Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Jochen Hoch
In his most recent method book, the highly regarded player/educator wades into the murky waters of military rudimental drumming. It’s only his latest attempt to search for historical clues to futuristic rhythms.
German drummer and educator Claus Hessler didn’t learn his advanced concepts from just any teacher. The study of the mysterious but awesome Moeller technique was passed down to him by the guru Jim Chapin, who himself learned the ways of the whipping-motion force from its originator, Sanford Moeller.
Hessler has cowritten method books on open-handed playing with Dom Famularo, released a cool title on the history of rudiments, and helped develop some interesting smaller cymbals that have multiple applications. And his latest DVD, Drumming Kairos, distills his principles in a digestible and clear way, so that students of all levels can be inspired to take from the past and drive straight toward wherever drumming is headed.
On top of all this, Hessler maintains a busy clinic, recording, and gig schedule. MD caught up with the drummer to discuss, among other things, how he’s carved out a special niche for himself in the industry, and why the Moeller method is still so important.
MD: Let’s talk about Camp Duty Update, your book on rudiments that’s being translated into English. What made you interested in this subject?
Claus: When you ask drummers about the absolute basics of drumming, everyone says “rudiments.” Now, when you’re learning a new style, the first advice a serious teacher would give you is to listen to the music. If you’re studying jazz, you listen to all the jazz masters. If you’re studying Latin music, you listen to all the Brazilian and Cuban masters. But when we talk about rudiments, there has been a separation between the drumming and the music. Somehow we feel that if we have the Charley Wilcoxon book and a poster by a big American stick manufacturer, that’ll hopefully do the job. Today, we don’t seem to have a clear idea of what the music was like that rudiment-based patterns were [originally used in]. I’ve always been a fan of history, so sooner or later it was obvious that I’d get into it.
MD: How did you go about finding out more about this?
Claus: I had to go to Switzerland and do research in some of the libraries there. But mostly it was investigating the Swiss, French, and English sources from the Renaissance and medieval eras, and trying to find the European roots that were later exported to the U.S. I wanted to present a history of rudiments in a compressed form, but I also wanted to give a history about the pieces that were played in the camp duty. [Various activities in early military encampments were signaled by different drumbeats.] What was the breakfast call like? It helped me understand the different connections and the issue in a detailed way.
MD: Can you weigh in on the debate about whether traditional grip is necessary today?
Claus: The field drums in the Renaissance and medieval eras were very big, sometimes 18″ in diameter and the same depth. They were carried by a sling and hung on the side, so the only way to play them in a comfortable way was with traditional grip. In the same era, the timpani players were using matched grip. [The drums] were suspended on a horse’s neck, one on the left side and one on the right. So today when we sit behind a drumset, it’s very much like that, drums to our right and left. Using matched grip for that situation makes sense. I don’t see a clear argument for using traditional grip for jazz. But it’s pretty much your choice. I’m not that orthodox about it.
MD: It’s said that the Jim Chapin torch has been passed to you regarding Moeller technique. Where do we go from here?
Claus: It’s just a way to play in the most comfortable way. I wouldn’t say there needs to be something done with the technique in the future. If you understand how this tool works for you, you’ll be so much closer to realizing your musical visions and bringing them into the real world. Jim knew so much about it, and he wanted to make people aware of its advantages. That was the case fifty years ago, and it will be the same in fifty years.
MD: So on the gig you’re not thinking about it, but it makes life easier in a practical application?
Claus: Absolutely. If you take a close look at drumming, it’s always a mixture of [automated] motions together with a reflection of what you’re doing in the moment and comparing it with what you want to say on your instrument. The more intuitive and correct and effortless way of playing is in your movements, so the easier it will be to create the music you want to create. After internalizing Moeller technique and making it second nature, you don’t have to think about the obstacles you have to overcome to realize a musical idea. It’s in you. You just press the button and it’s there. People always say it looks so easy and fluid, and I say it’s just about playing things over and over again and collecting all this mileage on your technical car.
MD: Your open-handed playing is impressive, and you’ve written books on the subject. Is the traditional layout of a drumset limiting? Is the modern ability to move the hats or ride to a different spot better for musical expression?
Claus: I’m not sure if it’s better. Drummers look at me or people like Dom Famularo or Billy Cobham as the ones who brought open-handed playing to the forefront. Playing in that way makes so much sense if you have an instrument where you use two hands and two feet, so you don’t cross any of them. There are so many more ways to express yourself without the limitations of crossing.
Now, I’ve seen people play cross-handed and say beautiful things. But the bottom line is that if you play open-handed, you can play certain things that aren’t possible cross-handed. It’s where the future of drumming will go. Maybe not in the next two or three years. Maybe it’ll take fifty years. The way Gene Krupa used to cross his left hand over his right, that’s been forgotten. So the way we cross right over left today, maybe that will be forgotten one day as well. Who knows? But open-handed playing makes sense, because you’re not limiting the way you move.
MD: How does it affect your feet when you lead with your left?
Claus: Being right-handed does not automatically make you right-footed. There are a lot of statistics that show how left-handed players are right-footed. I would say three out of five lefties are right-footed. There are a lot of gray zones. Lots of righties and lefties are close to being ambidextrous.
I use a double pedal, and I use my left foot on a third pedal as well. When we think of a groove, we think in sounds, but our brain automatically translates that into movements. We don’t think in movements, like left hand, right hand, right foot, right foot. I’m trying to not have an exclusive link between a certain sound and a movement. So when I think of a hi-hat sound, I try to discipline myself to realize that sound with the left or right hand. And the same goes for the bass drum.
MD: Do your students come to you for exclusive open-handed instruction, or do you get into different ideologies?
Claus: I’ve learned not to be religious about a certain position or a way to hold the sticks or whatever. If a student wants to stay with the cross-handed way of playing, no problem. Some people come to me and make a change for good to open-handed playing. And for some it’s just a way to improve their weaker side. And now with the Internet, all the information is there. Years ago we had trouble finding information, but now the job of the teacher can be to say to try this and try that, and avoid this and avoid that—it’s more about giving direction about what sources to use, or to stay away from, because the information is everywhere.
MD: You’ve helped to develop an 18″ ride cymbal. Why that size?
Claus: There was already a 20″ Sabian HH Garage ride, but I needed an 18″ on my left side, mostly to save space. I didn’t want it to sound like a crash cymbal. Not too thick or too gong-y. And I didn’t want it to sound like a ride cymbal that was too small.
Many years ago I did a clinic with Jim Chapin, and I asked him what sort of cymbals he’d like to have. And he said, “Just give me a good 18″ and I’ll play the whole gig.” He explained that many good drummers would use an 18″ for all kinds of jobs. They’d crash it and ride it. They weren’t necessarily crash/rides; they were more on the ride side of things. So the HH Garage ride is about giving you stick definition—you can crash it, but it’s definitely a ride cymbal. And the 20″ is just as beautiful as the 18″. Very controllable. When you play it with the [stick’s] shoulder, it changes sound, not volume. It doesn’t bury the whole band in a cloud of cymbal sound.
MD: Talk about your Drumming Kairos DVD. Where did the concept and idea come from?
Claus: I look at it as a book that’s been filmed. There’s an extensive PDF that comes with the DVD, so it gives you a lot of work to do. Also, I still consider Jim Chapin’s DVD Speed, Power, Control, Endurance to be the source for studying Moeller technique in the traditional sense. The challenge was that Jim knew almost too much about it. Whenever you got close to understanding him, he’d go off and leave you behind in a cloud of dust. You wouldn’t always be able to follow Jim’s concepts. With Drumming Kairos I wanted to make things a little clearer but still look through the Chapin lens.
MD: What’s the freelance scene like in Germany and Europe? You’re able to play a lot of different styles. Do you have more of a reputation for being a live player, a session musician, a clinician, or an instructor?
Claus: Things have never been as busy as they are now for me. I’m putting out books and DVDs, doing clinics, teaching at universities and privately, and playing in a couple of bands. Playing live for many people is difficult. It’s hard to get jobs and get your band on the road. So it’s important to stay flexible. Giving students the tools to be able to play the drums for a lifetime and being able to make a living with it is a very satisfying experience. I’m just trying to give back what my two most important teachers—and, later, friends—Dom Famularo and Jim Chapin, passed on to me. Without them, I would not be what I am today. It creates a special kind of obligation to continue in that tradition as a teacher.
Tools of the Trade
Hessler plays Mapex Saturn V drums and Sabian cymbals. He uses Mapex Falcon series hardware; Vic Firth sticks and accessories; Evans Level 360 G1 Coated or G2 Clear batter heads, J1 or Reso 7 Coated resonants, and EQ4 and EQ3 bass drum heads; Drumsigns custom drumhead art; Gon Bops percussion; and Drummer Shoe products.