|Ginger Zyskowski Interview
Ginger Zyskowski has a successful private percussion school in Hutchinson, Kansas. Each year, her students combine efforts in their Stickpeople concert, which attracts audiences from hundreds of miles away. In addition to dozens of performances on a wide variety of percussion instruments, this year’s Stickpeople featured sixty students playing sixty drum sets on stage—all at once!
Brian: Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me today, Ginger!
Ginger: Sure, it’s an honor.
Brian: Why don’t we talk about how you got started. When you were a kid, what was the motivating factor that brought you into percussion?
Ginger: It goes way back. I guess the first motivating factor was my parents because they actually started me with tap dancing when I was two years old. The story I was told was that I would run everywhere, but I would fall a lot. They took me to tap dancing to improve my balance.
Of course, that introduced me to rhythm pretty early without realizing what I was learning. I just knew I was having a good time dancing. It stayed with me through my teens. At that point, certain things had to go in order for me to do other things.
From there, I progressed into a little bit of piano when I was about six or seven. That didn’t go well with me. My teachers weren’t very good, and I didn’t like the piano. Now I realize why it was so difficult. My finger coordination wasn’t nearly as good as my hand coordination.
When I was about eight, my mother got me into marimba lessons with a lady in town. That’s where I actually got started in the whole field of percussion—starting on a little xylophone. I really enjoyed that.
That led into percussion. Eventually when it was time to start band in fourth grade, it really wasn’t approved-of at the time for girls to play drums, so they put me on saxophone. I stayed on saxophone, which was fine, but any time a mallet part came up in the junior high or high school band, they’d ask me to play it because they knew I played marimba, and the boys in the back didn’t want to play. They didn’t even know how to play mallets.
Brian: Do you remember being frustrated that you couldn’t play drums?
Ginger: A little. I had a private teacher in the back of a music store in town that had a marimba and a really cool-looking red drum set. I can’t remember what kind, but it was really cool. I would go in for marimba lessons, and every time I looked at the drum set and said, “I really want to play that.” He said, “Oh, girls don’t do that.” Argggh!
Honestly, I was basically out of college before I sat down at a drum set and did anything serious.
Brian: Wow. What town was this?
Ginger: Most of my early years were in Hutchinson, Kansas, where I am now. Back in those days, Hutchinson had the Skyriders Drum & Bugle Corps. I could have been in there if I would have wanted to do the flags or rifle, aka colorguard. I wanted to do the drums, but girls weren’t allowed to do that. So I never got to march in a drum corps.
Ironically, when I went to the University of Michigan, during the years that I was there, girls weren’t allowed to do marching band. This was during the Revelli years in the late sixties. They weren’t allowed for a couple of reasons. First, they thought the girls wouldn’t be able to keep up. Secondly, the story was that the gentleman who left the land for the Michigan Stadium football field to the University stipulated that there never be any women on the field.
Brian: Oh my gosh!
Ginger: That meant that the marching band was all men, and also the cheerleading squad was the men’s gymnastic team. There were no female cheerleaders either.
Brian: Wow, well…
Ginger: Quite a bit of history there.
Brian: Quite a retro throwback there.
Ginger: Sometimes I tell my students who ask what I did in drum corps, “Well, I dreamed about it, but it never happened.”
Brian: So were you upset, or did you just take it and do what you could within those rules?
Ginger: Yeah, exactly. I realized it wasn’t right, and I felt unequal. Of course, in the sixties, there was a lot of upheaval, and the women’s movement was beginning. There was a lot of unrest, Vietnam going on, and a lot of protesting, so to protest women not on the field seemed like one more thing to add to the pot.
Ginger: Shortly after I graduated—probably two or three years—I know those rules got changed. A lot of the organizations that were women-based, or people who had donated a lot of money to the University threatened to not donate any more money unless they made equality a little more important.
Brian: A little leverage.
Ginger: A little leverage, yeah!
I had one year of marching band in high school as a saxophone player. Then I went to Interlochen Arts Academy, which was just a private school, and they didn’t have a marching band. So my marching band and drum corps experience was minimal.
It’s funny because recently, I worked with a high school drumline, and we took first drumline in the state for two years in a row. I thought, “If nothing else, I taught them how to count.” (laughs)
I feel like I’ve come around full circle.
Brian: Did you play sax at Interlochen as well?
Ginger: I did.
Brian: What year of high school did you start at Interlochen?
Ginger: I was in their first graduating class in ’63.
Ginger: It was the first year of the Arts Academy, which was ’62-63. I played sax and percussion both at that time. I was doubling at that point. I had Jack McKenzie who would come up once a week from the University of Illinois to give private lessons.
In fact, I would guess that I was one of the first groups of students that he taught matched grip on snare. I was doing OK with traditional, but it was not as comfortable since I had been playing mallets and timpani. He was experimenting with this new thing called “Matched Grip.”
Jack inspired me to keep working on the percussion path even though, at that time, there weren't many females in the percussion world. I owe so much to him and his teaching skills.
Brian: It’s incredible that you were there for this! [My father taught me traditional grip in the early seventies when I was four or five. Then, five years later, he was surprised that my fifth grade band director (University of Illinois graduate Margene Pappas) insisted that all percussionists learn to play matched grip on snare drum.]
So you were at Interlochen for two years?
Ginger: I was. I took a post-graduate year, mainly because I was seventeen when I graduated. I had done my junior and senior year in one year. Then I stayed a second year for post-grad work which helped me at college, because I got a masters degree in four-and-a-half years at Michigan. It’s pretty un-doable now.
Brian: That’s amazing.
Ginger: I know I couldn’t do it again with everything that’s required of students now. The curriculum is much different.
Brian: Well, I’m glad I asked, because none of this impressive information is in your bio.
Ginger: (laughs) They had trimesters, so you could do a semester during the summer too. That’s how I managed to do that.
As an aside, during my childhood years, another thing that helped to expand my performing options was that I was put together with a dance partner when I was four. We had a little tap dancing team. Our mothers saw something on a TV show and thought it would be good to get us some little sets of handbells. We went on a tour doing singing, handbells, and tapdancing together for probably ten years. This is lurking back in the background of my experiences.
Brian: Did you go out and do that for extended periods, or just on weekends?
Ginger: A little of both. Mostly, it was playing at the Kiwanis club, state fairs, the Lawrence Welk show, international conventions, and new talent pop shows.
Brian: I once bought a marimba from two sisters who used to go out singing and playing marimba in the Midwest as a little show. That’s just not something that happens anymore—little variety pick-up shows at state fairs.
Ginger: No, I think it’s a little unfortunate. It was great experience, and it had the human element. Now people expect fireworks and big laser shows, so it’s definitely a change.
Brian: I remember hearing that Henry Threadgill played random shows in parking lots with his group Very Very Circus back in the nineties. I’ve always thought that was a cool idea. Nobody does that anymore, but I think it would be really fun to just play in random places just to see what happens. It might be worth it just for the YouTube hits.
So when did you start teaching amidst all this performing and graduating early? When did you start to actually share it with other people?
Ginger: I had a few students while I was in college. You can do a few here and there, but it’s not really a studio while you’re trying to get your own life together.
Brian: Well, if you’re getting your masters in four-and-a-half years, you certainly don’t have a lot of room in your schedule.
Ginger: Right. So once I got out of the college scene, I set up a studio and started teaching.
Brian: And that was a home studio?
Ginger: Yes, it was at the time.
Brian: And when did you transition into a school like you have now?
Ginger: In the eighties. I had moved back to Kansas, and started in my home again. It got to be too much for my dining room, so I rented some space. Ever since then, it’s just gotten bigger.
I moved locations just a few weeks ago. It’s actually a bit smaller, but it’s more efficient.
Brian: So when you started teaching after college, you were in Michigan?
Ginger: I was in Spokane, Washington.
Brian: And what led you out there?
Ginger: My husband at the time, who’s also a percussionist—Marty Zyskowski. He’s a very good percussionist. He was principal timpanist, and I was principal percussionist in the Spokane Symphony. I was there for ten years, and I think he stayed with them after we split up. So we had percussion going around both of us.
Brian: So did he already have the gig?
Ginger: He had the position of percussion instructor at Eastern Washington University. That’s what took us out to the town of Cheney, Washington, which is near Spokane. So he had gotten that job, and then we were both able to get into the symphony.
I did a little bit of teaching at Whitworth College in Spokane, because there was a nepotism clause that prevented me from teaching at Eastern Washington.
Brian: So in the eighties, you moved your students out of your house. Was it just you, or did you bring other teachers in at that point?
Ginger: No, it was just me for a long time. There were some times when I had eighty plus students per week, and I was teaching seven days a week. But then what happened was that a lot of my high school students had grown up and were able to help out with my younger students. At that point, I started the Kansas Rhythm and Jazz Ensemble, which is still going.
And now we have our Stickpeople concert, which is a big deal for the studio here.
Brian: I’ve seen a video of a Stickpeople concert!
Ginger: Last year we had sixty drum sets playing together. I have little kids from seven years old through adults who play. It’s great. We’ll have one May 11 this year, which will be our eleventh concert.
I have the ensemble play, different kids on drum set, lighting, fog machines. They feel like rock stars, and they have a blast.
Brian: Absolutely. How can you go wrong with a fog machine?
Ginger: The whole concept came up with my desire to have a studio recital to show the parents that their money is doing something. In public school band, they don’t always get to play much drum set, or show what they’re learning. This way, everyone gets to play the stuff they’re learning and having fun with, show the different levels. The older kids help the younger kids. The parents really enjoy it. It’s morphed from a “drum recital” into this Stickpeople production. It gives the kids something to look forward to aside from their marching band experience, and aside from some of their church performances. It gives them another goal and outlet, and keeps them motivated.
Brian: Right. Does the Kansas Rhythm and Jazz Ensemble play outside of the Stickpeople concerts as well?
Ginger: We have. We’ve played at the Kansas Day of Percussion two or three times. We’ve been invited to play at Wichita State, Friends University, Kansas State University, playing on their ensemble concert as guests.
Brian: That’s great! Do you have audience members who aren’t even related to your students?
Ginger: Oh, yeah. We have lots of people from the community. I have students who come from the Central Kansas region—around 250 miles away for some of them. I couldn’t do it without a lot of the parents’ help. I have a lot of parents who volunteer their time and help with the production. Now I have a couple other instructors here who help out as well.
Brian: When did you bring additional instructors into your studio?
Ginger: I had a lot of calls about guitar lessons. Of course, I don’t know anything about that really, so I found someone to teach guitar. Then the guitar students came, and they’d bring more drum students. I had such a waiting list, so I thought maybe I should bring in another teacher. In many cases, I’ve been fortunate to have former students come back to teach. They know the system, they know how I’ve taught, and I can rely on them.
Brian: They’ve experienced the results and they buy into it.
Ginger: Yes, and they’re very good teachers. And that’s the key. You have to really be caring about the students’ progress—not so much about whether they’re here, and did they bring their money tonight.
Brian: Yes, and that’s a good segue into how you see each student, what you watch for, how you get to know each of them. I know you go beyond collecting the tuition and saying, “OK, now go practice, kid!” You’re all about nurturing their soul and helping them find out who they really are.
Ginger: That’s one reason I like being with my students one-on-one. This way the student gets to experiment with this and that, and they feel safe. I make sure they feel like they can make a mistake, and it’s OK. I’m not here to judge them. We’re in here just to learn how to play music, drums, or even just how to get through the day sometimes. You just have to listen. I think the key is being observant and listening to what they say…
Ginger: …because if you really do that, you’re going to know what to do to help them, where their mind is that day, or where their feelings are that day.
The neat thing is that whatever you teach them, and they learn to do: it’s theirs, and they’ve accomplished it, and nothing can take that away. So they gain all kinds of confidence little by little.
Brian: And do you hear reports from parents and kids, maybe even as they get older, how those skills and those feelings of confidence have spilled over into other areas of life?
Ginger: Yes, definitely. Even in their schools, they become leaders, lead players in their sections. They can take on more of a leadership role, and comfortably so, because they’re confident that they know what they’re doing.
Brian: Do you find that you tend to have students who happen to be at the top of their class, kids who are unstoppable and do amazing things? Does that happen to you a lot?
Ginger: Probably the majority are like that because they’re motivated. I think if they’re motivated in one area, they’re going to motivate in other areas. Sometimes if they come in unmotivated, but they get it with drumming or music lessons, then it carries over into some other things.
There are, though, those students that come in that have autism or Asperger syndrome. I get a lot of students who are ADD and ADHD. Of course those kids love drums. I think the word is out because sometimes the parents just say, “Oh, my kid wants to do drums. He’s ADD, and they told me to call you.” (laughs)
Brian: Yeah, the word gets out when you know what you’re doing.
Ginger: Or the parent is all kinds of nervous about telling me their kid might be ADD, and they’re not sure how he’ll behave. I say, “Oh, it’s fine. 90% of my kids have some issue. I’m fine—I don’t care.”
Brian: Yeah, I have parents who don’t mention it for a few years, and then they’ll tell me.
Ginger: Yeah, I can usually tell up-front, but even those kids really grow and blossom in their own way with the one-on-one time and positive input. We have to be so positive—they get so much negative stuff everywhere.
Brian: And like you said, the one-on-one time is important. They don’t even get that at home sometimes.
So how do you convey all of your experience and the way you see the students to your young teachers that are working for you, particularly if they don’t have kids of their own, or if they haven’t been around kids very much?
Ginger: I have them observe my lessons and ask them to pay attention to how I respond in various situations. Then if I’m observing them and I have a helpful suggestion, I’ll tell them later—“Maybe try this next time.”
So far the people who have taught for me have felt comfortable enough to come to me and ask what to do in certain situations.
I do agree that it does make a difference if you have kids of your own, because you’re different in how you see them.
Brian: I think you discover how to have true unconditional love for a kid: “This is my kid. I’m committed to giving him my best, and we’ll keep moving forward no matter what.”
Ginger: Exactly right. Exactly.
Brian: How much time does the back-and-forth observation happen between you and your teachers?
Ginger: It’s not structured. It just happens from time to time.
I also have a little library of books on teaching, ADD, autism, and other topics for parents and teachers to look at for ideas on how to work with their kids. Just having the library sometimes opens up the conversation. They might say, “I didn’t realize this about my kid,” and I’ll say, “Well, this book suggests this, and that’s why this has worked.”
Brian: That gives you some credibility.
Ginger: Yes, I certainly don’t have a degree in any of those topics.
Brian: Sure, but the parents know that you’ve got some background and understanding of those issues. So then you have credibility. Then you get word-of-mouth marketing from that point, where you’re getting more people calling and saying, “Oh, you’re the ADD expert.”
Brian: It all comes around, right?
Ginger: It does!
Brian: I’ve had parents bring their kids to me not about learning a musical instrument. It was just about…
Brian: Yeah, right, HELP!
Ginger: Yes. A lot of what we do is therapy, really.
So let’s get to what you do with students when they first walk in, say a beginner. What do you do to get them started and keep them going? Talk through a first lesson—what do you do with a kid when they come through the door?
Ginger: Once in a while, I’ll try them out at six, but mostly I start them at seven. I’ll give them a couple of trial lessons. If it’s “play time,” then we’ll wait a while. If they can focus and do some things, we’ll keep going. Generally when they’re seven, they’re able to read a little bit and they’ve got more ability to focus.
I ask, “Do you play another instrument? Why do you want to play drums?” (Usually it’s because drums are cool.) I like to take an interest in the kid so I can learn what they’re about. I need to make them feel comfortable because they’re in a new environment with a new person.
I’ll explain that mostly we’ll start on the snare drum and try out some different kinds of sticks. I really like to let them play. That’s what they really want to do is just play!
The first thing I have them play is my little warmup. I call it the “8-7-6-5.” I think I stole it from Dave Weckl. When they’re counting backward, they can’t think about what they’re going to have for lunch or anything else. I’ll write it down on the paper so they have something to look at instead of staring off.
I’ll say, “Just hold the sticks and show me what you’ve noticed how to do already.” Sometimes they’ll get the grip naturally, and I’ll just leave them alone. If they have a problem, I may say, “Let’s try this again, and let’s hold the stick a little more like this.”
But I can’t get into too much detail because if I take too much time, they won’t want to come back. They want to play.
Brian: Yeah, they get overwhelmed.
Ginger: Depending on how that goes, I’ll have them try to just drop the stick on the drum head and see if it’ll bounce. Then I’ll tell them that the one thing I’m going to teach them is called a rudiment. It’s like a letter of our drumming alphabet—the paradiddle. I have them say the word “paradiddle,” and point out that when you say “diddle” the two notes are played with the same hand. I’ll write the word on the paper and write the sticking. I’ll have them see if they can do several in a row. If they can do four, they’re doing pretty well.
Sometimes with the really young ones, I’ll have them pick two colors of markers, and then I’ll put a blue line, red line, and two blue lines. One hand is red, one hand is blue. They can do it without spelling a funky word [paradiddle] they’ve never heard before.
We’ll talk about what books and materials they need for a bit. Then I take them over to the drum set and have them stand beside me. I’ll play the paradiddle on the snare drum, and then I’ll show them how I can move my right hand to the hi-hat, add some feet, and they are ready to go home and practice.
And then they have a big grin on their face, which is a key thing for all of my students. If they leave the drum school with a smile, it’s good. Even if we’ve had a not-so-good lesson, I try to give them something good to take on the way out.
Brian: Yeah, leave them with some optimism that there’s a new week ahead.
Ginger: There’s hope.
Brian: Yes, that’s great! I remember hearing you say some of this when you lectured at the University of Arizona here, and we are right in line with a lot of this. We just have to send them out with some hope and…
Ginger: And they don’t have to hurry to do anything. The kids are so rushed that we just have to give them time to breathe. That’s a big part of it. I’ve seen more in the last few years that kids need this more and more than before. This is one of my big changes over the years in my teaching is that, while I’ve tried to teach so much in thirty minutes, kids just can’t absorb it. Over the years I’ve learned to divide the lesson into three parts, and that’s about all we can squeeze in.
Brian: When you say three parts, do you mean three different instruments, three topics on one instrument?
Ginger: That’s a real flexible thing. I always tell new students that I’ll try to give them a lot to do over the course of a week. At the same time, I always tell them, “I don’t care if you don’t get all of it done. At least get some of it done. When you come back, just be straight with me. If you didn’t get it all done, that’s fine. Just do SOMETHING.” I realize kids have finals weeks, and they don’t have time to do everything.
That’s worked pretty well. Everyone comes in having done something. After we do warmups, I’ll say, “Let’s do something you practiced first.” Step 1, they’ll feel good about something they’ve worked on. Then at the end we do something new for them to go out with.
Brian: OK. Do you ever say, “We haven’t touched on this for a while,” or, “I know you’ve been avoiding this thing for a while, and we’re going to make sure we get to this next week, so make it a priority.”
Ginger: Yes. But that usually doesn’t work…
Ginger: So, I’ll say it, and when they come the next week, I’ll say, “OK, let’s pull that out.” They say, “Well, I just didn’t have time to get to it.” I say, “Well, that’s OK, we’re going to do it anyway.”
Brian: Yes, I have the exact same experience.
Ginger: Yeah, we just do it. First of all, sometimes they’re afraid to do something in front of me that they don’t want to fail at. So, I just say, “Hey, let’s just do it and see what happens. You haven’t done it for a while. It’s probably rusty. The world isn’t going to end. Let’s do it,” and that’s where we go.
You spoke about how kids are so busy. How do you handle a kid who literally goes week-to-week, and their life is so scrambled they barely get any practice time in? Are you cool just doing coached practice sessions with them indefinitely, or at some point, do you put your foot down and say, “Look, you need to start taking care of some things outside of the lesson.”
Ginger: There’s quite a bit of that anymore. One of the things that takes care of that by itself is getting ready for Stickpeople, because when the kids decide they’re going to be in it, they know they’ve got to be ready. They start working on it.
Brian: It moves practice to the top of their priority list.
Ginger: Right. And then there are those that just show up because they want to do it. They don’t practice, and they don’t bring sticks, and this and that. Sometimes they’ll just quit eventually. I’ve never had to ask somebody to quit, but they finally figure it out on their own.
Brian: I think some kids enjoy working with a teacher like you so much that, even though they’re not into playing any more, they still feel an attachment to their teacher. They still want to see that teacher every week because you give them far more than just how to play drums and percussion.
Ginger: Oh yeah, definitely.
Brian: I think as a teacher sometimes, I have to remember there’s more to this than whether or not they’re learning how to play a marimba solo. There’s other value that’s provided at each lesson.
Ginger: Definitely. That just doesn’t affect me too much. There are those students who I wish would do more because I see their potential, but I’ve learned over the years that they’re going to do what they’re going to do. It’s like being a parent. Your kid’s going to be your kid. You just have to keep that perspective.
Brian: Right. Is there anything you do to help a kid through that twelve- to sixteen-year-old period?
Ginger: It’s so one-on-one. If they space out, I just say, “Hello? Where are you?”
I see that once in a while with my ensemble because it’s a bunch of kids between twelve and seventeen. Sometimes I just look at them and go, “What are we doing?” Sometimes I have to stop the whole rehearsal so we can go run around the block.
Don’t say, “If you can’t get with it, just go away.” That’s not going to help anything.
Brian: Oh no, of course. Sometimes if I have a kid who’s in a particularly spacey mood, I’ll just get out a ball and we’ll play catch for a couple of minutes, and they’re back.
Ginger: Plus it’s tactical.
Yeah, if that happens, I guess I must do something naturally because I have not put much thought into what I’m doing there. Maybe it’s because I’ve raised three teen-age boys. I’ve already been through that.
Brian: It’s second nature to you!
I have some parents come in impatient with their kid, encouraging me to be harder on him or her. How do you address those interactions with parents? Do you have anything like that happen?
Ginger: Not very often. Usually, I’ll just joke it off. Then in the studio, I’ll tell the kid, “Hey, look. Your mom and dad are paying and they want you to do the best you can do. You and I both know whether you’re accomplishing things or not,” and then leave it.
Now that I think about it, I do a lot of stuff based off of the One-Minute Manager [by Ken Blanchard] concept. One minute is enough. You don’t need to dwell on it. If you just say it, it doesn’t even take a minute half the time. I acknowledge the parent, and I don’t really ever have to say much.
Brian: Yeah, they often just need to say their piece and move on.
Ginger: Once in a while, they’ll come in and say, “Well, he didn’t practice much this week,” and I’ll say, “Well, I didn’t have time to practice much this week either.” I try to smooth it over and make it not so important that they have to tattle every time they bring their kid to a lesson.
Brian: I do the same thing. It just feels like that doesn’t quite satisfy anybody each time.
Ginger: Sometimes I’ll just ignore it. Otherwise, it’s just not productive.
Brian: I guess I always think, “OK, they’re going to leave and be gone for six days, twenty-three hours, and thirty minutes. How often does this kid get to listen to this all week?” If only I could just say the magic words to the parent: “Hey, CHILL,” to help them realize that this is all just a process and everybody goes through these phases. I guess it’s hard for me to see it and just let it go…
Ginger: And not react.
Brian: I don’t react in the moment, but it’s just hard for me to know that…
Ginger: That that’s what they’re dealing with at home.
Ginger: Yes, there is that. And you can only do so much.
Brian: Yes, and a half hour a week.
Ginger: And that’s the hardest thing—knowing you can only do so much.
So you mentioned some of the performance opportunities that you personally give your students. Are there other opportunities that you encourage them to do in your area, outside of school band?
Ginger: Yes, there is a local community orchestra—not a youth orchestra. I have had several students play with them over the years. It’s a great experience for them. There are opportunities at two or three places here in town—little coffee houses with live music. I have some students who will take their marimba or vibe out and play a couple of hours for tips. I get calls from little choral group projects—maybe during Christmas time. Some churches need percussionists, and I have students that I recommend.
I don’t push them, but I encourage them because the ones who I know are serious about what they’re doing, it’s good for them to go out and be in a professional setting and maybe even get paid. I had some kids come back and say, “All I had to do was play some quarter notes, and I got $20.”
I say, “Yeah, but you had to put those quarter notes in the right place at the right time.”
Brian: Yes, and the kids that are able to do it and see value in doing it; you don’t need to push them. You just tell them, “Hey, here’s an opportunity, and they just jump on it.”
And then how many students per year go on to pursue a college music degree or perform professionally?
Ginger: I probably get about one or two per year. And then every once in a while, there’s a class of three or four. It’s not a high percentage—I would say between one and five percent.
Now, one of my guys that I started when he was seven just left yesterday for boot camp. He earned a spot in the Old Guard Drum Corps in Washington, D.C. He was talking about, “Oh, my chops are going to be gone!” So he’s gone from being shown drum sticks for the first time.
I have a handful of people out and about that are doing really amazing things. That’s one of the reasons—not the only reason—that we do what we do. I love seeing the kids who come back who are doing whatever they’re doing with their lives, and they say, “I’ve gotta come back and play in Stickpeople because it was so fun.” Some are just traveling through town, and they just have to come to the drum school, and say, “I just had to come back and see it. Is it still here?”
Brian: That’s fantastic.
Ginger: It is when you think about it. It kind of blows my mind because the influence we have as music teachers is so different from other teachers. We have these kids for more than one year or four years usually. We have them through teen-age years and younger years.
Brian: Absolutely. First or second grade through graduation…
Ginger: And then maybe even through college.
Brian: Yes, I had a few kids graduate last year who had started with me when they were six. It was amazing to see how far they took it. A couple of them went on to major in music.
Ginger: Isn’t that such a neat feeling?
Brian: Yeah! I still have the photos I took of them when they were six with their toothless smiles, and now they’re all grown up.
Ginger: Of course, we are not any older
Brian: Oh no, we’re timeless, Ginger!
Ginger: Oh, I wish.
Brian: This has been great talking with you. We haven’t talked about any method books at all.
Ginger: (laughs) I use yours because it was already my thing to start them with sixteenth notes anyway. So what you did was brilliant, and then when we came across each other in Arizona, that was great. I know that my other teachers here use that book with the beginners. They all say what a great thing that is, and, “Where was that when I was learning?” and, “It’s the greatest thing ever!”
I start with that and Stick Control—even with the little kids. I know they aren’t reading eighth notes in Stick Control—they’re reading R’s and L’s. But that’s OK. It gives them something to do that’s official-looking, and it’s good for them.
Are there any specific tricks that you use with The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo?
Ginger: Yes. This is especially with my young kids—elementary, maybe even seventh grade depending on their maturity, plus any kids who have ADD or autism Asperger syndrome. I will take some little 3 X 5 cards, some colored markers, and say, “We’re going to draw some caterpillars today. What color would you like to use?” Usually I’ll draw four sixteenth notes [the caterpillar rhythm] on one card, and then they’ll draw them on three more cards. If they can do it, sometimes I’ll have them write the word “Caterpillar” on each card below the notes.
We place the four “Caterpillar” cards in a row on the music stand and sing and play it. Then we move the cards around. They quickly understand that the rhythm won’t change because we only have caterpillars so far.
Then I’ll say, “Pick another color. We’re going to draw some tigers.” We write pairs of eighth notes on four cards.
Soon we have a variety of cards with animal rhythms that can be rearranged by the student to create their own compositions.
Brian: That’s great!
Ginger: You included the neat little composition assignments in the book, but I find that some students are a little apprehensive about writing anything down because it seems so permanent.
With the cards, we just line them up—sometimes using two or three music stands in a row. They’ll move them all around. Sometimes we play them from right to left. We might clip them around the edges of the music stands. We read from top to bottom and bottom to top. I tell them, “You’re writing music. You’re writing a song. You’re writing a drum song!”
Brian: I see what you mean about this method of composing with cards being less permanent. That’s a good intermediate step to get them comfortable manipulating the rhythms.
Ginger: Once they can do it on the cards, then they can write the composition on the paper.
Ginger: That’s one thing that I do that’s worked very well with lots of kids.
Then we can also take each card and place it on each head of the drum set. They can put a caterpillar on the snare and a butterfly on a tom. Then they can play rhythms around the set.
Brian: Nice. Then they can go out of order while keeping the same animal on its drum. I like that. I’ll have to play with that a bit.
Where do you go with students once they’ve graduated from The Snare Drum Plays The Zoo?
Ginger: I use the Garwood Whaley Musical Studies for Snare Drum a lot. Depending on the student, sometimes I’ll use the Whaley beginning snare drum book, since that’s the book I used before I knew about your Zoo book.
Once in a while, I’ll use the Alfred’s snare drum method books. Sometimes I’ll let the student look at both of them and decide which one looks better. Some of them like the way it looks on the page better than the other.
On drum set, I use two books that the kids seem to really gravitate toward. One of them is Mel Bay’s Killer Fillers. The other one is Joel Rothman’s Mini-Monster Book of Rock Drumming. Those two work really well with drum set right off the bat.
Killer Fillers is just fills all over the set, and I think it’s written for only a four-piece set. The first page is Caterpillars all over the place. The know middle, high, and low. It gives them activities around the drum set with their hands. They don’t have to worry so much about the feet.
The other book I use with other beginners is Drum Sessions, Book 1, by Peter O’Gorman. That’s great for little beginners. You just do a whole bunch of the book with sticks first, which is great for all my students whose feet don’t even touch the ground!
Ginger: It has a recording to play along with too, and you can use other outside recordings with the grooves too.
Brian: That sounds good. I’ve written a lot of my own material for drum set. I give them 10-page handouts at a time.
Do you have any way that you get kids interested in playing jazz—getting over the coordination hump of all the rhythms that go under the ride cymbal?
Ginger: (laughs) No, I don’t have an easy way to do that. We’re doing a thing with Stick People this year. The opener is the old swing “Pink Panther” tune. So everyone gets to learn the old jazz beat—“ding, din-ga ding.”
They tend to shy away from jazz because they don’t hear it, and they don’t know it, and they don’t understand it. I’ve had good luck with John Pickering’s Studio/Jazz Cookbook for beginning jazz coordination stuff. That and Tom Morgan’s The Jazz Drummer’s Reading Workbook.
Brian: Yes, Tom Morgan’s book is fantastic! I have my own version of the whole Ted Reed Syncopation concept. It’s just a bit more organized, with more sixteen-bar etudes so they’re not just playing the same old thing…
Ginger: Over and over all week, yeah.
Brian: But there’s still that hump—like playing all the “and’s” against the ride cymbal.
Ginger: What happens with me is I’ll get them to be able to do that in rock drumming, and then it will shift over to jazz. Some of them do it, and some of them don’t ever get into jazz.
Brian: I always warn them ahead of time: “If you decide to work on jazz drumming, there’s going to be a hurdle that you haven’t experienced in anything we’ve ever done. Be prepared to stick to it. If you make it over that hurdle, you’ll be one of the few.”
Ginger: (laughs) Good. And there are always those hurdles in life.
Brian: Yes there are!
There’s one more question that I want to ask you. How do you handle note-taking? Do you write in a notebook for them? Do you have them write in a notebook? What do you do to keep track of all the things you’re juggling with each student?
Ginger: They’re supposed to bring a spiral notebook to each lesson, and usually I will write in it. I’ve found that it saves time.
Ginger: Most of the time, I need to know what they did at the last lesson anyway. The other thing I do, since I’m probably ADD myself, is I’ll use markers. I’ll color-code each lesson. If last week I wrote in blue, this week I’ll write in orange. I’ll tell them, “Whatever is orange is what you’re supposed to do this week.” Then I’ll take the same color marker and write the date on their method book pages. If they’re aware, they don’t even have to look in their notebook. They just look for the date and the orange-marked page, and they’re good.
Mostly I’ve found that the lesson moves quicker if they don’t have to slow down to write things. I’ll write it on there for them. While I’m writing, they can start playing the next thing. I’ll say, “Play this exercise. I’ll listen while I’m writing here.” It keeps them occupied.
Brian: Yes, there’s a lot of overlap that can happen if we write everything.
Ginger: Yes, I usually do that because it’s quicker and more efficient.
However, some of my students, especially my ADD ones, like to do it themselves in their own colors, in their own system.
Ginger: Oh yes, they have a whole system that they have to use, and if I let them, everything is happy.
Brian: I’ve never had a kid ask to write their own information in their notebook. Ever. That’s amazing to me.
Ginger: I do have two that write it in their own notebooks. It is rare, I agree. But they like to do it.
Brian: That’s remarkable!
Ginger, we have so many things in common with the way we see our students, and the way we teach. It’s great to hear some little tweaks that you use that I haven’t thought of—just different ways of doing things. This has been really enlightening and a lot of fun.
Ginger: It’s been a lot of fun for me too, especially the stories from the past!
Brian: It’s a pleasure to talk to somebody who does what I do, has an appreciation for it, and does it really well.
Ginger: Thank you. I appreciate all the confidence you had in asking me to do this with you.
You can read more about Ginger Zyskowski at www.gingerz.biz
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