The Art of the Substitute Teacher

This year I turned 41, which means I’ve been teaching drums for 23 years.  In that time I’ve taught thousands of lessons to students of every size, shape, ethnic background, musical taste, and level of natural talent I could imagine in several different countries.  And yet, there is one teaching situation that still puts me on edge – substituting for another teacher.  I’ve recently been subbing ( I think some people call that “depping”) for my friend John Miceli, who tours with Meatloaf and plays on tons of records that require him to be out of town for weeks at a time.  He has built up a very nice teaching practice for himself at his home studio in Saint James, New York.  The bulk of his student body is quite different than my own.  The majority of my students are teenagers and above, most of who play in bands that work, tour, record, etc.  The bulk of John’s students are young beginners, with a few older more advanced players thrown in for good measure.   Subbing isn’t easy.  It presents its own set of unique challenges and opportunities that are worth taking a deeper look at.

Substituting for other teachers is one of the best ways to begin your own teaching career.  When I started teaching at the Long Island Drum Center in 1988, I had a few of my own students – five, actually.  But since the faculty was so busy playing gigs and touring, they frequently needed someone to cover while they were gone.  In fact, that is how I met John in the first place. While I was trying to establish my own identity as a teacher, I was able to fill out my calendar by not only subbing for John but also for Dom Famularo, Guy Gelso, and Bobby Rondinelli. Not only did I make some money but I also got to see the methods that these established teachers were using. It was valuable information for sure! I learned what a good, organized method looked like, and the results it produced. I was also able to see how the different teachers interacted with their students on several levels.  Some were friendly and light-hearted, others a bit more stern and authoritative.  It was, and still is, interesting to see the relationship between teacher and student and what results that interaction achieves. Another great benefit was that I was able to observe all of this without any of the “issues” that come from a ”permanent” situation.  I was coming in for a day or a week, and when the teacher came back, they would pick up where they left off.  I could relate to the students as if it was the only lesson we would ever have and as a result they felt less pressure.  But since I was only in for a short, finite time it created a bit of a question – what to teach in the lesson.

As a substitute you are presented with two choices: continue the program set forth by the teacher you are covering or present the student with a change of pace, or a different outlook.  Both of those are completely valid options.  As a student, I would sometimes enjoy showing up for my lesson with Dom Famularo to be pleasantly surprised that Jim Chapin was filling in that day.  (How cool is that?) Any chance to study with Jim was an opportunity to gain his valuable insight so I welcomed the chance to take a left turn from my program with Dom.  However, I can also understand when someone with limited time has practiced a lesson diligently, only to learn that the sub won’t be reviewing any of that material, and they could have used the time otherwise.  The only real way to deal with this situation is by having an open discussion with the teacher you are subbing for.  Usually their position is “ Do what you want, whatever you think the student needs, I’m fine with it”.   I  recommend getting as much information as you can about the students before teaching.   Ask questions like: How old are they? How long have they been studying? What books are they working in, who do they like to listen to?  And so forth.  The more you know about the student, the easier it is to construct a professional, cohesive lesson.  Then the responsibility falls on your shoulders to use your best judgment. I usually begin every lesson when I’m subbing with a few minutes of just talking to the student.  It lets them relax, helps us to get to find some common interests (musically or otherwise) and gives me some insight into the student and how they prepare for a lesson.  I’ve even had some students in the past tell me they didn’t practice because they didn’t understand what the teacher told them last week!  That makes it pretty easy to figure out what to do for the lesson!

I have encountered two potentially awkward situations in my years of subbing.  The first is when your presentation of a concept is significantly different from what the student has been exposed to. Regardless of who is “right” or “wrong” if it even applies, the most important thing is to rectify the situation while shedding the best possible light on the person you are subbing for.  What works for me is to get the student to realize that almost everything in music is subject to interpretation – my ride pattern will sound different from yours, when playing a rock groove my bass drum plays a little early but my 2and 4 is in the middle of the beat while yours might all be perfectly lined up – and that that is actually the beauty of what we do.  A second potentially awkward moment is when you have an excellent rapport with a student who may prefer to study with you.  In my earlier days I have had this situation and I handed it incorrectly.  Nowadays my policy for students who are studying with other teachers I sub for is very simple: if the teacher referred you to me, and you are continuing to study with that teacher or if that teacher can no longer teach, I’m happy to take you on, and I’m honored by the referral.  If not, I can’t see you for one year after you’ve stopped seeing your current teacher. That one year waiting period is often a deterrent to students that want to switch. I feel now for me that it is way more important to have a good relationship with a fellow teacher than to create an awkward situation over a student.  Your decision is ultimately based on what is best for you, but take the time to consider the long term effects on your relationship with your colleague.

Subbing as a teacher has led to many great gigs for me as a player.  Not only did I sub for many of my fellow teachers on gigs they had, but those gigs have also led to new relationships that have opened many doors, including my job at Hudson.  I am a firm believer in that every gig leads to the next one, and every gig came from something before.  I got my job with Hudson through my relationship with Joe Bergamini who I had a great partnership on the national tour of Movin’ Out. We both subbed on the Broadway version of that show for Chuck Burgi.  I got on that gig as a sub by a referral from my friend Teddy Cook, who was subbing as a bass player. I met Teddy on a gig with Randy Jackson from Zebra.  I met Randy subbing for Guy Gelso in Zebra when he got ill.  Guy trusted me to sub in his band because of the job I did with his studentsin the early days at the Long Island Drum Center.  So, if you trace it back, my job at Hudson and my Broadway gigs have been an indirect result of my subbing for Guy on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in 1988! 

The most important thing for a sub to remember is your primary role.  You essentially want the other teacher to come back to their students with as little trouble as possible. You are there to help the other teacher out with a scheduling snafu, enabling that person to either make more money or enjoy the time doing some other activity, all while keeping their business running smoothly. This is not a time to give unwanted opinions, to be opportunistic in pushing your own agenda, or to put yourself first.  If you are conscientious, and keep your role in mind, you will be called back again and again. S peaking of which, I gotta run.  I’m subbing for John today at three!

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