On The Cover
In the hundred or so years since our instrument was invented, the art of playing it has evolved significantly. And so has the way we teach it. Few people understand drumming history more fully than this month’s cover artist—and no one has shared that knowledge more widely and with more enthusiasm and success.
Story by Michael Dawson
Photos by Deneka Peniston
Who else can lay claim to nearly forty years of tireless travels around the world to present master classes, conduct clinics, and set up lesson programs in far-off places like the Canary Islands, New Zealand, and China? Sure, there were artists who paved the way in drumset education before Famularo, including the swing-era greats Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole, who started a drum school in New York City in 1953, and Aquarian Drumheads cofounder/big band drummer Roy Burns, who’s largely credited with pioneering the drumset clinic format in the United States and for being the first American to conduct drum workshops internationally. But no other drummer’s world map displays as many pushpins as Famularo’s, marking educational journeys in more than sixty countries on six continents.
During our visit to the WizDom Drumshed, Famularo’s soundproof state-of-the-art teaching facility built just behind his house in Long Island, I joked that I was a bit disappointed not to see any marks in Antarctica. But it wouldn’t be all that surprising if one day we were to find Dom teaching the power and efficiency of the Moeller arm stroke to a crop of adventurous drummers aboard a National Geographic Explorer expedition off the coast of Petermann Island. Why not, right?
Between gigs and clinic tours, Famularo juggles a dizzying roster of more than a thousand private students, from more than twenty countries, who either come to Long Island for in-person lessons or connect with him online via Skype. He also authors books regularly for his publishing company, Wizdom Media, which he runs alongside his former student Joe Bergamini, an acclaimed drummer/educator/author in his own right. And Famularo is a consultant for several of his endorsing companies that have created networks for drum instructors, including the Evans D’Addario Education Collective, the Sabian Education Network, Vic Firth’s Private Drum Teacher program, and Mapex’s Learning Advantage.
Famularo has franchised his WizDom Drumshed concept, which centers on a highly motivational style of teaching and has a very specific studio setup comprising a practice pad station for technical studies, a snare drum station for reading and rudimental workouts, and two drumsets so the teacher and student can play through exercises simultaneously, plus a high-tech network of HD cameras, flat-screen monitors, and computers so that lessons can be recorded and archived for future analysis or transmitted live to online students via the Internet. Some of Famularo’s top international students have opened their own Drumsheds, with several more in the works, further cementing Dom’s legacy as one of the most influential drum educators in the world.
Yet when you sit down with him, you quickly realize that Famularo is not simply looking to advance his own brand for personal gains. Yes, his business skills are as sharp as a tack. But his true mission, fueled by his tireless enthusiasm, is to share the insight he’s gained over years of traveling and teaching and from studying with some of the most revered drummer/educators of all time, including Joe Morello, Jim Chapin, Shelly Manne, and Papa Jo Jones, so that more and more people are exposed to the ceaseless joy and happiness that come with drumming. During the course of our discussions for this story, Famularo was adamant that “it’s not about me. It’s about them—the great teachers of the past and those who are currently out there doing it day in and day out. Those are the people who deserve the attention.”
We had originally planned to include a listing of the drum instructors Famularo has crossed paths with over the years, in order to provide a vetted source of credible teachers around the world for readers to reference. But there’s simply not enough space in these pages to accommodate them all. (We stopped counting at five hundred names.) Still, the fact that Dom took the time to compile such an expansive list, and has made a point to connect with as many teachers as possible during his travels, is a testament to how dedicated he is to drumming education.
Hop over to moderndrummer.com to peruse the teacher list and see if there’s someone near you to link up with for lessons. And if you’re an educator, feel free to join our online Teacher’s Forum network by filling out a simple questionnaire. That will give you access to some exclusive content, and you’ll be included in our free, searchable database of drumset teachers worldwide.
But before you do that, let’s sit down with the ever-affable drumming ambassador to find out more about what goes into being a world-class clinician and private instructor.
MD: Between flying around the world for clinics and maintaining an intense private teaching practice, you manage a dense schedule. Take us through a typical week when you’re not traveling.
Dom: Well, this week is packed with lessons here at my studio and online. I had a student drive twelve hours from Toronto for two eight-hour days of lessons. In that amount of time you really get to see where someone’s at and what their weaknesses are. And I always ask what students perceive their weaknesses to be. Then I hear them play a little, we talk, and I’ll add a couple things to work on. Sometimes their concentration isn’t that good, or they need to become a better listener. Sometimes I tell stories in a specific way to see how well they listen, and it sure as hell ain’t because I want to hear myself speak! [laughs]
I have three students today, two hours each, starting at two o’clock. One guy is from North Carolina. He has his own company selling lawn seed. He has a contact here on Long Island, so he drives up for business and then books time with me. He’s a very good player. It doesn’t matter if somebody is an absolute 100 percent professional. That’s not really my concern. My concern is to help the drumming industry grow.
And last night I gave a lesson to a seven-year-old in Australia. Once a month we have a lesson, and I give him some fun things to work on to keep his enthusiasm up. He’s a gem.
MD: How do you deal with younger students?
Dom: It’s a whole different world. I have to find out how they listen and how they learn. Do they learn by me showing them? Do they learn by watching videos? Some kids want to see things in a book. So I have to find out what key unlocks that student, and every student is different. The student’s learning style often evolves too, so I have to stay attuned to get the most out of them.
MD: Do you ever find yourself teaching students the opposite way that they want to be taught, just to break them out of a mold?
Dom: All the time. My job is to challenge them to widen their learning ability, because not every idea comes through one channel. If I have a student that says, “I’m not really a book reader,” then I go, “Great! We’re going to start reading some books.” [laughs]
Teachers have to be willing to challenge themselves. If a student isn’t getting a pattern, technique, or idea, I feel it’s always my fault. What am I not doing right to deliver that information in a way that students can understand?
MD: Has your ability to read students’ interests and learning styles developed over time, or have you researched different methods?
Dom: When I went to school at St. John’s University, I was already studying with [legendary jazz drummer/educator] Joe Morello, and I had studied with some great teachers on Long Island. I already had a strong foundation in reading, technique, and playing a variety of styles, so when I went to college I took psychology classes, which is the study of the human mind; business classes, which is about economics and marketing; and communication arts classes, which is about speaking and lecturing. Those were the three areas that I felt would really help me be a better teacher, while I was also studying with the best drum teachers I could find.
MD: What have been the biggest changes in your teaching approach in the past few years?
Dom: It’s been embracing technology a lot more to communicate with the younger generation, who were born with digital skills. I also have to keep up with the new books. There won’t be that many brilliant new ideas, but there are always new ways to express old ideas. If that new book helps an old idea reach someone, then I want to learn it.
MD: What are the most recent things you’ve had to practice?
Dom: Independence has been a big one, because it’s gone to such a high level. Although I don’t play with multiple pedals, I try to adapt some of those ideas so that I have the ability to teach them. It relates back to the roots of modern drumset playing, which are in tap dancing. The “time step” in tap dancing is the same rhythm as the jazz ride pattern. And most of the early drumset players were great tap dancers: Baby Dodds, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Roy Haynes, Ed Thigpen, Max Roach, Papa Jo Jones, Louie Bellson….
I learned tap from my sister when I was younger, and I believe that was a big help with my foot technique. When I have heavy metal guys come to me who want to learn more about double bass, I tell them that we’re going to work on some tap-dancing steps to help loosen up their feet. They look at me like I’m crazy, but after about a half hour working on those exercises, they start to feel how their ankles are stretching. Then, when they get back to the drumset, they can fly on the pedals.
MD: That’s similar to how some NFL players take ballet lessons to be more graceful.
Dom: It really is. Before you study a person’s patterns, study their movement. Relaxed movement creates relaxed sound, consistent movement creates consistent sound, and fluid movement creates fluid sound. But tense movement creates tense sound. We want to remove tension with relaxed, fluid, consistent movement. When that happens, your sound immediately gets better.
MD: Do you address that on the practice pad or the full drumkit?
Dom: It’s both. We start on the pad just to understand some of the movement of the techniques. But I try to get guys on the drumset immediately so they can feel the results of their hard work. The practice pad is a great invention, in that it helps you develop the muscular ability to play the drumset. But as much as I love practicing on the pad, I’ve never had someone ask me to bring it to a gig. [laughs]
MD: You’ve been spending a lot of time teaching in China. What’s happening over there?
Dom: I’ve been going to China since 1993 to help set up programs for drumset education. When I first went, many people hadn’t even seen a drumset, but we had thousands of people at those first events. Then about twelve years ago I met a gentleman named Mr. Li. He was setting up drum schools, called 9 Beats, and I’ve been involved with him for several years. They have 310 schools in 180 different cities, with 2,400 teachers and over 50,000 students. This past May I toured eleven cities in fourteen days. He wants me to eventually visit and perform at every school. In August, he had a camp on a cruise ship, which was a first. We brought in 500 to 700 students, and they took classes in different areas of percussion.
MD: Did you always want to be a teacher and clinician, or did it just happen naturally?
Dom: Everything in my life has happened unplanned and organically. I started out as a professional performer at the age of twelve. Here on Long Island, in 1965, I had a band with my brothers and sister, and I was working at least two nights a week.
By the time I was seventeen, I was playing with different bands around New York, and other drummers would come up to me and ask how I played certain things. Eventually they wanted to take lessons. So I started teaching out of the basement of my parents’ home. I built my teaching practice up to about fifty students a week, and I was still playing with bands and doing some jingles in New York City. I wasn’t really enjoying the recording industry, though, because at that time there were a lot of heavy drugs involved. I didn’t want to get into that, so I pulled myself out and focused on playing with my band and teaching. I started teaching at several different music stores, and I got up to eighty students a week. It was an intense schedule, so my organizational skills developed back then.
At the same time, I kept performing and had the chance to play with many great artists, like [jazz vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton and [guitarist/singer] George Benson. That allowed me to taste what true professionalism was about, while also maintaining my teaching practice. But I never advertised my business. I stayed true to my craft, and people kept coming. This year I’m celebrating fifty years of playing drums professionally and forty-five years of teaching. I still gig regulary with other musicians, and I recently started doing voiceover work for an animated teaching series called Musimations.
MD: When did you start writing drum books?
Dom: It was a natural progression. The books that I’ve written along with Joe Bergamini for our publishing company, Wizdom Media, developed as I traveled around the world and began to hear about similar drumming challenges people were having. When I hear about the same obstacles over and over, that’s a sign that there’s a need for a book. The Weaker Side developed that way, in order to give drummers a routine to build strength in their nondominant hand and foot.
Similarly, the concept of the WizDom Drumshed franchise developed as students were coming to study with me and wanted to start their own schools. Now there are schools in Quebec City, Canada, with Stephane Chamberland; Calabria, Italy, with Massimo Russo; Paris, France, with Frédérick Rimbert; Marseille, France, with Rob Hirons; Dijon, France, with Eddy Ros; and others potentially opening in the U.K., Brazil, and Ukraine. They basically match my studio setup with the three different stations—the practice pads, the snare drums, and the drumsets—and they have cameras, computers, and flat-screen TVs. But they cannot become a franchise until they go through the teaching process with me. They have to have the skills of great motivational speaking, and they have to be positive people. So there are certain books they have to read, like my book The Cycle of Self Empowerment, to reprogram their minds to understand what motivation is.
MD: Are you mostly teaching teachers?
Dom: About 80 percent are teachers, and 30 to 35 percent are online. I record everything to DVD, USB, or Dropbox, so the student has the recording after each lesson. I’ve been doing that back to when it was Super 8, VHS, and Beta. [laughs]
MD: When did you get started doing remote lessons?
Dom: I actually started doing overseas lessons thirty years ago, using VHS tapes. At clinics, students often asked me about lessons, but they couldn’t make it to New York. So I had them videotape themselves for fifteen minutes and then mail me the tape, along with a blank audiocassette and a check for the lesson. I would watch the video once and make notes, and then I would restart the video, press record on the audiotape, and speak comments and suggestions as the video played. I’d then mail them the audiotape, the videotape, and any exercise sheets that were included with the lesson. I’d sometimes have a stack of thirty videotapes on my desk, so when my family went to bed at night I’d do a few lessons. I’ve always tried to run my business to a point where I am maximizing my time.
MD: What’s the difference between an online lesson and an in-person lesson?
Dom: The only difference with the in-person lesson is that I can grab the student’s hand and show them the movement of the technique. But I have a powerful connection that I send out, and I make sure that the student has a powerful connection as well. I just did a master class in Australia, which is halfway around the world, and the video was crystal-clear. The blending of online and in-person is getting really cloudy. People are now getting degrees from colleges without ever meeting their professors. We have to welcome that blend of technology and humanity.
MD: What’s the process when you’re working with a new student for the first time?
Dom: If it’s an hour lesson, it’s mostly a question-and-answer session. I need to get as much information as I can, and I have to find out what the student’s goals are. And I can’t assume that the goal is to be a professional drummer. I had a fifty-five-year-old man come to me recently who’s playing drums for his church. His goal is simply to learn the tunes for the Sunday service, so I have to give him just enough technique to be able to play them. After he’s playing the songs better, we can work on his confidence and improving his technique so that he has more freedom to try other things.
But in the first lesson, I ask things like: Have you ever taken a lesson before? Who were your teachers? What did they teach you? What books did you work out of? Did you finish any of those books? Is anyone else in your family musically talented? That last one is very important so that you know what influences the students when they go home.
Then I’ll ask students to name five drummers, alive or dead, that get them fired up and inspired. From those five, we can widen out to other drummers that would be important for them to listen to. I’ll give them listening exercises, and I tell them which books to buy. I also give them a chart of drum-teacher lineage that shows how anything you play is a technique of one of the three pillars of drum education: Billy Gladstone, George Lawrence Stone, and Sanford Moeller. Gladstone had flawless finger technique, and Stone was about the rebound stroke from the wrist. Moeller was all about arm motion. They all used each other’s techniques, but they specialized in one area.
In 1971 I tried to track these guys down, but they had died in the mid-’60s. So I sought out their best students. That took me to Shelly Manne, Ted Reed, and Henry Adler, who were students of Gladstone. Shelly opened me up to understanding how my fingers could assist me. Then under Stone were Joe Morello and Vic Firth. Their technique was excellent all the way to the end, which means they had such natural movement that age didn’t stop them from having fun playing drums. Then I found Jim Chapin, who was the last living student of Moeller. He also played great right up to when he passed away, which was just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Never once did these guys complain about their hands hurting or any of the other ailments that I hear about almost every day in my studio.
MD: What are your primary resources for teaching the techniques of Gladstone, Stone, and Moeller?
Dom: There are three main books: Stick Control, Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, and Syncopation. George Lawrence Stone wrote Stick Control in 1935, and it’s still the number-one technique book. I use it, along with my book It’s Your Move, which explains the rebounding free stroke and the Moeller arm stroke, as the first book for learning these techniques. We go through Stick Control using wrists, fingers, and arms. Then we go into Stone’s follow-up, Accents and Rebounds, and Morello’s Master Studies I and II. Morello was one of Stone’s top students.
The number-one-selling drumset book, which was written in 1948, is Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer. Chapin dedicated it to Moeller, because he felt that the Moeller technique loosened him up to be able to play with all this independence. So while we’re learning the Moeller arm stroke with Stick Control, we use the Chapin book to apply that technique to jazz independence.
The highest-selling reading book is Syncopation, which was written by Ted Reed in 1959. Reed dedicated that book to Billy Gladstone, and I use it with almost every student.
MD: How did you become a professional clinician?
Dom: A lot of the musicians that I was playing with when I was seventeen or eighteen were music teachers. They started asking me to come to their schools to work with their drummers. So I would go to the school, sit down with about eight drummers, and give them the fundamentals of technique, rudiments, and reading. I got to the point where I was doing five schools a week. I scheduled those in the morning before my private teaching, which started at three o’clock.
Then they started bussing in kids from other schools and bringing in the entire band class, so I would talk about more general music terms, like practicing, playing with a metronome, and learning different styles of music. There were times when I was doing two or three schools a day, teaching lessons from three to eight, and then playing gigs at night. So the intensity of my life began at an early age, and it hasn’t slowed down at all. [laughs]
Then one day in 1982 a gentleman named Al Marinara, who was a rep for Tama, came into the Long Island Drum Center when I was teaching and asked if he could come to one of my clinics. The next morning he was there with Ken Hoshino, the president of Tama. Afterwards we went out for coffee, and Ken complimented me on my ability to play, teach, and motivate, and then he asked me to become Tama’s education director and to do clinics opening up for their top artists. My first tour was with Simon Phillips. We did twenty-seven cities in twenty-eight days. The summer of that year I had requests from some stores to come back by myself, and in the fall I did a tour with Billy Cobham. We did two major tours every year after that.
MD: What advice would you give someone doing his or her first drum clinic?
Dom: First you have to work on your communication skills, which includes how to speak and how to use a microphone. Then you have to work on your artistic skills—how well you play. You don’t want to go out there and not play well, because they’ll never bring you back. You also have to have a plan. If you’re not a teacher but you’re in a popular group, then just explain some of the grooves that you play with your band. If you’re not a soloist, you can show them things you’ve practiced over the years.
You also have to have good education skills, meaning you have to have several recommendations when someone asks you a question like “What book should I use to develop my feet?” You can’t say, “Just try some different patterns and play along to records.” That’s not a good answer. I’d say, “Great question! You’ll want to use Stick Control with your feet, or get Ron Spagnardi’s Building Bass Drum Technique or Colin Bailey’s Bass Drum Control, or check out some of the newer books by Virgil Donati and Thomas Lang.” Afterwards they’ll come up and thank you, and then they’ll go out and buy the books. Done!
After you have a plan and your playing is developed, you have to work on your motivational skills. When your clinic is over, everyone in the audience has to walk out thinking, I’m going to go practice! When I get to an event, I make a point to shake every person’s hand and thank them for coming, whether it’s five people or 500. What better way is there to get people fired up than for them to get to meet the guy that’s about to go on stage?
MD: What keeps you motivated to keep traveling and teaching after all these years?
Dom: I often end my seminars with a line about Ponce de León, a Spanish explorer who went searching for the Fountain of Youth but never found it. I tell people, “I’ve found the Fountain of Youth: It’s your desire to always want to learn.” If you have that desire, you’ll remain young. Here I am, sixty-two years young, and I’m in the prime of my life, working at an intense pace, and having a ball!
Drums: Mapex Saturn series
A. 5.5×14 snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 8×10 tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 14×14 floor tom
F. 18×22 bass drum
Heads: Evans G1 Coated snare batter, G2 Coated tom batters and G1 Clear bottoms, and EMAD bass drum batter and front head
Cymbals: Sabian HH and HHX series
1. 14″ hi-hats
2. 10″ splash
3. 12″ splash
4. 20″ ride
5. 16″ crash
6. 21″ ride
7. 13″ hi-hats
8. 18″ Chinese
9. 20″ Chinese
Hardware: Mapex, including Saturn IV series stands and Falcon double pedal
Sticks: Vic Firth 5B Barrel model and Dom’s Pad Stick (for practicing)
Percussion: LP Mambo cowbell
Electronics: Shure microphones