Drum Clinics

What Happened?

by Russ Miller

I had a conversation with an employee of one of the drum companies the other day. In this conversation, he said, “Drum clinics are a waste of time and money, and they don’t work anymore.” This struck me as very sad and frustrating. I felt I had to discuss this in the column.

In the Beginning…
Bear with me while I reminisce about a simpler time, when a drum clinic was an honest and pure event motivated by the drum shop and company’s desire to further inspire and educate the customer base by showcasing new products and top-level playing. Attendees often left in awe, thinking, “I want to do that!”

When I first started going to drum clinics, it was an opportunity to meet drummers like Roy Burns, Bernard Purdie, and Louie Bellson, whom I had only heard on a record, seen at a concert, or watched perform on TV. Clinics were a chance to learn and be inspired, and to ask somebody who was doing what he or she wanted to do an important question for my musical growth. I asked Purdie if the groove in “Rock Steady” was something that he came up with, or if it was suggested by the composer/producer. I asked Roy Burns about his approach to the Papa Jo Jones/Max Roach fanning motion on the hi-hats. And I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to sit beside Louie Bellson while he demonstrated a double-stroke interleaved roll, voiced between the rack tom and snare, which was something I saw him do in a drum solo with the Oscar Peterson Trio. (A clip of this solo has surfaced on YouTube. Search for Oscar Peterson “Cute” featuring Louie Bellson.)

All of these experiences were life changing for me. These men were super-classy, gracious, extremely giving, and astoundingly educated about their craft. Their drum clinics not only inspired me to further my development, but they introduced me to new playing ideas and current equipment trends. I’ve purchased many pieces of gear after hearing them at drum clinics. Getting to hear the gear played at a high level sparked a “gotta have that” response from me. These clinics were win/win situations for everyone involved. So when a company representative says that drum clinics are a waste of time and money, my first reaction is that they’re using the wrong guys and are doing them for the wrong reasons.

Welcome to the Gig
Sometime in the early 2000s, the drum clinic dramatically changed. It was no longer an opportunity to get up close to a musical star, but rather it became a drumming spectacle. I would attend events where the player would play seemingly impossible feats of drumming mayhem for fifty minutes and then talk about themselves for another thirty. It became more of a concert performance than a drum clinic. There was little interaction with the audience, and at the end of the event, little gear was purchased and little knowledge was gained that could be applied to my own playing. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate extreme facility on the instrument. Anyone who has seen my clinic knows I speak a lot about having extra facility for those times when you need it. But I always want to leave a drum clinic having learned something. I believe the failures of some drum clinics can be summarized into five issues.

Not every great player is a great teacher. Some players can be awesome at this instrument but lack the delivery skills to teach a crowd of people effectively. You have to have an organized curriculum in place. You must have strong public speaking skills, time management, and the ability to keep people’s attention. And one of the toughest things to accomplish is to be able to deliver content that gives everyone in the audience (beginner to pro) something to chew on.

Not every great teacher is a great player. Conversely, some teachers can break things down to a simple and easily digested packet of information. But not every great teacher has had enough real-world playing experiences to display the practical use of what they’re teaching. The best drum clinics are often given by artists/teachers who have significant playing and teaching experience.

“Self-taught” only works when you’re teaching yourself. I know some of the greatest drummers in the world were self-taught through years of playing experience. But the people attending drum clinics aren’t all of the same musical background. A good clinician needs to deliver information in an effective and deliberate way so that everyone can understand it.

Clinics have become gigs. Even though many endorsers want to do clinics, only certain players have the skill set to do them effectively. A high playing level is just one piece of the puzzle. The other component is experience in the music business. In addition to ability, you need the knowledge to answer any question that comes to you. What if the question is about playing brushes in 3/4 at 250 bpm? What if the question is about overdubbing drums on top of a programmed loop, or about advanced double bass? I’ve been asked everything from extremely detailed playing questions to, “How much money do you make?”

Becoming a drum clinician is sort of like entering the medical field. Doctors are required to assimilate a ridiculous amount of information before they’re legally allowed to practice. They also have to pass the medical proficiency test and complete a residency to finally start their own practices. Obviously, as drummers we’re not making life or death decisions every day, but doing one successful tour, getting an endorsement deal, or having a million views on YouTube doesn’t necessarily qualify you to “coach” the masses.

Lack of effort. I’ve been doing clinics all over the world for over twenty-five years, and I have attended countless drum events. Some had a great turnout. Tons of information was being passed on, and a lot of products were sold. I’ve also seen terrible events with no promotion, bad locations, unprofessional setups, unqualified artists, and overall bad attitudes from everyone involved.

An effective drum clinic really boils down to two things: an effective artist, and diligent promotion and production from the host. Proper planning and execution by all parties involved is what leads to a successful event. The store needs its student base to be involved, and it should invite all local teachers to attend. The artist, his or her sponsors, and the hosts need to promote the event through all avenues months in advance of the clinic date. It’s also important that the proper gear is there for the artist to play, and that the appearance is properly presented with adequate PA and lighting systems.

The sponsoring companies should hand out artist information, catalogs, and promotional materials, and they should provide prizes for giveaways. The store should be prepared to stock the artist’s books, DVDs, and signature instruments, and plan special sales on the gear that the player is using. The artist should talk about the gear he or she is using and help promote the store’s teaching facilities.

The clinic itself should have a balance of performance, teaching, and interaction with the attendees. I strive to give the audience 90 to120 minutes of playing, education, and practical knowledge.

I believe that a properly executed clinic is still the most effective form of inspiration, education, and sales in the drumming business. It’s okay that not every drummer is a clinician. Companies need to understand that and be more deliberate in their efforts. If we can start putting all the right pieces together, drum clinics will flourish again!

Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more info, visit