By Phil Hood
When John Blackwell died in July last year at age 43, he left behind family, friends, and a musical legacy that is defined by his performances and recordings, as well as the respect he earned from bandmates and the many drummers who loved his work. Travis Barker called him “one of the best to ever pick up sticks.” For Sheila E he was a “brother.” And on and on.
John’s gentle nature and untouchable right foot not only made him the perfect bandmate; they also made him a great teacher. This hit home for me when I saw the video of one of his former students, Natalie DePergola, playing with her band Garden Club. Of course, Natalie might not call herself a former student. John is gone but the lessons he gave her have shaped her life.
I’ve known Natalie for several years, ever since she was a 13-year-old entering the Hit Like A Girl Contest. She has been a top-three finalist more than once in the Under-18 category and her musicianship improves each year. She started studying with John at age 12 after attending one of his clinics at Seminole Music & Sound. She and John hit it off right away. “The chemistry was instant and he became my full mentor and teacher over the next five years,” she recalls.
The last time we had talked she mentioned what a deep influence John had been on her and that she was thinking of how she could honor him. Then, this week we discussed the the most important things she learned from John. “He taught me how to listen, [and] that changed how I played and how I play today,” she says.
“He showed me how to listen to all the greats, the ones that inspired him many years ago. He taught me how to listen, to really listen, to a song over and over and over again with my eyes closed way before attempting to play it. He taught me how to listen to other players… He taught me how to listen to many drum teachers, not just one or two but many and often. He taught me how to listen to my gut, my instinct, that inner voice in one’s head that speaks to one’s creativity and to trust it. He also taught me, just as importantly, how not to listen to my fears of failure and my personal anxieties about performing a song that maybe wasn’t perfect or the way I imagined it to be, but to be happy and proud of what I have done with a song because it was mine. These were light bulb moments for me that I will never forget.”
Amen to that. What an incredible gift from a teacher, one that keeps on giving. In this video, Natalie plays the song “Rain,” which she wrote with bassist Savvas Savvinidis. The bass line and groove are inspired by John. “John taught me all about pocket and groove. He is the reason that I play the way I do. The time signature is 11/4, but it is still funky.” The track also features the talents of all-world percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, Cesar Omar Rios on guitar, and Zach Bornheimer on sax.
DePergola and Saavinidis are the core of Garden Club. They are working on an EP for release later this year. And Natalie has finished a home studio where she will be creating live sessions with guitarist Thomas Griggs and bassist John Shea, who also recorded with Blackwell. She was just hired by the Grammy Museum’s education department in Los Angeles to join forces with her fellow alumni of the museum’s Music Revolution school to help facilitate programs worldwide for students wanting to start a career in music.
John Blackwell may be gone but his influence is not diminished. For Natalie and many other young drummers, it’s still just beginning.
About Hit Like A Girl
The Hit Like A Girl Contest 2018 kicked off March 1 for entries. Over two months hundreds or thousands of girls submit videos in their appropriate age group and category (hand drum, marching, drum set, beatmaking, etc.). This worldwide event has sub-contests in China, France, and other countries; all girls of any skill level are invited to participate and improve their musical skills.
Got A Good Teacher Story?
Share a word about your teacher (or any topic you want to read about) and be entered in my monthly cool accessory giveaway.
Winners from last month include Jon Ward and Rich Ludwig, who will receive Cympad gift packs, and Jerry Anaya and Terence Sherry who will receive a set of KBrakes, the product that makes your bass drum stable.
Phil Hood is Publisher of Drum! magazine.