What Should a Good Drum Teacher Teach?

When parents invest in their children’s music lessons – on piano, trumpet, violin, oboe or whatever – they expect certain basics to be taught.

A functional technique is one of them. They would also expect a teacher to relentlessly steer students away from bad habits that inhibit technical progress or, even worse, lead to injury.

The child should be taught to read music, and to understand rhythm and the relationship rhythmic values have with one another – and learn to play with rhythmic precision and at an even tempo.

It wouldn’t hurt if the teacher introduced different genres of music – even music from different historical periods – into the mix. And it goes without saying that the teacher will stress musicality throughout every aspect of the learning process.

Parents should expect that their children will be taught to play their instrument well, that their musical curiosity will be piqued, that they will discover the rich rewards to be had by dedicating a reasonable amount of time to thoughtful practising, and that a respect and love of music will be instilled. Many instrumental music teachers, to a greater and lesser degree, teach these things.

Then why do these expectations so frequently evaporate when it comes to drum lessons?

A Lowering of the Drum Teaching Bar

A couple of years ago, a parent came to me with a video of her young son playing drums. He’d been taking lessons and she suspected something might be a bit off. She was right. Clearly, no one had ever told him how to hold the sticks. His arms flailed about. He hammered cymbals and drums with no technique or control. His time was all over the place. He was a thoughtful, conscientious and musical young man (who, I’m delighted to say, is playing very well now) – who had been taught next to nothing through three years of private lessons! Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many students with similar stories to tell. Their lessons, they said, pretty much amounted to hammering out rock beats along with songs.

Just think of the reaction if coaches taught sports the same way. You sign up a child to play basketball, only to discover that kids are allowed to just play around on the court at practises. There’s no warm up, no skill development, no shooting drills, and so on. The child has fun, and lets off some steam, but is it a valuable learning experience? Would any parent find that an acceptable way to teach basketball? Of course not.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of good drum teachers out there, but far too many are content to show students a couple of basic rock beats and a simple fill or two – then let them indulge themselves for weeks on end. They don’t teach a functional grip. They don’t teach rolls or rudiments. Reading is largely ignored. Technique is of little consequence. Solid, even timekeeping is an afterthought. Students learn nothing about the great drummers of the past – or present. In fact, they have no clue as to what good drumming is. Any number of issues related to musicality are totally off the radar. The poor drum student is being done a grave disservice. And parents are being ripped off.

How to Choose a Good Drum Teacher: 5 Points to Follow

The search for a music teacher should not be taken lightly. To increase the chances of finding a good drum teacher, one who will provide a child with a solid technical and musical foundation, consider these 5 points.

#1 Get a Recommendation

When it comes to finding a teacher of any instrument, getting a recommendation is a good place to start. And don’t think that, because the student is “just a beginner,” it doesn’t matter how good the teacher is. Finding someone who will set a child off on a solid musical path while instilling joy in learning music is tremendously important. Begin your search by calling a reputable conservatory, school music teacher or neighbour whose child is already taking lessons. And don’t hire the first person you find that will come over to the house for a reasonable price. While you may indeed get lucky and hit upon someone affordable and well qualified, call up a prospective teacher and ask a few questions before taking the next step.

#2 Interview the Prospective Teacher . . . and Ask the Right Questions

Ask the teacher’s background and get a sense of how they teach. Do they place value on developing a solid snare drum technique? Do they balance teaching snare drum technique with drum set technique? Do they teach reading skills? What resources do they use? Do they introduce students to jazz and Latin drumming? After a short interview, you should be left with the impression that they’ve put serious thought into teaching.

#3 Look for Clear Direction

Once you’ve settled on a teacher, remain involved in the teaching process.

Look over entries in notebooks, and what material is assigned. Is the teacher stating clearly what the student should be working on for the week? Have specific exercises and pieces to practise been assigned? Are reminders regarding technique jotted down (“watch that the stick is moving straight up and down” or “remember to drop the stick from a higher level to play accents,” etc.) Along with assigned exercises and pieces, a good drum teacher will provide clear direction as to how to practise them.

#4 Get Feedback from Your Child

You can learn a lot by watching and listening to a child’s playing. Do you see and hear progress? Is the child playing with greater control? Does the music and playing appear more complex as time goes on? It may be more difficult for parents with little musical background to get a sense of all this, but there are times when the answers will be painfully obvious to anyone.

And don’t neglect to have conversations with children about what they are learning. Let them know that you are genuinely interested. Ask what they did during their lesson, what they like about the lessons, what they are learning and discussing during the lessons. Have them demonstrate what they are learning, and what they’ll be working on when they practise that week. If the child is unable to articulate what he/she is doing, or has little sense of what to work on, it’s time to have a chat with the teacher.

#5 Stay Connected with the Teacher

Ask the teacher what the expectations should be. Ask about the practice material. In my studio, together with the student, we often write out a practise schedule that he/she can reasonably follow. It might be only 20 minutes long, but the student will know how much time to spend on a warm up exercise, how long to practise the specific snare drum exercises, and how long to practise an assigned drum set exercise.

And yes – it’s okay for students to play with recordings during lessons. And they should do so at home too.

Drumming with recordings is a great way to develop good timekeeping and listening skills. Working out or approximating the drummer’s fills or timekeeping patterns encourages musical curiosity and creativity. And there’s a lot to be said for just taking time to have some fun playing along with music one likes; playing music is, of course, a joyous experience, and the reason one begins to study an instrument in the first place.

But playing along with recordings should amount to more than just blowing off steam and having fun. When done under the guidance of a good drum teacher, and as a component of a well-considered program, students can enjoy the satisfaction of acquiring real skill on the drum set, and gaining a true sense of pride and achievement.

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