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David and Art - "Driving for Drums"


Music teachers have one of the central and most crucial roles in the art world.

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My son is a drummer and he takes lessons from a guy who runs a drum studio up in Cleburne, about 70 miles away. My son’s had some great teachers over the years here in town, yet it’s the case that he really just gelled with this guy and his style of playing and the way he teaches.

His experience speaks to the complex process of teaching music and learning how to play an instrument. It’s not just one type of understanding that’s involved. There’s a technical level of learning that means mastering the physical motions required to play the parts of a song. This is what you hear going on in a practice room when a piano player is playing the same phrase over and over.

But there’s also a component that’s much harder to describe, that, at the moment, I can only think of as calling “the feel” of playing. You have to be able to sense how something ought to be played through an emotional connection, an emotional investment in playing.

While both can be taught, they’re taught in different ways. One is learned by rote and repetition; the other is learned almost by osmosis—by catching on to something that someone else is demonstrating.

Teaching is a crucial if often overlooked part of the art world. In some ways it’s not unlike teaching history, or at least how I approach it. A music teacher isn’t just teaching technique in the same way that I’m not just teaching a list of names and dates. I tell my students—and basically anyone who’ll listen—that there’s so much history I can’t hope to teach but a fraction of it. What I want to do for my students is show them that history is worth caring about and involves a way of thinking that is continually enlightening and enriching. To show them that is something they can really get into, even love.

Music teachers basically have to do the same thing—they have to be able to convey that the drums or the violin or the guitar is something that can be understood, mastered, and most of all loved in a way that makes the life of the player more enlightened and enriched.

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.