The father of one of my better students asked to speak with me one day. “Is he doing okay?” the father asked, making it clear that he had doubts about his son’s progress.
“He’s doing fine,” I said. “I can always tell that he’s practiced his assignment, and he’s making steady progress.”
“Well…that’s good,” he said, but something was obviously bothering him. “He practices every day, but a lot of times he just seems to be fooling around and playing whatever he wants to play.”
“I’m really glad to hear that,” I replied.
He looked at me a moment as if trying to decide whether or not I was kidding. “You’re glad to hear that he’s fooling around?” he finally asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “Playing a musical instrument isn’t just about reproducing the notes on a page. It’s also about creativity and self-expression, and the best way to develop those talents is through experimentation. Granted, there are specific things that a student needs to learn, and there is a lot of discipline involved. But part of the learning process involves self-discovery, and that’s usually the result of ‘fooling around’ and seeing what you come up with.
“In some respects,” I added, “I’m more concerned about the kids who ONLY practice their lesson and never play their drums just for the sheer joy of playing than about the ones who hardly ever practice their actual lesson material, but who love to get behind the drums and flail away. The ones who approach practicing drums as though it were just another homework assignment don’t seem to understand that you play an instrument; you don’t just work it.
“Your son seems to have the perfect balance,” I assured the father. “He’s definitely practicing his assignments, but he’s also having fun with drumming. And at this stage, the fact that he’s having fun is the more important aspect.”
It took me several years of teaching to understand all that I told that parent. At first, my main concern was that a student played the assignment well. That made the half-hour lesson nicer for both of us.
But I gradually started noticing what seemed like an odd phenomenon. Some (not all) of the students who played their lessons perfectly week after week didn’t stay with drums more than a few months. Meanwhile, there were certain students who didn’t come in as well prepared, but those were often the students who stayed with it and became really good drummers.
After teaching enough of both types, I began noticing common traits. Some of the ones who played their lessons perfectly each week barely said a word or asked a question. Conversely, some of the ones who were not as prepared for their lessons were full of questions and comments about different drummers, bands, techniques, or equipment. I came to realize that they were full of questions because they were really excited about drumming. Perhaps they lacked the maturity to buckle down and practice, but kids eventually grow up and get more serious.
Over the years I’ve concluded that desire has a lot more to do with success than talent. Of course, the students who ultimately do the best have both. But lack of natural talent can be overcome by hard work and the guidance of a good teacher. For all the talk about how teachers have to motivate their students, the really successful students are the ones whose desire comes from within.
And the ones with the most desire are going to want to spend a certain amount of time “fooling around” behind the drums. Chances are that someone will tell them to stop fooling around and just practice their assignment. But it’s important for students and parents to know that it’s desirable to experiment and play whatever you’re inspired to play as part of a practice session.
It’s not just a matter of making lessons more fun. It’s also about encouraging personal expression — something that everyone has the right to experience. What better way to experience the joy of creativity than through drumming?
Rick Mattingly is a drum teacher, an editor and author of drum-instruction books for Hal Leonard Corporation, and Executive Editor of Percussive Notes magazine.