I already play the drums – do I really need trained instruction to move forward?

Do I need drum lessons? Many San Diego drummers, and drum set players the world over often arrive at this question – even if they have already been successfully playing the drums for many years. They may be happy with their existing playing, or may have reached a plateau. Can drum lessons, and studying with a professional drum teacher help?

This article is mainly targeted toward self-taught drummers who may have found that they are at cross-roads with their playing – and are weighing up whether they want to continue down the road of self-trained improvement, or venture into trained drum instruction. Student drummers will also, I hope, find this useful – and please, if you fall in this category, do read the final paragraph of this article.

Before we get started, I want to leave one popular misconception at the door – and that is that trained drummers are better then untrained drummers. In many cases they are, and in many they are not. Just like in any other profession. There is no elitism here – I know plenty of self taught drummers that are amazing players. I know of many great drummers who have never taken a drum lesson in their life – and there are certainly drummers out there that will tell you that “you don’t need drum lessons, you just need to listen”. Even as a teacher, I acknowledge that this argument carries some weight. I myself, was a self taught drummer for many years doing just that – listening, and playing along the best I could. There are also plenty of drummers out there that will tell you that you don’t need to read music. Again, I can’t argue too heavily against this because I didn’t learn to read music until my mid-twenties, and got by just nicely thank you very much.

Everyone in their life has a “defining moment” when all of a sudden, your eyes have been opened, and something that perviously escaped you, or you did not deem to be important, starts to make sense. Drum-wise, mine was in 1997, when at 23 years old, I got a job working as the drummer in a lounge band on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. I’ll be honest – not knowing any better; I thought I was a bit of a “hot shot” – a young man in his mid-twenties, completely self taught, with no music reading or formal training – cruising around the Caribbean islands (and more extensively in years to follow). The money was good, the conditions were good – life was good. I was making a living playing the drums!

But after a very short period of time watching the other drummers on the ship (the orchestral drummers, the jazz band drummers, the night club drummers), I started to realize that there was something about their playing that was smoother, elegant, brighter, just…. more musical then mine. I couldn’t really understand it – and part of me didn’t want to, because I knew that it would most likely open up a proverbial “can of worms”. Did I want to lounge around on the beaches in the day time, or did I really want to try and understand these concepts that I didn’t know enough about? Fortunately, I chose the latter. (although I did spend my fair share of time on the beach too!).

After spending a lot of time talking to, watching, listening, and learning from these drummers – it was immediately obvious that the gulf in our ability was down to their understanding of their profession – which simply put, was deeper then my own. Some of them were self taught too – but as most self taught players experience at some stage; they reached a plateau in their playing, and found the answer on how to move forward through instruction. Some went to music colleges, some went to private teachers, some even studied with renown players. But all received the same guiding principles.

For example; the importance of reading music and it’s role in developing your understanding of how music is counted, and how it opens up important questions on technique and your approach to the set. Understanding all of the different musical styles, not just the styles within our comfort zone, and how they can help embellish your overall playing ability – regardless of what genre of music you like to play. The importance of sticking and good technique, and understanding how it can make you more musical, elegant – or just outright fast and powerful. The importance of dynamics, musicality, situational awareness – the power of listening. The understanding of the 26 drum set rudiments, and how they are not just stick control exercises, but can quite literally transform the way you play a groove or drum fill – or help construct a confident solo. Your understanding of the critical importance of time keeping, awareness of space, playing “in the pocket”. Understanding drum tuning, head selection, the difference in drum shell construction and tonal qualities of woods and metals. This is all detail that I had read about, but never fully understood until I spent time with good teachers. I also got some good lifestyle coaching from these teachers – the importance of being personable, professional, enthusiastic, reliable, diplomatic and courteous – things you really need if you want to succeed in the music business.

My personal journey in immersing myself in the above principles involved study, in part, through the Guildhall School of Music in London, with private teachers, and later on, Masterclasses with renown players such as Jim Chapin and John JR Robinson. It was enlightening, rewarding, enriching – but above all it was fun – and you absolutely cannot lose that element. It was hard work at times, frustrating at others – but ultimately rewarding, and has paved the way for a career in music that I could only have dreamed of when I was in my twenties – but as importantly, I am happier with my playing. That said, I still work hard to improve – and still study to this day with other teachers. More recently, while studying in Nashville with Rich Redmond, I (re)learned more about playing with passion, energy, purpose – playing from the heart. It’s so easy to be complacent after years of playing, and not pay as much attention as you should to these qualities. Above all, I acknowledge that this really can be a life-time study if you want it to be. Or not. That’s down to you.

Nowadays, there are many resources available for self taught drummers to expand their knowledge. There are a multitude of instructional books and DVDs out there (although you will get more out of these if you read music, in many cases), and hours and hours of footage on YouTube (some good, some not so good) and drum based websites like Modern Drummer, Mike Dolbear.com and Drum Hang to name just three of many. But in my opinion, based solely on my own experience; nothing beats sitting down face to face with an experienced drum teacher.

If you are a student drummer reading this, and feel a little daunted by some of the concepts or terminology – please don’t worry! A good drum instructor will be able to talk you through all of this over the time you spend together, and make it fun and entertaining at the same time (or at least, they should). If you have any questions, please feel free to send me an email, or you can contact me through my Facebook page. If you are a student of mine, or not – I am always happy to help where I can.

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