. Music certainly added a great deal to this student’s life, and the perspective I got from working with him added a great deal to mine.
Rick Mattingly is a drum teacher, an editor and author of drum-instruction books for Hal Leonard Corporation, and the publications editor for the Percussive Arts Society.