The Reeducation of Drumming Education
Stop Teaching and Become a Mentor
by Ben Sesar
My ongoing journey as both student and teacher has been a struggle, to say the least. As a student, it’s easy to get caught up in the abundance of general information, well-meaning advice, and obligatory shoulds and should nots for achieving proficiency on the instrument. Now that I’ve sorted out this mess for myself, the teacher side of me strives to do the same for my students. They all want the same thing I’ve always wanted: to be great. I’ve made it my mission to carve a straighter path to greatness, not only for myself but also for those willing to learn. In doing so, however, I’ve had to question the current standards regarding the way we educate ourselves and our students.
The saying goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I’d like to think of myself as proof that this statement is false. I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve heights in the music industry that my friends and I only dreamed of as kids. While I take a great amount of pride in the accomplishments of my career, I’ve always measured true success in terms of mastering my craft. Always a student of drumming, I still come home from the road or the studio and go to work, vigorously striving to learn and improve my skills, rather than sit back and just collect my check. This dedication to self-improvement allows me to transition into teaching naturally as I refine my catalog of knowledge gained through decades of experience and keen observation.
Teachers Versus Mentors
Music isn’t like other areas of study such as math or science. Those subjects deal strictly in facts and formulas. Music does have formulaic aspects, but due to its creative nature, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. There needs to be some customization, especially for intermediate and advanced students. I’ve lost count of the number of students who have come to me with the desire to grow but can’t get past this wall of confusion built by the white noise of recycled drum jargon.
My travels as the student/teacher have led me to a profound realization: There’s a huge difference between those who teach and those who impart wisdom. My assertion is that teachers are people who recycle knowledge passed on to them by an outside source. Many teachers get by without firsthand or personal experience with the material. A teacher may be well read and conceptually in the know, but it’s uncommon for him or her to have gone through the experiment of being a practicing musician.
On the other end of the spectrum is the mentor. Mentors tend to be those who know things on a deeper level. They earn their knowledge through practical and personal experience rather than through books and theories alone. A mentor is capable of spinning these personal experiences into inspiring lessons that resonate in the minds of students throughout their lives. A mentor not only presents the material but can also make the case as to why and how the material will nourish the student’s growth.
The “Take Your Medicine” Approach
As a young adult, I studied with a variety of teachers. They were all great people who meant well, but unfortunately the lessons had one thing in common: They felt less like we were working toward my personal goals and more like a prescription for a sinus infection. In most instances my teachers neglected to make clear how the lessons would impact my development on the instrument. I’d leave knowing that the material was good for me but unsure of why.
There is so much jargon in the education community that’s been recycled for so long. Few know where it originated, let alone how it helps build a path to greatness. I challenge all teachers out there to reevaluate the material they put forth and define the objective of each lesson. Be sure to convey this objective to students so that they know how and why the material will foster their growth.
For example, don’t just show a student how to hold the sticks. Explain why holding the sticks a certain way will either increase or decrease fluidity on the drums. Many times students come to me and don’t know why they’re doing the things they do. I’ve gotten into the habit of making a case for every lesson I teach. My students leave knowing how and why the lesson will contribute to their musical goals.
Practice What You Preach
It’s not enough to rely solely on a verbal method when conveying lessons to students. In addition to knowing the material conceptually, I find it necessary to put everything I teach into practice and demonstrate mastery over it. Not only does this solidify my credibility as a teacher, but it also benefits the student tremendously by delivering the finished product. This tactic puts the material into proper context while offering the student something tangible to work toward. A masterful demonstration poses the promise of a reward for hard work and has the potential to fuel a great deal of inspiration. As a student, I’ve always related better to teachers who possess a firm intellectual grasp of the lesson and can also demonstrate physical command on the instrument. The marriage of these two components will likely invoke long-lasting trust, respect, and loyalty.
One of the most effective yet most overlooked teaching techniques is to use analogies. When implemented correctly, analogies offer an easy way to communicate complex or unfamiliar ideas, making them simple for students to understand. The basic idea is to relate the material to something the student already knows. For example, when I’m asked about increasing hand speed, I relate it back to learning to ride a bike. Most of us couldn’t pedal fast at first, because we were too busy learning to control and balance the bike. Once we gained control and balance, we could pedal all over the neighborhood as fast as possible. The same thing applies in drumming. You can’t have speed if you don’t develop precise control and balance over your movements.
In addition, many drummers attempt to develop speed by adopting a weightlifting approach where they practice on pillows or use ultra-heavy sticks. To this, I would continue with my bike-riding analogy: No weight training is necessary when learning to ride. The repetitive motion of the activity itself develops all the muscles necessary for speed. Drumming mirrors that concept. My students benefit greatly from analogies like these, because they demystify the process.
Setting Goals:The Blueprint for Success
Whether you’re a teacher, a student, or both, studying music can feel like a never-ending quest. It’s overwhelming when you think of all the stuff out there to learn. The process of sifting through this information tends to lead many students on a path of confusion and uncertainty, prompting questions such as: Where do I start? What do I learn next? What’s most important?
One way to simplify the process is to have your students set some very clear goals. Think of practice like constructing a complex building one brick at a time. Setting goals is like drawing the blueprint. Once the goals are set, you simply need to follow the blueprint, so that you always know where you are and where you’re going next. A lot of drummers get bogged down at this stage because they’re uncertain about what they’re trying to achieve. Ask some questions, like: What styles of music do you love? What bands or artists would you want to play with? Who are the drummers you want to be like? What qualities of these drummers would you most like to embody?
As a student, you are the general contractor of your craft. It’s critical to keep the how, what, and why of everything in constant focus. Make sure the material being studied directly relates to specific musical goals.
Hopefully some of this information can guide you and your students onto a straighter path toward achieving particular goals. Over the years I’ve seen an increase in the amount of information but a decrease in mentorship to help sort this information into proper context. At times it’s necessary to step back and revisit the basics of how we go about teaching and learning.
Students: When you’re searching for someone to study with, be mindful of the teacher-versus-mentor disparity I defined earlier. I believe it’s more rewarding in the end to study with someone who can summon personal experience and drive to inspire and motivate students. And it’s okay to ask questions about the lesson materialyour teachers put forth. Make sure the lessons relate to your personal goals in some way, but keep an open mind to trying things that seem outside your comfort zone.
Educators: Take a deep look in the mirror and assess the type of educator you tend to be. There’s always room for improvement when it comes to impacting the lives of your students. Becoming a mentor involves making a choice. You can choose to simply pass along information during the lesson, or you can invest further by harnessing your personal experiences as you journey with your students through music. These personal experiences should be the backbone of what you impart, because you are the living proof of everything you teach.
Ben Sesar is the drummer for the multi-platinum-selling country artist Brad Paisley. He offers private online lessons and prerecorded video packs through his website, bensesar.com.