Russ Miller has been a staple of the Los Angeles studio scene for many years, and he’s recorded with everyone from Ray Charles to the Psychedelic Furs and appeared in house bands for television shows. Miller has created his instructional online site with a concept he calls his 4-Step Professional Percussion Pathway, and it’s filled with lessons on a wide variety of topics from how to create feel and pulse to an assortment of genre studies like funk and jazz. This is more intermediate- to advanced-level teaching, but any serious student can gain insight to improve his or her playing.
MD: What are the pros and cons of online instruction?
Russ: The pros are, first, that most online schooling has a library of lessons available to you. This makes the person able to review content of a lesson and also go at his or her own pace. This is something that won’t happen one on one. Second, the prerecorded material allows you to view and hear things with a detail that’s not available to you when it’s live. For example, I can stop a lesson and even slow it down, pause it, and zoom in on an aspect. Third, music instruction is a compound learning system. Everything stacks on the lesson before it. You can’t skip around—if you miss something it’ll come back to haunt you. So if the online program is well organized, it allows you to see what the outcome will be of what you are currently working on.
The cons are that in online instruction, there is little third-party personal coaching, which means the instructor’s ability to see and react to the student’s lesson or skill is greatly diminished. Due to the reach of the Internet and the ability for people to access lessons 24/7, there is a much higher number of students than is possible in person, so one-on-one interaction is very difficult.
MD: What strategy is used to divide online content between “telling” versus “teaching” or passive versus active instruction?
Russ: One of the things that I did when I developed the Percussion Pathway Program was to create guiding syllabus files. These downloadable files would help the student understand the amount of time that I recommend for each lesson and present more details on how to “self-instruct” through the lesson.
One of the challenges from the online system from the student’s perspective is that there is a greater percentage of self instruction. The other issue that affects active instruction is, because of the difficulties and expense in producing new videos, creating many sub-lessons or partial lessons to help guide particular students who might need them isn’t a common option.
MD: Why did you go the route of a downloadable syllabus and worksheets?
Russ: I think it’s crucial for the student to understand how this lesson works within the overall system. This is a compound learning system, and it’s my approach to creating “a further review” and/or breaking down of the lesson into smaller pieces for students. Also, I believe that a structured practice routine outlined in the lesson syllabus will help most students tremendously.
MD: What brought you to finalize the four different sections as your outline and the accompanying modules?
Russ: I thought it was crucial to categorize the learning not in the case of importance, but in the case of the direction of development that I’m taking the students. For example, they need to know that the ability to use brushes is not stylistic, but rather it’s a practical technique that could be utilized for every style of music. That’s why we divided the course into Physical, Practical, Music Style Development, and the fourth, which encompasses Business, Health, Lectures, Marketing, etc. We have everything from exercise videos with a pro trainer made exclusively for drummers, to career development lectures in the last step.
MD: Since starting, how has your reach and enrollment expanded, and what have you learned from your experiences as an online educator in terms of how to properly scale up?
Russ: The challenge with online programs especially, if you’re an artist of notoriety, is to get the students past the “I’m studying with so-and-so famous drummer” and get them into the actual instruction that the artist has to offer. That being said, the first batch of students seem to be core fans of [the instructor’s] playing. From the first batch it expands out to people who are interested in learning the instrument. Then it seems to expand to people who are interested in studying with an online program.
MD: In 2020, what do drummers need to know that online learning helps facilitate?
Russ: The biggest challenge with music instruction today is getting through the fog of misinformation that’s presented on the Internet. Not everyone with a camera is qualified to instruct you on how to play an instrument. Likewise, not every great player is a great teacher, and not every great teacher is a great player. I received a lot of information from my amazing teachers like Jim Chapin and Freddie Gruber. In my opinion, they were some of the best instructors in the world; however, they did not have major playing careers.
In addition, I’ve been around some of the best players in history that couldn’t effectively explain what they were doing. Basically, finding the person with the information and the ability to organize it and present it to you is key. That hasn’t changed from fifty years ago until now, Internet or no Internet.
MD: How do you come up with the topics?
Russ: We try to do as many shoots as my schedule and budgets will allow. Percussion Pathway is a high-level production: five HD cameras, HD audio, and large lighting packages.
As far as the material currently chosen for the system, I came up with the topics through personal experience throughout my career. I’ve published five instructional books and six instructional videos. I’ve taught at PIT and the Los Angeles College of Music and have done masterclasses and drum clinics all over the world for twenty-five years. All of this instruction development helped me assemble what I think makes this the most concise program that encompasses what a student needs.
Let’s never forget—we’re developing students’ ability in a technical and conceptual manner, but the outcome is their ability to execute music on the instrument. You can only further that by having musical experiences. So I get them ready to play with other musicians, but they have to go play with other musicians!
MD: As the field increasingly diversifies and expands, what are the key components to maintaining relevance, besides people generally wanting a known drummer’s insights?
Russ: I think it’s really important to make sure that you’re always going to a reliable source. A lot of the core fundamentals, such as the “physical steps” in the Percussion Pathway, are not going to change. Those basics will always be required to play at a high level effectively.
Of course, new stuff comes along. For instance, we’re scheduling an entire lesson series on the use of electronics and AV production. The combination of fundamentals won’t change, and I think our willingness to advance the program lends itself to relevance. It’s no different from my personal playing development. I started taking lessons at ten years old, and I’ve never stopped. I’ve been taking lessons for forty years. I think continuous development is one of the keys to relevance. I’m interested in getting better, always! It’s something I’ve spoken a lot about in the Concepts column here in MD. That willingness to get better is also a part of the Percussion Pathway program.
MD: With so much free content available, what’s the value for students that choose to enroll in online education?
Russ: The largest percentage of information out there is created by unreliable sources. The qualifications for instructing online shouldn’t be just owning a camera and having a YouTube account. This is why I say it’s very important to go to a qualified source, one that has proven professional experience in doing what you want to. For instance, if I wanted to be a pilot, I wouldn’t learn how to fly a plane from someone who has only ridden in one. I want a reliable source, an experienced pilot with hundreds of flight hours to teach me.
I think that the great part of the online system is that you do have access to some of the best players and teachers in the world. Most people can’t do that from where they live, so the sky is the limit for the great online courses.
By Ilya Stemkovsky