Sarah Thawer is a versatile, freelance drummer based out of Toronto, Canada, whose skillset is as long as it is varied. She’s savvy in, among other genres, jazz, Latin, gospel, hip-hop, funk, R&B, soul, fusion, Indian, Bollywood, and world music. Thawer has performed with dozens of artists, including AR Rahman, Del Hartley, D’bi and the 333, and Rich Brown, and she was recently on a two-month tour with UK hip-hop artist Watsky. Her debut album comes out this September, so be on the lookout.
Women are underrepresented in the percussion world. Our weekly series, Woman Crush Wednesday (#WCW), aims to recognize, celebrate, and inspire female percussionists of all stripes. Each Wednesday we’ll feature a profile of a drummer, who will share tips, advice, and videos.Want to be featured yourself? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org telling us more about you.
What is your city and country?
I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.
What kind of gear do you use? What’s your setup?
The drum kit that I use is the Yamaha Absolute Hybrid Maple: 22” kick, toms: 8”, 10”, 12”, 14”, and 16”, with a 14” snare. I also use the 13” Steve Jordan snare. I played Yamaha’s new line of drums, the Live Custom Hybrid Oak, for the first time at NAMM a few weeks back and fell in love with them instantly. Very excited to start using them at my gigs and sessions.
I play an array of Zildjian cymbals, and pick the ones to use based on the musical setting. I find myself most often using the 13” K Custom Hybrid Hi Hats, and the 10” splash, 21” ride, 18” and 20” crash from the K Custom Special Dry line. I also love to use the K Custom Hybrid crashes as well as the K Cluster crashes. I am a big fan of short and quick response sounds, so I have tons of fun with splashes and stacks. I love to stack the 10” and 8” Trashformer with the 10” A Custom EFX, as well as the K EFX 18” with the 18” FX Oriental China Trash. Zildjian recently released a line of FX Stacks that I also instantly fell in love with and currently use in my setup!
I use the Evans G2 Clear on my toms and G1 Clear on the reso tom heads, UV1 on my snares, and EMAD Clear on the bass drum.
I use Vic Firth 5B and I also use the Peter Erskine Ride Stick in jazz settings.
Do you have endorsements?
I endorse Yamaha drums, Evans drumheads, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth drumsticks, 64 Audio in-ears, ProLogix practice pads and Gruv Gear accessories. I also am the brand ambassador for the company Remitbee.
What bands/groups do you perform with, if any?
Being a freelance musician I feel very fortunate to perform with various bands and artists playing different genres of music. I recently embarked on a two-month US, Europe, and UK tour with an incredible hip-hop artist by the name of Watsky.
What led you to your instrument? What’s your origin story?
I really believe that the drums chose me—it has always been a part of me. There was never a moment where I started to play, I was always playing. As a kid I used to play on my moms cookie jars and hide in a corner during family gatherings making beats on my dad’s drum machines. I usually say that I was two years old when I started playing drums because of footage that I’ve found.
My dad is a musician and he would have instruments including drums laying around the house. We would jam together and I started playing different Indian percussion and hybrid drum kit/ percussion setups in his band and then started playing full drum kit in his band in my early teens. He never put me in drum kit lessons growing up because he was trying to protect me. My dad being a bandleader/keyboardist and hiring other musicians, he would tell me that no one cares about drummers, that the drummers are always at the back, drummers carry the most, and that they arrive first and leave last. He cared for me so much and didn’t want me to suffer.
So he put me in piano classes for 15 years and Indian classical and western singing lessons for more than 10 years, and not one drum lesson. He bought me over three drum kits and an array of world percussion because he knew it was my passion. Because of that, I learned by listening to records, specifically Indian music. I never owned a drum book and never practiced a rudiment growing up until I went to university to study jazz performance/drumming. Because Indian music is centered around percussion, I would learn all the percussion parts on ghatam, tabla, dholak, dhol, congas, kanjira, darbuka, and then I would run on the drum kit and use my creativity to voice the percussion parts on the drum kit. I used to casually listen to jazz in my preteen years, and heavily got into jazz, fusion, gospel, etc. in junior high/high school.
Who is your favorite drummer and why?
I have so many favorite drummers. I learn from every single drummer that I hear and see, no matter if they have been playing for one year or for 40 years. Some of the drummers that I love among so, so many are Ronald Bruner Jr., Lee Pearson, Justin Tyson, Tony Williams, Larnell Lewis, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers, Calvin Rodgers, and Thomas Pridgen, just to name a few.
How do you practice? Do you have a routine?
I practice on the drum kit everyday. I used to have a very specific routine in university. Now I change it up daily but I am consistent in the material that I am working on over a long period of time. I document everything.
Are there any specific playing tips or techniques, or advice, exercises, or discoveries you’d like to share with Drum readers?
My tip would be to practice with a purpose, not just for the sake of practicing. The reason I practice is because I want to be able to play everything I hear, feel and that comes to my mind in the present moment. I don’t practice because I want to be better or faster than the next person. Everyone has their own form of expression and use different and unique setups that cater to their expression. Some people need an abundant amount of technique to express themselves, and some people just need to make one hit to make their statement. Exercises help develop technique, which is a tool that helps us express ourselves. Just like English; we use words, vocabulary, and phrases as tools to express how we feel. That’s the way I approach learning new techniques and that is my purpose to learn and practice: So I can freely express myself.
I also believe that it is important to have a musical reference to every technique or exercise that you learn, so that you know how it has been applied (learn the rules) and then how you can make it your own (break the rules).
As artists, the goal post for “success” is always moving. There’s not one “I made it!” point. How do you think about and define success?
Success to me is being happy. Success to me is learning, growing, making mistakes and especially being grateful for my past and present. In music and in the arts, success can be easily associated with awards, likes and follows on Instagram, applause, and validation from others. I know some people who help the elderly, donate to various causes and help humanity behind the scenes and don’t get any applause or recognition for their kindness and generosity.
There are people who are suffering and for them to simply wake up in the morning is a milestone. Success to me is having empathy, being grateful for this moment, and still grateful even if I don’t get what I want. I used to tell myself that “I’ll be successful when (blank),” and fill in the blank. It made me greedy and envious, and made me and play and practice drums to be the best or “win,” and post videos to get likes and followers and waiting for validation from others. Now when I play drums I play from a place of love, of humility and from a place of knowing that the journey of learning is never ending. With this mindset, I feel successful and want to be the best version that I can be.
Do you have any quotes or sayings that you live by?
My mom and grandfather always told me, “Never leave a page unturned.” I always took that as learning everything music/drum related, like learning to sightread, practicing time, feel, different time signatures—you name it. Then they taught me to take this quote to another level—work on bettering yourself as a human being. Learning how to handle criticism, recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, being open, letting go of ego and anger, learning how to learn, time-management, improving your work ethic, being nice, working on communication, and the list goes on. Working on being a better person, a better you, inevitably makes you a better musician. Thus, them telling me to “Never leave a page unturned” meant on and off my instrument, in every aspect of my life.
When you sit down to make music and are starting with a blank canvas, what’s your process like?
I usually have my iPhone in my hand and I reflect on different hardships, happy experiences, and vulnerable moments in my life. I record myself talking about how I feel and my thoughts, and even have a good cry. I start humming a melody that speaks to me and then sit on the piano, and go from there.
How important is failure in making music/performing?
Failing is a must to grow. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re trying new things and stepping out of your comfort zone. I used to be afraid to fail, and now I put myself in situations where I am the weakest link and put myself in a sink-or-swim position to figure out my weaknesses and what I need to do to get to the next level.
I also make myself accountable to every failure and mistake. I always take the blame, even when it’s not my fault. It taught me to be aware of every single possibility of a mistake that could happen and then be avoided. For instance I once had to learn 22 songs in less than 10 days. Within those 10 days I was at NAMM, and what I did was take a nap in the evening after NAMM and wake up at 1 AM to learn a few songs and then go to bed at 3 AM. I did this for a few nights. At first I blamed the artist saying that they should’ve sent the material sooner. Then I told myself that I should be able to learn a multitude of songs in any given time, and that I was blessed to use this opportunity to learn how to learn songs faster. On the other hand I also knew that I would be playing with that artist a month in advance, and I put the blame on myself that I could’ve started going through his albums.
Another artist that I play for, some of the instruments on his tracks are off the click, which causes me to speed up and follow those instruments. I could blame the track but then I told myself that my inner clock should be so solid that nothing should be able to throw me off.
Any advice for girls contemplating getting started and making it in this arena?
I don’t like the term “female drummer.” I consider myself a human who loves drums. When listening to the drummers I love, I am gender-blind. I listen with my ears, not with my eyes.
The advice I would give is to play drums because you love it. Don’t look at how many men versus women play drums. Just play because you love it!
Where else to find Sarah
I am releasing my debut album in September 2019. Follow me on social media @sarahtdrumguru to find out more details and for further announcements!