Steve Smith's Drum Talk:
Learning from Mentors

When I started playing the drums my parents brought me to a teacher, Billy Flanagan, who started me from the beginning. The first lesson was how to hold the sticks and how to count four quarter notes to a bar of 4/4 time. I ended up studying with him from the time I was nine years old until I was seventeen when I graduated from high school and then went on to the Berklee College of Music.

Billy was more than a drum teacher to me, he became my first mentor. Webster's Dictionary defines Mentor as: 1) a wise and trusted counselor or teacher, and 2) an influential senior sponsor or supporter. Billy was all those things to me and studying with him established a way of learning that I greatly benefited from and have found extremely inspiring and helpful. I first learned about Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa from him since that was the type of player he was, coming from the Big Band Era. But more important than that he helped me get excited about playing the drums because he was excited about the drums.

After the eight years with Billy I studied with Gary Chaffee at Berklee. Gary also became a mentor to me. I was greatly influenced not only by the drum lessons themselves, but like my relationship with Billy, I wanted to know what music he listened to. I wanted to know why he liked it, if I didn't understand it, he helped me "hear" it. I wanted to adopt the attitudes and tastes of these influential people. I thought they knew so much, and they did know a lot, much more than I did.

I studied with Alan Dawson at Berklee and he too became a role model and mentor for me. These mentors took an interest in me and gave me encouragement when I needed it. I felt as though they believed I had talent and ability, even when I was struggling for my own inspiration. I remember thinking that I would be going to a lesson soon and I wanted them to be proud of me so it helped me to work harder. This was so valuable to me as a young player because it helped me to develop a belief in myself. That kind of support is in my foundation now, and sometimes when I'm discouraged, I can help myself by getting in touch with how much they believed in me.

Through the years I've been very comfortable with the mentor/student relationship so I have sought it out with different musicians. Jim Chapin has taught me a lot as has Ed Thigpen. It's probably why it feels so natural for me to study with Freddie Gruber. He has become a mentor to me too. I trust his insight into my playing and I love listening to his stories of all the jazz greats. Even at 45 years old, I feel there is so much to learn that I'll never learn as much as I would like, but I'll keep trying.

I've been very fortunate to meet some of the greatest living jazz musicians, but when I can get to know them and they take an interest in me, it is very special. I have gotten to know Louie Bellson through the years and he has shown me a lot of things on the drums and it's been an honor to just hang out with him and listen to him speak about life and music. Mike Mainieri has also been a very influential person to me. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Now I realize I'm moving into the role of mentor with some of the younger players and I feel like it's a natural part of the cycle. I've been learning from these mentors and from my peers and from my own playing experiences. Now is the time where I begin to pass on some of this information and help inspire the next generation so the music stays vital and alive.

There are a few people I get together with where I feel I have the relationship of mentor to them. In future years I will probably do more of this, but right now I'm so busy with recording projects, touring, clinics and now that I'm starting to write a book and plan for a new video, that I don't have any time for private teaching. In this age of the internet and emails and forums, we can more easily communicate than ever before.

Don't be fooled though -- this forum we have here on my website, or any website for that matter, is no substitute for a living, breathing master/apprentice or mentor/mentee relationship. If you don't have a relationship with a respected elder or have a good teacher, I suggest seeking that out and enriching your life in a new way.

There are lots of interviews in magazines where "famous" players say, "I taught myself" or "I don't need a teacher, it will suppress my creativity." I've heard players say "I'll just get a video, I don't need to take lessons, they are boring." To me this is such a limited way of learning.

When it gets right down to making music, we are all "self taught." No one can "teach" you how to make music, we learn that through trial and error. We get experience and learn from the other musicians we are working with, and we develop our own sense of what worked and what didn't.

What I am suggesting isn't a substitute for teaching yourself, but in addition to teaching yourself developing a relationship with a mentor who can give you instruction on how to play your instrument better. A person who has knowledge about music that surpasses your own and is willing to share that information with you. Someone whom you respect and you recognize that they see the potential in you and they help you see that potential yourself. That can be a source of inspiration especially when you're feeling down or in a musical slump.

One more thing in regard to staying inspired: get out and hear live music as much as you can. I recently went on the road for some gigs with Vital Information and some of the gigs were well attended, but some were not very well attended. I wonder if because of the ease of home "entertainment" such as TV, renting movies on video, surfing the Internet, etc., people are going out less to see real, live musicians play. This is a shame because in my opinion no CD, video or Internet access to a player comes close to what you can experience from sitting in the same room with them and hearing, seeing and feeling them do their thing.

In closing, I've been lucky to be introduced to mentors who were very influential to my musical development. I believe in the idea because it worked and continues to work for me. If you already have relationships like this, congratulations, continue to develop them and surely you'll become a mentor yourself. If you've never experienced a mentor in your life I suggest first opening yourself up to the idea and then finding a private teacher or if you see someone on a gig who moves you as a player, see if they will get together with you and take it from there. You can't contrive this relationship, but you can open yourself up to the potential of the relationship and then let it naturally evolve.

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Click the links, below, to read "Drum Talk" articles written by Steve Smith:

Drummer Magazine, 2007 (PDF)

Modern Drummer (three parts)
Choosing the Right Equipment
The Art of Practice (an excerpt)
Interview with Rhythm Magazine
Drums du jour: Dealing with Rental Drums
Vital Reading: My Favorite Music Books
Learning from Mentors
My Setup and Equipment: The Early Years
My Setup and Equipment: My Setup Today