THE BACKGROUND: I taught drum lessons for over 5 years. It began in 2011 with a desire to monetize my musical skills and bring in some money to help get me through my undergraduate studies in college. When I first started, I felt pretty unqualified and had no idea what I was doing but encouraged by other musicians, I found a studio space to rent, bought a beater kit for students to play, and put up some flyers. It took off eventually (more about the business development in a later post) and I got a crash course in teaching, entrepreneurship, and some great personal development along the way.

My students were the lifeblood of the business and I appreciated every one of them. They came from all walks of life, varying in age and skill level. Some would take one lesson and I’d never hear from them again, other stayed with me for years. When I started out, I thought it would be a fun project, I might make a few bucks, and get some useful knowledge. I got much more than I expected.

I recently had to put teaching on hold. With a full-time job, graduate school, a full-time band, a blog to manage, and a fiancé (who graciously puts up with my crazy self-inflicted schedule), I realized I could only neglect sleep in favor of teaching for so long. I miss it and will someday return to teaching, but much more valuable than the money I got for my services was the experience and insight gained. Here’s a few things learned along the way.

  • Everyone has different motivations
    • The story: Some of my students came to me having played before and just wanting to hone a few skills. Some had been playing since a young age or their parents were making them take lessons. Others wanted to cross drumming off of their bucket list. And a few just thought it sounded like a fun hobby to try. While any motivation was fine with me, the reason that led them to me often had a strong bearing on how they learned. Kids who were there at the direction of their parents often lacked the attention and drive to really learn because it was a chore for them. Therefore, I would try to keep things light and less stringent for them. People who came having already taken lessons before would often push through things faster, sometimes to a fault. Old habits die hard and if a bad technique had been picked up in the past, it was hard to get them to correct it. Often I would be forced to skip foundational elements to get to more advanced material (at their request) to keep them interested. People who had ‘always wanted to try drumming’ often had high expectations of themselves and would get easily discouraged when it turned out to be harder than they expected. Though dedicated, these students required a softer touch and more encouragement to feel they were succeeding. The easiest students to teach were those who dove into lessons with no expectations beyond wanting to try it on for size. They usually took direction well, got excited at progress, and would go above and beyond their ‘homework.’
    • The lesson: It took me awhile to realize that not everyone liked drumming for the same reasons I did and therefore didn’t interact with the instrument in the same way. I drum because I love it, because it makes sense to me and I derive a great deal of joy from playing. Not everyone is the same way. They may want to be a drummer but not be terribly focused on the actual playing or they perceive music in a whole different way, maybe less personal than I. Whatever the situation, I realized that before I could effectively teach or even communicate with someone, I needed to know where they were coming from. Just because something made perfect sense to me didn’t mean it would translate to them and my expectations needed to be dynamic so I could adapt to their needs. A great teacher understands the student before the learning process begins. Which leads to…
  • All learning styles are not the same
    • The story: Some people blew through lesson plans, some didn’t. I had some prodigy students, many fell in the middle where it took effort to learn but they were very capable, and a few wanted it bad enough but just lacked an important skill; be it an internal sense of rhythm, the coordination, or the confidence. While I truly believe that none of my students ever failed in any way at drumming, some were more naturally skilled than others. I had to be able to gauge the ability level, as well as patience and temperament, in order to be effective. Some would get angry or discouraged when they felt like they stalled or faced difficulty, other took it in stride.
    • The lesson: People’s reactions to new information or processes will vary based on their style of learning. Some people blast through new information with ease and can’t wait for more. Some need small doses and once they’ve mastered a bit, they can accept more but not before. Some people need to be spoon-fed or have constant reassurance that they are doing a good job. I also realized that learning style didn’t necessarily reflect skill. Just because someone was great didn’t mean they weren’t hard on themselves. Some who didn’t try as hard didn’t seem bothered by their lack of effort. I experienced all combinations. At the end of the day, it’s similar to motivations, a good teacher will understand a student’s personality and disposition before forming expectations and lesson plans. Leading us to…
  • People communicate in their own way
    • The story: I always did my best to keep it light and fun in the studio when teaching. No one wants to pay to feel pressure or get lectured. But some wanted more of a push than others. I had students who asked for challenges, who went out of their way to show that they understood a concept well enough to move on ahead of schedule. I had extroverts who would chat through the lessons and introverts who would barely say a word. Eventually, I would get everyone to crack a smile but some took more work than others. The whole point was that I wanted people to feel comfortable. Learning is much more likely when the guard is down and people can relax. Some people ended up being more friends than students, some would barely say two words to me the whole session. Either way, if they were learning and enjoying themselves, it all worked for me.
    • The lesson: You can’t talk to everyone the same way. Humor is not a constant, small talk can be torture for people, and especially in an educational setting people can feel vulnerable. I always found that constant encouragement was the best practice. I didn’t pander to people and I refused to lie to them about their progress, but the positivity opened people up. It took a while before I realized that my students saw me in a position of power as their teacher and I learned to respect that. People often want to be treated all the same, and in the sense of equality I think that’s a good practice, but there are crucial differences in the way people react to the things you say and do and you need to be sensitive to those differences to be an effective communicator.

THE TAKEAWAY: People are unique. We often get so involved in our own little worlds that we assume everyone must perceive reality in the same way and have the same tendencies, passions, and conclusions as us. You need to make it a point to understand peoples’ situations, where they’re coming from, what they expect, what they can tolerate, and how they communicate. Judgment is never a good idea when it comes to others, but if you are going to make a conclusion about someone, make sure you see the whole picture. Even people you have known for years may have issues or secrets that you are not aware of which alter the way they operate. You haven’t been them, haven’t lived their life, so be patient with people, be empathetic, and remember that there is always more than one way to do things. It’s important to get away from your ego (we’ve all got one!). If you are in a position of power (manager, teacher, mentor, etc.), it is natural to want to give direction and lead, just make sure you understand the people you are directing and leading before you get started.

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Educated but self-effacing, opinionated but reticent, and unabashedly eccentric; Alex aka Squatch is the lead writer for A life-long musician, he founded the blog in the interest of helping independent artists gain exposure and to provide insight into navigating the creative arts industry.

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