Quirky Percussion

Plenty to do, but there’s always time for some quirky fun, especially with all the toys at my disposal at Hands-On Music. Here’s a little sonic adventure using Hammerax effects stacks, gongs and cymbals. Featured instruments are the Slap, Bash, Spanky, 6″ hihats, 2 Boomywhangs and a 21″ Indigo Flat Ride.

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Quirky Percussion


This week features the Chinese Opera Gong, a true Jekyll-Hyde instrument and ever popular on our Sound Tree (which we’ll feature as a single instrument one of these weeks). Just think, if you were in China walking down the street playing one of these, you may be asked “Are you going to the Opera?”


We have a couple of these for sale in our store.
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Quirky percussion

Here is a donkey’s jawbone from Peru. You play it by striking the side of the jaw and it sounds like a vibra-slap. Ironically,the vibra-slap was created to mimic a jawbone. Obviously donkey jawbones aren’t necessarily obtainable, so the vibra-slap was created in its place



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Quirky percussion

Here’s the Boomywhang, by Hammerax. No longer in production, this is a real attention getter. Perhaps Hammerax founder, John Stannard, will start making them again if enough people like it.

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Musicians’ Corner

Here’s Sam Merrick, who stopped by and gave us a taste of his excellent musicianship.

You can also use this link to go to our Facebook page:
Musicians’ Corner: Sam Merrick

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Musical Refreshment

Music has a way of renewing me not only spiritually and mentally, but often physically as well. Physical exertion is more a part of drumming than in most other instruments. Often after practicing and performing drums, I feel like I’ve bicycled or done some other exercise. Although drumming isn’t really a substitution for exercise, it certainly helps clear my mind and leaves me feeling refreshed.

Drumming also gets rid of any guilt I feel when I’ve been away from my instrument too long. While I may not have time to practice as much as I’d like, I take what I can get, because, frankly, there’s never enough time to cover all the areas I’d like. An excellent musician and good friend of mine used to say ”when you work on one thing, you work on everything”, which I’ve found to be true on a deeper level. Also, it doesn’t serve me to focus on what I haven’t accomplished. I prefer to focus on what I have accomplished.

I often say, half jokingly, that the three biggest challenges in life are showing up, paying attention and getting started, and the three are related. For most people, including me, getting started is the hardest part of practicing. I always want to practice, but there are usually reasons why I don’t do it as often as I’d like. Rather than spending time figuring out what these reasons are, I just talk myself into playing for just 5 minutes. It usually works.

The holiday season is often one of the most stressful times of year. I plan to take any opportunity to slip away, even for a few minutes, and do some playing. Maybe this sounds selfish, but it not only refreshes me, but it makes me a lot more pleasant to be with. Which benefits everyone around me!

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On the Occasion of Naming the Lower Merion High School Music Lab for Josh Sack

Josh Sack came to me for drum lessons at age 9, a drummer in his heart but not yet in actuality. His mother brought a picture of him as a toddler, a toy drum hanging from around his neck, his expression passionate as he intensely hit the drum. I saw this same expression many times over the years.

Josh’s parents understood that he was a drummer from birth, and they were all about giving him the opportunity to realize what was in his heart. As his teacher, my job was only to keep him engaged and having fun, the rest was up to him. It wasn’t hard. In the ensuing years I watched him on his path as he traveled from an insecure, possessive (and not always nice) little boy to a young man with enormous generosity, sensitivity, good taste and elegance as a human being. There was nothing not to like about Josh Sack (sorry for the double negative).

Like most people, musicians often aspire to become their heroes. They imitate to exacting standards those who influence them the most. What they’re really doing is building a repertoire, establishing a set of tools. I like to think of it as filling the well with water. Eventually, when there’s enough water in the well, you can fill your bucket. Eventually, when we reach a saturation point of influences, we draw out our unique artistic identity.

On the way towards achieving a signature quality in his playing, Josh became several drummers. Most notably he was Carter Beauford of the Dave Matthews Band. From an observer’s (my) point of view, I could see his emerging brilliance because he was able, by ear, to imitate almost exactly Carter Beauford’s drumming, both technically and musically. While others may have tired of his somewhat obsessive desire to be all things Carter, I thought it best to give him plenty of rope. It paid off. Although Josh continued to idolize Carter Beauford into adulthood, he eventually moved on to many other influences, and not just drummers. Guitarists pianists, bassists. Josh was an equal opportunity listener. He may not have been consciously aware of the rightness of the choices he made, at least not as a younger player, but his compass was always pointed in the right direction. His intuition was spot on.

I came to view Josh as an artist at a very young age. This is what I, as a career player and teacher, nurture and respect the most. The music, the song – these are the gods we worship as musicians. The playing – in Josh’s case, the drumming – always has a way of taking care of itself, as long as we’re on the right track musically. While Josh may not have always been the most disciplined in his practicing, he was always determined as an artist. He had his musical priorities straight, and we can see how he turned out.

Today we dedicate a music lab in the name of Josh Sack. However, we must be careful to understand that a music lab is only a bunch of technology and tools we have at our disposal. It takes the music itself to make it come alive, because in the absence of music, all this stuff is meaningless. With so much opportunity in our lives, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of our raison d’etre (reason for being), which is expressing ourselves through making music. Josh never lost this understanding. Of his many accomplishments that we all acknowledge, Josh embodied best a love and respect for music itself. That’s what he gave us. That’s his lasting legacy we carry with us in our treasured memories of his life. So, today let us dedicate this music lab not just in Josh’s name, but in Josh’s spirit. That is how we can best honor him.

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What a Drummer Does

Musical Thoughts

The drummer provides the rhythmic environment for the entire band

Often the role of the drummer is thought to be the timekeeper of the band, but the drummer’s role is far broader. While the drummer’s playing is the closest actually stating time, everyone keeps time – otherwise the song would fall apart.

The drummer most often – and appropriately – plays grooves (drum set beats) and fills. Simultaneously, musical drummers make choices based on many pieces of information – meter*, the style and corresponding feel of the music, the melody, harmony and bass lines, the song form and phrasing, the arrangement form (how the song is to be performed), and any number of additional elements particular to the song being played. That sounds like a lot, but while making the journey from drummer to musician, these things must be learned in order to bring to the playing experience the knowledge necessary to render a musical performance. When the knowledge and playing abilities are all there, the result is sensitive, vibrant and artistic playing which fits into the song perfectly and makes everyone sound great. The best drummers consciously and intuitively understand this stuff. The rest of us should be on the road to acquiring it.

Philosophically, I like to think of the drummer-musician as the play caller or traffic director. In sports the equivalent might be the point guard in basketball or the catcher in baseball. The drummer accompanies and guides the group through one section into another, helping set the feel, implying (though not often actually playing) the beat. The drummer has to push, pull, energize, and hold back, in a sense providing a large part of the band’s rhythmic environment.

Drummers are musicians of the very most important level…if trained and taught to think that way. Too often the joke about the band consisting of four musicians and a drummer is true. Too often the drummer is trained to become drummer and not a musician. If musicianship is emphasized he becomes both. If only drumming is emphasized he becomes a musician largely as a result of aptitude and luck.

Excerpted from Whole Music Drumming Level One – Teacher and Self-directed student edition by Rob Zollman
Copyright 2002 Robert Zollman. All rights reserved.

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Why Whole Music Learning? (Pt. 3)

Musical Thoughts

In Part 2 of this blog I discussed context vs content. Now I’ll get into some of the differences between my approach and traditional music education.

Whole Music Learning vs traditional music education
For many years my experiences as a performer and teacher led me to question how I was taught and, in turn, how I was teaching. Considered a successful performer by my peers, I knew I could play drums but I didn’t really understand the music I was playing on a deeper level. Yet I had a degree in music performance and had played dozens of styles from classical to rock. Where was the missing link?

Similarly, as a private teacher, my students would come to me wanting to learn drumming, but most showed little musical awareness. At first I addressed their needs by teaching stick technique, drum set beats and reading. Most of my students could achieve these skills, but only the talented ones played musically. Why did some drummers become musicians, while others were just drummers?

I intuitively felt that nearly anyone could be taught to play in a musical manner. It was much later, however, that I realized a priority shift was necessary for this to happen. In order for drummers to become musicians, they had to start thinking musically first and “drumistically” second. In other words, if you walked into your first lesson wanting to learn drumming, you’d become a drummer. But if you came to me wanting to be a musician, you’d end up being both.

It took me many years to fully understand this. In 1979, in order to organize my teaching materials, I began a drum book. Over the next 14 years it evolved into a reflection of the grooves and techniques I had used in my playing career. Then, in 1993, my studies with Dr. Gordon led me to question nearly everything. My year with him was so mind and ear opening that I could never teach in the same way again. I would never again think of music in the same way. I changed my entire approach to playing and teaching, making it necessary to start over with my book. I finally completed Whole Music Drumming in 2002. I continue to use it every day as the go-to source for written materials in my teaching, and it’s held up well for me. When I get around to revising it, I’ll change very little. I will, however, more more on movement and improvisation, which I’ve come to understand are central to music learning. More on these subjects in future blogs.

Through all this, my underlying realization is that traditional music education is deeply flawed. Traditional music education is more about content, less about context. It emphasizes reading and writing, and largely assumes students’ listening and speaking vocabularies have been somehow acquired previously. Even when students are given listening activities, these activities seem to emphasize appreciation over participation.

Whole Music Learning is about creating context first, then teaching content activities based on context. Listening activities are directly related to music participation.

Inclusion, not exclusion
Throughout traditional music education and popular culture, the message — especially for adults — is leave it to the professionals. Only the talented few are qualified to be “real” musicians. The line between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is more defined in music than in any other social or artistic activity.

It is within this environment that I labor for musical inclusion, in my work with babies and pre-schoolers, grade school students and for adults as well. Everyone can be included. Music is as accessible as language, as long as we present it in the same way. If we listen and speak music and movement throughout our society, the division will go away and people will be happier. And, if you take into account all the recent research on music and the brain, people will be smarter, too.

Rob Zollman

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Why Whole Music Learning? (Pt. 2)

Musical Thoughts

In Part 1, I discussed how for many years I was aware of all sorts of gaps in my understanding of music, but didn’t know how to remedy it. This changed almost overnight after I began to study with Dr. Gordon and several of his proteges.

First, I came to understand how music learning and language learning have parallels.

Four vocabularies: context vs content
Music learning and language learning share four vocabularies: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In language we listen and speak before we learn to read and write. In music, too, we learn best when we engage in listening and speaking activities first, but we have to clarify what is meant by “speaking”. We “speak” music when we sing, move and play an instrument. Singing can include simply chanting rhythms, singing short fragments of melody and singing an entire song.

As in language, where we routinely improvise in conversation, improvisation is central to music learning. Many of us don’t do it, and are often afraid of it. But it takes knowing how to approach it, and I’ll be glad to give you some of my ideas in my future blogs.

Listening and speaking activities provide the context, or the whole in the whole-part-whole process. Contextual activities include listening to, singing and/or playing entire songs, meaningful sections and fragments of songs, and/or tonal and rhythm patterns that come from a song.

Content activities provide the ability to sing or play the song. Content includes instrumental techniques (the execution skills required to play an instrument), theoretical analysis, and other activities required to understand a song from the inside out.

Where do reading and writing fit into this? Consider that we cannot take meaning from notation, we can only bring meaning to it. Reading and writing can be either context or content activities, depending on how well the player has learned to audiate* from notation. When we audiate, we give meaning to a substantial number of characteristics found in the music. Unfortunately, many players have learned to play their instruments in advance of, or without developing audiation skills. They are limited to how well they are able to decode the notes and rhythms first, and apply what musical understanding they have later.

Therefore, for those whose audiation skills are better developed, reading and writing can help provide the context for learning the song. For those who have primarily learned to play their instruments and rely on decoding skills, they are dealing with content first, and can only hope that repeated playing eventually results in musical performances. That often depends on how well players listen to themselves and others while playing.

*Simply put, audiation has to do with giving meaning to a piece or passage of music without the music necessarily being physically present. When we audiate, we internally understand not only how the notes and rhythms sound, but we also comprehend any number of additional aspects of the music — tonality, rhythm, harmony, style and feel to name a few. 

I’ll continue the discussion in Part 3.

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