MIKE JOHN­STON

A lead­ing light in drum ed­u­ca­tion shares the big­gest lessons he’s learned

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: Chris Barnes pho­tos: adam gas­son

Drum ed­u­ca­tion has changed dra­mat­i­cally since the days of sit­ting in a class­room with a tu­tor, or pour­ing over a dog-eared book in the prac­tice room. Now, drum­mers can ac­cess a wealth of in­for­ma­tion on­line, whether that’s videos on YouTube, clips on In­sta­gram, or lessons with tu­tors or drum he­roes miles away via we­b­cam. No won­der the over­all stan­dard of drum­mers seems to be on the rise.

Mike John­ston was one of the first drum­mers to em­brace this bold new ap­proach. Tak­ing as much in­spi­ra­tion from Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Brian Cox as he does from Weckl, Gadd and Vin­nie, Mike was al­ways go­ing to take the in­no­va­tive ap­proach. His ini­tial goal was to cre­ate the iTunes of the drum ed­u­ca­tion world, and soon he was serv­ing up high-cal­i­bre video drum tu­ition, live lessons and first-rate in­ter­ac­tion on his Mike’s Lessons site, build­ing a huge stu­dent base in the process.

It’s been 10 years since Mike’s Lessons launched, and the man in charge has learned countless lessons along the way. Tech­nol­ogy moves fast, andMike is con­stantly work­ing to stay in touch. Fol­low­ing our in­ter­view (which took place at the Bath Mu­sic Work­shop), he was head­ing home to reshoot over 500 videos in 4K!

Mike isn’t one to rest on his lau­rels ei­ther. Most re­cently, he’s iden­ti­fied par­al­lels be­tween the fit­ness and drum ed­u­ca­tion worlds, and is ex­plor­ing ways to ap­ply what he’s learned to help ex­ist­ing and po­ten­tial new drum stu­dents.

Whether you’re think­ing of be­com­ing a teacher your­self, or you’re keen to peer be­hind the cur­tain of a suc­cess­ful on­line tu­ition busi­ness, Mike is def­i­nitely a leader in his field. Here, he shares some in­sight into what it takes to be a first-rate drum tu­tor in the dig­i­tal age.

You launched Mike’s Lessons in 2008. What have you learned over the last decade, and how has that changed your ap­proach to teach­ing?

“The big­gest thing I have had to learn is that not ev­ery­one in the world is as driven as a pro­fes­sional drum­mer is. Me and my bud­dies that are pro­fes­sional drum­mers: we were never told to prac­tise by our par­ents, we were al­ways told to stop! All we could do was prac­tise, and I couldn’t wait for the school bell to ring so I could get home and prac­tise. The av­er­age drum­mer needs a lit­tle more mo­ti­va­tion – es­pe­cially when this in­stru­ment is so frus­trat­ing.

“In the be­gin­ning, Mike’s Lessons was very à la carte. Now we’ve switched ev­ery­thing into a course for­mat with dif­fer­ent lev­els and dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. I re­alised that peo­ple couldn’t be left open to all the in­for­ma­tion in the world, and how could they pos­si­bly choose the right path? I needed to choose the path for them.

“Also, it was about re­ally en­forc­ing the pos­i­tiv­ity of our com­mu­nity, be­cause I wasn’t pre­pared for how neg­a­tive so­cial me­dia was go­ing to get. We can ac­tu­ally stand out just by be­ing de­cent hu­man be­ings. That should be the norm, but it be­came the ex­cep­tion.”

What about the evo­lu­tion of how the con­tent is de­liv­ered, or your meth­ods for ac­tu­ally pro­duc­ing the con­tent?

“That was a huge learn­ing curve. I started Mike’s Lessons in 2008. I’ve had to reshoot ev­ery les­son about ev­ery two years be­cause cam­era tech­nol­ogy keeps ex­plod­ing. As soon as I get back from this trip, I start re-film­ing over 500 lessons be­cause I have to shoot ev­ery­thing in 4K now. So many peo­ple are watch­ing me on their TV through their phone. They used to watch me on an iPod nano; now they’re blow­ing me up to a 50" TV.

“The au­dio has ac­tu­ally gone way back­wards, in a way that I think is bet­ter for ed­u­ca­tion. I’ve switched to a two-mic setup – one over­head and one in front of the kick. The kick mic is a large di­aphragm con­denser, an Au­dio Tech­nica 5045. I’m a con­nois­seur of drum lessons my­self, and I don’t like it when some­one is speak­ing to me and then when they go to the kit, the whole sound of the room gets vac­u­umed out and you hear flaw­less stu­dio drum­ming. That’s not what it would be like ifI was re­ally there. As a teacher, I want you to be in the room with me.”

In the past you said you don’t con­sider your­self a nat­u­ral drum­mer, need­ing to break down and re­con­struct parts to learn them. Has your play­ing be­come more nat­u­ral over the years?

“I def­i­nitely still feel like ev­ery new thing is a strug­gle. The only thing that has changed over time is that I’m just so com­fort­able with that process. I was just at a drum show and saw Richard Spaven. I was sit­ting front row, my mind blown. It was so fun, I was a true fan. I didn’t know where the ‘1’ was ever!

“When I was watch­ing that, I was think­ing, ‘Man, ifI want to bring this into my play­ing, I’ll have to go back to the be­gin­ning.’ I’m very com­fort­able with that. Since I’ve never lost that, I’ve never be­come a frus­trated teacher: what­ever you’re go­ing through, I just went through it my­self.”

Mike’s Lessons was an early leader of on­line drum ed­u­ca­tion. Now there’s a lot more out there, of vary­ing scale and qual­ity. How do you make your voice heard amongst all that?

“I think con­sis­tency is key. As many peo­ple as I’ve watched start, I’ve also watched that many peo­ple give up when they re­alise how much work is in­volved. I think I have been con­sis­tent for a long time; I have also never thought good was good enough. Who­ever has paid money into my busi­ness has seen it grow, and they also see that their money is go­ing to­wards new cam­eras and light­ing. I’m tak­ing your money and rein­vest­ing it for you.

“Con­sis­tency is what cre­ates trust. Right now on so­cial me­dia, the big­gest com­mod­ity is trust. If you have trust you can do any­thing, but if you lose trust you can’t get it back.

“The way I’ve al­ways looked at so­cial me­dia is that you have credit and debt. Ev­ery time I post

“As soon as I get back from this trip, I start re-film­ing over 500 lessons, be­cause I have to shoot ev­ery­thing in 4K now”

some­thing that is for my fol­low­ers, that is ‘credit’; then any time I call to ac­tion some­thing they would have to buy or at­tend, that goes ‘into debt’. If I have too many of those, I have to build that credit back up. If you watch my so­cial me­dia, there’s this ebb and flow. All that is very con­scious.”

Be­fore Mike’s Lessons you were a pri­vate tu­tor. What ad­vice do you have for drum­mers who are think­ing about get­ting into teach­ing?

“I have a lot of stu­dents who are hit­ting that point. As far as be­ing ready to teach, skills-wise, that is only about the dis­tance be­tween you and the stu­dents. Your av­er­age in­ter­me­di­ate drum­mer, if they’re pas­sion­ate about teach­ing, they’d be a great teacher for be­gin­ners. You also have to be okay with the fact that, as a pri­vate drum tu­tor, peo­ple are gonna walk through the door who lit­er­ally blow you out of the wa­ter. You have to go, ‘You’re amaz­ing and I don’t think I have any­thing to of­fer you, but I have these friends that would be per­fect for you.’ It was al­ways a big deal for me to know my lo­cal drum teach­ers, and to be able to give up stu­dents and send them to some­one else.

“The other thing that’s re­ally im­por­tant is to teach a stu­dent as an in­di­vid­ual. Do not come with ‘this is the Mike John­ston cur­ricu­lum’. There isn’t a cur­ricu­lum un­til I meet you and ask you who your favourite band is. I al­ways ask my pri­vate stu­dents: ‘If I was a drum ge­nie and gave you three wishes, what would they be?’ From that mo­ment on, ev­ery­thing I teach them will be tied to those three drum wishes. It’s my goal to make sure that you know, if we’re on a bor­ing pad, it’s be­cause it’s get­ting you closer to those wishes that you had on your first day.”

Do you think it’s im­por­tant for a drum tu­tor to have an on­line pres­ence?

“What’s re­ally im­por­tant is that your per­son­al­ity is avail­able on­line if you’re go­ing to put your­self out there as a tu­tor. If I was teach­ing here at the Bath Mu­sic Work­shop, be­fore the par­ent ever walks in they prob­a­bly know more about me than I could ever imag­ine – and I need to make sure that what­ever they found on­line rep­re­sents me re­ally well. I don’t think that pri­vate tu­tors are in any dan­ger of los­ing their jobs, but I think they need to do a bet­ter job of mak­ing sure the world knows how im­por­tant their job is. Begin­ner drum­mers need a per­son in the room with them to help them along.

“I think hav­ing an on­line pres­ence that rep­re­sents you as a per­son and as a drum­mer is re­ally im­por­tant. As a par­ent, I re­ally don’t need to see you play that much be­cause I as­sume you’re a good drum­mer, but I need to see and hear you speak. If I was a pri­vate drum in­struc­tor, I would make sure I had the most fun and re­laxed per­son­al­ity on cam­era, so that kids and par­ents would be like, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind spend­ing a half hour in a room with that per­son.’”

You host 10 drum camps per year – in­clud­ing fe­male-spe­cific camps?

“This is the first year that we stopped [the fe­male camps]. The cur­rent group of pro­fes­sional drum­mers is the rea­son that we stopped. I’ve done about 12 all-fe­male camps. We started about eight years ago, be­cause I have taught fe­male drum­mers my whole life and I felt that they have sto­ries that most male drum­mers can’t re­late to. I have no idea what it’s like to go into a mu­sic store and have some­one ask me, ‘Are you shop­ping for your boyfriend?’ I thought we should get them to­gether around the camp­fire, with­out my male pres­ence, and share their sto­ries. That was part of it. The other part was that I just wanted ev­ery fe­male drum­mer there to look around and see noth­ing but fe­male drum­mers, and be able to feel like they’re not alone.

“The only prob­lem I ever had with the ladies-only camp is that I wasn’t fe­male. I thought it was ex­tremely hyp­o­crit­i­cal of me to stand up here and say, ‘You can do any­thing’ when I’m not the ex­am­ple of it.

“This past two or three years we’ve had so many in­cred­i­ble fe­male drum­mers come on the scene and dom­i­nate. No-one ever tells me that Anika Nilles is their favourite fe­male drum­mer, they just say, ‘She’s my favourite drum­mer.’ I’ve been wait­ing so long for this! I felt I didn’t need to do the camps any­more. Anika can do it. Sarah Thawer can do it. I’ve been reach­ing out to Sarah, ask­ing her to take over my camps for me. We’ve al­ways had great fe­male

drum­mers: we just didn’t have so­cial me­dia to show us they ex­isted. The play­ing field is fi­nally lev­el­ling out, which is beau­ti­ful.”

You clearly have your fin­ger on the pulse of tech­nol­ogy. So what’s next for you and Mike’s Lessons?

“I think fit­ness in the tech world is prob­a­bly the most sim­i­lar to art, es­pe­cially drums. It’s about BPM. It’s about self-improve­ment. It’s about im­prov­ing when no-one else knows you’re do­ing it, kind of like go­ing to the gym.

“Fit­ness apps and web­sites are prob­a­bly where I’m get­ting most of my in­spi­ra­tion from right now. I look at that and I ex­plore how they’re track­ing calo­ries: I can track BPMs like that. How are they track­ing food in­take? I can track your in­take of educa­tional ma­te­rial that way. I’m signed up to ev­ery weight loss web­site on the planet and I’m look­ing to see how they’re keep­ing track of me – how many re­minders are an­noy­ing. That’s my mar­ket re­search right now. Then I pour all of that into Mike’s Lessons.”

You started out as a band guy, then moved into teach­ing. Last year you formed a new band, Man On The Moon. What drew you back to the band world?

“I re­alised that my teach­ing was very de­tached from be­ing a mu­si­cian. It was al­most like I was teach­ing you how to be a bet­ter drum­mer on In­sta­gram. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s been a re­ally long time since I’ve been in a band, and I need to re­assess what it’s like to be re­spon­si­ble with this stuff.’

“My band is al­most on the border­line of fu­sion – we’re some­where be­tween Chick Corea’s band and APer­fect Cir­cle. It’s rock, but it’s fu­sion-y, and I have some free­dom. Even with those things, I still have to be re­spon­si­ble to the song, and my play­ing has to in­volve my ears. When you play by your­self there’s no ears: you just play, and you step over ev­ery song you’re jam­ming to with your iPod!”

You’ve spent a lot of time in a stu­dio set­ting, play­ing solo. Have you be­come more aware of vol­umes and mix­ing your­self?

“Ab­so­lutely. Our band has kind of rock tonal­i­ties, but we prac­tise at my stu­dios, and they both hap­pen to have pretty small amounts of gear. I can’t just start swing­ing for the fences. I even changed my gear. Man On The Moon is the rea­son I went to a two-ride setup. I had to learn to play qui­eter. I had to re­ally work on my con­trol. I got back to the pad and, in­stead of lis­ten­ing, I vis­ually de­cided that any­thing higher than three inches is out right now.

“I switched to 20", 12", 14". My gear sized down, and ev­ery­thing got darker on the cym­bal front. I’m not only play­ing that with Man On The Moon: that’s my per­sonal choice for ev­ery­thing. My gear is not a huge rep­re­sen­ta­tion of me as an artist, it is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of me as an ed­u­ca­tor.

“I’ve al­ways made the choice that I will never play more gear than what I per­ceive the av­er­age drum­mer to have, be­cause I don’t ever want to teach some­thing where some­one says they don’t have that tom, or splash or China. I don’t play with splashes or Chi­nas, be­cause I don’t think ev­ery kid starts with a splash or a china. I’m choos­ing it based on what I think you have at home.”

So­cial me­dia is a huge part of daily life now. It can be a scary place for a drum­mer who lacks con­fi­dence. What are your thoughts on it?

“It’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to start pulling back a lit­tle bit on any­thing they no­tice is de­press­ing them on so­cial me­dia. When our idols grew up, they weren’t able to scroll through a feed and be de­feated by ev­ery sin­gle per­son on the planet. Dave Weckl grew up lis­ten­ing to al­bums in a bub­ble. He had to en­vi­sion the stick­ing pat­tern that Papa Jo Jones used. My dad gave me Billy Cob­ham’s Spec­trum al­bum. It didn’t come with video con­tent. I had to play the songs and work that out.

“I think what hap­pens now is the av­er­age young drum­mer – and by young I mean how long they’ve been play­ing – scrolls through this feed of who they think they should fol­low. That tells In­sta­gram to send them more drum­mers, and it’s so dis­heart­en­ing to see that ev­ery­one in the world is bet­ter than you. Or, even worse, you’re say­ing you’re bet­ter than him or her.

“The only drum­mers I’m fol­low­ing right now are close friends who hap­pen to be drum­mers. Most of the things I’m fol­low­ing are things that in­spire me. I’ve sought out great pho­tog­ra­phers, great cin­e­matog­ra­phers, great watch­mak­ers, great ar­chi­tec­ture. I’ve per­son­alised my In­sta­gram feed to be the most in­spi­ra­tional thing in my day.”

“What’s re­ally im­por­tant is that your per­son­al­ity is avail­able on­line if you’re go­ing to put your­self out there as a tu­tor”

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