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DrumSpeak: Neil Peart on Drum Lessons with Peter Erskine

Introduction

Given that BANG! is, in fact, a drum school, I thought it appropriate that the story below is published here on our blog. Neil Peart, who has very directly helped me in my career as a drummer, and whose drumset, “Chromey,” has had a real impact on my ability to expand BANG! The Drum School, is not above taking drum lessons himself. Is Neil Peart one of the greatest all-time drummers? Absolutely. Did he find that there were some things about his playing that he wanted to improve? Yes, absolutely.

I find it inspirational that Neil would not find it below him to go take some drum lessons, even at his level of ability and at his level of success.

So, below, excerpted from Neil’s own website, in Neil’s own words, is the story of his lessons with jazz great Peter Erskine.

DrumSpeak: Neil Peart

“During a break in this summer’s Snakes and Arrows tour, I scheduled a lesson with Peter. When I parked in front of his house in Santa Monica and walked up to the door, sticks in hand, I had to smile at myself. I was a thirteen-year-old beginner again, climbing the stairs to the Peninsula Conservatory of Music on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines, Ontario, for my Saturday morning lesson with my first teacher, Don George.

And of course, that’s how I had to feel, there’s no point in taking lessons if you’re not going to surrender to the teacher. That’s what I had done with Freddie back in ’94, followed his guidance to the extent of changing just about everything I had done before, in thirty years of playing: the way I held the sticks, the way I moved my hands and feet, the way I set up my drums, the way I sat at them, everything.

When Peter welcomed me into his backyard teaching studio, he told me he had watched my Anatomy of a Drum Solo DVD, and had appreciated it.

I said, “Hey, as far as I’m concerned, I’m a butcher, and you’re a surgeon.”

Peter laughed and spread his hands dismissively, “You’re not a butcher.”

I raised a hand up high, palm out, and smiled, “Hey, I’m a good butcher; I’d just like to get a little more surgery into it!”

So we began. The object of this course of study was to make me a better big-band drummer, but that proved to be a complicated assignment, and it started with the most basic element. Peter asked me to play slow quarter notes on the ride cymbal, just “ding, ding, ding,” and I did, with a kind of circular flick of the wrist between each beat. That was part of what I had learned with Freddie, to think about what happens between the beats, and make it part of the music, a kind of rotary motion that makes your playing a dance.

But Peter pointed at that little flick of the wrist, and said, “What’s that?”

Well, Peter had studied with Freddie too, so he knew what I was doing, and I was puzzled. I looked at him and said, “Um, timekeeping?”

Peter shook his head and put his fist to his chest, “Timekeeping is here. It’s internal, and doesn’t come from waving your hands in the air!”

He paused and raised a magisterial finger, “Own the time!”

So we started with that, working on remaking my ride stroke, again, the most basic of drumming techniques,with Peter offering visual metaphors like, “Pretend you’re scolding your dog,” with his index finger extended. “Your stick tip is a laser,” with his fingers indicating the range of motion it should have, a thumb and forefinger apart.As I tried to replicate his instructions, I would slip into old habits, and Peter raised his finger in the dog-scolding gesture, and scolded me: “Quit waving!”

I laughed and tried again.

Thinking about it later, I came to understand that Peter’s method didn’t actually contradict Freddie’s at all, it was simply a “higher evolution.” Perhaps now I was ready to take that understanding of “the dance” and internalize it, make it part of my thinking, part of my feeling, part of my time-sense, but not part of my actual motion.

After that first three-hour lesson, which seemed to fly by, Peter gave me a printed list of exercises to work on, and a CD of music to listen to and play along with, but, he stressed, on high-hat only.

I drove home that day feeling dazed by this flood of information, and a little unsure. Could I do this? Devote myself to months of daily practice? Would it do me any good?

But I resolved to try. Because that’s what I do, I’m a heck of a “tryer.” I had warned Peter right away, “I’m a slow learner, but I’m stubborn!”

During the final run of the Snakes and Arrows tour in July, I started working on Peter’s exercises in my pre-show warmup. When the tour was (finally!) over, I retreated to my Quebec house, where I set up a little practice corner in a spare room, just a throne, a high-hat, and a metronome (a lot more neighbor-friendly than a whole drumset, especially if you live on a lake in the woods). Every day I made time (in both senses) to keep working on Peter’s economy-of-motion ride stroke, and exploring time and rhythm at different tempos. Then I would put on the headphones and tap along with one of Peter’s “playalong” selections.

When I got back to California in early September, I scheduled another lesson with Peter, and the first thing he asked me to do was play a quarter-note ride on the high-hat. Peter watched me for a minute, then nodded and said, “Perfect.” What a glow of satisfaction (and surprise!) I felt at that moment.

As an adolescent, when I worked Saturdays and holidays at my dad’s farm equipment dealership, he would send me off to do something, polish a tractor, clean out parts bins, and when I finished, I would say, “Is that good enough?”

Without even looking at what I had done, Dad would say, “If it’s perfect, it’s good enough.” So in my father’s scale of values, my ride stroke was “good enough.”

It’s nice when hard work pays off.

Peter gave me some more exercises to work on, and I continued practicing every day. By then I had played nothing but high-hat for over two months (though I must say it never became tedious), and one day I sent Peter an e-mail, titled “Epiphany.”

Today, September 24, 2008, at precisely 4:32 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, for the first time in recorded history, I commenced to SWING!

It was as if I was looking down from a great height, for I watched my right hand ticking away on that high-hat, and it was OWNING THE TIME!

You know what I’m talkin’ about!

At my next lesson, Peter said he wanted me to play along with “Love for Sale,” one of the Buddy Rich arrangements I would be performing at the upcoming tribute concert, on his drums, right now. Jesu Christo! It would be the first time I had played an actual drumset in two months, and the first time I had ever played that song on a drumset. And not only was it in front of my master teacher, but he was going to record and film it (“for reference,” he said).

I struggled through it as best I could (at least I knew the arrangement, if only on high-hat!), then had to stand aside and watch ruefully while Peter sat down and played it, properly. (I thought that was really unfair!) His playing was delicate, eloquent, and economical, a kind of artful, effortless surgery that expressed supreme musicality. I have written before that I believe the first deadly sin for humans might be envy, but right then it was hard not to feel a little of that poison.

But fortunately, Peter teaches drumming with the same attitude my editor, Paul McCarthy, brings to my prose, an attitude I have described as “critical enthusiasm.” Rather than telling you what you’re doing wrong, they tell you what you’re doing right, then suggest how you might do it better. That works for me.”

–Neil Peart

from www.neilpeart.net