Teachers, Studying and Learning

by Roy Burns

There are many opinions and points of view (pro and con) about studying with a private drum teacher. Drummers who have never taken a lesson frequently criticize drum teachers. Drum teachers criticize each other, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly. Young drummers may feel that learning to read music is not important. Some college music teachers feel that drum teachers emphasize rudiments and technique without teaching the student enough about music. Famous professional drummers occasionally are critical of private drum teachers. The argument goes on and on, year after year. 

What’s amazing is that new young drummers of great ability keep bursting onto the professional scene with widely varied backgrounds. Some really great players can’t read. Others have amassed a tremendous knowledge of music and drumming. Some have never really taken drum lessons on a regular basis. Others have years of intense, disciplined study behind them.

Although their backgrounds are different, I have felt for years that all accomplished players must have some special quality in common. That special quality is the ability to teach themselves, or to learn on their own, how and what they want to play. This is not to suggest that training is not helpful. It is just that a good teacher can only do so much for the student. Unfortunately, he cannot inject the student with ability, talent or desire.

No teacher can teach anyone how to play. This must be learned through experience and a lot of playing.

However, let’s not underestimate the great value of a good teacher. He can help the student in many ways. The teacher can accomplish the following if the student is willing.

1. Help the student develop good technique.
2. Help the student learn to read music.
3. Help the student learn to listen (ear training).
4. Help the student prepare for contests, auditions and work situations.
5. Provide encouragement and support.
6. Offer criticism and re-evaluation when the student begins to overestimate his accomplishments, or begins to think he is really hot stuff.
7. Suggest players for the student to listen to that otherwise might be overlooked.
8. Help the student develop an awareness and understanding of different styles.
9. Discuss the students problems in confidence. Some of the best lessons are of this type.
10. Help the student learn the fundamentals of music as well as drumming.

By sharing his knowledge and experience, the teacher can save the student valuable time by avoiding the trial and error method. Why then did I say that no teacher can teach anyone “how to play”?

My good friend Paul Kush who teaches young drummers in California tells his students the following: “Fifty percent of what you need can be developed and learned by studying and practicing. The other fifty percent must be learned on your own by getting out and playing with other musicians.”

I believe this to be fundamentally true based on my own experience. Sonny Igoe, a prominent teacher in New York City helped me in much the same way.

A number of years after our first meeting I was living in New York and I heard that Sonny was teaching. I made an appointment to take a lesson. Sonny watched me play for a few minutes and startled me by saying, “You don’t need anymore lessons. You just need to go out and play.” He recommended me for Woody Herman’s Band. I made the audition, got the job, and was on my way.

My first professional teacher was a man named Jack Miller from Kansas City. He taught me to “Develop control first and speed will follow.” He also taught me to beware of overly complicated explanations of technical methods. “Keep it simple, and practice.” Good advice. Jack also spent many hours working with me long after the regular lesson was finished. I’ll never forget it.

My first teacher in New York City was Jim Chapin. He recommended me for my first job in New York, encouraged me, and at the same time challenged and stimulated me musically.

He taught me how to use my arms and how to play in a more relaxed manner. There was always a feeling of exchange between us. It was almost as if we were studying together. It was a great experience and I learned a great deal.

Henry Adler helped me to develop a more precise grip which helped my endurance. The wrist exercises that I’ve demonstrated on countless clinics I learned from Henry. He also encouraged me to keep writing. His advice on the music business proved to be invaluable. I learned many things from Henry that helped my career.

Drum teachers come in all shapes, sizes and levels of expertise. Some, admittedly, are better than others. It is my personal belief that the great percentage are sincere in their efforts to help young players.

The fundamentals of music and the fundamentals of drumming are the same for everyone. A teacher need not be a genius level player to transmit an understanding of fundamentals to a young person. As a matter of fact, some great players do not make great teachers. Very often they lack the patience required to teach effectively. I was quite fortunate to study with people who were top professional players with the ability to articulate their experience. This is the type of teacher that can help the advanced student make the transition to working professional.

Ideally, teaching should be a creative experience for both teacher and student. By this I mean that really good teachers are constantly learning from the experience, as well as the student.

One of the problems encountered by the more advanced student is that he has developed certain habits and certain ways of doing things by the time he gets to a top professional teacher, music school or college. Jim Petercsak who teaches percussion at Potsdam University in New York, has developed a sensitive and intelligent way of dealing with this situation. Jim says, “I never try to change a student’s technique or force him to play in a different way. I just add to what he already has. It is easier to form new habits than it is to break old ones.”