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 teach them a quarter note rhythm (hihat on all 4; kick on 1 & 3; snare on 2 &4).
  • I have them add eighth notes on the hihat.
  • I add extra bass drum notes (they love what I call “the AC/DC rhythm, 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . & . 4).
  • I introduce sixteenth note rhythms (two hands on the hihat).
  • Then, my friends, comes the blues.  Chinese students pride themselves in their math skills but three against two fries their brains!
  • Once this has been accomplished, I add hihat with the foot and move the ride patterns to the cymbal.  They rework all of the elementary grooves, now with all four limbs.
  • Now, hihat with the foot is employed on 2 & 4, on all four beats, and finally on the &’s of all four beats.
  • All of this material is of my own design from 20 years of drum instruction, processed neatly with Finale.
  • As skills improve, I augment the original material with Rick Latham, Ted Reed, Gary Chaffee and others.

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.


8 comments

  1. Hey Scott, I teach drums at the Midi School in Beijing. Like you I’m facing the barrier of teaching creativity in playing. I sympathize and commiserate with you. Be aware however, that up here and in Shanghai there are also some great improvisers so not all hope is lost. Just like any city, there are good teachers and bad teachers. Good luck and keep it up.
    Jeremy

  2. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this article! I really enjoyed it 🙂

  3. Hey Scott, I’m so exciting about you teaching experience in China, and I feel the same about China musical instrument education situation. I’m Chinese and I’ve done some drum video translation project for a year.

    here is my a demo video I transcribe, talk about solid drum shell making process:
    http://www.makdb.com/dwindex.html

    I hope we can make friend maybe provide you some drum materials translated by myself in Chinese

    and Jeremy Li I hope we can have a time to talk
    marksonzhu@gmail.com

  4. Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for the comment. I am glad to hear that creativity is alive in China. Some times, people ask me, “what happened to the China that created the four “miracles (black powder, paper, movable type, and the compass).” I tell them that that China still exists in the hearts of the people. It may not be viewed in the media, right now, but it is still there, somewhere. It is my hope that that China will reappear in media.

    As an American, I am proud of my country. I love my country. However, wo ai zhong guo (I love China). To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, America is my country, but China is my home.

  5. Hello Robert,

    I am glad that enjoyed the article. Where are you, and what do you do?

    Scott

  6. Oh, one more thing Jeremy. Where is your school. I know that it is short notice, but I am coming to Beijing this weekend. I would love to know where is your school. Also, if you could tell me where is a good venue for live music in Beijing, that would be great.

    Scott

  7. Hi Markson, It is great to hear that you are doing translation work for the drumming community in China. One of the disadvantages I experience is that my Chinese is quite limited, requiring my students to be pretty fluent in English. I would love to work with you on some translation work for drummers, especially for younger drummers. Where are you in China? I have recently moved to Hangzhou.

  8. Lauren Revert

    Hey Mr. Thompson. I think this is you! I randomly had a dream about you last night and felt compelled to look you up. Do you remember me? The girl in your high school Junior English class that would eat lunch in and play video games? I’m so glad to hear things are going well in China. You are the only person I know who would need that many books and drums. 🙂 I think I could match you in books but as always my art tends to lean towards painting. I am actually a full time painter now. Since this website is about music. I’ll share my music memory from you: Maroon 5. I was so much cooler for hearing them before they were popular in your classroom. Well I hope we reconnect or you get this message. You can always email me directly at LR@LaurensGallery.com.

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