Education Through a Different Lens
Drumming Is More Than Doubles and Paradiddles
by Martin Urbach
By luck or fate, most of the teaching I’ve done in the past ten years has been with young students. I currently teach children as young as two, and the bulk of them are between five and eleven. In this article I’ll share a few things that I’ve learned through my journey.
The Fun Factor
Drumming is fun! I’m interested in teaching kids how to play the drums, but it’s more important to me for them to learn to love the drums. I feel that if kids have fun doing whatever they’re doing, they’ll grow to love it and will want to do it often. I often remind myself of how excited I was when I received my first drumset for my twelfth birthday or how proud I felt the first time I was able to play a basic rock beat for more than one bar at a time. When we associate drumming with those kinds of fun thoughts, it’s pretty hard to not want to spend time at the kit. I strive to create a fun environment for my students to learn the wonderful art of drumming, whether we’re engaging in rhythmic call-and-response games, shedding paradiddle-diddles, or simply letting our inner crazy monkey go wild.
The relationship between a student and a teacher is unique. A good teacher has the ability to adjust his or her attitude to reach many kinds of people. Of course it’s not possible to like or be liked by everyone, but we can at least try to be open-minded, warm, respectful, and giving. I believe that as a teacher, it’s important to connect with kids at their level and listen to what they have to say. When you do that, a channel of trust can be built and information will flow in a more organic way.
In this quest to better connect with our students, we must learn how to explain the same information in many different ways. A teacher’s job is not to simply pass along the information; that’s what instructional videos and method books are for. Our job is to make sure that the information we’re sharing is assimilated in the most organic way.
During my lessons, I tend to not play very much. I feel that the student will benefit most from having as much first-hand experience as possible. I only demonstrate things if I really feel that I need to in order to reinforce the ideas that I’m teaching. But I do ask a lot of questions to get the students to think and make decisions.
For example, I might ask students to come up with a beat and a small drum fill. I then ask them to explain the difference between them. What would happen if you played a very long drum fill while the singer is singing lyrics? Now what would happen if you play the same drum beat throughout quiet and energetic parts of the song without changing it in any way? Then I ask them to put the beats and fills together in a way that makes sense—like in a song.
I don’t ask yes-or-no questions. My questions allow room for interpretation, so there are often no wrong answers. Even if students answer with something that’s not what I expected, I can usually find a way to make their response relate back to what I’m trying to teach them.
I believe that a very important part of being an artist is developing your own voice, which is achieved by exploring all possibilities instead of being spoon-fed stock ideas. Most kids aren’t required to do any kind of self-exploration in their day-to-day life. Phrases like “Don’t do that,” “You’ll break it,” and “That’s too loud” are used too often when adults interact with children.
I think drumming is a great vehicle for anyone, young or old, to learn how to express whatever he or she wants. Sometimes in my lessons we’ll counter the “That’s too loud” response by exploring super-soft playing and everything in between. That type of exploratory practice prepares students for when the time comes to make music and they have to make informed decisions on how loud or soft they should play.
In my journey as a musician who spends lots of time working with children, I’ve found an immense stream of inspiration. Once I asked a four-year-old student what he thought about music. He said, “Music is magic.” When I asked him to explain that, his answer was, “Music is magic because when you play an instrument, music comes out.” When I think of music through that lens, I don’t sit at the drums wondering what I should practice. Music flows much more freely from my inner self when I think of it like a rabbit jumping out of a magician’s hat.
Another perspective-changing answer came from an eight-year-old student. I was struggling to find a way to teach her about upbeats and syncopation. As an activity, I asked her to stomp and clap in a steady beat. Then I asked her to explore other sounds that fit between the steady stomping and clapping. Shortly after, she said, “I get it! Syncopation is what makes you want to dance!” Had I tried to explain to her that syncopation is when you play an upbeat instead of a downbeat and use rests to offset some notes against the pulse, she would still be wondering what syncopation is. Instead, she figured it out in a way that made sense to her, and in turn she reminded me, in the most perfectly simple way possible, what syncopation is really all about.
Martin Urbach holds a BA in jazz performance from the University of New Orleans, an MA in jazz arts from the Manhattan School of Music, and an advanced certificate in music education from Brooklyn College.