You can learn a lot just by listening to drummers talk about their own educational backgrounds. This month MD asks two Pro Panelists about their unique paths of instruction, the teachers who’ve been the most influential on them, and their personal philosophies of study.
Growing up in Milford, Connecticut, my first teacher was Jack Burgi. He taught me how to hold the sticks and got me started on reading. We worked on the Gladstone pad and later added the bass drum and a little crash cymbal.
When I ended up in El Paso, Texas, I studied with Byron Mutnick and Ricky Malachi. They took me up a notch with coordination, styles, and especially listening skills, and they turned me on to drummers to broaden my musical palette. I also studied with Larry White and Henry Vega, who helped me with classical: marimba, xylophone, and timpani.
At Texas Tech University, I studied with Alan Shinn. He encouraged me to be an all-around musician and to listen to anything and everything. He gave me access to a whole library of books and records. Since it was a smaller school, I had the great opportunity to play drums all day, every day.
I enrolled at North Texas State, and everyone knows the reputation of the teachers there. I studied with Ed Soph, Henry Okstel, Ron Fink, and Robert Schietroma. Ed Soph, in particular, helped me refine my touch and articulation. I had learned jazz coming through the back door, because at heart I’m an overeducated rock drummer. So I had the tendency to be heavy-handed, and he really rode me on my jazz combo chops, lightening my touch and focusing on the ride cymbal.
But my best teacher was the university itself, along with the town of Denton, Texas, because it was such a living, breathing organism. You learn from that environment. There were jam sessions going on twenty-four hours a day. Ninety-eight percent of your education comes from that creative community.
When I moved to Nashville, that city became my teacher because I had to learn a whole new musical language—sink or swim. Where Denton taught me how to stretch and play outside the box, Nashville taught me how to play for the song.
A teacher is there to provide insight and experience. But the student must receive it with an open mind and an open heart and then take that to the practice room and, ultimately, to the bandstand. The number-one thing is for you to have a solid work ethic and follow through.
It can be a fine line, but a teacher can also become your friend. Hopefully they’re mentoring you not just on drums, but in all areas of life.
Bill Flanagan, a great local Boston teacher, got me started in 1963, when I was nine years old. I studied with him until I graduated high school in ’72. He gave me an excellent foundation in reading, rudiments, swing coordination, jazz concepts, odd times, and snare drum technique.
At Berklee, between 1972 and ’75, Gary Chaffee was transformative for me. He had radical ideas and introduced me to odd groupings, alternate stickings, and unique ways of moving around the kit.
Alan Dawson was a master drumset teacher. In 1973 and ’74 we focused on independence, song form, stick control, syncopation, and improvising. During that time I also spent one week at a Stan Kenton Band Camp studying with Peter Erskine, and that too was a transformative experience. Even though Peter and I are the same age (we were both eighteen at the time), he was years ahead of me in development and an exceptional teacher.
Fred Gruber, who I studied with between 1990 and 2000, was the ultimate teacher in fine-tuning all the technical components of drumset playing, along with being grounded in the underlying swing pulse and an organic approach.
Pete Magadini also was a great teacher, and in the late ’80s I learned volumes from him about polyrhythms.
In 2002 Karuna Moorthy, an excellent teacher and tavil player from South India, introduced me to Indian rhythms and South Indian rhythm theory and philosophy.
Since 2003, I’ve continued studies with Zakir Hussain, the greatest living tabla player and, in my opinion, the greatest living drummer on the planet. Studying and playing with Zakir is pure rhythmic PhD and beyond.
My basic education philosophy is twofold. One, it’s advantageous to study with good teachers, simply put. On the other side, I’m constantly analyzing and reanalyzing my own technique and observations of my own playing and other drummers’ playing in order to improve the ability to teach myself. At the end of the day, you have to teach yourself.
But along the way, you need expert advice and feedback about how you’re doing. By saying I teach myself, I am not advocating never taking lessons. But you have to teach yourself through your own knowledge and powers of observation. The challenge is, how deeply can you analyze what you do?
In one case, I did seek out a teacher. Because he was looking for me! Peter Erskine called and said, “Do you know Freddie Gruber? Well, he’s looking for you!” Freddie had seen my video and said, “This drummer’s got a lot of potential, but he’s getting in his own way. I can help.” When I finally met him, we went up to my hotel room and within five minutes he had given me my first lesson. Right away I could see that he knew what he was talking about. It was about the balance point of the sticks. It helped me immediately.
The more I study and play, the more I’m able to teach myself. But you have to know the difference; you have to have many perspectives to make choices. As Freddie said, “If you don’t know the difference, what’s the difference?”