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Setting up Your Teaching Studio: Part 2


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by Mike Sorrentino

In the next two installments we’re going to take a closer look at the special and technological requirements of a modern teaching studio. Not everything mentioned in this article is necessary, but most make it much more effective and fun for both you and your student. We’ll be looking at two different scenarios. The first assumes you are in total control over the surroundings. This would be a case like my own – I own the space I teach in and I am free to do whatever I want to it. The second scenario we’ll look at assumes you do NOT have total control. This is the case if you travel to students or teach in a studio where you share equipment or have other teachers to consider. This month’s article will focus on those of you who have total control over the space you’ll be teaching in.

My main teaching kit

My main teaching kit

Let’s begin by assuming you’ve secured a space. It could be a garage turned studio (like mine), it could be a room in a store that nobody else will use, it could be commercial space, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got somewhere to teach. And only you will be there. Congratulations, that part can be tricky. Now what? What do you put in it? What goes where? Before getting too crazy with that, let’s examine the space itself. For drums, we need to address two questions: how big is the space and how much sound gets out? You can’t do very much about the space other than build it bigger, but you can significantly reduce sound that leaks out. To discuss all the aspects of soundproofing is way beyond the scope of this article, and beyond my expertise. I learned quite a lot by going to www.auralex.com. They have tons of information on the site and I’m sure you’ll find it quite helpful. So, get an accurate picture of your space and address those soundproofing issues before going further. Believe me, it is really difficult to teach knowing that everyone outside your studio can hear you, and you can hear them too. I’ve had more than a few lessons go down the drain because of it.

Now you’re ready to outfit your studio. Cool! The fun part! I teach snare drum and drumset. In my opinion it is much better to have two drumsets ready to go in a lesson. I’ve had great lessons (both as a teacher and as a student) where we’ve played duets, traded fours and the like. Those wouldn’t have been possible with only one kit. And I believe that a student should be able to see what a relaxed drummer looks like, as well as seeing the physical relationship we have to the instrument. I’ve taken lessons with teachers whose bodies are nothing like mine, and neither are their kits. Suffice it to say, my performance in the lessons suffered. Why wouldn’t the same hold true for my students? Now I’m not saying that we should use the drum kits as an excuse for poor preparation. I AM saying no two people are alike, and I personally prefer to eliminate that barrier to learning. That is, if you have the space. And the money.

Secondary teaching kit in studio

Secondary teaching kit in studio

So you’ve decided on how many kits the room can handle. What else do you need? I’ll ignore things like: music stands, practice pads, posters, mirrors etc. I think those are obvious and we don’t need to rehash that stuff. So…alright, I’ll say it: you need a computer. A laptop, a PC, I have a Mac G5…it doesn’t matter, you just need something. It can be the single most effective tool to organize your space, and your teaching practice in general. I play my MP3s, CD’s and DVD’s all on my computer. It eliminates the need for a separate TV, DVD player, Ipod, CD player, etc. Sometimes I don’t use it in a lesson at all. If we’re working on technique or pad exercises, then I don’t force the technology. But if we’re doing Groove Essentials or the student brings in a tune they want to learn, I have everything I need right there in the box. Which leads us to the next issue: monitoring.

When playing along with recorded music, my students wear headphones. I use a set of molded in ear monitors from Sensaphonics. I split the signal from my MOTU 896 HDs with a very inexpensive splitter from Radio Shack. It’s nothing high tech and it works just fine. The MOTU has a headphone volume control so it’s pretty easy. You can do the same thing with an inexpensive headphone amp. Some teachers prefer speakers when playing along with music for several reasons. First, you hear the drums more accurately, as they are not muffled by headphones at all. You can hear sensitive and delicate aspects to the student’s playing better if your ears aren’t being covered. You can also more closely emulate what it might feel like to play with a band, as most bands play with live amps and no headphones on stage. Fair enough, but I still prefer headphones. I like not having the speakers cranked, and it reduces the overall volume in the room. And,everyone uses headphones in the studio. Your decision is up to you, and there’s no right or wrong. In general I’ve found that teachers from the jazz school prefer a nice set of speakers while those from the rock/funk school prefer headphones. However, when we’re listening to music and not playing along I use my M-Audio speakers. If we have to talk to each other or I want to point something out, the communication is much simpler listening that way.

Computer and recording gear

Computer and recording gear

What about recording the student’s lesson? There are several ways to go. One of the most inexpensive and easiest tools out today is a ZOOM H2 recorder. It is unbelievably easy to use, you just point and press record. And the mic’s sound great. I’ve used this tool for everything from recording lessons, to Broadway shows, to band rehearsals. I recommend everyone go get one, or it’s big brother the H4. You can take the recorded lesson, convert it to MP3 and email it to the student. Cool stuff! I don’t usually record an entire lesson. Sometimes I do, but most often the student wants to hear themself playing. I have an advantage in that I load all the play-alongs into Digital Performer and I mic the student kit up pretty nicely. I’m able to play engineer and add effects, compression, EQ etc. But, you can get great sounds (certainly good enough for a lesson format) with a few cheap mic’s and some knowledge of basic mic’ing techniques. And I mean REALLY basic. Start with two overheads and go from there. I got a pack of three microphones from Sam Ash for $69 ten years ago and they still work just fine for these purposes. Alternately, a digital (or analog) camcorder can be a great way of recording the lessons as well. Frankly, I haven’t had a lot of need for this in my experience but I can see where it would be very handy. I have one in my studio but only use it on occasion.

Practice pads for rudimental workouts

Practice pads for rudimental workouts

Playing DVDs requires a computer, or a DVD player with a screen. It could be a portable player or a separate television. It helps to have a way to hear the audio while playing. It gets difficult to reap the benefits if you’re limited to the volume of the TV. Just about every new TV has a headphone output and certainly portable DVD players have them. Watching videos, whether it’s a Hudson DVD, online videos, or something else, is a part of teaching that is here to stay. It is not optional anymore. And why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of this technology? It’s great to see the expressions on students’ faces when they watch Jojo Mayer’s hands! I wish I could have seen my own expression!

The internet’s applications in a lesson are endless. Wherever you choose to teach, you simply MUST have access. Thankfully, it is getting easier by the day to have wireless access almost everywhere. From communicating with students to searching out players and music to virtually anything you can think of, the internet is a tremendous teaching tool. I’m going to cut this paragraph short, because I assume we all know how powerful the internet is. If you don’t have it in your studio, someone else does. Don’t let them get your business!

That’s it for this month. My aim isn’t to tell you what you should do, it’s to tell you what you could do. I’m including some photos of my studio. For a look at the leading edge of studios, check out Dom Famularo’s Wizdom Drumshed at www.domfamularo.com.

Next month we’ll take a look at the technology needed for the traveling teacher.

Have fun, and I’ll see you in the TIP forums!

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