Imagine how you would feel if, on your first drum lesson with a new teacher, the teacher said, “Can’t you do anything right?” or “You don’t even know how to hold a pair of drumsticks!” or how about, “You mean your last teacher told you that you were good? You are terrible!” Each of these comments has been made to several of my students by former teachers. What is surprising is that the students in question are extremely talented. For example, I have one student who is 15 years old and is an exceptional drumset player. His friends in school had heard him play in a local rock group. They all told the percussion coach at the high school that this young guy was hot. They told the coach, “This guy will blow you away!”
Apparently, this so-called percussion coach felt threatened by these comments. I think he decided to teach this young person a lesson—to “put him in his place.” (Naturally, this was supposed to be for the good of the student.) At any rate, the percussion coach made life so miserable that the young man’s parents had him transferred from the band to another class. This is sad, because it deprived the student of the experience of playing in a school band. (It is good, however, that the parents recognized that the percussion coach was out of line.)
I have another student who is only 13 years old and has great natural ability. When I gave him his first lesson, I was startled at how accomplished he was on the drumset. During the lesson, he told me about some earlier experiences with drum teachers. For example, one teacher had told him, “You have so many bad habits that I’ll have to start you all over from the very beginning.”
I will agree that this talented 13-year-old needed to improve in some areas. He must have realized this as well, because he was taking lessons. However, to “start over” would have been ridiculous. We just needed to work on the areas that needed improvement.
When I was much younger, I had the following experience: A drum teacher (who shall remain nameless) said to me, “Do it this way!” I said, “Why? I don’t understand.” He replied, “Look, I am the teacher. I know what is right. I don’t have time to explain everything; just do it!” At this point I said, “If I don’t understand, how can I practice effectively?” The teacher finally relented and explained what he wanted me to do. I understood the lesson, and we got along very well after that.
Ed Shaughnessy and I are old friends. I agree with Ed’s approach, which is to be positive. Ed teaches by example, not by ridicule or intimidation. He will simply play for the student, show him or her how to approach the lesson, and then encourage the student to play it—very positive and very logical.
One of my students told me that he was taking a lesson when the teacher began yelling at him. I asked, “Why was he yelling?” He replied, “Well, I guess because I couldn’t play this one part of the lesson. I was having trouble with it.” “How did you feel after the teacher yelled at you? Did it help?” I asked. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I was so nervous afterwards that I couldn’t even think. I don’t even remember the rest of the lesson.” I guess this is a case of the teacher taking out his frustration on the student. Instead of yelling, he should have been thinking of a different approach that might have been more effective at communicating the lesson to the student.
Dave Garibaldi once told me that he had a student who had been studying at a well known college. The student was so nervous that he could barely stop shaking, much less play anything. Dave said it took him about 35 minutes just to get the student to relax. Dave also said that the student played very well after he calmed down. He later explained to Dave that his previous teacher was so critical and so harsh in his comments that he could no longer play in front of the teacher. Dave told him, “Relax! We all make mistakes. That’s one of the reasons for taking lessons. Let’s just play some music.”
One very accomplished young drummer that I know told me of the following experience: He took a lesson from a teacher who asked him to play something on the drumset. He played some groovy funk patterns, after which the teacher said, “Your approach is all wrong. You’re not generating the right kind of energy.” Respectfully, the young man said, “Perhaps you could give me an example.” The teacher replied, “I don’t play drums. I just teach drums.” Somewhat in disbelief, the student asked, “How do you teach if you don’t play?” The teacher said, “I watch you, and I tell you what you are doing wrong.” My young friend asked, “Do you ever tell people what they are doing right, or do you even know what’s right?” At this point, he packed his stick bag. As he was leaving, he said, “I’m not paying for this. This is a joke.”
I agree with my friend Joe Morello, who recently said in MD, “If you can’t do it, how can you teach it?” Joe and I have discussed that idea at length. He didn’t mean that the teacher had to play everything; he meant that the teacher should have some sort of professional playing experience.
Mousey Alexander tells a story about a time when he was doing quite well. He was touring with a name big band, recording with Johnny Smith and Stan Getz (to name a few), and playing some TV shows. He thought, “Well, here I am on the West Coast for several weeks. Maybe I should take a few lessons while I can.” The teacher Mousey approached is quite well known, although he hasn’t played in public in a great many years. He told Mousey, “You’re holding the sticks all wrong. We’ll have to start at the beginning and have you relearn everything.” Mousey said, “Look, with all due respect, I just can’t do that. I’m working, and I have too many responsibilities to start all over.”
So that you don’t misunderstand me, let me say that there are many dedicated and qualified teachers. Most of the teachers I studied with I now consider to be valued friends. I believe in teaching, and I believe good teachers deserve all the respect in the world. However, students also deserve respect. There is rarely, if ever, a time when ridicule, intimidation, or humiliation will benefit the student. Overly harsh, sarcastic, or demeaning criticism is never helpful.
There are many great musicians who readily admit that they cannot teach. Teaching takes a certain type of personality—one that is positive and encouraging. It requires patience, understanding, and an enjoyment in seeing others develop. A teacher must have the ability to create a friendly atmosphere in which learning becomes effortless and fun. He or she must convey an enthusiasm for drumming and music. In short, if the teacher doesn’t enjoy teaching, the student most likely will not enjoy the lessons.
If you take several lessons from a teacher and you feel as if you are not learning, try another teacher. If the teacher is always looking at his or her watch, look for someone else. Remember, too, in all fairness, that some personalities just don’t hit it off. You and a particular teacher just may not be on the same wavelength. Look for someone with whom you can feel comfortable. You can’t learn if you and your teacher dislike each other. When I studied with Jim Chapin, we were friends. I used to look forward not only to the lessons, but also to the chance to “hang out.” He took me along on a few jobs so that I could learn about the business. Jim and I are close friends to this day.
Teachers who tend to teach through fear are usually very insecure about themselves. People who have a sense of who they are and what they know are usually more at ease with themselves. This naturally tends to make those around them feel more at ease.
The reason we all play the drums is because it is fun. Studying should be fun, too. Remember, there are a lot of good teachers who are both qualified players and positive personalities. If you want your studying to be both rewarding and fun, seek those teachers out. They will be happy to see you.