Teaching the First Drum Lesson

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A Simple Plan for Finding Rhythm with Your New Student

boy at drums

by Lucas Gillan

This article is part of a series on teaching first lessons; read teaching the first voice lesson, and teaching the first piano lesson.

First Lesson With an Experienced Student

For a student with some drumming experience, start off with some time-keeping. Whether the student is a beginner or advanced, ask them to “rock out” on a favorite beat while you assess their time-keeping ability and creativity.

If the student claims not to know any beats, then you already have a clear-cut goal for the first lesson: get a basic beat under the student’s fingers, to the level where he or she could whip it out on command.

For students who do a good job of “rocking out” on a favorite beat, you can use that beat as a jumping-off point. Experiment with creating longer phrases including fills, moving the right hand ride pattern to different parts of the drum set, etc.

You should also take some time to assess the student’s hand technique. Have him or her play single strokes on the snare at a moderate tempo, and take notes of technical issues that might need to be addressed. You can decide whether to address the issues immediately, or to get some momentum on the “fun stuff” first, saving technique for lesson two.

If there’s still time after working on time-keeping and addressing technique, ask the student to show you material they’ve been working on with their previous teacher or on their own, whether that’s music from school band, exercises from a method book, or a song.

Of course, you should also devote time to talking with the student about what he or she hopes to get out of drum lessons, and whether they have any specific goals (get into middle school jazz band, start a rock back with friends, develop rudimentary technique for marching band, become a master of blast beats, etc.)

Once you’ve gotten a grasp of the student’s technique, time-keeping ability, experience with other material, and goals, you should have a pretty clear picture of what to do going forward.

First Lesson With a Beginner Without a Drum Set

For a typical first lesson, the student will need a pair of sticks (bring extra in case they don’t have any), a practice pad (again, bring your own) and some manuscript paper/assignment book. You’ll be going slowly, getting to know your new student, finding out their overall likes and dislikes (favorite foods, favorite classes in school, etc.), as well as what kind of music they like listening to.

For true beginners with zero experience, I recommend going into the first lesson with three goals: 1) establish an awareness of steady beat, 2) get started on developing good hand technique, and 3) teach them a basic drum beat.

I often start the lesson by having the student tap to the beat on their knees, along with a song played through a phone or laptop (I use “Billie Jean” because the beat is so straightforward and everyone loves Michael Jackson, right?)

Once the student can tap steady quarter notes on his or her knee along with MJ (or whomever you choose), it’s time to put some sticks in their hands. Demonstrate medium tempo single strokes and have them try copying you. Notice what aspects of the student’s natural technique is already good and what aspects will need help. For instance, maybe their grip looks good, but they’re jamming the stick into the pad without letting it bounce. Compliment them on what they’re already doing before going down the list of things they’re doing wrong.

All of the elements of good hand technique can seem overwhelming, so it’s good to come prepared with a handout detailing them all in one place. Mine looks like this:

Basic Hand Technique Checklist


[_] Strong fulcrum (main balance point) between the index finger and thumb

[_] Fulcrum situated at a good location on the stick (on Vic Firth sticks, right about where the American flag is)

[_] Back fingers loosely wrapped around the stick

[_] Stick going diagonally across the palm

[_] Hands turned so that you see back of the hand, not top of the thumb

[_] Sticks making a “V” shape

[_] Arms relaxed and resting at side


[_] Use wrist, not arm

[_] Knocking or throwing motion, not “karate chop” motion

[_] Let stick bounce naturally, like a basketball

[_] Move stick in a straight up-and-down motion

The teaching mantra “pick your battles” should be heeded here. The idea is to build the student’s awareness of good hand technique, not to demand perfect form by the end of lesson one. Once the student can play some single strokes with some evidence of steady beat and improved technique, move right along to learning a beat.

First, introduce the concept of counting in 4/4, having the student count “1,2,3,4” along with you. Then go back to “Billie Jean” (or your song of choice) and count along with the song, so the student can hear and get an intuitive understanding of meter.

Then, teach the basic quarter-note rock beat: while counting out loud, play the right hand on all four beats, the left hand on beats 2 & 4, and stomp your right foot on beats 1 & 3. It helps to play the right hand on a different surface than the left (such as the rim of a Remo practice pad, or even just a hardcover book) and to have a louder stomping surface (like tile or hardwood floor). To convince the student that this is indeed a real drum beat, demonstrate some more complex beats using the same surfaces and show him or her how cool that can sound. If your student really excels at that, you can come full-circle and try playing the beat along with “Billie Jean.”

If you’ve helped the student to understand steady beat, good technique, meter, and even a basic drum beat, that’s a pretty great start! With very young students, it might take weeks to get all of those checked off, and with more adept students, you might get through all of that with time to spare, but either way, that’s a great foundation on which to build for future lessons.

First Lesson with a Beginner With a Drum Set

If the student is a total beginner and has a drum set, you can lean a little more on the drum beat portion of the lesson plan described above. Follow the instructions for learning steady beat and good hand technique, but be sure to watch the clock and allow time to get a basic beat happening on the drums.

After introducing the concept of meter by counting in 4 along to a song, tell the student that you’re about to learn a real rock drum beat. First, take a few minutes to teach the student the names of the different parts of the drum set and tell them that there will be a quiz on it next lesson. Then focus your attention on the hi-hat, snare, and bass drum.

As described above, teach the student the “basic quarter-note rock beat” by having him or her count “1,2,3,4” out loud, playing right hand strokes on the hi-hat (keeping the hi-hat closed with the clutch if necessary), and then adding the snare on beats 2 & 4, and eventually bass drum on 1 & 3. If the student does great with that beat, then you can try teaching the “basic eighth-note rock beat” by explaining that it’s the same thing, but with one extra hi-hat stroke sandwiched in between each of the existing hi-hat strokes. You should also teach how to count eighth notes, “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”.

If your student can play a either of the basic rock beats by the end of the lesson, they will feel a great sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep going.

All material © Piano Power 2015

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