Game of (Drum) Thrones

In video gaming there are four documented states of fun: Hard, Serious, Easy, and People ( I find the research fascinating and the application compelling. As a result, I made a list of all the activities that go on at Cronkite Percussion and grouped them into the four fun keys. I discovered that I've been putting a lot of emphasis on the Hard Fun and not enough on the others. In the future I will inform students of the four fun keys and contextualize their learning accordingly. I have already tried this with one student and am pleased with the result: more fun and learning, too!

Time Keeping Or Time Sharing?

Drummers are expected to be time-keepers, almost as if we have the sole responsibility as guardians of the metronome, and the rest of musicians are exempt. Then there is the idea of time-sharing: all of the musicians are responsible for the tempo and time feel, not just the drummer. I'm here to say that the reality includes a bit of both.

As I was performing with my band the other night, I paid close attention to how I played time. I felt the time "stretch" at certain moments: usually when there was a band stop, leaving the singers with a pick-up. In that one or two bars of relative silence, the time stretched out a bit and my entrance accomodated it. If I had kept metronomic time in that section I would have come in early and the groove would have been ruined. Some singers hang back a bit so the instrumentalists have to be flexible with their time. Also, in ballads you can stretch the ends of phrases for emotional excitement and in general lay back on the time.


How does a drummer lay back? You can move parts of your instrument back and forth in time. Often it's the snare or the bass, but can include the cymbal. If I want to lay back (fatten the time), I pull back the 2 and 4 of the snare, make it slightly late. That takes some practice if you've never tried it. If I want to push the time, create some emotional excitement, I push the 2 and 4 ahead of the beat. It's a millimetre of time I'm talking about. The bass drum can be shoved around but not every note, and it depends on the style, the tempo and the beat you are playing. The "one" and the "an of four" are common areas I like to play around with.

I enjoy practicing with a click or a metronome. I relish the feeling of playing exactly with the pulse and seeing how far away I can get, both hanging back and pushing ahead. Playing in the center of a click is essential training because it gives you a base to work off. As a kid, I was told by at least one drum teacher that playing to a metronome makes you a stiff drummer. I don't agree. Keeping rock solid time is never a bad thing, you will always be praised for your steady tempos. However, learning to stretch and compress a tempo is where the fun and professionalism come in.

Practice Psychology

There is what to practice, how to practice and getting your butt into the practice room-practice. I want to talk about the latter.

I admit that I am not the world's best practicer by a long shot. There are external and internal forces that make our legs move the rest of our body towards our instrument. I was lucky as a kid because I was trained in one of the best band systems in Canada in the 70s, Ron MacKay's band in Truro, Nova Scotia. Ron set the bar very high for us and showed us to get there. You had no choice, you HAD to practice or you'd look the fool. I was also fortunate to have an excellent private drum teacher, Ed Jardine. That combination of Ron and Ed was a perfect storm of motivation and direction. Those were my external forces. My internal forces were likely my genetics (I remember as far back as possible how moved I felt when music was playing), and perhaps the times I grew up in. There were a lot of bands portrayed on TV shows: Partridge Family, Hudson Brothers, Brady Bunch (they formed a band once), The Osmonds, The Jackson 5. It seemed to me as a kid that forming a band was the thing to do. Arguably, it might have been the time in grade four when my best friend and I would pretend a section of Hot Wheels track was a guitar, put on a Beatles 45 and lip sync while strumming our "guitars" in front of some cute girls from the neighbourhood. Yeah, that's what did it.

The thought of practicing can bring about feelings of dread, anxiety, and depression. After all, you have to face the pain of making mistakes…who wants to willingly go through that? This is why practice time often turns into play time, simply because it's more fun and less stress-inducing. However, you won't improve unless you get better. Allow me to offer a few suggestions that might help if you are the kind who puts off practicing.

1) If you feel anxiety, like you're trapped and want to escape, allow the emotion to exist as a physical sensation. Is there muscle tension somewhere in your torso when you experience fear, for example? Focus on the physical sensation, not the source of the emotion.

2) You do not have to do anything about uncomfortable emotions you feel when you think about practicing. Normally when you feel an uncomfortable emotion, you want to stop it, escape it. Do not. Tell yourself you can think about the emotion later, but right now, you don't have to fix it or do anything about it. Emotions are often like weather, they will pass.

3) If you are keen, keep a record of emotions and results. Take a piece of paper, draw four columns: DATE, EMOTION, TASK, RESULT? Date is obvious so under emotion, write how you are feeling when you consider doing the chore you are tracking. Under "task" put "practice" or any other chore you want to track, and under "result" you will briefly describe what happened (did you actually practice, did you ask the boss for a raise, etc.?). After a while you will notice that how you felt was a lousy predictor of the future (did you get that chore done).

I hope that helps. If anxiety and depression prevent you from enjoying life, I suggest reading:

20 Things I Have Learned About Teaching (So Far)

1) Single stroke roll is easily the most important sticking for all students to learn. Forget paradiddles at the beginning, RLRL is where it's at!

2) Accents via the downstroke is the next step, technique-wise.

3) Who you are in front of the student is almost as important as what you teach. I learned this from working in the public school system.

4) Hitting 2 and 4 on the snare strongly adds energy to the rock beat. Teach it early.

5) Local school bands are vital to the motivation of drum students. If the band has low expectations, plays infrequently and exists mosty for band trips, it is harder to get quality students.

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6) Not everyone is interested in the fine art of drumming (or should be). Don't put them off of music.

7) The drum set is a unique instrument and should not be treated as an extension of the snare or practice pad.

8) Not many students listen to jazz.

9) It's too bad more students aren't interested in the keyboard instruments (marimba, vibes, etc.). They are such groovy instruments.

10) Getting students to practice is always a work in progress. Sometimes lessons are their only real practice time.

11) Talk less, show more.

12) Musical training creates better drummers. Drummers should be musicians who play drums.

13) Not much has changed in the percussion section since I was in one in the 1970s. Girls still have to fight for recognition, drummers get bored and break stuff, one drummer can monopolize the good parts, playing tests often reflect bad pedagogy and unreal expectations, students are kept off the drum set until later, drums are sometimes seen as second class instruments.

14) Drummers can make or break a band. A well trained percussion section can knock the socks off any audience.

15) Counting quarter notes while readng is more important than "one-e-an-a". Easily trainable skill that must be taught early.

16) Practice time has more competition from the internet, sports, and video games.

17) Girls seem to read better than guys.

18) Percussion needs more girls.

19) Percussion sections need leaders to dole out parts in a fair manner.

20) Sticking affects reading. Correct stickings and lo and behold, reading improves!

What a beginning drummer should learn

I know I'll be getting flack for this blog because there are so many varied opinions on this subject. However, I will barrel ahead and damn the torpedoes.

The majority of my students play in school bands and so I see the parts and playing tests they are asked to perform. Here is what I've noticed:


1) Too much attention paid to rudiments they won't need for a while or at all.

2) Snare music performed at the kit sitting down, concert bass drum part played on the drum set bass drum.

3) Too much reliance on counting every single sixteenth and eighth.

Now I will discuss my pedagogical misgivings with the above:

1) Drummers and percussionists use the single stroke roll (RLRL) most the time, regardless of musical style. I see too many young drummers bringing me playing tests full of stroke rolls, paradiddles, and flams when their single stroke roll is uneven and slow. This makes no sense. It's like learning fractions before you know how to add.

2) Not only does this look lame from the audience's point of view, it separates the snare drummer and concert bass drum player (they should be together as a musical team). Sometimes a school band will be without a concert bass drum, so the practice is justified. However, snare and concert bass are the bread and butter of the percussion section, so it's rare that a school won't have a concert bass drum. If there is only one percussionist, they could still stand at the snare and pull it away from the kit. If they have to cover both parts at the same time, be aware that this is much trickier than it appears, especially for an inexperienced drummer.

3) Reading accuray increases enormously when drummers learn to count quarters while they play other rhythms. I see this time and time again. Once you know the speed of sixteenths and/or eighths relative to the quarter note, you simply need to track quarters. There are many reasons for this which I will treat in another blog. Decoding a rhythm is a different but related process to reading and THAT involves counting subdivisions.

Know how a song is structured and where "one" is. It's all about the music. Knowing where "one" is in a song takes practice, especially if you have no knowledge of chord structure. It's common for a drummer to place the snare where the bass drum should be, I call it "getting turned around". Remember, your goal should be musician first, drummer second.

Stickings are enormously important at the beginning. Many reading mistakes are actually sticking confusion. I am a big fan of keeping the right-hand on the quarter and eigth at the beginning. This means the student will be using a lot of rights but that will train his or her time keeping abilities. We all know how important time is to a drummer, riiiiight? For right-handed beginning drummers, it's difficult to lead with the left hand. That's one important reason why there are rhythmic mistakes. When my students lead with their right-hand in the first six months, they make far fewer mistakes. There needs to be a consistent sticking pattern.

I will conclude with one more item: the down stroke. Students learn this quite fast, actually. The down stroke is vital for accents, which are the strokes that give your playing color. It also starts the student with a certain amount of stick control that's well within their grasp (pardon the pun).

I think this article needs a part two…

If You Are Going Through Hell, KEEP GOING!


I believe Winston Churchill coined that phrase. It is apt when it comes to the student who stops playing when they make a mistake. The student who is a perfectionist does that frequently: stop. When it comes to drumming, we are expected to at least keep the time. Time wants to move forward and so should we. I encourage all of my students to keep going if they lose their spot in the music, drop a stick, or make a rhythm mistake. When you are performing live and you commit a goof, keep that snare going on 2 and 4 if appropriate. Keep time on the hi-hat or ride cymbal.

I play in a nine piece dance band calld Sway. If I drop my stick I keep the snare on 2 and 4  and grab my back up stick close by (all drumers need a back up pair handy). If I get lost, I keep playing, listen harder and watch the band for signals.

It can be unnerving continuing to play after you've goofed up because it requires you to potentially improvise, a skill beginners normally lack. However, keeping time is easy and I heartily recommend it. All the pros do it.

Mystery Of Reading SOLVED!

Photos from 1985 008

Reading music is difficult for most beginning musicians. It takes up the lion's share of lesson time and needs constant practice and correction. I recall as a young drummer, getting lost in a sea of eighth notes, not knowing where I was in the music. I know it happens to my students today.

I want to show you how to improve your reading skill using powerful techniques I use in my teaching studio. Skilled readers are not singled out in school music classes, where they often feel embarrassed. Skilled readers spend less time learning a part, thereby having more time to do other things. Skilled readers sound like pros.

Knowing where you are in a bar is crucial. Getting lost in the bar is the most common reading mistake musicians make. How do you keep your place? Count quarter notes. If you are a horn or wind player, tap your foot. Drummers must learn to count quarters out loud while they play other rhythms. It sounds simplistic, but I see it work all the time. When you don't count quarters, you are not really focusing on the invisible subdivisions in the bar. Those subdivisions are your grid. Painters use a grid, layout artists use a grid. We musicians need a grid to make sense of the notations we read. The grid is the necessary back drop for your rhythmic understanding.

Many music books start with a whole note, then progress to a half note, then a quarter, etc. I think this is wrong because the beginner needs to feel the quarter notes at the start. The quarter note is the music's pulse. Watch anyone clap or stamp their feet to a song. Most likely they are keeping time to the quarter note as it is the easiest to perceive. It is what we call "the beat." I start my students with a quarter notes, then eighths before I even touch half notes. They need to develop an ear for the beat first.

Use words and phrases to give you the rhythm. "Penguin" works for eighth notes, "bear" works for quarter notes, and "alligator" works for sixteenth notes. I go back and forth between these words and the conventional "1 an, 2 e-and-uh."

Photos from 1985 020

Know your rhythms on sight. Just like our brain recognizes the shape of a word then gives it to us, our brain can learn to recognize the shape of a rhythm and tell us "Hey, that's the penguin rhythm." World War Two pilots learned to instantly recognize the silhouettes of enemy planes, so too, should you learn rhythm silhouettes.

Decoding is not reading. When you stop and figure out a rhythm by careful counting, you are decoding. Once decoded, you need to practice instant recall of that rhythm (remember our WW 2 pilot?).

It bears repeating that you must count your quarters while you are playing other rhythms. This takes practice, but pays off huge dividends down the road. When you count quarter notes, several good things happen:

1) You avoid the common mistake of reaching the end of the bar too soon

2) You see what's happening in every quarter note space, thus you can recognize rhythms quickly.

3) If you are sight reading in a performance situation, you lower the risk of losing your place in the music. Few things things are more frustrating for musicians than getting lost in their part.

Keep your eyes on the music, especially if you get lost. It is normal to get lost  (we all do it), but when you take your eyes off the music, you make it much harder to get back in the performance. Chances are, if you get lost, you're probably not far from where you fell off the bus, so to speak. Keep counting those quarters because you can better guess how many bars  have gone by. Doing that helps you get back into the music.

There are other instrument specific tips for improving your reading skill, but I will leave that for another blog. In the meantime, practice the techniques I've given you because they work!

Does Learning Have to Be Fun?

I remember when I was in university, locking myself in my practice room for over an hour, and working on a three note drum lick until I finally got it. Was I having fun? Not really, but when I finally mastered the drum lick, I had a lot of fun with it.

Working on that three note fragment took a lot of patience, focus, and muscular/mental effort. Over and over again I would get it wrong but I kept going. Why did I keep going if this was not an enjoyable experience? I kept going because I really wanted to get it. I saw someone do that three note lick and I wanted to be able to do that too because I liked the sound of it and I liked how cool it looked. I wanted it! It's that wanting that made the painful part of practicing, tolerable.

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Learning a new skill is mostly fun for five year olds. They need that sort of stimulation to maintain their attention and interest. After that, a student must learn to cope with uncomfortable feelings when they practice or perform. I see this constantly in my teaching. On the one hand, there's the student who pushes through the frustrating part of practice, and is rewarded with success. On the other hand, there's the student who stops immediately when they get frustrated. It's that student who makes excuses to stop practicing, or engages in various forms of procrastination to prolong the inevitable. As a teacher I show them different ways they can manage these difficult feelings, but at some point they have to buckle down and get to work. Diligent practice, which means checking for errors and putting in the many hours of repetition, is not a fun thing to do but it's necessary.

My private lessons aren't always a serious experience. We try to have fun but there's also work to be done. Any teacher that tells you it's always going to be fun, is selling you short.

Enjoyment, I think, is different from fun. Popping bubble wrap is fun, jamming with skilled musicians is enjoyment. I think enjoyment is a deeper experience than fun. There is a feeling that you've paid your dues and that you've earned this fun. Maybe that's a good definition: enjoyment is fun that is deserved.

Story Of The Stick

Running at top speed down Barrington Street, my back pack careening crazily back and forth, my mind raced wildly: would I have to sleep on the streets another night if I miss this train?

Let me take you back a day. My percussion teacher David MacRae, asked me to fill in for him on a performance of "The Pirates of Penzance" that was playing at the Neptune theatre in Halifax. I enthusiastically agreed but there was a catch. I needed to find a special drumstick that had timpani mallet heads on one end and snare drum tips on the other. I've long since forgotten why I didn't use his sticks, but I digress. After a few phone calls to music stores in the area, I found only one place that carried such a stick: Music Stop in Dartmouth. Trouble was, they were across the water from Halifax and I didn't have a car. Time was running out so I quickly cobbled together a plan. I'll hop on a train today, get to Halifax by evening, stay at my previous teacher's house on Coburg Avenue, get up the next day, bus it to Dartmouth, buy the sticks, bus it back to the train station and hop safely onto the train which leaves at 1:00 p.m. Remember, this is probably 1983 so cell phones and internet were still unheard of.

My big mistake was not phoning my old drum teacher and telling him I was coming. I was so eager to get going, I assumed he'd just be there. He wasn't and his door was locked.


I am standing at the door ringing and ringing the bell. No answer. Silence. I pound on the door. No answer. It's close to 8 p.m. Now and the music store has long since closed. I have no credit card, no phone, little cash, and I am facing a night of sleeping on the street. Never done that before. The setting sun finds me slumped on my teacher's front porch. I'm hoping that perhaps he'll return soon we'll have a jolly laugh at my predicament. He'll invite me in, I'll wash up, we'll talk drumming and I'll have a warm, comfy sleep on his sofa. Thank goodness it is summer because by 11:30 p.m. I've already resigned myself to curling up on the stoop and catching what sleep I can. My eyes close and I am dreaming. Suddenly, I am yanked out of sleep by the creak of the front step. I sit bolt upright. It's my teacher's neighbour unlocking his front door. He stares down at me, wondering why there is a vagrant sleeping on his shared stoop. Still in a fog, I declare (probably too loudly) that I am Brad's drum student, not a bum and that I'm supposed to meet him, and he isn't here, so I'm waiting. I think he mumbles "good luck" and disappears inside his house. Before I fall sideways back onto the porch, using my balled up jacket for a pillow, I pray silently that the neighbour doesn't call the cops. Great, now I can't sleep.

Throughout the night I awake to the sound of passers by. I think they they are standing on the sidewalk, gawking at me, chuckling amongst themselves about the dude sleeping out in the open. Who knows. I'm cold, hungry and groggy.

The sound of traffic, of cars wakes me up. The sun is out and the light makes me blink. It's 5:00 a.m.  I sit upright. My neck is stiff, my lower back is grumpy, and my stomach is an empty hollow. I rise slowly, stretch, don my jacket and step off the porch, legs unsteady beneath me like I'd been at sea for years. I walk to the train station through the cool, morning air. Since the train station is closed, I go next door to the hotel. The lobby is warm and no one notices me yet. I head straight for the washroom and clean my hands and face. I have some change so I feed it to the lobby vending machine and have chips for breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye I spy a luxurious, high back chair. I make a beeline for it and sink down into it, letting out a satisfied sigh. Next thing I know, I wake up and it's 7:00 a.m. I had fallen asleep and no kicked me out. Awesome! Feeling refreshed but still hungry, I head out of the hotel and locate a pay phone. Ring ring ring then the sound of the Music Stop answering machine telling me they are not open until 12:00. WHAT???? Suddenly, I'm in a real panic. How do I get the sticks in time to make it back for the 1:00 train? I'm bussing it and I don't know the bus system. Quickly, I run to a bus stop and begin drilling the queue of passengers about schedules. Satisfied, I grab a bus and make it over the bridge to Dartmouth at least three hours before the music store even opens. I sit in the bus shelter cursing my stupidity and bad planning. Closer to noon my face is pressed to the store front glass as if I could will them to open early. Finally, an employee unlocks the door and I rush in, asking where to find the drumsticks. Frantically, I scan the shelves for my prize. I find them, they cost a startling $25 (1983 prices, remember) and I dart out of there, sticks clutched closely.

My bus takes forever to arrive. Eventually, I'm speeding around Dartmouth and nervously checking my watch. Am I on the milk run, what is taking so long?? Twenty minutes before my train leaves and we are still in Dartmouth, across the water, and I don't even have a train ticket yet!

Back to where we started this article and my adventure. My bus is heading down the straightaway that is Barrington Street. At the end is the train station. I have ten minutes left, tops. The bus signals it is turning right. No! I leap up, yank the cord and curse under my breath that the driver doesn't turn before I get off. I hit the ground running at top speed, my back pack nearly flying off of my shoulders. The bus roars past me heading straight for the train station. How could I have been so stupid, why did I get off that early? I'm still running, my heart is pounding, my chest is sore and I still have several blocks to go. Out of breath, my ears roaring, I burst into the train station, run to the counter. To my right the train is poised to leave for Truro, my home, and the conductor is waving it out of the station. Gulping for air, I beg the ticket man to let me on. He signals the train, I buy my ticket and run to the conductor. I made it! I search the aisles for an empty seat, find one, and collapse into it, throwing my knapsack into the floor. Halifax pulls away slowly away from my window. As my heart and lungs gasp their thanks for ending their torture, I gaze out at the quickly moving scenery: this has to be the craziest way to get a pair of drum sticks and my parents will probably kill me.