Drumset = You

In seemingly bland method books, drummers become writers—and their eccentricities shine through in remarkable ways.

Greg Gandy, Brett’s Drums, 2015, oil on canvas.

I’m a mostly untrained drummer. I’ve taken lessons for brief periods, but until recently I’d missed out on that most essential component of drum pedagogy: the method book. In my efforts to improve, I’ve been drawn to the introductions of these books, which feature efficient, often dull language—and in which, occasionally, the eccentricities of the authors shine through in remarkable ways. In the last few months, I’ve become obsessed with gleaning hints about drummers’ personalities from these books, far too many of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been written by men. Lost in the hinterland between art and technique, their introductions tend to exhibit grouchiness, pretension, narcissism, penury, New Age quirkiness, and sometimes even wisdom. What follows is a survey of some of the more striking entries.

Method books, intended to help you master a specific aspect of your musical craft, are usually flimsy pamphlets filled with exercises in musical notation. They’re aspirational texts, meant to be worried at and wrestled with, written in and dog-eared. Many are so frustratingly abstruse that they seem as though they weren’t made to be used at all. And like infomercials, some of them make outrageous claims; their titles alone can be a source of amusement. On my shelf I have Advanced Funk Studies, Drummer on Parade with Street Beats, The Hardest Drum Book Ever Written (by the inimitable Joel Rothman, the author of more than a hundred drum method books), The New Breed II, and Inner Drumming. Often the titles contain the word modern, which traditionally distinguishes between military-style parade drumming and contemporary rock and jazz playing. This distinction has been in place for almost a century, so it makes for an odd juxtaposition. At the same time, the term cozies up to a vision of the drummer’s future: some crowning moment after thousands of hours of dogged practice, in which, at last, the exercises are mastered and the drummer becomes truly “modern.” 

Since the books are oriented toward practice, and since most drummers aren’t seasoned prose stylists, these method books tend to be pretty thin on introductory material. Even the most classic books sometimes have barely a paragraph of prefatory text—but these concentrated statements open windows into their authors’ minds, deepening the mystery behind the mastery. Stick Control for the Snare Drummer, for instance, by George Lawrence Stone, is the drum method book. It was radical at the time of its publication, and it’s clarity and simplicity has allowed it to endure since its publication in 1935. That may surprise you, though, when you read Stone’s introduction, which is chiding instead of encouraging: “It seems that there are too many drummers whose work is of a rough-and-ready variety and whose technical proficiency suffers in comparison with that of the players of other instruments.” It’s hard not to imagine Stone creating his masterpiece with a series of deep sighs, hoping to buttress the profession against scores of unkempt stick wielders. Even today, the phrase “rough-and-ready” might be the most apt description of rock drummers ever coined.

Ted Reed’s classic book Syncopation, published in 1958, is the foundation of probably 80 percent of jazz-drum instruction in the United States. Rather than begin with some strategic advice, Reed starts with a hero’s origin story of sorts. He describes working as a teacher in extremis, with a Herculean student load and an unimaginable schedule. His struggle to finish Syncopation on the side becomes a metaphor for the creative life:

I was teaching drums at the Hartnett Music School, located at 1585 Broadway in New York City. I gave 85 half-hour lessons each week and had approximately 55 students (some took two lessons week). I taught Monday through Friday, 9am to 2pm and 6pm to 10pm. In each half-hour lesson, I would listen to the student’s last lesson and then write, demonstrate, explain and play with them on their new lesson. Since I could not find any books on syncopation, each lesson had to be written out individually.

When I would get home at night, my hands and arms would ache as a result of having to do so much writing. It was then that I decided to write the lessons out on manuscript paper. I wrote every night from midnight to 4am, until I had a total of 60 pages. I had 200 copies of each page printed, which enabled me to hand whatever page was needed to a student—no more writing out each lesson every time.

The rest of the book is nothing but pages and pages of exercises; none specify which rhythms correspond to which drums, though there are a few suggestions. You’d think this relative absence of instruction and explanation would mar the book—instead, it probably helped transform Syncopation into an unassailable classic. Many teaching careers have been built on a single page from it—page thirty-eight, in my edition. Simply called “Exercise 1,” it’s a sequence of evolving rhythms based in permutations of displaced eighth notes that change bar to bar, while the kick drum never strays from a steady quarter-note pulse (also known as the “four on the floor” beat common in disco and dance music). It seems as if its simplicity has created a vacuum into which a river of pedagogical creativity flows. The book amounts to a Rosetta stone for a certain common jazz-drumming style. Probably every drummer you’ve ever loved has worked out of it. It’s still, somehow, up-to-the-minute current. In the April 2017 issue of Modern Drummer (the profession’s oldest trade magazine—and there’s that word modern again), there’s a feature outlining a new approach to that one page from Syncopation. It suggests that drum literature can, at the same time, suffer from a serious lack of creativity and a seemingly infinite expandability.

If Syncopation and Stick Control are the urtexts of drumming, then what about the more obscure, obtuse, handmade texts? A lot of the wildest method books are self-published, often by extremely accomplished musicians whom you’ve never heard of. Not long ago a friend lent me Polyrhythmic Training for Two Drummers, a bizarre, spiral-bound method book by one Randy Peterson. It includes some provocative and extremely complex ideas for two drummers. Each page contains two blindingly intricate patterns that two players are expected to execute together—an approach to drumming that goes beyond practical application into a kind of postmodern fantasy. The patterns are “playable,” but penetrating them would probably take years of study, even though the book is only about twenty-five pages. My friend sat for a single lesson with the author. As they went over the concepts, Peterson corrected the typos in the pamphlet by hand. He wrote a couple of questions beneath some exercises, including, “Is it useful to even talk about a rhythmic continuum?”

From Randy Peterson’s Polyrhythmic Training. Photo: Noah Hecht

Photo: Zach Lehrhoff

From Inner Drumming. Photo: Zach Lehrhoff

Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s George Marsh recently reissued Inner Drumming, which fuses Tai Chi and yoga with Marsh’s own oddly compelling graphic notation: it kind of looks like a cross between Mondrian and Cubism. The original, self-produced masterpiece, which was only available directly from the author, contains illustrations of Marsh himself: a bearded, balding, bespectacled drummer shod in Birkenstocks straight out of central casting for the Summer of Love. (Online, Marsh can be found explaining his approach in brilliant tie-dye.)

On a recent visit to Toronto, I was introduced to the work of Jim Blackley. Now a nonagenarian, Blackley is a Scottish-Sufi snare-drum champion who had a revelatory experience when he saw the Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet in the midfifties: in a flash, he recognized the parallels between the Scottish snare playing he’d mastered and the jazz innovations of Roach. Blackley’s books are unique in the literature, filled with Sufi-inspired wisdom and some evocative lines. This one is from the introduction to his Essence of Jazz Drumming:

The only reason for devoting yourself to a life of jazz performance must come from a sincere need from within. You must feel deeply from within your heart that this is the path you wish to follow. A decision based on any other reason is fraught with danger.

His Syncopated Rolls for the Modern Drummer (the title is an amazing recombination of the method-book clichés) contains marginalia like “Being a musician means being part of a total experience—no winning, no losing.”

There’s also this politically incorrect tangent, from the educator Charles Dowd’s A Funky Primer for the Rock Drummer:

The Afro-Cuban influence on rhythmic development has increased with the passage of time to the point where contemporary man is now able to experience rhythms of a higher degree of complexity than ever before. In a sense, the timeless rhythmic virtuosos of Africa have “turned on” drumming in the Western world.

Photo: Hannah Nichols

Perhaps the strangest drum method book in the mainstream is Bob Moses’s Drum Wisdom, released by Modern Drummer Publications (an offshoot of the magazine) in 1984. Moses, who now goes by Ra-kalam Bob Moses, is a legendary figure among jazz drummers; a professor at the New England Conservatory, he’s rumored to give eight-hour lessons that leave students reeling. A friend of mine said he was introduced to more concepts in a single lesson with Moses than he could digest in a lifetime. To my surprise, then, Drum Wisdom contains almost no exercises. Instead, it meditates on the metaphysical aspects of drumming; Moses attempts to codify the experience of playing drums, and he’s not afraid to reach for it:

Very little in real life is metronomically even. A tree has an organic shape, and I can play that shape on the drums. I can play like a bear moving, like a bird flying, or like children rolling in the grass … I could play like the ocean on “Stella By Starlight”: I might be an avalanche on “All The Things You Are”; I could soar like an eagle on “Blue Bossa.” I must caution that I don’t recommend this type of playing for everyone. [Emphasis mine.] 

Likewise, Martin Bradfield’s Drumming: The Forest and the Trees—a spiral-bound, homespun volume filled with clip art, personal anecdotes, and philosophical musings—uses fully half of its sixty pages to define Bradfield’s logical and even religious groundings. Coming from a Judeo-Christian background, he advocates for a kind of squareness: “I can’t help but notice,” he writes, “that a lot of the hardcore avant-garde players seem very unhappy, in print, in pictures, and in person. There seems to be a certain sense of bitterness in their tones … To be constantly criticized by the establishment, to be constantly battling the norm, must be a very defensive and lonely struggle. Because they reject the establishment’s criteria for excellence, it is highly likely that any criticism would be taken personally rather than objectively.”

Photo: Hannah Nichols

From The Forest and the Trees. Photo: Hannah Nichols

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Is there any decent advice to be found in these texts, exercises notwithstanding? Yes, occasionally. Maybe because drummers deal in machinelike rhythms, they’re at their most lucid when they’re direct and programmatic. One of the simplest and most brilliant introductions belongs to Peter Erskine, who opens his 1987 Drum Concepts and Techniques in giant, bold, capital type:

THE DRUMS ARE ONE INSTRUMENT

DRUMSET = YOU

I love the second line. You are not here to conquer the drums. Have compassion for yourself and make sure your setup compliments your body and the sound. Take as much time as you need to find a comfortable setup; don’t just sit down and bash away mindlessly.

And there’s one newer book I want to single out: Lisa Ann Schonberg’s DIY Guide to Drums. First, the presence of women in the method-book world, as in the drumming world more widely, is sorely lacking. The DIY Guide was created in 2001 as a pamphlet that Schonberg could sell on tour. Her guide is great for true beginners: the impenetrable morass of most method books is swept away by her approachable illustrations and clear explanations of basic concepts. I could even imagine a beginner picking this book up and using it, without an instructor, to become an excellent utility drummer. An illustrative, hand-lettered passage goes like this:

Buy a drum kit. You can get one for $300-400. The brand isn’t real important—just put good heads on yr drums! But if you have the $, old 60s & 70s Ludwig & Gretsch kits are sweet.

Can you see the difference? At last, you’re speaking to a human, instead of a robot, a showman, a pretentious virtuoso, or a guru. Books like Schonberg’s are far too rare in music instruction—they actually make learning an instrument seem fun.

The student musician’s lot is a lonely one. Often these books are your only companions, outside of occasional meetings with an instructor. You hunger for some kind of contact, some wisdom beyond the mind-numbing exercises. Sometimes it feels as if you’re only engaging with the slog of the process instead of the transcendence that comes with deeper practice. These books are the key to understanding music as something beyond performance; at their best, they activate the empathy essential to collaborating with an ensemble. We’re all kind of insane to do this work. The justifications in method books, whether they’re awkwardly or fluently phrased, illuminate the practice and its practitioners—they point beyond the bandstand, maybe into the tangle of stories musicians tell ourselves daily to stay the course.

Thank you to Brian Chase, Adam Budofsky, Jamie Douglass, Todd Bishop, Bob Sweet, Hannah Nichols, Noah Hecht and others for help and recommendations for this article.

John Colpitts is a drummer, composer and writer who lives in Brooklyn. Writers and poets interested in drum lessons should contact him through johnwilliamcolpitts.com. His new Man Forever album Play What They Want is released today on Thrill Jockey. 

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