Drum Teachers Blog

Grades: nemesis or necessity?

When I was at school, I had two drum-teachers over the course of about twelve months. The first one was retiring and was more interested in skiing, and the replacement had a beard. Nothing wrong with that, but it was his aggression one day that I will only remember after, he had lazily stuck a chart on a music stand and instructed me to simply "play it.” When I fumbled my way badly through the first line, he snatched the sticks right out of my hands and throwing them on the floor, shouted at me: “You’ll never make a drummer!!” It has taken a long time to dissociate beards from aggression.

I stopped going to his lessons, and changed course. I am self taught. Never wanted to see a chart again, and learned my craft by listening to cassettes (remember them?!) and vinyl. Consequently over the years, there was a niggling doubt, that despite all the comments people used to throw at me like ‘amazing’, ‘talented’ and ‘unbelievable’, as a rock drummer playing fairly simple and solid stuff, I never felt like a ‘real drummer’ as I avoided all the basic rudimentary skills like they were for academics. I was rock n roll and on the radio; all the other stuff is for schools and grades, so too late for me.

Well, fast forward to a man who has just turned 49, with greyer hair and tinnitus, and you’ll see a drum teacher in me that actually quite enjoys looking at aspects of the grade books and rudiments especially. Why? The answer may help you if you are – or have been– anything like me. I use the grades as a tool, but also something to address my personal fear of sight reading and understanding all the bizarre little squiggles and notation. Here’s my latest approach: quite frequently I will take a break from song- based teaching and stealing ideas from a tune to show them how often it is used in so many other songs, to focus instead on rudiments such as the Swiss Army Triplet, the Ratamacue and the Pataflafla. Once I’ve spent the lesson going through various elements, I will then ask them a ‘Guess the Grade’ question. Most of my pupils learn for fun and advancement, and don’t do the grades, but I have a handful who do attempt to climb up the grading system. Grades, as you might be able to tell, aren’t my favourite thing to teach, but there’s the punchline: you should see their little faces when you reveal they have actually attempted, and pulled off a Grade 8 bunch of rudiments or even pieces.The latter I did just this week with a Muse track ‘Knight of Cydonia’ (which I remembered a fellow teacher had pointed me to a few years ago on Trinity Rock and Pop.) I took the main section and broke it down into 5 easier stages, the fifth being the actual speed (quite fast). Well, to a man, they all got to the fourth stage!! This included one young man who has struggled with much drumming, but he was beaming! So I say, use the grades as a tool to help your protoges enjoy drumming. Grades still scare me privately, but they are helping me as much as those I instruct. I think that teaching includes a massive amount of encouragement, and celebration of effort and attainment too. That’s why I vowed as a 14 year old that I would never be like that guy with a beard, and I like to think I have proven him wrong. We will never know what our acts of pushing our pupils gently forward with acts of encouragement will don in their lives, and that’s a privilege.

Thanks to Simon Marton for this great article. Please check out Simon's excellent testimonials and profile.


By Julian Marsden
Posted on 22nd Sep, 2:52pm