9th Grade Prep Camp!

I’m happy to announce that this summer (June 2017) I will be hosting several 3 day camps specifically for 8th grade percussionists looking to continue with music in high school. The camps will cover many basic skills that every 9th grade percussion student should know! I’m excited to be coordinating the material for the camp with several local high school band directors.

The camp will cover the following topics and more:

  • Timpani tuning
  • Snare rudiments
  • Major/Minor scales
  • Mallet sight reading
  • Four mallet technique
  • Marching audition music and process
  • All-state tryout requirement
  • Basic drum set grooves and jazz band audition tips
  • …and more!

Check back for camp sign up information!

Rethinking drum lessons.

I want to encourage anyone currently taking music lessons at a store or looking for music lessons for yourself/your child to consider a teacher who works from their own studio.

So often, music store lessons (if they even have a full drum set available) are conducted in a small, cramped rooms (which are way too loud for young ears.) Because of this, in many situations the student isn’t even playing real drums, but only a practice pad drum set.

At my studio, we have two full drum kits set up at all time (no switching in and out by the student.) There is a full selection of world instruments including a complete Brazilian samba set. We’re within easy reach of 20 years of collected teaching materials, a high quality speaker set up for playing along with music, and internet access (both for lessons and waiting parents.)

The space is…spacious, clean, inviting, and fun. We have a piano available, along with vibraphone and bells. In the wood shop I’m making progress on a full marimba which will be here soon. And speaking of, I’ve even had some long time students learn to make their own percussion instruments.

Another thing, when it does come time to buy a drum set for yourself or child a music store is going to be pushing what they currently have in stock and also trying to again maximize their profit. I’d rather help you look for the best fit from a number or new and used options. I’ve found great old kits and new kits for students with everyone knowing that they paid a fair price.

Expect more from music lessons! They are one of the single best investments you can make in your life or that of your child.




Let’s Play!

We’ve got students, instruments, and a room to rehearse.  Now what?

As I’d quickly find out, my greatest resource at Winston Middle School would be the unlimited creativity of the children.  While the first few practices were dedicated to demonstrations of instrument care, and proper sitting/holding/playing techniques for the African percussion instruments, I knew already that I was sitting in front of a room filled with young composers.  Each day, as I came into the classroom, students would be tapping on the desks, and just grooving with whatever happened to be around.  When I heard the infectious nature of this, I changed our initial bearing for the class.

Calling to mind an old field recording of Nigerian postal workers happily stamping and processing mail in rhythm, I decided that our first piece would be an organic sound scape using classroom materials.  This seemed perfect to me.  Rhythms are all around us, inside us, and it doesn’t take fancy drums or instruments to have a good time with music.  With this in mind, I proposed to the students that they come up with a piece using things found around them in our music classroom.  The students named this piece “Fake-out.”

This piece was performed in front of the student body on the auditorium stage about one month into the program’s start.  First, we set the desks up in four rows of four, with 16 students total.  From front to back, each row had a common item.  Row 1 was set with pens and pencils to groove like drum sticks on the desks.  Row two each had a water bottle (with the last student grabbing a large water dispenser bottle as the piece got going for a bass tone.)  Row three was my stapler crew, and, in the last row, each had a student dictionary (you’d be amazed at the bass drum sound you can get by slamming open and closed a large Funk and Wagner!)

The performance started with me in front of the “class” teaching.  (Interestingly, I asked the students to name the most boring thing that I could be lecturing about and they said it should be a talk on ‘the history of the pencil.’)  So, that’s what my topic was.  Students acted as if they were falling asleep, bored, and generally restless.  Then, over then intercom, we arranged for the principal to call me to the office.  I told the students that I’d return shortly, and that good behavior was expected.  As soon as I was off stage, the pencil crew started a basic funk groove on the desk.  Then the water bottles entered with a beat 4 hit.  My stapler crew followed with eighth notes on 2 and, and the deep 1 was added with slamming dictionaries.

With the groove in full swing, I re-entered the stage and the students immediately sat up straight like they’d been perfect angels.  I informed them that my leave would take longer than expected but for them to continue as they had been, and that I was very proud of their behavior.  As you can imagine, the audience of middle schoolers was entranced, hooting and having a ball!  The piece concluded with the students grabbing a hidden pair of drum sticks from under their desks and using variations of the same rhythms to produce quite a racket!  Unfortunately, we did not video tape this performance, but it was a perfect way to introduce the Winston drummers to the rest of the school.  And, it was completely written by the students!  I just had to stay out of my own way and let their young energy take over.

In tandem with this piece, we did start to work on some double bell music that I had been interested in from my own work with Jon Seligman.  I like the simple idea of everyone on the same sound source, but different pitches creating a melody.  I thought it was a wonderful way for the kids to really understand the 6/8 bell pattern, which would be foundational to other drumming we’d be doing during the year.  This piece requires a lot of concentration from the students, and we learned it by ear.  It was very helpful to combine different parts, layer the groove in differently each time, and create partner rhythms the students could listen for.  I’ve added a rehearsal video below.

The first piece we learned with the drums was an old standby called Fanga Alafia.  It was an attempt to get the kids singing and playing.  I am convinced that drummers need to be full musicians, with the ability to sing, play other instruments, write songs, and understand the language of music.  For our version of Fanga, we start with the vocal melody and clapping, but move to just the drums (it was a lot to get just this going.)  Another amazing example of student motivation came when some of the 7th grade studentsannounced that they had written a Fanga ‘remix’ on their own that they wanted to add to the end of our groove.  “Of course you can!” was my response.  They came up with a really great djembe/djun combination that is fun to hear and I know they’re always excited to play.

A third piece that we’ve put together for a student program had the kids learning to play drum set.  I must say, one of the most popular instruments we work on is the full drum kit.  It is understandable.  That’s what is in all of the music we hear on the radio and grow up with in this country.  So, as a special treat, we worked on the kit once every two weeks.  But, how could I put this into a school program?  I only had parts of two scrappy sets of drums.  And, more kids than I could really use on this idea.  What I decided was that the kids could take a short history of R+B/Soul/Rap music.  We’d start with some Ray Charles, go to James Brown, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Mary J Blige, and finally Jay-Z.  We’d have different kids play to each song (two at a time) and the rest either dance/play added percussion or help with transitions.  In my mind, this worked really well because the kids would learn some new songs, learn to play the drums, and play along to songs they already sing and rap to every day.  I’ve added a video of our Success Program performance below, and as you’ll see, for about 4 practices, and no prior drumming experience, these middle schoolers really rocked the drum kits.  You’ll hear the crowd going crazy a few times as the environment became more and more electric. 

For each piece we added one special move, dance step, or prop and the results are below.

I hope that during the first year of this percussion program, the students have gained an understanding of how wonderful music is, and how broad its study can be.  From found percussion, to traditional African rhythms, to drum sets jamming along with Jay-Z. 

For our final concert of the year, we’re adding in our trumpets and saxophone students to perform a second line New Orleans version of When the Saints Go Marching In.  The Winston drummers will be playing marching drums, and they’re already setting the middle tempo groove with a majesty that astounds me.

If you have any questions or comments on this article, I’d love to hear from you.  All the best working with your own musical projects, and please support music teachers in your community.

The Locust and Gabe Serbian.

Alot of music in this world gets improperly labeled “unique.”  The Locust, however, truly deserve that categorization in the most complimentary way possible.  They are completely, and wonderfully strange.

Gabe Serbian, drummer for the Locust, is an incredible talent.  His drumming is celebrated for its incredible speed, effortless flow through manic odd meters, and lightning fast cymbal catches.  A while ago I sent Gabe some interview questions that my private students had wanted him to answer, and he was kind enough to respond.  Below is that back and forth.

I’m also adding two live videos of Gabe doing his thing with the Locust, and a note-for-note transcription of the song AOTKPTA.  Download and enjoy!  If you learn a few Gabe Serbian licks from the video or the transcription, make a youtube video of yourself and I’ll put a link on this blog.


**Q: Can you describe your drum and cymbal setup?

**Gabe:     The drums I’m using now are the same drums I used on the recording.
They’re Ludwig drums my friend and manager gave me like 5 years ago. I
use a 24″ kick drum with a remo pinstripe head. The rack is deep 14″
and the floor is an 18″. The video you have I’m using pinstripe heads
but I just changed them to coated ambassadors. When we record I use
pinstripes. I use a custom snare by Orange County Drum and Percussion
which has a 14″ coated powerstroke head. The drums we’re made in the
90’s but they were replicating kits made in the 70’s…bohnam style. As
for cymbals I usually use whatever I can get my hands on. Crash cymbals
don’t usually last that long but right now I’m playing Zildjian Z custom
rock crashes. I got a 16″ over my rack and a 17″ over my floor. I like
larger crash cymbals but that’s all the shop had and I needed ’em before
I left on tour. I have 14″ Zildjian quick beats , they’ve lasted a long
time. And I use a 20″ Sabian calhoun (not sure the spelling) that I’ve
had forever. It just won’t break.
When we recorded I had the same cymbal set up except for the crash’s
which were Zildjian a customs.

Cymbal Setup

**Q:  What type of controller is behind you in the videos?

**Gabe:  The thing behind me is just a cheap Dr. Boss sampler. I control the
samples between songs with an A\B switch.

**Q:  Do your band mates discuss or think about how your music is changing and where it will go in the future?

** Gabe:  I’m not sure where music will go next. That question is going to
require more time.

**Q:  Amazingly, the album version and live version of AOTKPTA are exactly the same length, to the second.  How is that even possible with the incredible amount of complexity in your songs?

**Gabe:  That’s news to me man! It’s great the first song was the same time as
the cd. It’s not something we talked about or anything. Song’s are
usually a lot faster live vs. The recordings. I think in the live
setting songs are faster for a few different reasons. 1 would be the
excitement of playing in front of people and 2 would be the fact that
we’ve played these songs more and are more comfortable than when we
recorded them.

**Q:  How often does the Locust practice as a band?

**Gabe:  When the band’s not on tour we practice like 2 times a week. Saturday
and sunday afternoons. We usually play anywhere from 5 to 6 hours. I
wish the practice space was closer to my house so I could play more.

**Q:  Did you take any drum lessons or formal instruction as a kid?

**Gabe:  No not really. I never practice rudiments or anything like that. I was
in a marching band my freshman year of high school. I played 2nd or 3rd
bass drum. It sucked. I hated it. I sometimes will practice
paradiddles however on my kick drum when I’m warming up before

Thanks to Robin Laananen @ redhedpictures for the following photographs.

Gabe Serbian Kit

Gabe Serbain kit

Gabe Serbian Kit.

Gabe Serbian Kit

Gabe Serbian Kit

Transcription for “Hot Tubs Full of Brand New Fuel”

Meet Cale Parks…one of my favorite drummers.

To put it simply, I love watching great drummers drum.

On this blog, I will regularly introduce you to some of my favorite drummers.  I’ll always have good video footage of them doing their thing, and a transcription to help you understand better how they’re making all that racket!  I hope you enjoy these drum profiles as much as I do.  Of course, there’s nothing as good as actually seeing these people perform live!  Hopefully, some of this up-close footage that I’ve taken can amplify that experience.

There is one thing I’d like to emphasize: if you like the song/sound/drummer that you see, please support them by buying real/hard copies of their records and cds.  Then, go see them in concert to get a real education! Also, buy a shirt for your next day at school.  The best way to support creative music is with your wallet.

The first drummer that I’d even consider featuring here is Cale Parks.  I’ve known Cale for a few years now, and recently brought him down to Ellicott City, MD to give a drum clinic.  It was Cale’s first clinic to give, and my first clinic to host.  And, I think you’ll agree after watching the following video, the result speak for themselves.  We had about 40 drummers, young and old, in attendance.  This blog is partially timed to the release of Aloha’s newest recording “Home Acres.”  Which means, you’re lucky!  A whole bunch of great new songs to enjoy.

Cale Parks

Cale Parks

Cale’s drumming can be called ‘organic’ and ‘earthy’, along with  ‘jazzy’ and ‘flowing.’  I’ve heard him compared to Mitch Mitchell and other great artists before.  But maybe the best compliment I can give is that every person I’ve turned on to Cale’s music digs it.  Simple as that.  He’s a beautifully thoughtful drummer, and an amazing musician.  I’d like to quickly give another nod to Keith Larson of Mid-Atlantic Drums for lending us an absolutely beautiful Maryland Drum set for Cale to play on.

I’ve got almost two hours of footage from the clinic that I’ll put up from time to time, or if you’d like a copy of the whole thing on DVD something could be worked out (with money going to cover costs and to Cale.)

Today I’m putting up great footage of Cale playing the Aloha song “All the Wars.”  It’s powerful and clean drumming, with a nod to the popular 6/8 Afro-Cuban back-beat groove.  You can find this song on the cd “Here Comes Everyone,” which is a must for any rock and roll library.

First, here’s a .pdf transcription of the album version of “All the Wars.”  It follows closely what you’ll see here live.


Two other things I’d like to mention.  If this transcription/video helps you learn how to play All the Wars, please make a video of yourself playing along to the track, or just as a solo!  I’m sure Cale would be happy to check out young drummers learning some of his grooves.  If you post to you tube and comment this blog with the video link, I’ll repost with your video.

Secondly, with the .pdf and video available, have you considered a small donation to keep this type of information coming?  Check out the donate page if you’re able to give even as little as $1.  It’s all very helpful.

Finally, visit Aloha online at www.myspace.com/aloha or www.alohahomeacres.com

Let’s Go Shopping!

In the first two posts for this blog, I talked about being offered the opportunity to start a drumming ensemble at Winston Middle School in Baltimore, MD and how I decided on the initial musical direction for the group.  Today I want to go through the process of outfitting 15 kids with high quality/affordable percussion instruments.

In my personal library of percussion instruments, I already owned a full set of Brazilian samba percussion, a small set of marching drums (basses, snares), plenty of drum set hardware to outfit the two partial sets that Winston owned, and a lot of little percussion toys and sound makers.  All of this equipment would give me plenty of variety in music choice and learning opportunities for the students.  I had therefor decided that any new purchases would be in a traditional African set-up of djembes, djun djuns, gankogui bells, axatses, talking drums, and maybe a few other special purchases.

Deciding on this general direction of purchases was only the very first step in the process of actually acquiring the drums.  Next I needed to do alot of research to make sure I’d end up with quality drums and fair prices.

Through the very generous workings of the Herbert Bearman Foundation, under the direct approval of Mark Bearman,  I was funded in the ball park of $3000 for the drums.  This was, of course, a dream come true for both me and the students at Winston.   The Herbert Bearman Foundation is a wonderful organization that gives money to worthwhile projects in and around the Baltimore area. 

My next step, now that funding was assured, was to decide what types of drums I wanted to buy.  I needed to have enough equipment for roughly 15-20 percussionists at one time, and fortunately I was told by Greg Thompkins that each student should have a drum of some type to play on.  In other words, I wasn’t looking to buy 6 drums and have 10 kids with shakers or some small percussion instrument.  I knew that I’d put the groups together with proper instrumentation, but during the classes on drumming technique, I could have everyone on a real drum.  That philosophy is a real blessing and am very thankful that the BJEP and Bearman Foundation had that level of support in mind. 

The first hurdle in choosing the drums was should I go with a Remo style (tunable, plastic head, more durable) djembe or did I dare go with real skin, wonderful sounding djembes.  Believe me, this wasn’t a decision I took lightly.  It really came down to this:  Anyone who has played both types of drums knows that there is absolutely nothing that compares with the deep, beautiful sound of  a handmade, skin djembe.  The students at Winston did not have music classes and I wanted to give them an experience with the best sounding equipment I could.  I knew that would mean taking a few entire classes to simply practice holding, packing, unpacking, and caring for the djembes.  I knew that I would be responsible to rehead the drums, tune the drums, and basically have 10 new djembe children to protect, but it is worth it. 

So, at this point in the process, I had decided that I wanted to buy 8 Djembes, 3 Djun Djuns, 2 Remo Tublum (which I’ll explain later), 2 Talking Drums, 9 Gankogui Bells (6 double, 3 single), and 6 Axatse Shakers.

I decided to add the two Remo Tublums for two reasons.  First, they are easy to play and have a conga like sound.  If there were any smaller size students, or students incapable of holding the djembe at a proper angle (because of physical handicap or variety of other causes) I wanted a simple free-standing hand drum to be available.  Also, the heads are relatively thick, and I thought we might be able to use them like the Kaganu drum in a Gahu ensemble (played with sticks.)  As I mentioned previously, I’d been exploring David Locke’s Gahu resources with my own percussion friends for the past year and certainly could see bringing some elements of that to the Winston group.

Now the “How” and “What” questions were answered, leaving only the “Where.”  I put together an invoice and shopped it to three different drum outlets.  And here comes a big lesson for anyone in the business arena.  Even though I was planning to buy nearly 3K in drums and had the funding already approved, one of the three contacts (the one that worked for the large national chain) didn’t even return my phone call, and when I went to the store in person kept me waiting for over 1 hour before talking to me.  Then, when he did come to talk about my purchase, he said “Well, you should have just emailed me the invoice.” 

That’s not how I roll.

With something this important, I need to talk face to face with someone, and get a guarantee from them that when the drums arrive I can go over them with a fine toothed comb, sending back for replacement anything that is in the slightest way defective or damaged.  Without that understanding up front, no money will change hands.

Arrive on the scene Keith Larson from Mid-Atlantic Drums.  Keith is well-known in the Baltimore area for being a master drum maker (Baltimore/Maryland Drums.)  His newest enterprise is a real-deal, old-fashioned, service first drum shop located in Baltimore County.  Keith worked hand in hand with me over the course of a month to help choose quality drums, locate the most affordable bell/shaker suppliers, and sat with me as I unpacked, inspected, and repacked them all upon arrival.

For the Djembes, Keith turned me on to Meinl.  The hand-made Meinl djembes are amazing, and the quality is truly consistent.  They’re made in Africa, and inspected by Meinl before being sold.  All I can say is that the eight I purchased (6 large and 2 medium) came in sounding incredible with not a single defect/scratch/or uneven head setting.  They also each come with a thickly padded/zipper bags with back pack straps.  Not that I would ever try, but the bag is so thick you could count on the protection if the djembe were knocked over (these aren’t thin cloth bags.)

For the Djun Djuns, I went with Toca.  Skin heads on a synthetic shell.  These drums are powerful, very durable, and sound great.

The bells and shakers we purchased from Overseas Connections.  And the Remo Tublums, of course, from Remo.

The total was kept under my $3,000 expense projection, for which I send many thanks Keith.  I truly believe that the smartest way to spend money is with any business that takes a personal interest in the quality of the merchandise and the satisfaction of the customer.  Keith did both of these to the utmost, and he was a joy to work with.   

I added a link to that short video so you could get a sense of some of the drums, and of the talent I’d be working with.  This short clip was taken on the very first day working with the kids (after about 30 minutes of instruction.)  To say they pick things up quickly is an understatement!  In the video are the Toca Djuns, some of the Meinl Djembes, and you can hear the Overseas Connection Single Bells (attached to the Djuns.)  Wow!  An incredible amount of work was done to secure this equipment, the students took to the drums very easily, and I already knew it was going to be an amazing year at Winston Middle School.

In the next post, I’ll start to describe the different compositions we’ve worked on so far this year, I’ll talk about the three performances we’ve done for the school and the pieces we played, and I’ll talk about the student compositions that we’ve developed.

Please feel free to comment, leave other helpful suggestions, or ask any questions.  I hope this blog serves as an inspiration for many more people to bring music to our schools.

Starting a drum ensemble, the first steps.

As I mentioned in the first blog post, I was approached by saxophonist Greg Thompkins in August of last year with the opportunity to start a percussion ensemble class at Winston Middle School in Baltimore, MD. In this post, I will detail my thought process and explain some of the decisions that I needed to make before the first day of class last September.  

The first thing I needed to learn more about was the population of students that the ensemble would serve. I knew that I’d be working with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students who currently had no musical offerings at their middle school. A few years prior, there had been a band program that was well thought of. But, after the band director retired, he was not replaced and the instrument room/band hall had become a storage closet for various items including cleaning supplies, filing cabinets, and broken musical instruments.  

As far as percussion resources that the school already owned, the selection was slim. In total I found; two drum set bass drums (both with broken heads/no spurs, two drum set 12″ toms (broken heads, not the matching toms for the bass drums), one snare drum shell completely coated in thick blue paint with no heads/snares/hardware, and one floor tom with no legs. There were no stands of any kind that worked, and no cymbals.  

I was certainly starting at square one. My strengths would certainly be the quality of the students. Winston Middle, while being labeled an under-performing school and currently on the Baltimore School Boards chopping block for the 2011 school year, is also known for a long history of excellence and great students/teachers. The school can be proud of an award-winning debate team, as well as a highly professional step team (whose performances electrify school assemblies.) I knew I’d feel at home there and was ready to start my planning.  

My own background with running percussion groups is varied. In college, as a Graduate Assistant, I ran a classical percussion ensemble for younger students and non-percussion majors. This group included highly talented instrumentalists who were non-percussionists but wanted to increase their musical ability and rhythmic awareness. The group focused on challenging, written out pieces, where a high level of music reading skill was mandatory. More recently, I’ve taught percussion in group settings to adults in continuing education classes, children with special needs (through in-school assemblies), and, in the summer, I’ve run my own children’s marching samba school for the past three years. My continuing-ed drum circle approach (which has now expanded via the classes I teach through the Lagniappe Project at Sheppard Pratt Hospital and Baltimore Library for the Blind) is modelled on the wonderful methods taught by Christine Stevens, Arthur Hull, and Kalani. I then expanded these approaches in my own classes to suit my personal style that appreciates ambient soundscapes, and a love of traditional patterns. Personally, I’d also recently started a Gahu drumming ensemble with other professional players from the area along with my friend/teacher/mentor Jon Seligman. This group was a monthly meet up of area drummers interested in really digging deep into David Locke’s thesis and book on Gahu. I also have a long history playing in and teaching drum lines of all ages and abilities, including participating shortly in drum corp while in high school. I knew that I’d somehow have to combine my knowledge from all of these outlets and create something uniquely appropriate for Winston.  

I started looking around the internet for successful percussion programs being run in other schools and was amazed at the breadth of what I found. There are djun djun ensembles in Chicago, Samba Schools in England, Taiko Classes in Arizona, and much more. I knew I’d want to offer the most diverse musical experience possible to the students. Since I already own a set of Brasilian samba drums, an almost complete marching drumline set (snares, 4 basses, tenors), and enough stand parts and drums to complete the broken drum sets…I was leaning towards African drums for anything new that I’d purchase. The traditional djembe/djun djun/bell/axatse/gankogui ensemble is easy to start, can involve lots of kids, and can easily (and properly) back up vocals/instruments/and anything from classical to pop if orchestrated correctly. Step one of my plan was done, I’d be pulling inspiration and ideas from traditional north African percussion, Brasilian Samba tradition, drum set opportunities, with possibly some drum line and New Orleans traditional marching thrown in.

Winston Middle School Drums

First drum purchase for Winston Middle School

In the next post I’ll detail choosing the types/sizes/and styles of instruments that I purchased for the ensemble. I’ll also talk about cost, getting the most for your money, care of the instruments, and why to always choose quality over quantity.

Winston Accessories

Winston Accessories

Thank you very much for reading and I would love to read any comments you might have.