Did you learn to play drums by ear?


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Apr 12, 2019
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i started on bongos . got a jack costanza how to play bongo record and got some basics and would practice to cuban music , jazz, brazilian music etc funk hadnt been invented yet . i played with a funk rhythm and blues band in high school on bongos and congas . all self taught by ear , and i would sit down with the drummer of one of those groups , who was accomplished and went on to play with ramsey lewis among others. he was frank donaldson . so he would show me notes and i would try to get primitive reading skills down . he had studied with a drum teacher that every other drummer was and they all sounded the same and i had no desire to sound like that or play rock . i heard tony williams and elvin jones on records and realised the drums could also funtion as an interactive roll as like bongos do , putting in the fire and expresion instead of just groove .

i switched to drums and praciticed 3 to 6 hours a day , and then went to the american conservatory of music , while playing with jazz musicians and funk bands . lots on bongos and congas , so i was sitting next to top notch drummers like robert shy , drasir khalid , steve mccall , jerome cooper , thurman barker , and watching how they dealt with the music , and trying to keep up with them and their skills and tricks , was absolutly the most profound drumm lessons i got . and seeing the name cats come through . so the drum teacher they gave me at the conservatory , didnt turn me on at all and i backed out of the drum part . i learned some basics on marimba , and some reading challenges but not as deep as if i stayed in school longer , but i was learning too much out side on the bandstand playing with some incredable chicago jazz musicians .

and , doing huge amounts of demos , jingles , some record dates etc , that is where i had to deal with charts on the gig , which was a whole differant experiance . they werent like the charts you would read in school . people would bring in scratch sheets , or wild individual styles of writing , that it was more being ready for anything and trying to size it up as fast as posable in the moment and try to translate their chart into what they were hearing when they wrote it.

i wasnt the best reader and only had a couple of times i had to bow out because of reading , but they werent gigs i really wanted . maybe one i was drugged i couldnt read fast enough . they got gigs they bring in the book and you sight read from beginning to end . the music i wanted to play the most was about feeling more than technique reading , but i need to hire players who can read my charts. i do my music now and am not for hire to read other peoples music .

but i consider myself self taught all the way.
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Apr 15, 2021
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I started by ear and then my school's music teacher and then private lessons. I'm glad I did lessons, it help me build a bunch of good habits.

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Aug 6, 2005
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SE Portland, Oregon
Big kudos to those who learned lots of music and did well without reading... but I have to say that this seems like a little bit odd and counter intuitive way to do it. I'm a bit dyslexic and learning anything usually doesn't come that quickly to me, but I remember in the couple of years of lessens that I took, when I was 13-15 or so that though my progression was pretty slow, I learned to read pretty early on and don't remember it being that difficult. I never really had to read for any of the music that I've done, as I never bothered getting into the school marching band or (what would have been really fun had I had the skills to do it) the jazz band. I've played in mostly original rock bands and then more recently have gotten into playing jazz. I'm either making up parts along with the band that I'm playing, while we're all pitching in to create the arrangements or I'm learning changes of old jazz standards by ear and creating more or less my own parts, so reading isn't necessary. I think though that reading rhythms as well as hearing them, helped wire my brain though for a more complete picture of how rhythm and drums work in music. Even if never end up playing any music where I need to read, it's still nice to be able to pick up a book and learn various rhythms off the page. I'm not great at shedding the books, but I have picked up a few things from them that I'm able to incorporate into what I do...