|Brandon Runyon Interview
Brandon Runyon is a busy teacher and performer in Chicagoland. With a growing studio of private students, plus leading percussion classes at Hinsdale South, Hinsdale Central, and Metea Valley, his teaching career is taking off quickly.
Amazingly, Brandon grew up in the same town (Oswego, Illinois), and even attended the same junior high and high schools that I did. His high school band director was the award-winning Margene Pappas, who had been my junior high band director decades earlier.
Brian: When did you start playing percussion?
Brandon: I started in the sixth grade in Oswego, and I wanted to play drums earlier when I was in fourth grade. I went up to Hicks Brothers Music in Aurora, but they wouldn’t start me because I was “too young,” ironically enough—speaking about your book.
So I started playing guitar, but I didn’t really practice. I wasn’t that engaged. When the opportunity came around to join band in sixth grade in Thompson Junior High, I went through the process and said, “I’m playing drums. I’m playing drums!” and the rest is history.
So I’ve been at it for twelve years consistently now.
Brian: And then when did you start playing gigs outside of school?
Brandon: When I was in high school, I played with these little jazz combos—a little offshoot with some of my friends from jazz band and marching band. We played weddings and opened up for my teacher Glenn Schneider’s shows. Rock bands were my go-to bands in high school, including a metal band. I sang in a rock band, played drums in a rock band. We would go out and play small gigs in the VFW, or whatever local venue there was. It was just one of those stereotypical fifteen-year-old, making-it-happen kind of experience.
Brian: Any memorable gigs from back then?
Brandon: Yeah, honestly, the very first time that little jazz combo opened for Glenn’s group at the wedding. That was a cool experience. I was usually kind of shy behind the kid as a jazz player, and I just went for it at this gig. Glenn came up afterward and said, “Where the hell did THAT come from? Why don’t you play like that in the big band at school?” It was one of those candid moments between teacher and student. It was just the environment that allowed me to open up. From that moment, my confidence behind the kit started to develop.
Not drum-related, but I also used to sing in rock bands. Those were always fun and interesting gigs playing around Aurora, Naperville, and Downers Grove.
Brian: Then, of course, working out singing while drumming is a challenge too.
Brandon: Yeah, the indie band that I’m playing in—we lost our lead guitar player. We’ve been trying to flesh out songs with three-part harmony, and they’ve been forcing me to put a mic in my face while I’m playing drums. That’s been an interesting experience.
Brian: Yeah, I remember playing with a band that played “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and I was having to play a shuffle groove and sing those intricate harmonies at the same time.
Brandon: Yeah, I can remember being in my studio practicing harmonies and trying to play parts at the same time.
Brian: Yeah, it’s like Ted Reed independence exercises all over again.
So when did you start teaching?
Brandon: I taught a little bit even when I was in high school—family friends and kids who were in Thompson Junior High. Then I did take a little break for a while. I didn’t have any students when I was at the University of Illinois. I was figuring things out for the first year and a half. I was pretty naďve and wasn’t practicing enough.
Then once I got out of college a couple years ago, I started hitting it [teaching] hard. I got back in touch with Glenn. I got in at Metea Valley doing drumline, and then subsequently the percussion ensemble and steel band program as well.
And then it snowballed from there—just picking up private students in Oswego. Now I teach private lessons at Thompson, and one of the other new junior highs in Oswego.
I wish I would have taught more while I was in college, but I was pretty naďve—balancing the partying with the playing and the eighteen-year-old stuff.
Brian: When I was in high school, Margene Pappas started sending me private students, but I really didn’t know 100% what I was doing. Then, I had a couple years in college before I started teaching again. The experience playing at that level flips the switch for many things related to private teaching.
Brandon: Absolutely. You develop a lot of extra-technical skills—the musicality that you develop is incredible. My last few years at the U of I, I didn’t really play a lot of drum set. I was busy putting together recitals, new music ensembles, steel band, gamelan. I studied a little bit with [Ricardo] Flores doing some work on [drum set] styles. Then I came up to Roosevelt and did a year up here in Chicago—pretty much just a straight orchestral conservatory style. No one did drum set—there wasn’t even a drum set to play on.
So it was interesting when I got out [of Roosevelt], I wanted to play in a band again. I started playing drum set more and more, and I realized that while technically, from a chops perspective, I hadn’t developed as a drum set player, all my experiences playing with chamber music, orchestras, and new music ensembles conglomerated into a better ear and better sensitivity. Even though my drum set hadn’t developed, my overall musicality had developed to a point where getting back to the drum set felt great. It had aided me in another way.
The same thing goes for teaching, like you were saying. What I find so much is that all of a sudden when you have to teach flams, as a generic example. As you have to explain your personal pedagogy, it really makes you sit there and assess, “What is it exactly that I do? How do I approach this personally for myself? And then how can I articulate that and share it with somebody else…
Brian: In the most efficient way possible.
Brandon: Yeah, efficiently, clearly, and in a way that’s easily repeatable. So having the collegiate experience and not teaching for a few years or so flipped a lot of switches and gave me perspective. But teaching itself has made me a more efficient player even. Not only do I have to explain things efficiently, it helps me break down my own personal pedagogy in a very efficient way. So when I’m sitting there practicing, I know, “This is exactly what I’m thinking. This is the technique, or my approach to playing this rudiment or this WHATEVER.”
It forces me to break it down for myself which is a very interesting experience, which is something I didn’t really expect.
Brian: Right, and you have to follow your own advice!
Brandon: Yeah, you have to talk to yourself!
Brian: Like when I tell my students, “Slow down and use smaller chunks.” And then I go to practice something, and I’m saying to myself, “Better slow down and use smaller chunks.”
Brandon: I was just having this conversation with someone the other day. I was saying it’s so funny how I catch myself all the time doing the exact same things that I tell my students not to do. It’s that crawl-walk-run sort of thing. Everyone wants to get behind the drum set and start running, but you’ve got to go slow, break it down, and build that foundation.
Brian: So do you mainly teach privately, or are you also doing classes?
Brandon: It’s actually a pretty even split. I teach at three different high schools—Metea Valley in Aurora, and both Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central High Schools in the Hinsdale District as a percussion instructor doing marching drumline, percussion ensemble. I do steel band at Metea. So there is quite a bit of class ensemble teaching.
Then I’ve got a private studio too. I just picked up about three or four new kids in the past week, which has been excellent. I’ve got about sixteen or seventeen students right now. It’s a great mix.
Brian: So you’re teaching all percussion instruments privately. It’s not just drums and drum set.
Brandon: Oh, yes. Drum set isn’t a particular focus of mine at all. At the U of I, it was a lot of marimba, contemporary music, multi-percussion. As I said, drum set did take a back seat for a while, and it’s really been fun for the past year-and-a-half getting back into it—just PRACTICING drum set again.
Brian: I remember it well. After I graduated from college, I practiced drum set for eight to ten hours per day.
Brandon: Yeah, it’s great busting out Garibaldi’s Future Sounds, the Riley books, the Uribe books, getting my Latin styles up to snuff.
It’s a total mixed bag with my students. I get into a rotation with them. Even drum set students start at the pad or snare drum getting the hands and technique. I’m a huge stickler about that. If the technique and the foundation isn’t there, there’s no point going on.
Brian: Yeah, in fact I tell them they get to play drum set once they can play the solo “Echo” on page 33. When they can play it perfectly in three attempts or less in a lesson, then we can start drum set. It really gives them a motivation to stick with those first four big solos, and then reading a big solo that has all those dynamics flying all over the place.
Brandon: I don’t have anything quite as concrete as that as far as a jumping point to drum set.
Brian: Well, it’s adjustable. If I get a new student who’s going to be distraught for two months while he’s trying to learn those first few solos, I’m going to be flexible.
Brandon: Yeah, you’ve got to make those compromises sometimes. I try to get my students on a rotation of snare drum, drum set, and mallets. And I try to keep it open to whatever they want to do, whether it’s drum set or mallets, or IMEA auditions. I try to tailor lessons to each kid’s development through my curriculum to be sure they’re getting what they want. It’s only so much about me.
Brian: Yeah, I think it’s more of an old-school approach, but I know of teachers who still say, “Here’s the way I do it, and we’re going step-by-step through this, and there are no alterations allowed.” But these days we’re up against soccer, gymnastics, and everything else.
Brandon: We have taken a back seat unfortunately sometimes. I have students in some of my large ensembles come in panicked: “I’ve got this math test, and this, and that, and I’m so sorry I haven’t practiced.” If I’ve built up a rapport with them, I say, “My concern is not how you do in your math class. I’m here to make this ensemble sound good.” It’s unfortunate how music is sometimes seen as a secondary, as extra-curricular, isn’t as necessary to these kids’ development.
I’m sure you’ll agree. I learned so much more in these ensembles and through my experiences in college interacting with people. You learn a lot of life skills.
Brian: And commitments.
Brandon: Yeah! Scheduling. All those necessary adult skills. And you don’t get that working through algorithms and calculus. Not to discredit those things, of course. But when things go on the chopping block in terms of a budget, it’s usually music and art.
Plus, the economy hit a lot of people. Often it’s not so much that lessons aren’t worth it. They know it’s worth it, but they have to make an economic decision. Even when the parents are supportive and see the benefit, that cut is still made sometimes.
Brian: What methods do you tend to use on snare drum, drum set, and keyboards?
Brandon: I have to say that I find myself using your book well beyond beginners—even with some of my adults just because the examples are so clear.
I also use a lot of the Mark Wessels books because they’re used a lot in the junior high’s here. I haven’t been as impressed with the snare drum book, which was the first one he did. It seems like with each of his later books, he figured things out.
I do absolutely love his Fresh Approach To Drum Set book. He took all the best things of his snare drum book. The layout is efficient, he’s got great playing examples with live musicians playing. It works through in a very well-thought-out, well-paced way, moving from simple rock to sixteenth grooves, transitions from shuffle to jazz. As he goes, like his snare drum book, he sets up theoretical things, explaining simple, compound time signatures, the ratios between rhythms. It’s a really well-thought-out book. It’s all the styles. That has been my go-to for drum set. I even work out of that book for drum set sometimes. In the new edition, he got Stanton Moore to come on with full video accompanying the package. I feel like I’m doing a commercial for his book on your interview.
On mallets, we work out of the Goldenberg book, and a little bit from the George Hamilton Green book. All my students have to play all twelve major scales before we go on—they’ve got to have that foundation. We’ll do scale and arpeggio exercises from the Green book.
Brian: Is there anything you use pre-Goldenberg on mallets?
Brandon: If anything, it would be the Wessels Fresh Approach To Mallets. There are a lot of little diddies in there, like most beginning mallet books. A lot of junior high students I teach already have things in band that they’re working through. The hangup is usually, “Can they read?” or “Are they rhythmically proficient?” By the time we get from there to Goldenberg or Green, the student who understands how to read pitch and rhythm doesn’t have much trouble making that jump.
That is something I’ve found. There aren’t a lot of great books that span that gap between terribly simple “Hot Cross Buns,” and then moving ahead to Goldenberg and other simple two-mallet work. I’ve had to search for that.
Brian: I wrote a book called One-A-Day Melodies that I use. It’s eleven chapters with seven new melodies per chapter similar to my snare drum book. I’ll be sure to tell you when I get it printed.
Brandon: Yeah, I just wrote it down, and I’d be interested in checking it out. My beginning students that I teach up here in Chicago aren’t in a band program yet use The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo. It really gets them going on snare drum.
But it’s really interesting trying to teach them pitched percussion when they’re not immersed in it every day in a band program. As a sixth grade band student, I remember that even if I wasn’t terribly engaged one day during the week, I was still getting slapped over the head with it. It was being engrained through osmosis.
Brian: Yeah, with a good band director, you really have no choice but to make progress on keyboard percussion!
How did you first hear about The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo?
Brandon: That was actually through Glenn Schneider. I was hanging out in the band office before a rehearsal. I mentioned that I had just started a student who was three years old at the time. [The student] was really interested, and his dad had a drum at home. His mom said, “He’s banging on everything,” and he was great. We had a great first few lessons getting his hands going, getting a motion and technique. But then I said, “I just don’t know how much more I can do with him.”
Glenn said he’d heard of your book and told me to check it out. I went home and checked it out, and ordered it right then and there. I needed something, and now it’s been over a year, and I’ve been using it religiously. Like I said, even beyond its original application, it’s a great book of etudes and good examples of simple exercises with flams and rolls. It’s been multi-purpose for me.
Brian: Do you have any special tricks or applications you use with it?
Brandon: What’s cool is the idea of vocalizing and speaking, even with buzz rolls and flams. I’ve found that with our idea of rudiments being onomatopoeia is effective with young players to speak the rudiments before they play. If a student is going to play alternating flams, for instance, I’ll have them say “Flam” four times—not haphazardly, but with the same sort of care that the student experienced singing “Butterfly, butterfly.” They make sure that it’s rhythmic and consistent. It’s interesting to get them to focus on the attack of the “f,” and the flip of the tongue emulates the sound of the flam. So I explain that to them, getting them to really care about the vocalization, and it’s amazing how quickly that gets their hands to follow—similar to your concept of saying a rhythm and emulating the hands to match that.
On buzz rolls, I have them say, “BUZZZZZZZ” and hold out the Z sound and getting that clean, sustained buzz and getting to get their hands to emulate that. I’ve found that to be very effective.
Brian: Wow, I like that a lot.
Brandon: Yeah, and it works pretty seamlessly with your whole concept. I’ve found it to be particularly effective with flams. With kids, they’re either way too open, or way too closed, or they’re popping them. Their hands aren’t getting the coordination. If they can get their mouth to do it consistently and feel that sound, they can get their hands to translate that sound.
Brian: That’s great. I find myself telling my student, “Your hands are going to wreak havoc with you. You have to put your vocalizations in charge of how this is going to go. The hands have to respond to what you’re saying to them. It can’t be the other way around.”
Brandon: Yeah, your head has to be ahead of your hands. And then it becomes trying to get kids to understand the concept of reading ahead so they’re not getting caught off-guard by dynamic changes.
Then once they get beyond using the animals, I have them subdivide out loud while they play, counting eighth notes or sixteenth notes consistently. I tell them that if they can’t vocalize it, I know they’re not keeping a consistent subdivision in your head.
Brian: Yeah, they like to say, “I’m counting in my HEAD.”
Brandon: Yeah, or “Subdividing is hard. I can’t do it.” And I say, “Well, then, you’re not doing music.”
Brian: When they say, “I’m counting in my head,” I ask them, “Where are you playing it? Out here in the real world of sound, or are you playing it in your head?” Of course, they agree they’re playing it out here. I say, “Well, doesn’t it make sense that you should count it in the same place?”
Brandon: That’s a good little quip. I like that.
Brian: It’s fun figuring out the psychology of it all.
Brandon: Absolutely. That was one of the great things I was talking about when I was just starting to run my own steel band. I said to some fellow teachers, “I feel like a fish out of water,” and they said, “Yeah, we all do—every day. No one’s got it figured out. It’s just one day at a time.”
I was really fortunate enough to teach with some great teachers right out of college, just soaking it in. I worked with a gentleman named Mark Botti. He studied at Northwestern, was a great drum set player, marched the Cavaliers—great old-school chops. He knew all kinds of tricks. For instance, if the bass drums couldn’t get a run, he’d put bass five on its side and have all five drummers circled around the drum playing runs on one surface.
Brian: I’m going to steal that idea right now.
Brandon: Yeah, just playing runs on the same surface. There’s a visual connection around the drum that’s very cool, and it allows them to interact. They can feel the space, as well as visually observe it.
Brian: That’s beautiful. Next fall, I’ll use that at the school where I help the bass drum line.
Brandon: Yes, it’s worked wonders and cured a lot of headaches.
Brian: Speaking of headaches, do you have any frustrations as you use The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo—any suggestions?
Brandon: I don’t have any particular frustrations. As I said, I use the book beyond my beginning students because I like the layout and the clarity of it.
The only complaint that I get from students is that they wish there were some slower versions of the recordings so they can sit and read along and tick things out as it goes by. With a slower version of each solo, it would be easier to process essentially while they’re listening.
Brian: Yes, I’ve thought about making it easier to play along. I completely understand their point.
Brandon: Yeah, it would give them an achievable goal.
Other than that little issue, you hit buzz rolls, you hit double-stroke rolls, you’ve got flams, you’ve got the foundation. And then you even include a reference index of traditional counting with the subdivisions, which I really appreciate.
Brian: Yeah, I really felt that was important, because otherwise it’s not usable out there in the real world of other musicians.
Brandon: Yeah, the animals get them to a point of understanding as quickly and as comfortable as possible. Then it shows the ratios of note values in a mathematical way with showing how the counting lines up with the various rhythms.
It’s helped me keep a lot of students and it’s made me confident in taking on a lot of younger students. It’s given me that confidence as a teacher that I have a method, and it’s also long enough, in-depth enough, and busy enough. It’s not like we work on it for a couple of weeks, and we’ve run out of ideas and examples, and we need to move onto something else.
One of my students is four now. I recently added a three-, eight-, and nine-year-old. Then the eight-year-old and his dad were enjoying it so much, they brought his five-year-old brother in.
Brian: Yeah, I get a lot of siblings who see how accessible it is, and then they start coming in for lessons.
Brandon: I have a particular set of parents who are amazing. They give me practice updates mid-week. The dad says, “I’m at home practicing with them, and I’m essentially taking lessons for free!” It’s really cool to see that.
Brian: What a luxury to get updates mid-week from parents who are even playing the material!
So where is your private teaching studio located? Is it in Chicago?
Brandon: Yes, I live on the north side of Chicago in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. I live with two other percussionists, one of whom is my mentor of sorts. We perform as a percussion trio, and we commission pieces and rehearse a lot here.
We have the basement and first floor of a two-flat, and our neighbor on the second floor doesn’t hear anything. In the basement, there are a bunch of little bedrooms, so we each have our own private practice room. So I’ve got a small old room with my drum set, a xylophone, snare drum, and a glockenspiel. I can wake up, throw on a pair of shoes, walk out of my bedroom ten feet and into my practice room to get some work done.
And conveniently, the people who lived here before us painted the walls with chalkboard paint. One of my students showed up with chalk one day and drew key signatures and scales all over the chalkboard.
Brian: I love magnetic and chalkboard paint.
Brandon: Yeah, it’s practical. I just need to get an ERASER!
Brian: You’ve mentioned your percussion trio with your roommates. What are all the bands and ensembles you're involved with now?
Brandon: The trio with my roommates is called 40 Rock Ensemble, since we live in 4800 North Rockwell. We played a concert over the summer in town, including a U.S. premier of a friend’s piece. We’ll be doing some things in the spring as well.
I also play in two rock bands. I play drums in a garage/punk band called The Cortlandt Homes. Then I play in an indie rock band called Sisero.
I play with a group called Chamber Opera Chicago. I played percussion on their production of The Sound of Music in September, and they called me back to play Amahl and the Night Visitors in December.
I played for Holiday Pops Chicago this year, and I’ve done some orchestral subbing with the Classical Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Lake Shore Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, and the Chicago Composers Orchestra. At this point, it’s whatever pays.
At first I did a lot of volunteer playing, but now I’ve had to start protecting my time. The Chamber Opera Chicago is starting to become more consistent.
Brian: Yes, once you get in on the ground floor, things can grow.
Brandon: Yeah, a lot of it is networking. I’ve played with plenty of people who are amazing players, but they’re not great individuals. So people don’t enjoy working with them.
It’s just been one giant snowball rolling down the hill. My schedule used to be chaos, but now I’m starting to get to the point where I’m comfortable picking and choosing.
Brian: That takes a lot of guts and dedication and persistence to get past all those hurdles and obstacles right out of college.
Brandon: And I can’t thank my family enough for all their support.
Brian: Is there anything else you want to talk about before we close?
Brandon: Honestly, your book has helped me get some students and even keep some students. It’s great. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Brian: Thanks, Brandon. Great to speak with you as well.
Brandon Runyon can be reached at or (630) 330-0720. Below are links to some of his projects:
Brian J. Harris Method | 4210 North Saranac Drive, Tucson, AZ 85718
Phone: (520) 878-0363 | Fax: (520) 844-8166 | Email: by Brian J. Harris. All rights reserved.
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