Drummers often grapple with certain questions or problems that could be answered by simply finding the right balance between two choices. For example, a popular debate among drummers is the choice between using traditional or matched grip. Or some players might argue the merits of learning to read versus learning by ear, or whether they should teach themselves independently or take lessons. In each case, it might be advantageous to pursue a balance of both options, rather than feeling a need to choose one.
In this month’s Concepts column, the renowned session drummer and educator Russ Miller examines one of the questions that students have repeatedly asked him over the years: Should I read music? Beyond Miller’s article, a brief online search will reveal plenty of recent forum posts and educational videos on the subject, illustrating that it remains a popular question among the drumming community.
I’m a proponent of learning to read music in general, and I’ve certainly incorporated books in lessons with new students. I think this helps build drummers’ flexibility, enhances their ability to learn, and could open doors to future opportunities. And, personally, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue multiple publishing opportunities without being able to read. I also wouldn’t have gotten certain gigs without being able to read charts and transcribe grooves and ensemble figures—though that’s not to say another drummer wouldn’t be capable of handling the gig without being able to read or notate music.
That said, at one point while I was in a practice funk, I decided to take my nose out of the books and charts and only listen to music, analyze it, and play along with it by ear. For one thing, I wanted to take a different approach and learn about players’ creative tendencies without existing interpretations. Now, my ability to read certainly helped build the foundation to understand what might’ve been played. But to beat my inspiration lull, I found that it was useful to take a different approach to a method I felt somewhat tied to previously.
I’m not sure there’s always one answer to some of drumming’s longtime debates. Obviously everyone’s path is different, as evidenced by the drummers and stories that fill these pages each month. But maybe finding the balance between two methods of learning could lead you to discover something you might not have pursued otherwise. And maybe one solution could be to frame these everlasting drum debates in a way that doesn’t inherently limit progress from the start, no matter which side you pick.