Teaching Drummers with Physical Challenges or Stage Fright

What makes me ideally a teacher these days is that with my own students I can communicate and organize in an ideal setting for them, adapting to anyone from a four year old girl to an 80 year old man – these are actual students at present.

There are also people who have certain handicaps. I had one guy who came missing fingers. Another was missing a leg. He said he wanted to play drums but he was missing his lower left leg. He had lost it in a car accident. And I told him Def Leppard has a drummer with only one arm. He has plugs all over his drum set so that when he hits them they trigger strikers on the other side of his drum set.

Fortunately my student was missing his left leg, not his right, and he had a prosthetic leg, and I told him there are still things you can do with that. Maybe you can’t move as fast, but you don’t have to. He was just doing it for fun anyway. He was a student for quite a while.

Anxiety and Stage Fright

Different students have different challenges. One is anxiety. On young student’s mother said the child had a lot of anxiety when he plays. It told him we are going to work on that. A lot of it is in the way you sit or stand when you play. You have to be able to relax, and approach the room wherever you are playing as if it were your practice room.

He had stage fright big time, and we all do to some degree and work through that. Music is a great way to work through stage fright because you are on stage most of the time when you play. I told him you have to make the stage your second home, as comfortable as if you were sitting in front of the TV.

One guy told me years ago that when you come into a room, into a place where you are going to play a performance in before anyone gets there and get a good over-all visual of the room when you are relaxed, walk around and get a good look at it, later when everyone comes in, the audience is sitting their in the tuxedos or whatever and are looking at you and the band, look at them with big bunny ears on their heads and let yourself laugh and keep breathing. By doing that you take off some of that tension.

There was a study done years ago when I was at PASEC. Doctors were there and they had some mallet players participating in this demonstration. These were very confident marimba players, and they hooked up heart monitors to each of them with the readouts showing on a big screen and made video of it also. On the overhead screen you could see their heart rates as they were going to get up to play.

The doctors first talked about performance anxiety. You could see how the heart rates of the performers went up as they first got up to play and then the doctors worked with them for a while on their breathing and about how they were perceiving the audience. They said to think of the audience as their best friends and to think that everyone out there wants them to play well. Of course in reality nobody wants them to screw up or see a bad performance. Everyone wants to see others do a great job, and other musicians of course can see themselves in other players they are watching. The trick was to think of the audience as friendly rather than as judges. Then you are giving them an enjoyable performance rather than trying to get approval or applause. It changes the whole tone of the experience.

The problem I had with performance anxiety was memorization, like at times with the pipe and drum band because it’s such detailed music. If I got tense or uptight the first thing to go was memory and I would forget the parts, and it scared the crap out of me. In the first year it was harder but it was also too much music to get down in such a short time.

Some Books

I talked about that with Andrew Hoinacki, a renowned Scottish Snare drummer, who was working with us as a trainer for a while and he recommended a book called No More Nerves by James Laughlin, who is one of the top Scottish snare drummers in the world, winning awards something like twelve years in a row. Early on his biggest problem was also getting past that performance anxiety. So it’s a big challenge for even the best of us, and there are different approaches to it. There’s also an old book called The Inner Game of Tennis that is very famous.

The ideas in books like these are things you can use so you can let yourself play. You’ve practiced everything and know it inside and out, upside down and right side up, backwards and forwards. And you wonder why, when you get out there, do you have problems playing it in front of all these people. Your muscles tighten up and you’re not breathing right, which was a big problem I had–not breathing right.

Early on I learned by repeating things over and over and over again so I didn’t have to think about it, and then when I got out there I would try to sing the melody in my head instead of trying to think of the notes. Sing the melody and that will tie the notes together. And Andrew Hoinacki told me that too. He said, “You’ve got the hands, you’ve got the chops, the style you’ll get.” But he said the big problem with Scottish snare is that it’s a separate technique. Memorizing snare drum parts in a Scottish band is a separate technique that you only do for that specific music. You don’t do that for anything else.

Now, whatever sort of music you play, there will be challenges, and you may get nervous when performing in front of others. All your fears are in your head, not in the world in front of you. They are just your own imagination gone awry. Take charge of your mind and thoughts, be creative and make it your world.