Losing that favorite music teacher….

This week’s drum blog was supposed to be about my wonderful experiences having just wrapped up an extended “show choir” gig on Sunday with Gilbert Players Theater. It was a cabaret involving six awesome singers. I played drum set in the pit band trio. My original lead was supposed to be something like this: Dr. Elizabeth Wrenn-Johnson (Beth) would be pleased to know I’m still doing exactly what she first gave me the opportunity and training to do many years ago.

Today is a sad day, though. Dr. Johnson died yesterday at age 67, God rest her soul. She was an amazing and talented woman who gave the gift of music to countless kids and adults in my hometown of Auburn, MA. I’d like to dedicate this blog to her memory and also today’s Trinity big band gig, previously scheduled coincidentally, at Auburn Senior Center.

As my single most fondest childhood memory, Dr. Johnson discovered me as a struggling trombonist practicing hard on my true love – the drum set – while playing in a practice room (closet) at Auburn High School. I still vividly remember her slowly opening that closet door, saying “Who is that drummer I hear”….. It was like she was opening the door to my future life, which today is mostly music thanks to her encouragement. As a lanky, shy, freckle-faced 13-year-old, I was waiting to be discovered, heard and inspired after putting in years of dedicated work behind the drum kit in private practice, lessons and junior high bands. Dr. Johnson “hired” me on the spot for her rapidly expanding chorus and jazz show choirs and sub acapella groups. At that time, she was superintendent of music for the entire Auburn School District, which is almost unheard of in today’s “arts come last” budgeting priorities. It was a golden era for music in Auburn Public Schools. Beth believed in live pit bands instead of pre-canned tape.

Dr. Johnson essentially gave me my very first chance on the drum set with several bands when all other traditional ensemble positions were filled by older drummers. I never forgot her kindness. Those teenage music memories are endless – from the many district and state competitions we attended – and sometimes won – to the endless after school rehearsals, parties and school concerts, and all the friends we made along the way.

Cancer is a terrible disease. Beth did not deserve to pass on this way. But it’s comforting to know that her music will live on in the thousands of children she inspired like me. Dr. Johnson was an amazing teacher, administrator, musician, pianist, vocalist, and mother and will be missed terribly.

Beth’s obit appears here: http://www.auburnmassdaily.com/2018/04/elizabeth-d-dearden-wrenn-johnson-auburn-educator-realtor/


How to set up a drum kit

I’ve found many of my new students don’t really know how to set up a drum kit (or their parents as well). They buy a kit at the music store and plunk it down in the bedroom, only guessing as to proper arrangement. And there the set sits in all its poorly arranged glory for years to come.

Bad idea.

Next to learning rudiments, it’s the single most important drum lesson students will ever attempt to master. An improperly set up kit can lead to bad technique and even injury. At a bare minimum, students most certainly won’t play poorly arranged drums nearly as well as their full potential.

Given most of my own students own real drum kits, it makes sense to learn the proper way to set up and break down a kit. And the best way to do that is well….. set up and break down your set often. Realizing most young students won’t have to setup and breakdown their kits until they join a band with rehearsal space and gigs away from home, this is where the real technique concern enters the equation. An erratically set up drum kit can literally sit in a student’s bedroom for years before that kid ever attempts the breakdown and re-setting up process. A live gig is not the place to practice.

So what are the major red flag warnings for bad kit arrangements to look out for, and what is the best process for setting up and breaking down?

First of all, the height and location of your drum seat or throne really determines everything else and is why I always set it up first in conjunction with my bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand (notwithstanding your drop carpet so the kit does not move while playing it). In my opinion (and there are differing viewpoints on this topic), the throne should be centered smack in the dead center of your drum kit arrangement. The height of your throne should allow both human legs to slightly angle downward when both feet are on the bass drum(s) and hi-hat pedals. That’s why I set up the throne with both pedals at the same time.

One additional reason is to see if your throne is too close to any back wall or staging. Once placed atop your drop carpet, sit in your throne and swivel the seat side to side with your elbows extended outward to see if anything gets in the way. Much better for that process to happen now when you can simply inch a throne a few inches forward then to have to move an entire drum set because you put the drum chair in last.

That said, I see plenty of drummers with no downward  angle of their legs who instead prefer a straight horizontal alignment. I can’t honestly tell you which angle is better. All I know is that my legs are always slightly angled downward toward the pedals from the throne. By all means, don’t ever have your legs angled upward from the throne toward your pedals.

After the throne and hi-hat/bass pedals are set, you should attach your bass drum to the pedal already positioned on the floor. Top touring pros will tell you they don’t point their bass drums perfectly straight looking outward and instead angle them slightly offset right so that both pedal feet have a similar linear angle. I  tend to agree.

Next, the snare drum should be positioned center between both pedals obviously behind the bass drum, which means it will be slightly left of your throne’s true center position. I try to get my snare stand as close to the bass drum edge hoop as possible. Many drummers slightly tilt the snare stand basket that holds the snare toward them while others prefer a straight horizontal angle of the top snare rims. Either angle is fine. Do what seems most comfortable. My thinking on snare stand height is the top hoop should be perpendicular to your waistline or belly button. That’s just a good rule of thumb. A snare stand that is set too low or too high can create drumming mechanics and navigational problems.

Now on to the toms. Which toms should be set up first? I feel the very next drum that should be added to your kit is the floor tom. Why? Because it has a very important relationship to the height and position of your snare drum. Everybody’s different, but I generally set the height of my floor tom a little bit lower than that of my snare. Having the height of your floor tom set above that of your snare will result in dropped sticks and bloody knuckles.

Next, rack toms should set up fairly easily at this point if you followed the proper kit arrangement steps, but there are a few things to keep in mind. If you’re using two mounted rack toms above your bass drum, make sure they aren’t elevated too high above the bass drum. General rule of thumb is to have bottom of tom hoops or bottom heights about 4-6 inches above your snare top and angled slightly in toward each other for easier navigation. Again, this is a matter of opinion but toms set too high or angled tend to result in dropped sticks, bloody knuckles and, well, you get the point.

Finally, I add in the crash cymbals, ride cymbal and any percussion accessory hardware. I don’t put crash or ride cymbals on the stands until after the stands themselves are placed where you actually want the cymbal to hang above your kit. Why adjust things twice? As for height or angles of the cymbals, drummers are all over the map on this one. I find the lower cymbals are hung with a decent angle downward toward your drum chair results in easier and more fluid playing. My cymbal heights on average are about 6-8 inches above any top drum head. Any don’t be afraid to hang cymbals partially over certain drums to get them closer to you. Many newer drummers have a tendency to put cymbals far and away from any drums, which is really opposite of what you should do.

The last thing to do is play your kit and refine the arrangement.

Hopefully, these tips can help you envision your own proper kit setup.











Timing is everything

I once had a very talented Berklee graduate jazz guitarist give me the total thumbs down while in the middle of playing a Coltrane tune live at a public event. He made darn sure I saw him as he gave me a thumbs up followed by the big thumbs down.

We found ourselves at a corporate gig. At break, he told me my timing had slowed down during his solo or bridge on one or two fast swing tunes. He probably was right, but it was by far the rudest thing I had ever experienced during a gig, particularly since he had actually approved of my playing on the same tunes at a prior library gig. We all have off nights. Suffice to say, I never got invited to play with those musicians again. You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

The story here is why did I slow down. I can play jazz fairly well and have for many years both by reading it and with my ears. In fact, the Chair of Berklee’s jazz piano studies dept. even told me so at a freelance gig once. That’s a pretty hefty endorsement. Despite a guitarist nearly half my age being disrespectful on stage about it,  it’s still my fault. When I screw up with time or anything musically – and we all do – I always reassess what happened and how I can improve. At that particular gig – and not to make excuses – we were crammed upstairs basically in a hallway playing down to a bunch of people’s heads who could care less about jazz music and were celebrating the opening of some corporate product like windows or something. I honestly forget.

It was such a crammed space for instruments or sound projection that I didn’t feel right playing the whole night. It was like performing in a closet. The drums were stuffed in a corner of the hallway and we all played basically in a  straight line, which was a ridiculous setup by the event organizers.  We could not really see each other. I could not hear anything except saxophone. Still my fault.

I took it all in stride and re-examined my timing over the next few months to make sure a bad habit had not crept into my playing. There is an ebb and flow to timing on the drums and in music in general. Without that freedom, music would sound like a robot – and unfortunately already does in many of today’s loop-centric pop recordings. That said, we as drummers need to maintain solid tempo despite its inherent fluctuations. We need to know when to drag it back or rush it, paying heed not to lose control of the origin tempo.

There are many jazz tunes where the starting beats per minute is not how the song ends or solo transitions, and it was not due to a time signature change. It was due to jazz being about improv and responding to the energy of the music presented at that given moment.

The antagonist guitarist obviously knows this already as a Berklee grad. What he doesn’t know is that I used his thumbs down gesture as motivation to further refine my timing by working with a metronome regularly again, and also counting subdivisions during song passages. I made it  a point to get accurate metronome BPM markings written down for all songs with other bands I play in. I started recording every gig and important practices for later critique. I’m not sure if my timing improved because it was already solid to begin with. But it served as a great reminder.

In life, the best thing to do is turn a negative into a positive. That rude Berklee guitarist helped me become a better drummer. Sometimes the best thing to do is listen to constructive criticism and then take action.