Monthly Archives: May 2010

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”