||Chris Baker Interview|
Chris Baker is a professional drummer and private teacher in the Akron, Ohio, area. He’s been teaching at the Aurora School of Music for over six years. Chris was kind enough to take time out of a mixing session with his rock trio Dave Hammer’s Power Supply to talk to me about playing and teaching drums, as well as his use of The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo with his students.
Chris: I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I love your book, and I use it a lot.
Brian: Well thanks, Chris, that’s great to hear! So when did you start playing drums?
Chris: I started in 4th grade, joined the band program in 5th grade. Something that’s important and worth mentioning is that my parents were both professional musicians. So from very early on, I had support. My dad was a trombone player and the chair of jazz studies at Kent State University, and my mom was a clarinet player and a public school music teacher.
And also, they always knew the importance of studying privately. I took lessons pretty much the whole time from the get-go. I had three or four years of piano before I started percussion. I should have stuck with it.
I hated piano—did not like practicing piano, and now I’m a classic case of someone who regrets not sticking with the piano and playing it longer.
Brian: What was your experience with drum or percussion lessons growing up?
Chris: I took drum set lessons from an area jazz drum set player named Mark Gonder, and private lessons on the snare drum with Tim Flaherty, who was affiliated with the band program that I was in. In high school, I started taking lessons with Dr. Larry Snyder who is at the University of Akron.
I started playing professionally around age 16. I was doing some jazz gigs and blues and rock gigs—mostly all drum set stuff.
Brian: And it paid better than flipping burgers, I bet.
Chris: In some ways, I got more gigs back then than I do now!
Brian: And so when did you decide to start teaching?
Chris: I taught lightly through college—2 or 3 students at a time just for extra money. Then when I left school and came back to Northeast Ohio in 2007, I grew it to between 30 and 40 students per week at any given time.
Brian: With that many students, you must really enjoy it—you’re not just doing it to pay the bills.
Chris: I love my students, and I love the Aurora School of Music where I teach. They mainly offer private lessons there.
Brian: Oh, right, now I remember that the school buys the book in batches of 6 to resell to students.
Chris: They do, and actually the receptionist was the person who discovered The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo. She had been looking for a book that could be used with very young drum students. I use it with a wide range of ages, but she’s the one who found it.
Brian: Does Aurora use the Suzuki Method?
Chris: Some of the teachers there do. The owner of the school, Vera Holczer, is Hungarian, so there’s some use of the Kodaly method as well.
Vera checks in with me every three or four months just to make sure that everything’s cool. Other than that, it’s totally hands-off. I can teach the way I want to teach. It’s great. That’s one of the main reason I’ve stayed there for six years.
Brian: What other kinds of performing have you done since age 16?
Chris: I mainly play drums and drum set. I went to school for percussion performance, so I know how to play orchestral percussion instruments, but it’s not really my thing anymore.
Brian: So you’re playing in bands now?
Chris: I do a lot of jazz freelance work. My main gig is playing with modern jazz alto saxophonist named Bobby Selvaggio, who is on Arabesque Records. I also do some society gigs here and there. I also have a pet project playing with a power trio called Dave Hammer’s Power Supply.
Brian: Yeah, it’s cool to have a rock gig and a jazz gig going at the same time.
Chris: Yeah, I love it. The diversity of the music I play is important to me. It helps keep things fresh.
Brian: What other books do you use beside The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo? Do you integrate rudiments from the get-go?
Chris: It depends a lot on the student, but I often do a lot of rudiment work. I try to use your concepts from The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo on drum set. I also use a book called The Visual Drum Set Method Book for real little kids on drum set.
I use Stone’s Stick Control, all the Albright Contemporary books, Garwood Whaley’s books, a lot of the Wilcoxon stuff for rudimental stuff, and the Rudimental Cookbook, which my students enjoy.
Brian: That’s a nice variety.
Chris: I also use drum set for leverage with beginning snare drum students because they always want to get right to that.
Brian: Does anything drive you crazy about The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo? Is anything in the wrong order for you?
Chris: No, actually my favorite thing about it is the progression that it takes, and in what order rhythms are introduced, and concepts are introduced. I still don’t have any students who have made it through the book yet, since I’ve only been using it for about a year. I’m just now getting into stroke heights in the accents section of the book with a few of my students.
Brian: I’ve found that in pages 59-60, it’s important to have students find all the down strokes and all the up strokes in each exercise before they play straight through.
Chris: So you really emphasize the downs and ups in particular. That makes sense.
Brian: Yeah, those are the weird ones. Without finding them ahead of time, they get to these notes and don’t prep for the next note. It’s better if they go through and give themselves visual milestones: “Oh, that needs to be a down stroke because it’s the last accent. Oh, that needs to be an up stroke because it’s the last unaccented note before an accent.”
Chris: That’s the spot that seems to be moving a little more slowly for some students.
Brian: Yeah, that’s one place in the book where they have to take a little extra time to see how things are going to be before they play. I’ve also been having them work through pages 59-60 before playing “Cáscara Creation” on pages 57-58. That seems to flow better.
The other place like this is the Porcupine Pig reading on pages 45-47.
Chris: With the sticking.
Brian: Yeah, with the left hand leads. First we define a group of porcupines—one, two, three, four, or even five porcupines in a row. In each exercise, they go through and find all the groups. Then I ask them to find the groups that start on beat 2 or beat 4, because those will start on the left hand. They’ll go through again to give themselves visual milestones—“Oh, I see it coming. This group starts on beat 4, so I need to start with my left hand.”
Chris: So that gets them thinking about larger sections at a time, rather than beat to beat. That makes a lot of sense.
Brian: Right, and I’ve discovered this just in the last 3 or 4 years. There are some extra little thoughts that need to happen before they just start flailing.
Chris: That’s great. I can’t wait to try out some of these ideas.
Brian: And remember, I’m totally available to having you check in with me if you start feeling bogged down in a section. If I haven’t thought of how to get through a problem, it’ll be good for me to think about it.
Chris: I was going to tell you that one of the things I’ve been doing is having students play at recitals at a local country club. Some kids who are using your book will pick a solo or even just an exercise from a section to play, and then Vera improvises a piano accompaniment to their rhythm.
Brian: Wow, nice idea!
Chris: Yeah, that works well, and they really enjoy it.
Brian: Sometimes I’ll get an energetic student who just wants to hit everything. If he’s working on “Caterpillar Tiger,” I’ll tell him, “Look, you take this home and get out the pots and pans. Every Caterpillar goes on one pot or pan, every Tiger goes on another one, and every Pig goes on another, and they just eat it up. It’s fun.
Chris: Yeah, and I bet the parents love that too.
Brian: (laughs) Yeah, exactly!
As you’re teaching, do you ever wish you had a resource that would help bridge a gap in your students’ development?
Chris: Your book filled one of the huge gaps that I thought that there was. I would like to see an intermediate snare drum method book that would come after your book. I teach a lot of jazz drumming, and there are a lot of holes there.
Brian: I’m sure you’ve got stuff that you’ve written but not formally published.
Chris: Yeah, there are things I’ve used over the past six years that I can compile. There is a gap in introductory jazz drumming. There’s the Riley book, but that book gets difficult really fast. Ted Reed is old-school, and the Chapin book is old-school and dry, and I’ve always wanted a book that gets kids started on jazz and teaches them how to comp with the left hand and set up big band figures.
Brian: I always warn my jazz drum set students that there will be a hurdle. I have a large packet that I give them, sometimes just a few pages at a time, that takes them through every possible swung eighth note rhythm that can exist with the jazz ride pattern. It’s more complete and carefully organized than Syncopation. It’s a little dry, but once students start realizing that they’re building an amazing vocabulary, they start to say, “Whoa, this is cool.” But I always warn them ahead of time that a lot of students don’t make it over this hurdle, and they’ll really need to be committed.
Chris: I’m glad that you said that because it’s kind of the same thing for me. It’s a turnoff to a lot of students. I totally get that jazz is a difficult world to enter. It just seems like a huge mountain to climb to a kid. They often don’t want to do it, and they just want to go back to rock beats.
Brian: Yeah, they have to hear jazz somewhere, or a jazz drummer, or something has to capture them to give them to motivation to push through. I’m glad to hear it’s the same with you too. It sounds like it would be good to have something that has a little dazzle to it and starts a little simpler than the books that are out there.
There is one book you should know about—The Jazz Drummer’s Reading Workbook, by Tom Morgan. It gets into setting up figures. My favorite part of it is that there are two accompanying CD’s, each with a ridiculous number of listening and/or play-along tracks. Every single exercise in the entire book, whether it’s a four-bar exercise, or a full-length arrangement with combo, has two tracks to play along with—one with drums and one without.
Chris: Well great, I’m definitely going to look at that.
Brian: I have a little packet of eight pages called “The Jazz Resolution Evolutions” that I use with my students before I start them in the Morgan book. Have you ever checked out the book by Bob Moses, Drum Wisdom?
Chris: Yeah, I have.
Brian: He talks about the eight resolution points. So I get them going on each resolution: “Here’s resolution ONE. Here are many ways you can set up snare drum and crash cymbal on beat ONE with longer and longer fills leading into it. Now we’ll do the same thing with bass drum on ONE.” We do that for all eight resolution points. Again—BIG HURDLE. But once they can do that, and they’ve worked on the simple Ted Reed-style independence rhythms on snare and bass drum with the ride pattern, they have some facility to be ready to move to the Tom Morgan book.
Chris: That’s great. And then, how do you get them applying all of that knowledge? Do you run combos of students?
Brian: My most successful students on drum set are either in their school jazz band, or they’re in a local program called the Tucson Jazz Institute, which happens to be one of the best youth jazz programs in the country.
Chris: I have a lot of students who are working on jazz, and they’re ready to start playing the music with other living, breathing people, and there’s just not the opportunity. They might be playing in their school jazz band, but they’re playing “Thriller.”
Brian: Right, and they’re looking around wondering, “Why should I practice jazz?”
Brian: Well, that might be an opportunity there for you—start a community youth jazz program.
Chris: We’re working on it, but it’s tough to get everyone’s schedule to converge.
Brian: If you just set it for a specific day and time, eventually it will become a primary activity for the students. I think the momentum will take care of itself once it gets rolling.
Chris: Yeah, I’m just going to have to do it.
Brian: Exactly! Well, I really appreciate you taking time to talk to me today, Chris.
Chris: Thank you for taking the time as well.
Chris Baker can be reached through the Aurora School of Music, in Aurora, Ohio.
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