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