We hope this finds all of our friends well and safe. Covid-19 has produced unusually trying times for us all. For those who have lost ones, our condolences to you. The time spent alone, out of the mix, has resulted in…a whole lotta thinking going on. One thought: the importance and impact of teachers on our lives. I had some very good ones and the other kind. These teachers help shape who we are…who we become. Much like our parents, they give us the tools to think, analyze, challenge and confirm our belief systems.
I’ve witnessed many musicians with incorrect technique who could perform as professionals. I’m reminded of a story Mel Lewis told me about his lessons with Billy Gladstone. The abbreviated version is Mel growing up in Buffalo studying drumming and learning on the job from working with local bands. When he moved to NYC he wanted to study seriously and with the best teacher. He idolized Gene Krupa and was fascinated by Buddy Rich. He was looking to sharpen his technique. He made the rounds and asked for recommendations of a good teacher. Billy Gladstone’s name kept coming up and his decision was made. He arranges a lesson with Billy, who at the time was performing in the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra. Drummers would often flock to the Music Hall, not to see the stage show, but get a seat close enough to watch Billy play snare drum. His technique was flawless and he knew how to teach and inspire students. The lesson begins with small conversation and Billy asks Mel to play something on the snare drum. Afterwards, Billy looks at Mel and inquires, “What do you want to study.” Mel’s immediate response. “I want to play as fast as Buddy but don’t have the technique.” Billy, being aware of Buddy’s incredible speed, informs him you will need to change how you hold your sticks. You will need to adapt a different grip. He then proceeds to show Mel a grip unlike his present one. “Practice this new grip and see what it feels like. See you in a couple of weeks.” Ok.
The next couple of weeks Mel practices the new grip, but something’s not right. It doesn’t feel comfortable. He returns for a second lesson and explains his discomfort with the grip. Billy encourages him to keep practicing– it should get easier. Mel, determined to get his speed up, continues the battle. Still not comfortable, he returns for a third lesson. He explains the sticks don’t feel natural when he plays. It is very frustrating. “Mel, Buddy does what he does and you do what you do. Buddy may be fast, but you have a touch that is yours and that makes you who you are.” Mel gave it up. Forget the speed and develop what you hear…develop your own style.
Thanks to a great teacher he saved years of frustration and discomfort. Years later Buddy would always praise Mel for his immaculate touch and style. Both respected one another for what they did.
I’m sure we all have stories about our teachers and their lessons. I regret never expressing my gratitude for their knowledge and their willingness to pass it along. Teachers are a valuable resource not to be taken for granted. A big Thank You for teachers everywhere!