From the February 2017 issue of DRUM!  |  By David E. Libman

Some drummers brag about being self-taught, even though many should consider lessons. Behind most great drummers are usually a few (and sometimes, several) amazing teachers. Most drummers who have taken lessons with a transformative teacher realize that they learn not only from playing the instrument during the lesson, but also from the discussions they have and the advice they receive. With that in mind, we asked ten preeminent teachers (who are also incredible players) the same question: “What is the number one piece of advice you end up giving your students?”

This seemingly simple question provoked some incredibly thoughtful responses from a veritable who’s who of drumming educators: Clayton Cameron, renowned brush-master and lecturer/teacher at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music; Terri Lyne Carrington, Grammy Award–winner and professor at Berklee College of Music; Dave Elitch, recent drummer for The Mars Volta and a sought-after private teacher in L.A.; Peter Erskine, jazz legend and director of drum set studies at USC Thornton School of Music; Dom Famularo, globe-trotting clinician who has been preaching the drumming gospel for more than 40 years; Ralph Humphrey, L.A. studio drummer and drum department chair for the Los Angeles College of Music; Thomas Lang, virtuoso drummer and host to multiple Drumming Bootcamps; Mike Mangini, master drummer for Dream Theater, clinician, and teacher; Glen Sobel, legendary hard rock drummer and teacher; and Ed Soph, active clinician and esteemed professor at the University of North Texas.

Here’s what they had to say.

Clayton Cameron: Love What You Do

Cameron sticks to this concise primary piece of advice because, “If you love it, ‘it’ will never feel like work. You will always be willing to learn, get through slow times, go to work with a smile on your face, enjoy teaching others, and with this love you will be able to do one of these things, if not all, for the rest of your life.”

Terri Lyne Carrington: Understand Phrasing

Carrington premised her advice is on the understanding that her students “already have at least moderate technique” that allows them “to get their ideas out articulately.” With that in mind, “good phrasing is good phrasing no matter the genre. You can put a different ‘swagger’ on the same phrase and it can sound good in jazz or funk or Latin or rock, but if you don’t understand phrasing and breath, and natural rhythm and pulse, which feels universal, then there will be a big missing link in your playing or writing.” Carrington names multiple sources from whom students can study phrasing, including “the master drummers of Africa, Cuba, and other places of African or Afro-Cuban descent,” and “the master jazz drummers or bebop creators.” With this study, drummers can “find the correlation to great rock, funk, and fusion drumming. It’s like different vocabularies with similar discourse,” but imperative knowledge that allows one “to communicate intelligently.”

Peter Erskine: Play What You’d Like To Hear

Ah, if only it were that easy. Fortunately, Erskine elaborates: “Job number one is to provide rhythmic information to the band, and to play in such a way as to make all of the other musicians play their best. Within all of this, there are an infinite number of choices we can make: orchestration on the kit, the ‘temperature’ of the beat as well as the density, and so on. Add to that the often-complicating factor of playing to someone else’s expectations, or the feeling that we must play to someone’s expectations, in order to gain approval, ego satisfaction, audience response, and so on. And this is when the muscles begin to take over the musical mind. The simplest solution: Just play what you’d like to hear; not necessarily what you’d like to play. [Those are] two very different things, sometimes. Experience brings the hearing and the playing process together as one.”

Thomas Lang: Be Versatile & Goal Oriented

If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing or hearing Lang play, you know he may have a bit more to say beyond the simple advice you see above. Lang stresses that versatility and a focus on goals applies to playing, practicing, general musical skill and ability, range of creative work in the music industry, and “your various sources of income from the music industry.” And he provides multiple examples.

With playing, he emphasizes the need to “be flexible, play many styles authentically, cover as much musical territory as possible. The goal is to be versatile and to understand all styles of music in detail.” He says one should always play with a goal, purpose, and results in mind. “Always be aware and know why you are playing the way you do, and what the goal is,” whether it’s to entertain, inspire, support, learn, connect, network, and so on.

Lang believes practice should be “organized, methodical, goal-oriented” and done in an “efficient manner that produces results.” So “practice things that you can apply in all styles and situations — technique, feel, time, groove. Practice with results in mind, not to just log hours.” Be efficient and “save time when you practice. The goal is to get results and to practice for a purpose.” To achieve these goals, you need to “be organized, have a plan and stick to it. Work on versatility and become a great all-around drummer and musician.”

He applies this same goal-oriented approach to general musical skills, advising students to strive to “write, produce, arrange music, play another instrument, read music, and learn to record and mix” with a goal of increasing “your learning and earning potential.” Lang advises students to learn about collecting royalties and copyright laws. Students should consider writing a drum book, designing a drum product, and teaching lessons. They should strive to become a versatile (and thus invaluable) bandmember or collaborator “who can produce results and finish a production on time within budget, and learn the set on time for the show or tour,” and contribute ideas and skill to any situation.

The same goes for the creative aspects of the business. “Learn to program music, film and edit video, design websites, and graphics. Understand everything.”

While acknowledging the goals of “artistic integrity, to inspire and entertain,” Lang makes it clear that students should also have a goal to “earn money from live shows, tours, recording sessions, clinics, selling products, monetizing online, royalties, and publishing.” The idea is to sufficiently diversify their portfolio so that they “don’t work for free.” Ultimately, Lang’s advice on making money is the same as it is for making music: “Be versatile and goal-oriented in financial matters as much as you are in musical and creative matters. Your ability to be focused, disciplined, and organized in your practicing is an important skill that you will be able to use in your career in general.” Lang’s reasoning is that reaching that moneymaking goal helps you to keep your career going while entertaining and inspiring others.

Dom Famularo: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

According to the world-renowned drum educator, nothing pays higher dividends than having an open mind. “For example, if you want to learn how to play like John Bonham, in addition to learning his licks and grooves, you should also do some research to find out which drummers influenced him,” Famularo says. “You wouldn’t be the first to be surprised to learn that Bonzo was greatly influenced by jazz drummers like Buddy Rich and Joe Morello.”

But he doesn’t suggest stopping there. “First study Buddy and Joe, and then dig further and you’ll find that Buddy was influenced by Chick Webb and Morello was influenced by Max Roach. Understanding these earlier artists can only open more doors of ideas for you to discover yourself — and that’s the key.”

Famularo explains that it all boils down to a very simple equation: Imitate, assimilate, then innovate: “First copy what you hear, or at least try to copy what you enjoy. Second, internalize what you are playing so that it becomes second nature. Then begin adapting it into something you created. Your hero did the same thing with their influences — follow their footsteps and you’ll start your own path.”

Ralph Humphrey: From Woodshed To Stage

As a seasoned teacher with decades of experience teaching privately and publicly, Humphrey understands the importance of spending time in the practice room, but also insists that your practice time needs to fulfill a purpose. “Create a practice schedule and try to keep it,” he says. “Accomplishment and progress come in increments and may not be noticeable from day to day or even week to week. Patience and perseverance are keys to this.”

He warns, though, that running rudiments in the practice room is only 50 percent of the job. “The other 50 percent must be spent joining and making music with others,” he continues. “Too often, drummers have no idea how to play with other musicians due to spending the majority of their time working on chops and being self-indulged.

“When playing with others, put yourself in the music with passion and love. If you do, the decision of what to play becomes thoughtless. Reacting and responding to the musical moment is key.”

Glen Sobel: Try To See The Good In Everything

With the caveat that he’s given “so many pieces of advice” over the years, what first comes to mind for Sobel is his advice on the importance of trying to see the good in everything. Sobel explains that “as an aspiring, up-and-coming professional drummer, you need to have an innate appreciation for many styles of music, players, and situations. Early on, most work you get won’t be your ideal dream gig. But there’s always something to learn about musicianship, yourself as a musician, and dealing with others professionally on and off stage.” Sobel cautions to not “let friends and others dictate to you what they think is cool or correct to listen to. Soak it all in, listen to, learn, and perform songs of every stripe. This makes a well-rounded player.”

Ed Soph: Become A Good Listener

So how do you become a good listener? According to Soph, “To have the freedom to listen to the music rather than just ourselves, we must have an extensive musical vocabulary that encompasses dynamics, tempos, sound, style, and improvisation. Without this vocabulary, we cannot communicate with other musicians. The weaknesses that emerge when we don’t have this vocabulary force us to listen to ourselves, because we don’t sound right in the musical situation.”

Mike Mangini: Think About What You’d Love To Be Able To Play The Most

Mangini gives this advice as a platform to discuss what the student is “really after. Once we do that, it means that I can attempt to define what this thing is, so that we’re both on the same page seeing the same thing in the same way. That similar perspective allows us to understand the elements that make up the result they want so that they understand when we work on aspects of it that are necessary to being able to learn it, repeated practice of it, and finally use it musically.”

When one considers Mangini’s proficiency, both musically and technically, it’s unsurprising that he’s put some deep thought into dissecting his approach to music. Mangini has determined “that all musical expressions can be broken up into the same seven categories of elements, where each expression can have its own unique element in some or all of the seven categories. This is a major, pretty much scientific way of understanding how to both improvise and exactly what kinds of skills to work on to improve as a musician. I call the arrangement of the seven categories ‘The Grid.’ I released a DVD on this concept.”

For Mangini, the primary reason a “student must love what they want is to open up their long-term memory. Things without meaning go into short-term memory and disappear if they are not jettisoned from the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. A person cannot lie to himself, so the hippocampus is not fooled, as it doesn’t know what words are. It knows meaning. With enough meaning, there is enough voltage to send things to what is known as long-term memory.”

So how does that relate to the seven categories? Anyone learning anything will understand that he or she has “chosen one thing in each of the seven categories and really have an intimate knowledge of the category itself.” This allows Mangini to propose other goals and objectives that the student would not want and did want to learn before.

Mangini illustrates this process with an example: “When a student who is not yet able to play standard, more simple beats in time with a metronome comes to learn a chops-oriented thing,” Mangini helps the student “attain the chops to execute it, but I point out every one of the seven elements. That means that I explain to them the following aspects of their musical expression: 1) time signature, 2) subdivision, 3) dynamics, 4) parts of the kit hit, 5) limbs used, 6) musical style, and 7) phrase. I then point out the human attributes needed for it, like coordination, tone, musicality, speed, tempo, feel, and a few other things. They feel very, very empowered and educated and are so much more open to working on aspects of their expression in ways that benefit other areas of their drumming skill set.”

Once that occurs, the student begins to put this into time with a metronome. “If and when they cannot do it at a test level — which I probe until they cannot — they become interested in timekeeping. This allows me to suggest more simple approaches of timekeeping that are less chops oriented, while they actually embrace it because it is usually physically doable and they can then focus their minds on improving their basic feel and timekeeping.”

Finally, Mangini closes the loop. “Because they love what they want, they improve more quickly and more efficiently. Because they experience this, they respect more aspects of drumming. All of this leads to them being more respectful of all forms of drumming because they literally are on the same page as me looking at the same perspective of what they do in relation to what can be done and what other drummers choose to love.”

Dave Elitch: Focus On Usefulness, Musicality & Employability

Specifically, Elitch advises students to work on things that will be “useful in the real world” in order to become a “more musical and employable drummer.” One trigger for this advice is when students approach Elitch with highly developed “extraneous random techniques or licks that they’ll never use,” yet “something really basic has ended up suffering.” Fortunately, this imbalance can lead to a valuable discussion on varying definitions of what is “easy” and “difficult” to play.

Advice From The Author: Care About The Process

In posing the question of what primary advice these teachers give their students, it was refreshing to see that these busy, successful, and well-known educators were so willing to give of their time with incredibly thoughtful feedback. No doubt, they truly care about the learning process. As a student of drumming, adopting that same level of care in your efforts to learn and improve should reap great rewards.