There are all kinds of drumming role models— jazz forefathers, rock gods, flashy young fire-breathers. This one has become a modern-day hero by devising an entirely new way to inspire and serve a generation of players with a never-ending hunger for information.
It’s no secret that drumming education is undergoing some major changes, as more and more instructors are beginning to offer online lessons in addition to traditional one-on one private instruction in local drum shops and music schools. Mike Johnston, creator of MikesLessons.com, was one of the first teachers to capitalize on the wide-reaching power of the Internet, after videos he uploaded to YouTube for his private students went viral and gained more than a million views. Seeing that unexpected response as a sign of demand for high-quality educational content online, Johnston created a website where students could purchase and download prerecorded video lessons and watch them on their computers or iPods. Two years later, in 2008, Mike went space age and launched the world’s first live-stream drum-lesson service, which remains the preeminent one of its kind.
But was it always a goal to revolutionize music education through the Web? Not even close. Johnston started out teaching drums in a music store in his hometown of Sacramento, California, while playing in the alternative-rock band Simon Says. As the group’s popularity began to grow, Johnston realized that he was more excited about teaching than about playing on stage to thousands of people. He eventually chose to leave the touring life to focus on his true passion: educating others. MikesLessons.com was just a natural progression as Internet technology became more powerful and video production tools became more readily available. The operation has since expanded to include weeklong camps at Johnston’s facility in Folsom, California, and Mike continues to crank out top-notch prerecorded video lessons between his regular three-times-a-week live streams.
Now with more than 9,000 MikesLessons.com students and nearly 70,000 YouTube subscribers, plus thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter, Johnston is undeniably one of the most watched and devotedly supported personalities in modern drumming education. Yet despite all of his success, he remains incredibly humble and gracious, and his passionate, sharing spirit continues to permeate every lesson he teaches, every clinic he conducts, and every video he records. And when approached for his fi rst cover story, Mike wanted to be sure to give something back to you, the readers of MD, for all of your support, in the form of the fi ve-step Practical Independence Challenge included as this month’s Rock & Jazz Clinic. Before we get to that lesson, however, let’s take a few minutes to talk shop with the man himself.
MD: How did your own educational journey begin?
Mike: I started taking lessons when I was about five years old, and I never stopped. I’m still taking lessons, from Will Kennedy, the drummer for the Yellowjackets. Music education played a huge role in my growth as a young drummer. I did school band, but I wasn’t learning very fast, and I was always making fifth chair. My private instructors just assumed I didn’t practice because I wasn’t growing, but I was actually practicing four or five hours a day.
It was really frustrating in the beginning. It almost felt like I had a learning disability for the instrument. But I didn’t know what sucking was, and I didn’t know what being “bad” at something was. I just knew that I loved it. It wasn’t until junior high that I realized how far behind my peers I really was.
MD: So what were some of the things you did to try to catch up?
Mike: Mainly, I started teaching myself. I would take lessons with my private teacher and pretend that I understood him, but I didn’t. It wasn’t his fault; he was a great teacher. But I would go home, put all the music on the floor, and think: What is he asking me to do here? What’s the difference between quarter notes, 8th notes, and 16th notes?
My instructor would give me a one-measure 16th-note groove, and I would just look at the first four notes for an hour. Eventually, after four hours of practicing, I would try to play the entire one-measure groove. Then my friends would just sight-read it down, and I realized even more how far behind I was. I’d have to work ten times as long on my lessons as my peers would have to.
At the time, I didn’t know how to say, “I don’t get this.” But that’s also what really shaped me as a teacher. I struggled so hard, and I still do. If you gave me something brand new right now, I would have to dissect it, and it would take me four times longer than anyone else to learn it. But when I’m done, I really know it. And I can teach it and break it down to anyone, because I’ve had to work through every crack and crevice of it for myself.
MD: So it seems that reading music was more of an obstacle for you than playing was.
Mike: Yeah, man. I couldn’t figure out what it meant, as far as the duration of each note. Being in school band made it a little confusing, because I was hearing the explanation to the wind instruments, and I could understand why they played a whole note for four beats. But why did I just hit the drum once? It wasn’t computing. Now I would just ask, but as a kid I was too afraid to ask someone to explain it. That experience really contributed to my teaching too. Anything that I teach now, whether it be a rudiment, a chop, or an exercise, I usually have four or five explanations of that exact same thing so that when I see in students’ eyes that they’re confused, I can say, “Okay, think of it like this….” And if that doesn’t work, I’m like, “Okay, let’s write it out on the board.” And so on. I just keep going through each possible way to teach it until I see their eyes click, and then I know they’ve got it.
MD: Do you remember a turning point when it finally clicked for you?
Mike: Yeah. In my early twenties, I learned my own system and stopped being ashamed of it. I started embracing the way I learn. I realized that I had to see it, hear it, and then learn it one limb at a time. First, I would write out what I was learning, so I could see it. Then I’d program it with a drum machine and listen to it at about 50 or 60 bpm. Then I would play one limb at a time. Then, slowly, I’d add in one note of the bass drum part at a time, and then the snare, and so on.
MD: Was there anything else you learned as a drum student that carried over into your method of teaching?
Mike: Before I had my first professional drum teacher, Pete Magadini, I had a few teachers that would say things like, “That’s not how you play the hi-hat with your foot,” or, “That’s not how you do this,” and it just seemed so absolute. I remember thinking: I’m never going to do that with my students. My students are going to have a clear picture of the desired result in their head. I will show them the technique I think will help them get there, but I will encourage them to experiment. And if they get to that desired result, I’m not going to bug them about the technique they’re using. I care more about the finished product than having students with perfect technique that can’t communicate their sound.
MD: Even now, as a successful educator, you’re still taking lessons. Why is that?
Mike: I got to the point where I felt good about my delivery of education, that I could explain things fairly well, but I wasn’t happy with my personal drumming. I felt like it was missing a key ingredient, which was a pulse. The drummers that I love, whether it be Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Benny Greb, or whoever, even when they play their flashiest chops it still has a pulse. I didn’t have that. So I asked myself, Who has this pulse more than anybody in a fusion setting? Because that’s the direction I was heading as a player. To me, it was Will Kennedy. Anything he’s ever done, with the Yellowjackets, Bobby McFerrin, or anyone else, there’s always a great pulse.
I didn’t know Will, and we didn’t share a single endorsement, so I didn’t have an “in” with him. I just contacted him and told him what I was looking for. He didn’t know who I was or what I did, but he was totally cool about working with me. It started by sending him videos of me playing along with tracks that he had sent. He would critique it and say, “Okay, do it again and send it back with these new corrections.”
Our lessons slowly morphed, and he’d say, “Okay, this is a Yellowjackets tune called ‘Freedomland.’ This is the A section, and this is the B section. You’ve got a month.” I would work endlessly on it and then send it back. Then he’d say, “Why did you contact me?” And I’d say, “To have a pulse.” Then he’d say, “Then why are you worried so much about the chops, the fills, and the execution of the groove? You’re not focusing on the whole reason you contacted me.” Then I’d have to go back and make sure that everything I played had this push to it, this quarter-note pulse.
Any time he described the pulse of a specific song, he would say, “The pulse is defended by…” That phrase told me how important pulse was to him. It was like there was an army in front of a castle, and the castle was the pulse. The army has to defend the pulse at all costs. The first time he said it, I had to sit down and soak it in. He would say that the pulse was defended by the ride, the kick, the snare, or whatever, and it just blew me away.
THE INTERNET REVOLUTION
MD: How did MikesLessons.com begin?
Mike: About seven or eight years ago I was in a signed major-label band called Simon Says. We sounded like Rage Against the Korn Tones. [laughs] I left that band so I could come home and teach full time at Skip’s Music in Sacramento. That was going to be my future, and I was really happy about it, because I knew that teaching is where I should be. I would go on little three- to four-day tours to help bands out. And at that time, there was this brand-new website called YouTube that hosted videos. So I figured, “Wow! I can film a video of my students’ lessons, put them on this new website, and tell them when I’m going to be out of town to work on the stuff in that video at no charge. Then when I come back, we can work on it together.” I literally had to spell out the website to the parents, because YouTube was still so new.
Well, I would come back, and the video, which I only showed to a few students, would have 10,000 views. I was like, “That’s got to be a mistake—that can’t be right.” Then I’d do it again, and it would get 15,000 views. And the next one would have 60,000 views. That kept happening, but I was horrible. I couldn’t speak to a camera. My sound was bad. And I didn’t know how to work a mixing board and microphones. But it was good enough for my students at the time, so I kept making more, and eventually it got to the point that there were about a million views total between all of my videos.
Finally, I thought, Man, if I charged for this, I would value the content more, and the people purchasing it would value it WAY more. Sometimes, when you get free educational content, it’s in one ear and out the other. But when you pay, you want to get your money’s worth, so you practice it. I think I had about 20,000 subscribers at the time, and I thought maybe I could get 10 or 20 percent of these people to follow me over to a site that would take education a bit more seriously than my YouTube videos. The videos I make for YouTube are tips and tricks—the fun stuff. I wanted my website to be filled with legit education that was worth charging for.
The way I did the site was by asking myself, What’s the website I wish Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta had built for me? And I just built it. The distance between myself and Vinnie—which is vast—is probably similar to the distance between myself and some of these students who are just starting out. So I made a website that I would have wanted.
MD: What led you to choose the life of an educator as opposed to continuing to perform in a band setting?
Mike: When I was with my band, I never knew that a record deal was possible. It just kind of happened, and it was a big deal. We were touring with some of the biggest bands in the world, like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Foo Fighters. I’m really lucky that I got a chance to see that side of the industry. The crowds were getting into the tens of thousands, but I felt almost nothing on stage. Actually, all I thought was that I couldn’t wait to get off the stage so I could take the other drummers onto the bus and explain this thing I’d just thought of. All of a sudden, it started to click, and I realized: Wait a minute. I’m in the middle of most drummers’ dreams, and all I’m thinking about is explaining things to other drummers.
I started sharing this with my teacher at the time, Pete Magadini. Pete was the one that pushed me into the world of teaching as a profession. He’s the one that said, “Look, you’re a good drummer, but when you explain something to me your eyes light up in a totally different way. I think you really have a talent for explaining things to people, and more than anything you have a passion for it.”
So I went to my band and was like, “Guys, I’ve got you lined up with four drummers that are far superior to me to audition for the band. I want to go home and be a teacher for the rest of my life.” And at the time I wasn’t planning on going home to start this new thing that was going to influence drumming education on a global scale. I just thought I was going to quit my band and go home to teach in a local drum shop for the rest of my life. And I was really excited about it.
THE VIRTUAL AND THE PERSONAL
MD: What exactly do people get as members of MikesLessons.com?
Mike: There are two different services that the website offers. There’s downloadable prerecorded content, and then there’s a live-streaming service. It’s a monthly subscription that gives you live-streaming lessons at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. PST on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Monday is beginner, Tuesday is intermediate, and Wednesday is advanced. Each lesson is about twenty-five to thirty minutes of instruction, and then we do questions and answers, which is also live. So when you’re logged in, you can ask me anything you want. We have a chat screener keeping track of all the questions, who happens to be my awesome wife, Amber. She reads the questions, and then I answer them live on camera. Those accounts can merge, so you can have downloadable content and the live-streaming service.
MD: You also offer drum camps throughout the year. What do those entail?
Mike: Drum camps happen every summer, and they are actually the reason I opened the MikesLessons.com facility. The website used to be run out of a spare bedroom in my house, but I wanted to expand it into something that was more personal. So we found a building that was in the same parking lot as a hotel, on the river in Sacramento. People can fly in, stay here for a week, and just wake up in the morning and walk to the building. There are ten camps per summer, either intermediate or advanced, and they’re six days long.
Most of the camps are coed, but we do two camps per year that are all female, so they can share stories with each other that most male drummers wouldn’t relate to. And I wanted more than anything for them to look around the room and realize they’re not alone in this. We limit all the camps to eight people, because I want to know everyone’s first and last name. I want to know what they do for a living, their weaknesses and strengths, and I want everything to be very personal.
MD: One of your camps focuses on educating other educators. What do those camps look like?
Mike: All kinds of teachers come to that. Some people have been teaching for twenty years, and they think their teaching is getting a little stale, or they’re looking for a fresh take on how to teach certain things. Others are only sixteen or seventeen years old and thinking about becoming teachers. It’s a really fun camp, because it’s my passion, and I love being surrounded by people that share that passion.
Every morning they walk in and there are about ten drumming topics on a board. Each teacher has to pick a topic and try to teach it to everyone in about five minutes. Or sometimes we’ll have one topic, and we’ll each get up and give a small clinic on it so we can see the different ways that people explain things. We really explore the delivery of education, branding, promoting, and what it’s like to be an educator nowadays. To be an educator now, it’s important to have great video content so parents can see you before they meet you. You should at least have a decent website that shows your contact information, teaching ability, and playing ability. You also need to be on top of social media and know how to approach it professionally.
MD: Do some people in the teacher camp want to do the same thing as you? Is the MikesLessons.com business model something you’d like to see other people doing as well?
Mike: Yes, I think it’s awesome! Teaching isn’t just something you do when playing doesn’t work out. It can be your Plan A instead of Plan B. It was for me. I mean, I left a signed touring band so I could come home and teach, and I love it more than anything. And I love that other people want to do what I’m doing. The thing that makes MikesLessons.com unique is not the delivery of video content or the live streaming—it’s me. And what would make your lessons unique is you.
MD: Some people are skeptical of online education because they’re worried about losing the one-on-one relationship between student and teacher. How do you maintain a sense of community on such a global scale?
Mike: I’m aware that the big knock with online education is the loss of the one-on-one relationship, so one thing we have is student reviews on Tuesday nights before the live lesson. As a member of MikesLessons.com, you get access to a private YouTube channel where you can upload your stuff. No matter how many get uploaded, I review every video live. So I’ll say, “Okay, this video is from Chris Hancock, and he’s working on songo variations.” Then I roll the clip of Chris, come back on camera, and critique it. My students are given a heads-up that their video will be reviewed on a specific night, so they can log in and watch the review.
The other thing we have is the Mike’s Lessons Family Facebook page, which you get added to when you sign up. It’s a collection of some of the greatest personalities and attitudes in the drum community. If someone puts up a post saying they’re bummed and thinking maybe drums isn’t for them, within five minutes there will be a bunch of posts talking them off the ledge. So between the student reviews and the Family Facebook page, we’re able to close that gap.
The other thing is I do my homework. When we get a new student, I check out what kind of drumset they have and what their drum room looks like. I want to know everything about them so that when my wife, Amber, tells me, “Okay, Cole Paramore has a question,” I instantly know that he lives in Juneau, Alaska, has a DW kit, and his father made his snare. And on the right side of his ride, he has the 18″ Sand crash. I have to know all that about my students, because that can close the gap, and I can give them better advice.
MD: How do you prepare for lessons and keep things fresh?
Mike: I’m still a student. I’m not done learning, and as soon as I learn new things I can’t wait to pass them on to my students. The other thing is there are standards that have to be taught over and over again. Time signatures weren’t only explained to me once. The samba wasn’t only explained to me once. Sometimes I’ll teach an intermediate lesson on something that I’ve already taught, like samba, because we have a lot of new students who didn’t see it before. Then I’ll teach samba variations in the advanced class, which will be content that I know I’ve never taught before.
MD: You mentioned your own personal development as a drummer. How much time do you get to practice these days?
Mike: I get up early, around 6:30 a.m., and try to get to work by 8 a.m. That’s when I make the PDFs and MP3s for that day’s live lesson. We broadcast the lesson at 11 a.m., and that goes until about noon. The next five hours are either practice time or time to record new content. For the five months leading up to PASIC this past fall, I spent that time preparing for my clinic.
Right now, my practice time is spent on whatever Will Kennedy gives me to work on or something I’m trying to work through on my own. For example, I’ll pick a subdivision and just improvise on that for about twenty minutes. Then I’ll pick a second subdivision and improvise between the two for another half hour. Then I’ll tackle some physical weakness, like singles between my hands and my feet or up-tempo swing, for ten minutes.
My biggest focus for the past six or seven months has been on drum solos. They used to scare the crap out of me. But I took the Michael Jordan principle, where he says, “Make your weakness your strength.” I decided that I was sick of hiding from drum solos, and I started tackling them. I recorded myself every night and listened to the solo on my way home, and then did it again the next day. The entire time I’m paying attention to the process, so I can pass it off to my students.
After PASIC, which was where I performed my first real drum solo, I couldn’t wait to tell my students about my journey, what was going through my head, how I created the solo, and the people that helped me create it. JP Bouvet, Benny Greb, Jost Nickel, and Will Kennedy were so important in the development of my solo. Will was all about pulse. My solo was in 15/8, but my left foot was playing quarter notes throughout, so no matter how weird it got, the audience always had a pulse to follow. JP Bouvet told me to pick four or five “scenes” that I was very comfortable playing. When you have those scenes, all you have to do is create the connecting dots to get from one to the next. Jost Nickel, who is one of my favorite soloists, told me to find tempos, or just one tempo, that I enjoyed playing. Everyone has a “home tempo.” If I asked you to just tap your foot to quarter notes, what tempo would that be?
Benny Greb told me to “Play the hits.” What he meant by that was that we all have things in our drumming repertoire that are our number-one singles. He told me not to be scared to play something that I’ve already played in front of other people. When you go see your favorite band, what’s your favorite part of the concert? It’s when they play their hits. So play the things that you love to play, and it will show through.
MD: At one point during your clinic at PASIC, you discussed how drummers should encourage and support one another. You’ve also promoted similar philosophies online with ideas like the Positive Post Campaign. What message are you trying to get across, and why is it so important?
Mike: We know why a lot of people are so negative: It makes them feel better about themselves. It’s just not necessary, though. I think one thing that’s hard for people to do sometimes is to remember their own personal time line.
I have a friend, Chris Robyn, who drums for the band Far. He’s only a year older than me, but he’s like twenty years wiser. He took me under his wing, and I really look up to him. We would go to shows and see drummers that in my opinion at the time were not very good. After we’d leave, I’d be waiting for Chris to go off and talk smack about the drummer, but it would never happen. So finally I would ask, “Dude, what did you think of the drummer?” And Chris would say, “Man, his hi-hats were crisp,” and then he’d stop talking.
I didn’t understand. I remember thinking, You must have heard the same thing I did. It was terrible! This went on for a while, and eventually I got it. What’s the point of saying something negative? Do I know his story? Is he bad, or is he just early on his drumming time line? Early on my time line I was terrible too, but I was as good as I could have been at the time.
I don’t know people’s circumstances. I don’t know how much time they get to practice or if they take lessons, so who am I to judge what they’re doing? As that philosophy grew and I became more involved in the world of YouTube, it became even more important. I would see people just tearing each other apart. But we’re all trying to do the exact same thing, which is to be great at our instrument, so why would you make fun of somebody or say that they suck?
MD: Speaking of which, you have a slogan that you often use: “Embrace the suck.” What does that mean?
Mike: “Embrace the suck” is written on a bracelet that we give to everyone at our drum camps. I was watching so many people beat themselves up about their weaknesses. To me, weaknesses have nothing to do with talent; they have to do with what you focus on. The things that people are weak at are the things they haven’t put enough focus on. I say let’s find your weaknesses, and instead of getting bummed out about them, let’s get excited about them. Once we know what they are, we can work on them together. And the chances are that your weaknesses were probably my weaknesses too, so I can tell you how I overcame them and walk with you, step by step, to help you do the same. Embrace the suck!
Phil Collins Face Value (Phil Collins) /// Barkmarket L. Ron (Rock Savage) /// Billy Cobham Spectrum (Billy Cobham) /// Bobby McFerrin Bang! Zoom (Will Kennedy) /// Faith No More Angel Dust (Mike Bordin) /// Brotherly One Sweet Life (programmed) /// The Cinematic Orchestra Every Day (Luke Flowers) /// The Dear Hunter Migrant (Nick Crescenzo) /// John Scofield Up All Night (Adam Deitch)
Drums: Gretsch USA Custom in vintage marine pearl finish, including a 7×10 tom, a 14×16 floor tom, an 18×22 bass drum, and a 5×12 side snare, plus a 5.5×14 Brooklyn series main snare in satin dark ebony finish
Cymbals: Meinl Byzance series, including 14″ Extra Dry Medium hi-hats, an 18″ Extra Dry Thin crash, a 21″ Mike Johnston Transition ride, an 18″ Sand crash, and a 20″ Extra Thin Hammered crash
Heads: Aquarian Response 2 Coated snare batter, Super 2 Coated tom batters and Classic Clear bottoms, and Force I Clear bass drum batter and Force I Coated front head
Sticks: Vater Mike Johnston 2451 hickory model
Hardware: DW, including 9000 series stands and 5000 series bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand; custom seat by Rooster Thrones