Greetings From China

My name is Scott Thompson and I live and work in rural Western China.  My small town, Dujiangyan (pronounced, doo jang in), became famous from the Sichuan Earthquake on May 12th, 2008.  I have been teaching English in China for the past four years.  When I came to China in August 2006, I brought only the necessities: 11 cases of books and 16 cases of drums.  When the school day ends students come to my drum studio – a traditional Chinese structure built on stilts over a lotus pond.  The kids, all Chinese, have never sat behind a drum set. Some have never seen a drum set, but they are so excited to learn.  I still remember my first demonstration behind the kit. You would have thought I was Jojo Mayer at an MD Festival – students went crazy, jumping up and down, cheering, shooting photos and movies with their phones.  They had never seen anything like this before.

Needless to say I have a rather large contingent to learn drums.  I spread the lessons over four afternoons (it’s a boarding school) and teach 12 students each afternoon.  My drum studio, although looking traditionally Chinese and very cool, is a single-room structure.   I place four drum sets in an X-shape facing each other in the room.  This is, of course, is not optimum (nor even desirable), but I make do.  Aural protection is mandatory.  Imagine four beginners banging away simultaneously!  I love it!  My students only know the Western music that they can illegally download (remember, this is China).  They have never heard of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Thelonius Monk.  The first time I showed them a video of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I asked them “What do you think about ‘Sexy Mexican Maid.’”  They replied, “Very interesting, we like it.”  A young guitar-playing friend I met said that if we played music in China like they did (the RHCP’s), people would think we are mentally unstable.  I school them on the intensity of Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age.  I admonish them with the prowess of Porcupine Tree.  I provide context with the help of Tony Williams (my hero), Philly Jo Jones, and Elvin Jones.  If I go back further in time, they don’t understand.  Our art is uniquely Western.  I teach them wonder of Africa, the transportation of human slavery, and out of that horrendous, inhumane experience the musical expression that we today call American music.  I have the best job in the world.  I do it for free.  I know I am not a very good capitalist but this year when I had 60 kids asking…no, begging… to study drums with me, I just cannot ask for money.  I look at it as providing a cultural link between our two often paradoxical countries.

Concerning teaching materials, everybody plays the bible, Stick Control.  My method follows as such:

I use all the materials I brought with me (one of those 11 cases of books was drum books).  In China, Western music, and especially drum instruction materials, cannot be purchased legitimately.  People download illegally, or worse, purchase illegally reproduced materials in music stores.  So I use what I brought with me.  That’s it.

Now, allow me to comment on the state of drum instruction.  In America I worked with wonderful colleagues who were better musicians and teachers than I.  In China it’s a different story.  I happened into a music store in Hangzhou (pronounced, hong jo. near Shanghai), to witness a drum instructor teaching his young charge a specific rhythm with a specific drum fill.  If the student made a mistake, the instructor would scold the child and syllabicate the correct rhythm.  No feel; no style; no groove.  Shameful.  When the child mastered the written groove (misnomer), he progressed to the next prescribed rhythm in the text.  Learning by rote.  No embellishment; no creativity; absolutely no improvisation.  On a professional level, I attended a teaching conference in Beijing, last year.  One evening, in this five star hotel, they had a band . . . a jazz band.  These were professional Beijingers, who gigged on a regular basis.  They were tight, grooving, and wonderful.  On one tune in particular, I believe it was a Jobim piece, the tenor sax took a solo.  He stood in front of a transcribed sheet playing somebody else’s recorded solo.  That is the state of music in China – imitation. Consequently, I work hard to free my students from the bounds of imitation.  I work to free students from the need to copy.  I want them to create, to feel, to breathe.