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The Business of Drumming: Starting Your Own Teaching Practice

Article by Sean Mitchell // August 05 2013
The Business of Drumming: Starting Your Own Teaching Practice

This month we begin a two-part series called The Buisness of Drumming with Black Page contributors Murray Creed and Jayson Brinkworth. First we start with how to start your own drum school, your own music studio, or your own teaching practice. Part two will air next month and will focus on starting or creating your own drum festival, your own drum day, or bringing a famous drummer to your city. Please feel free to add your comments below if you have some insight or advice to share. As always the video interview is transcribed below. 

Murray, one of the big things about a school is always the accreditation – its credentials; for lack of a better word, your reputation. You’re a graduate of PIT (Percussion Institute of Technology). How has that affected your business? Is it something you use in your marketing? Is it important for a person to have the credentials from a professional school or is it a matter of just creating a good reputation?

Murray Creed: The schooling, for me, going to Los Angeles and studying drums in Hollywood for a year was the best thing that I ever did. It set me on the path of what I wanted to do. I went down there thinking that I wanted to be playing in a band and touring and all that sort of stuff. I realized while I was down there by hanging out with these world class educators that this was actually something I wanted to look at – being a teacher as opposed to being a touring musician. Upon graduation and coming back to Victoria and Vancouver, I played in bands and I did the touring thing, started teaching a little bit and I realized, wait a sec—I’m much more of a teacher than I am a touring musician. I started teaching and built it up. I think the accreditation or schooling that I had was really important to start the foundation as a good teacher.

Once I started teaching I realized that where I was teaching was not offering what I thought was the best way. The emphasis was more on “how many students can we get in to see how much money we can make” versus “how can we really offer good education.” After awhile in that environment that it wasn’t for me, what I liked, I decided that I would go out and start my own studio with my own sort of philosophy on how it would work. I think that is basically how it all started. So, the schooling in Los Angeles definitely laid a foundation of education so that when I started doing the teaching I was talking about the real stuff. I knew what I was talking about. I think that that’s a very important thing because one of the clichés in teaching music is there are a lot of great players out there but not a lot of great teachers. People who can play really well doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a really great teacher. But there are also lots of great teachers out there that are players. I kind of put myself in that category more; I think I’m a good teacher that plays the drums, as opposed to a drummer that oh you know what, I think I’d like to do some teaching.

For you Jason, your school’s a bit different than Murray’s in that Murray’s is built into his house whereas you have an outside-of-the-home business. For you in the early days, what were some of the hurdles that you would say you faced? What could someone expect that was setting up something like that?

Jason Brinkworth: When we started the business there were three of us that were teaching at different places that had this vision of “Hey, why don’t we pool our resources and teach out of one place?” So we leased three rooms in the house we were in at that time and we taught. There was guitar, there was fiddle, and there was drums. We each had our own mandate; we ran it as a business but it was our own sort of thing and it just started growing. The second year in there were too many drum students, so I had another teacher in town come on board and was just sort of a contracted employee. Awhile after that there was another guitar teacher that came on and it just sort of evolved into what it’s become. 

Some of the hurdles were our own personal—getting the students, marketing it properly. We really pride ourselves on that the teachers we have had a lot of experience in teaching, not just playing. That’s sort of a mandate and now it’s turned around that we have a lot of teachers that have been studying with us for quite awhile. There is the normal hurdles – keeping the books properly, trying to market but not spending money foolishly on advertising. There’s a lot of little things that come up like that. But it just kind of evolved into something that we didn’t really see happening.

Same question for you now, Murray. I think your story is a bit different because you started teaching somewhere but you weren’t very content where you were so you started your own business. What were some of the hurdles that maybe you faced in the beginning?

MC:  I’ve looked at that in the past – what was actually challenging about doing this—and I’ve been very fortunate, I think, that it has just  grown and grown and grown and I haven’t  really seen a lot of issues that have come up where I’ve gone, “Oh man, I wish I hadn’t done that.” It just seems to be always moving in a positive direction. I think that the one thing is that with the amount of great drummers in Victoria, we’ve created a job as a drum teacher. Whereas when I started as a drum teacher there was probably only four or five of us in Victoria and we were the only ones to go to and now I would say there’s fifteen. I’m proud of that. I think that’s something I created and that we’ve brought the level of drumming in Victoria up to a certain standard and now there’s a lot of people that want to do this as a profession and do this as a job. That’s because they’ve seen other good teachers in action or they’ve studied with other good teachers. So I think that the hurdle is maybe there is too many of us now. There may be a lot of drum teachers out there in the city.  Everyone sort of got into the action. But as far as the hurdles, it just kept growing in a positive way so I was never stumped by one thing.

So I would imagine that staffing, starting with you Jason, what is it that you look for in a teacher? Is there a specific something; is it an interview process; how do you pick your teachers?

JB: At the school we have three piano teachers, there’s seven guitar teachers, there’s two bass teachers, there’s fiddle, there’s so much else going on that I don’t oversee so much. The drum guys that I’ve had have been students of mine. It came from a lot about their communicating skills, about how they are with people and how they get the message across. Obviously they can play; obviously they’re well-versed on the instrument styles, they can read, they’re well-rounded. But I think most importantly it’s their communication skills and really taking the teaching part of it very seriously. That’s one thing, as Murray said, that you have to look at—if you’re going to teach, you got to do it right. You can’t just be doing it thinking, Hey, I could make a few bucks and get some kids to play some beats. I take it very seriously and these kids should be learning something, there should be a life experience that they get out of this and wherever they take the music in the future they should get something out of it to develop. I look for teachers—not that they should be like me—but that they appreciate the art of teaching like I do. There has to be more of that. It’s work. It takes a lot out of you. If you’re teaching six, seven, eight hours a day, it’s exhausting because every half hour is another mental change to the next one and you’re shifting gears all the time.

For you Murray, you can have some pretty long days. How do you decompress or how do you prepare for that to go from student to student and still be inspiring?

MCI had one student who took lessons with me—first student of the day, say 2 o’clock in the afternoon—and then they switched and came at the end of my day. And the first thing they said when they came in after the first lesson that was in the evening, they said, “Man, I thought you would be really tired and different in the evening than you were at the beginning of your day, but you were exactly the same.” I guess once you have that half hour and the next person comes in it’s a new person and it starts fresh again. You constantly do that and you’re always starting fresh. You have that all through your day and then, yes, you get to the end of your day and the last student leaves now you’re just done – you’re mentally exhausted.

Every student is so different and they might have certain things that they are challenged by or they might be very hyperactive and you’ve got to kind of contain them. That’s the beauty, I think, of the job is that every student is different – it could be a guy, it could be a girl; it could be a five-year-old kid, it could be a sixty-year old guy. Every student changes and changes and changes and not only do you have those parameters, you also have what they’re learning. This one has been taking lessons for three years and they’re working on double bass, whereas this one is working on a burning samba and this one is just starting out playing single strokes for the first time. So I just love that. I love that every single student is different and I get sort of charged. As soon s they walk in I’m ready to go and I present them with whatever we’re going to do that day and we go through the whole thing, and then at the end, yea, we’re done; that’s it. I sit in the office afterward and do about an hour worth of paper work, send off some emails (students inquiring about lessons or whatever it may be) and shut ‘er down at that point.

JB:  I think one of the things for me—and I always kind of look at this asking how do I stay motivated—one of the biggest things that keeps me motivated is I just love being around drums. I love the act of people playing, I love the act of the sound and I still get so jacked about that, like I’m just playing for the first time. I think if that ever went away I’d be like, “Okay, now I don’t do this anymore.”

MC:  It probably would never go away. It’s the dream job, we are hanging out with people, playing drums. For me personally, it can’t get any better than that. It’s the best job in the world. People say, “You got to go to work,” and I am like, “No, it’s not work; it’s called playing. I’m going down to play. I’m going to go hang out with a bunch of people and talk about drums; I’m not going to work.” My kids say the same thing: “It’s so cool you don’t have to go to work; you just get to do what you love to do.” I think we’re very fortunate in that we get to do what we love to do.

JB:  My older kids (my son’s twenty and my daughter’s sixteen), they recognize that in the last few years and really get that I get to do what I love to do. Last year my son was in first year of university and he said to me, “You know what? I love that you get to do what you love to do,” and I said, “You know what? I do too!” What percentage of people actually do that in life—especially in music, especially something as personal as this … especially the drums? There’s a lot of pinching yourself.

We’re in Murray’s Groove Studios here in Victoria and as I look around I see on the walls a lot of SWAG, a lot of articles that are signed by famous drummers, there’s a lot of pictures, so there’s a lot of things that when you walk into this room it’s inspiring and it’s sort of a story of Murray as well. How important is the physical space that you create for the student to learn in?

MC:  I met Jason today for the first time and I was mentioning when we walked into the studio the idea of the waiting room—for instance, is that you should be inspired right away by looking around and going, “Wow, look at all this stuff.” There’s like autographed pictures, autographed drum sticks; there’s always drum DVDs playing with famous drummers playing; there’s [drum magazines] sitting there so that people can read them. There’s drums hanging on the walls, there’s drum sets – just different things that really get people excited. So by the time they actually make it into the studio for their lesson, they’re already ready to go. That was what I was trying to do by creating this space (rock star purple) just to kind of create that energy and that vibe. Then, the same thing with each of the studios; each of the studios has the same sort of excitement to it. There’s drum sets, there’s drums, snare sets on stands, cymbals all over the place. Setting up the environment, now that’s the excitement part of it.

Now the other thing is the professionalism. It’s got to be clean, it’s got to smell good – we are drummers here, right, so we need to make sure that everything is clean and presentable, and also run in a professional manner. For instance, I don’t answer the phone.  If the phone is ringing and I’m with a student or a student is coming in the door and the phone rings, it’s going to message because that’s [the student’s] time. I don’t stop to answer the phone and say I am going to spend five minutes of your time answering this phone right now. [That person on the phone] can leave a message. I’ll get back to them after their time. Professionalism is a huge part of it as well. I think there could be teachers—not just drum but other music teachers—that may be challenged by that organization skill, making sure that the place is clean, making sure that it’s professionally run and that people have that really positive experience when they walk in.

JB:  It’s a bit different at our place because we have so many different instruments going on. There is some drum stuff around. Obviously, my room is catered to my specific thing, but there are a lot of posters around the school on the billboards about musical events going on around town, about different things happening in the community, about different businesses that the parents might have; we might have some cards there. Our goal, when it started becoming a business, per se, was to have the students and parents feel ownership of the place and feel like it was theirs – not ours; we just happen to be there providing the service, but it’s really theirs. I think we have accomplished that in that they really feel a pride in being there.

And like you say, Murray, trying to keep it clean. We have eighteen teachers and sometimes there’s a lot of picking up after people, and getting people to do stuff. We try like crazy to keep tweaking things and keeping on top of that. But it’s a little different.  I know in Regina, speaking of the business, I’m looking at expanding the drum department out of the primary music school and having it be just a drum school ‘cause there’s opportunities on that. I’m just looking at some of the stuff that we’re talking about here, you know if there are going to be pitfalls I will have them, so we’ll do this interview in a couple of weeks and I’ll tell you all about it. (laughs) So keeping the business moving forward and just thinking that way and not going, “What about next week? Well, what about next year; what about our year-end concert for next year? How many shows do we have? How many students?” You have to just stay on top of it all the time. You have to be very aware – but if you love doing it, you will.

Jay let's talk about the physical setup in a room, being that we drummers are loud. Is it practise pads, mesh heads, electronic drum sets; are we doing snare rudiments – what do you see for a setup?

JB:  In the house we’re in, by default of the way it worked when we started the business in 2002 (the drums being way louder than the guitar and the fiddles), we got moved to the furthest room away. So we end up being the first room, so when you walk in the house, the first thing you see in this huge window is the drum room – which is great, I think it’s fantastic! The down-side is it’s the smallest room in the house. We’ve been in there for eleven years now and that’s one of the reasons for the expansion, to get out of there and kind of have more things going on. We have two acoustic kits set up. I have some hand percussion in there, a bunch of practice pads; I’ve got a mixer and couple of headphone amps (you play the tunes using the click). I’ve always got my laptop there – you can watch videos. I’ve got a white board for exercises, stacks of books and stuff.  So we make the most out of the space we have. You know ideally, it would be great to have a lot more space but we do bring things in. There will be times when I take one of the kits out and just have a free standing snare and stand or congas or some djembes or just make it suited to that. It takes a little more tweaking because there are other things going on in the house. We just make the most of what we have.

MC:  For me, I created a formula when I started teaching a long time ago that has always worked for me and that’s a practice pad set for the student to play on, a practice pad set for myself to play on so we can actually just play at the exact same time and have a conversation. Without having to speak loudly, I can say, “Hey, you know what? Just turn your left hand over a little bit there,” or whatever it may be and we can actually have a conversation while we are playing.

The other aspect for that working is that there are three studios within Groove Studios and they are all operating at the same time—and they’re all drums. So we’ve got two drummers in each room all going at the same time so if we were all on drum sets it just wouldn’t work. So we use the practice pad sets and I use it almost as a motivator too because when a student learns something on a practice pad set and they haven’t heard what it sounds like on a real drum set, they’re going to go home and hop on their drum set and play it. Whereas if they hear it on a real drum set in the studio and they know exactly what it’s going to sound like, they’re not as fired up to go home and go, “Okay, now what does it sound like?” cause they already know what it sounds like. So I try to use that as a bit of a motivator. One of the last things I say at the end of the lesson is, “Okay, now go home and play this on your kit and see what it sounds like.” That gets them kind of on the kit and as soon as they hear that stuff at home on their kit they hear what they were working on during their lesson and it kind of helps them to get going on it, as opposed to going home and a couple of days later thinking, What was that I was working on again? How did that go? I can see it’s written down here on my page. So it’s a bit of a motivator that way. Now we have drum sets in the studio as well and if the opportunity arises at the end of the lesson we’ll hop on the drum set and say this is what it sounds like. More than not we’re usually on practice pad sets. There are always practice pad sets, for instance, in the waiting room where people get warmed up before they come in for their lesson.  And yes, computers so we’ve got  all of our songs right there; we’ve got all of our access to internet and videos and DVDs that we play along with, click tracks and all of that sort of thing, so similar set up but we’re using practice pad sets and drum kits.

JB: There’ll always be that; we’re always victims of the volume and I mean we have to cater to that which makes sense. A lot of people look at it as an obstacle and complain about it but you know you make it work. As the students are going to learn the volume of this instrument will continue with them and they’ll have to find ways around it as well, we all had to.

At the end of the day this supports your families – both of you of you have children and wives. Let’s talk a little bit about the importance of keeping financial records, the business, tax time—what goes into all that?

JB:  In my situation, my wife and I both do this. She teaches piano and voice and plays professionally and stuff so every piece of food that makes it onto the table in our house is put there through music which I think is kind of cool. I just saw something the other day, I can’t remember who it was … an interview with someone …  and they were talking about growing up and his parents were musicians—oh, Billy Martin’s DVD, that’s who it was; yes Life on Drums. His dad was a professional musician and he realized at a young age how cool it was that music was supporting the family. I thought, yes, that is cool.  But yes, you have to keep up on all that stuff and I will never be the one to say that I am the best at keeping the books perfect and everything like that. My wife gets on me about a bunch of it but I’m trying to get better at it. You have to; you’re self-employed, you can’t shove things under the carpet and go, “Ah they’ll never  know.” You’ve got to be legit about it. That’s why it’s called a music business. That’s what I tell my students – it’s the music business; you can be the best player in the world and not know how to do business and you cannot have a career doing it. It doesn’t matter; both things have to … as you get a little older the business side almost starts outweighing the playing side just a little bit more because you need to manage it for longevity.

Murray you often you use post-lessons to do some paper work. What pointers can you give people on keeping a tight ship?

MCOrganization, you’ve got to be organized. One thing I wanted to touch on too along the lines of organization is a curriculum, having an actual game plan for your students when they come in. This is absolutely one of the biggest things of my success is my curriculum. There’s people that are going through it and they’re “Hey, wait a second, I have a step-by-step program that I am going through,” so there’s no “what are you going to do today?”

I think that that is one of my biggest challenges with a lot of music teachers is that people come in for lessons and they say, “Ok, what do you want to learn today?” The kid goes, “Oh, I’d like to play this” and they spend a little bit of time writing it down or something—which I think is a complete waste of time when you are writing stuff down for someone in their lesson time; that should all be done ahead of time—but you basically hand them the stuff and you work on it. Then they send them home and they’ve got to work on it and then come back. I think that a curriculum is a really, really important part of it, whatever book it is, it doesn’t matter. As long as you get into a program that you like and you use that with your students so that when they come in you have a program ready for them to go.

Now as far as the business organization aspect of it, I’m very fortunate, my dad’s an accountant and he’s very, very smart about all things to do with business and running business. So I have that backbone support all the time which has been passed on to me and I don’t bug him too much about it anymore. I’m pretty confident about running the whole thing as organized as you can possibly be; you cannot be too organized. So having things done on spreadsheets; having things done so you input the figures, the cheques, the money as it comes in – having that kind of thing – cheques and balances, knowing when somebody’s paid you, making sure that it’s written down. I mean all these things are very, very important that a lot of people, I think, they get paid and maybe the money goes into their pocket and the next week they’re like, “Oh, did that person pay?” Man, you cannot even enter that world; it’s got to be completely organized so for me I thrive on that. I think that’s one of the secrets to my success is the organization skills and the curriculum and then just trying to inspire people. That’s what it’s all about, having people walk into your studio or into your lesson, inspiring them to want to be there and to want to come back and want to pursue this amazing … our work of drumming that we do. So there’s a lot there.

Stay tuned for next month's hang with Murray and Jayson as we chat about what it takes to tackle a drum festival and how you can go about bringing a well known drummer to your city for a clinic or drumming event.

Visit Murray Creed online at www.drumgroove.com and Jayson Brinkworth at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com 



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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