This is a guest post written by Aeyons drums teacher Magesh
I was always interested in how two students could take a different amount of time to learn the same thing. When a student has their first lesson with me, I always ask them to play something on the drums that they are comfortable with. This helps me quickly access their timing and technique. It also shows me the type of music they are interested in.
Although I realized, it tells me very little about how their brain actually learns something. I would like to talk about the different types of cues that I have noticed in the way people learn. These subtle differences are what made me realize that you can't teach all students with the same method.
What are the main differences in the way that people learn music? In my experience, it is that some people learn through their eyes and some people through their ears. I have come up with a method to figure out what system works best for each individual student.
After a few lessons, once a student has a concept of basic music notation, I ask them to play a simple pattern on the snare drum. I play it first, then ask them to listen to the pattern and then repeat it. Next I show them 1 bar of written music and ask them to play it without me demonstrating it. What they don't know is, it is exactly the same as the previous rhythm they just played. I can tell in an instant which system is more efficient for them to learn.
I always tell new students when they are about to play new material to 'play slowly and count out loud.' I must have said these words thousands of times to students in my 23-year career as a music teacher. This is the first step to playing any new drum beat. What I found interesting is, the students that learn better with their ears don't like counting at all! Here is a real-life example of this. A student's father emails me saying his son has to learn 'Funky drummer' by James Brown for the school band. This is quite a complex drum beat. I was really wondering how I would teach it to this student who was young and hadn't been playing for very long.
As soon as we start the lesson, I show him what the beat looks like written out. He has a look on his face like I have asked him to sing the national anthem in Cantonese. To put it politely, he is a nervous wreck. Whatever confidence I had as a teacher has just left the room. What makes the beat to 'Funky drummer' so difficult, is how syncopated it is. This student is able to quickly mimic the beats that I play because he has amazing listening skills. I decided to try something different and tell him that I'm going to 'sing' the beat, almost beatbox it. I want him to join in when he understands. We have both put our sticks down.
This method is to simply understand this rhythm in our minds. 'Boom, boom, cha, ta, ta, doom, doom, cha'. This kid sings it correctly pretty much straight away. Once this happens, it takes only a few attempts on the drums before he is successfully playing on the kit. I then get him to look at the music as he plays the beat, so his brain can link up the audio with the visual. It would have taken me ten times longer to teach this to him if I only used the sheet music.
When people talk about students learning how to sing, they often use phrases like 'They have great pitch' or are 'tone-deaf' on the other end of the spectrum. What they are talking about is the ability to hear a note, then reproduce it with their voice. This is similar if a drummer hears a beat. Although many people could replay the loudest and most obvious parts of the beat, a lot of times the subtleties would be lost.
I once had a student who was completing their final year music exams. The student had played for years and had great technique and reading ability. We were working on the introduction of the final piece when she told me that she forgot her book. I told her not to worry as I had played this piece countless times. I then proceeded to play the four-bar opening sequence on the drum kit. It wasn't too complex but had a buzz roll which can be hard on a technical level. This student really struggled to get past the first two bars. She told me she wouldn't be able to play it without the music. Luckily, I had a spare copy of the book. She had absolutely no problem sight-reading it, which was the exact opposite scenario of the last student I mentioned.
Knowing whether a student learns better with their ears or with their eyes can greatly reduce the level of frustration for both teacher and student. It was only through years of trial and error did I realize the commonalities of students learning systems. Obviously, reading music is an important aspect of learning an instrument, although understanding how to teach a student is just as important.