Those Who Can, Teach

Simple Tips for Making the Move From Player to Private Instructor

by Michael Vosbein

Drummers today face increasingly difficult circumstances trying to earn a full-time living playing music. To make ends meet, many turn to instruction. I’ve outlined here some of the things I’ve learned over decades of teaching to help you if and when you decide to start taking on students.


Location, Location, Location
Once you take the plunge, the first consideration may be location. Are you set up to teach in your house or apartment? Even if you are, you may be better off teaching in a music store. Consider that parents may be understandably uncomfortable dropping off a child at the home of an adult they don’t know. Stores offer students and their families an established central location with credibility and accountability. Sure, the store keeps some of the money, but it also provides the space and the drums. Management handles scheduling, deals with the accounting, and provides advertising that attracts new students. And it will usually carry the drums, cymbals, sticks, pads, and books the students need.

Put on Your Teaching Hat
While we all like to work with more advanced students, the bulk of teaching in a store setting involves working with beginners. Many will be young children or preteens. If you don’t genuinely love working with kids, don’t take the job. If you do, be prepared to remove your pro drummer hat. A ten-year-old is not ready to explore the primal urgency of Elvin Jones or the metric modulations of Tony Williams. Start slowly, and keep things simple. I used to think about my teaching practice as though I were coaching a little-league baseball team. Coaches know that the chance of any kid on their team eventually becoming a professional athlete is near zero. But when kids are coached correctly, the chances of them having a positive, life-enriching experience are great. The reciprocal can also be true; you stand to gain as much from the lessons as the student does.

Meet the Parents
Don’t let the first time you meet a student’s family occur as the result of a problem. Establishing an inclusive and positive relationship with parents from the beginning usually results in far fewer problems in the long run. Take the time to introduce yourself to the parents or whoever brings the student to the lesson and encourage them to maintain an ongoing dialogue with you. I always make it clear that a parent is welcome to sit in during the lesson, especially for the younger ones.

Be sure to have an attendance policy in place, and give the student and his or her family a copy. Let them know that your time is valuable and that you expect their children to show up for their lessons. Be very clear about what kinds of absences, with proper notice, will be acceptable and what your policy is on make-up lessons. If you’re teaching out of a shop, make sure this is consistent with store policy.

Get to Know the Students
Thirty-minute lessons go quickly, but over the months you will get to know the students very well. I often ask them about school, sports, or whatever else they’re involved in besides drumming. This lets them know that I’m genuinely interested in them, which helps to build a long-standing relationship.

Maintain a Positive Environment
Despite the success of the movie Whiplash, using insulting language or an intimidating demeanor is never appropriate. The lesson studio needs to be a safe, welcoming, and encouraging place at all times. While striking a student is always off limits, don’t underestimate the importance of touch. I always ask permission before touching a student and explain to them that it’s sometimes more effective to physically position their fingers and hands in the correct position than to try to describe it with words alone. I’ve never had a student refuse, but my asking permission confirmed to them that I was to be trusted. I also think occasional appropriate touch is an important aspect of mentoring, whether it’s a high five, a fist bump, or an old-fashioned pat on the back.

Define Expectations
A student doesn’t have to be an accomplished player to be a good student. A good student is one who’s interested in the instrument and dedicated to improving. Make sure that you communicate this to your students.

Positive reinforcement is a must. Performance mistakes are to be expected in the learning process and should not be criticized. It’s more important to show students how to concentrate and remain focused on what they’re doing even when they mess up. Teaching them the necessary skills to stay in the moment can also help them improve with their schoolwork and other activities.

Embrace New Ideas
One day I arrived at my teaching studio at the local music store to find that the drumset had been replaced with an electronic kit. The volume of the drums had been interfering with the lesson quality of teachers in adjacent studios. With a large library of play-along media available from most publishers and the new e-kit, I soon realized that I had a new way to incorporate audio recordings into my daily teaching practice.

The students work on the music at home, and when they’re ready I record them during our lesson. I play the tracks on an iPhone or tablet, run a stereo cable from the device into the module of the electronic kit, and balance the output volume of the track to that of the drums. From there, a simple and inexpensive audio interface allows me to route the sounds from the kit into a digital audio workstation (DAW) on my laptop. I record the students playing their assigned songs, and then I burn their performances to CD or transfer them to a portable hard drive. Over time, students end up with an album’s worth of recorded material to share with friends and family.

Build a Community
Some teachers choose to use the Internet and social media to foster a sense of community with their students. It can be a great place to store lesson policies, holiday schedules, inclement-weather updates, scanned versions of your handwritten exercises, and audio and video recordings of yourself and your students. If you want to post pictures and performances of your students, be sure to get written permission first. Write up a simple form explaining what you intend to use and in what manner, and if the student is under eighteen have it signed by his or her parents. Don’t post anyone’s last name or contact information, and never make participation mandatory.

Enjoy Your Job
Anyone coming to you for drum lessons is probably pretty happy to be there. As teachers, we want to mirror that. Let your students see that you share their passion and excitement for playing drums, and they will respond in kind. I tell them that by choosing to play the drums, they are joining the hippest club in the world, and that my unbreakable rule was that we had to have fun. That always gets a smile!

Michael Vosbein is the former CEO and president of Cymbal Masters and is a freelance drummer, teacher, social media consultant, and video producer in the Atlanta area.