My Drum Lesson with Fred Gruber (1982)

Page 1 of the edited manuscript of my conversation with Fred Gruber. At the end of this post I’ve added photos of all the manuscript pages.

SKF NOTE: Yesterday, while searching through a stack of my interview transcripts, I came upon this transcript from a long interview I did with Fred Gruber for Modern Drummer in 1982.

We were sitting at the kitchen table in Buddy Rich’s NYC apartment. Buddy was not home, but I was in awe at being so close to drum royalty.

Fred was totally relaxed. Almost too relaxed, I thought, because time was running out and he had not yet allowed me to turn on my tape recorder.

Eventually we settled down, fired up the tape machine, and completed our interview. In the excerpt included here, I asked Fred specifically what happens at his first drum lessons. We had a pair of drumsticks on hand, so I apprehensively offered myself in the role of First Time Drum Student.

This is the first time our conversation is available verbatim. I don’t remember where or if this piece was published originally, but I’ve added photos of the original manuscript so readers can see the difference in this version and the edited version. Also, I’ve made shorter some of the original paragraphs for easier reading. Again, no words from the original manuscript are deleted.

I think what Fred has to say here is valuable info. If nothing else it gives us an insight into the Gruber teaching method.


Scott K Fish: Let’s say I come to you for a drum lesson. I walk in your door and introduce myself. Where does it go from there?

Fred Gruber: I’d probably ask you how long you’ve been playing, who you’ve studied with, and your reasons for wanting to play the drums, so I could decide what approach would be best for you.

If it didn’t work for me, I’d direct this person to somebody who could, hopefully, help that person be better than he is at the moment he walks through my door.

SKF: Are you saying that, for you, there are right and wrong motivations for playing the drums?

FG: In true terms there is no right and wrong. But, I’m entitled to an opinion. It would have to work not only for this young man coming through my door, but for me too. If there’s no harmonic we won’t get a product. If I’m not properly motivated, what kind of a product would we get, and where would the joy be?

It’s a joint venture that takes the two of us to produce something that’s positive.

SKF: I’ll use myself as a hypothetical student. I’m 32. I’ve had an interest in the drums since I was [age] four or five. There were probably two initial motivations:

  1. Music was something that was always changing and always different. I’ve worked a lot of jobs that became boring and routine once I’d learned the system. Music wasn’t like that.
  2. A love of music and for the attention I’d get from playing drums.

FG: The statement “ever-changing” really relates to the fact of life. That would tell me that you were, to some degree, in tune with life.

Life, of necessity, is ever-changing. It’s all based on the key word that you used: change. And change is constant. So , it would clue me immediately that living within you is some awareness of that which is taking place in the whole universe: constant change. And you, to some extent, are in touch with it.

In situations where a non-living situation is occurring – you get bored. Which means, you are alive to some extent.

I’d say to myself, “Maybe I have something to work with here.”

Now, hopefully you will also have musical talent which would couple up with your awareness and feeling for life. I’d try to equip you with some of the tools that would, hopefully, enable you to express yourself as an individual.

And I’d see what your growth pattern was as we went along.

But, I would be motivated by a comment like that because I can see that you’re in touch. To what degree you’re in touch would open up in time. As we worked together it would become apparent.

SKF: Before we were taping this you told me that you try to find out how a person hears. How do you do that?

FG: First of all, the growth pattern is forever. We’re all forever changing. But at the particular moment that a student walks through my door and plays some basic or fundamental things for me, I can hear right away how he phrases.

How he phrases is indicative of how he’s hearing. That tells you what he’s hearing at that moment on that day.

Now, you have to take into account that he’s nervous, he’s possibly mildly apprehensive. Or he could be the reverse. He could be terribly aggressive in defense of the fact that he’s very nervous.

But the bottom line is actually what he’s “saying” when he’s illustrating these things that you ask him to perform, by virtue of how he phrases.

Technically, he might not come to see me at all if he’s thoroughly thrilled with himself in every area of his playing. By just picking up the sticks or any other instrument, the minute you start to make some sounds, you’re automatically phrasing. There isn’t any other way to go about it. Good, bad, or indifferent.

You can’t ask a person walking through your door to sit down and play World War VI. It’s just out of line.

SKF: Some teachers do.

FG: Well, that’s really foolish and it’s not required. You’re a teacher. You’re not on a competitive level with someone who’s coming to you with their hand out asking for your help. If you’re trying to help you don’t get into a competitive situation. Because it’s adolescent.

It only takes so many taps before you see where the guy’s coming from.

First, you ask him if he’s acquainted with some of the “scales” of our instrument: the rudiments. You pick out some of the more elementary rudiments and see how – and this is a very key word to what we’re talking about – you see how he approaches it. The key word is: approach. In essence, it’s technical. The phrasing is something else.

He starts to play and at that point I am able to estimate what he’s doing and assess, at that moment, how he’s hearing. Then you might ask him, “Invent something on what you just played. Very simply. Don’t try to play fast. Just relax and invent something rhythmically based on what you just played.

[SKF NOTE: At this point in our interview I volunteered for a demonstration. Fred Gruber had me play a double-stroke roll on a magazine and then on a hard Formica table top. He instructed me to relax and not think about what I was doing.]

FG: Okay. You responded differently to this harder surface with another sound than you were playing on the magazine. You’re the instrument. In the final analysis, you are the instrument. The instrument you are sitting behind is just an extension of you and what you hear and feel.

Something changed when you played on another surface. Let’s do it again.

[SKF NOTE: Again, I played a double-stroke roll on the hard Formica table top.]

FG: Okay. You can hear that the strokes are not as even as they were on the magazine. You’ve backed off a little because the sound of the table is harder. In other words, it discloses more of what you’re doing. It hides less. So you’ve backed off a little. Which only means that you got mildly apprehensive.
So we dismiss that. It doesn’t really count. We’ll try to get relaxed and we’ll do it again.

[SKF NOTE: Once again I play a double-stroke roll on the table top.]

FG: Okay. On the left hand, the first stroke of the double-stroke was much louder. And the second one came down as a rebound.

The right hand was following the left hand. It was just hanging there limp and just playing a little rebound. Whereas, the left hand was actually playing the more aggressive lead.

So, in technical terms it means simply that it’s uneven. One hand is different than the other. And if we’re talking technically, one hand should be able to do what the other hand can do.

We’re not talking about sitting down and playing music now. We’re not talking about swinging. We’re not talking about phrasing.

Technically speaking, that means that one of your hands is not matched to the other. And there’s a slim possibility that sometime in your playing life, you might want to express something you’re hearing that might not come out, because of the technical deficiency. And you find yourself saying, “I can’t get it out.”

I’d notice right away that the hands are not matched. I’m not referring to match grip. I mean that they’re not equal to each other in terms of development.

Now, this may or may not be relevant because we’re sitting together for the first time and you might not be doing what you can actually do.

But, I’m getting an opportunity to view what you’re doing at that moment. Then I’d try to instill some confidence. I’d try to point out some bad habits – if they were in existence – where I could show you, very quickly, that you are not utilizing some fundamentally correct principles. I’d make you aware that you could do what you’re doing, possibly better, and certainly easier. So when people ask you, “How’d you do that?”, the best answer you can give them is, “Easily.”

So overall, that’s how I’d approach a first meeting. Without getting too complicated.

Then I’d go on to have a student play the drum set. And according to what type of music he’s into, I’d have him play something he’s comfortable with. Perhaps a rock pattern. And I’d tell him not to get too complicated, so I could see how he phrases, how he moves, and what it is that might be prohibiting him from accomplishing what he might or might not be hearing.

This way, I can see where I have to go with this person to help him make the best music he can on his drums.

SKF: Earlier you spoke about time in relation to rhythm, harmony, and melody.

FG: Hearing!

SKF: Yeah. Is that something you had to develop, or did it come naturally? How do you impart that knowledge to your students?

FG: Hopefully, any person that wants to achieve is always asking questions and is open to the answers. I’ve been privileged to be, at different times in my life, around some of the best players in the world. And I’ve always asked questions and learned from the answers.

Having grown up in NYC around people who didn’t always speak English, and having gone to school at an early age in East Harlem, it was, of necessity, that we speak somehow.

One of the things we used to do in the schoolyard was play with nickels on Campbell soup cans, or on trash cans with [wooden] dowel sticks from shop class. In that way you could develop a relationship with guys you otherwise might not be able to communicate with. I found that it was relatively easy to sing back some of the things they were playing, and it made me feel really good. I loved it!

I saw that it was just another language. That it wasn’t anything mystical. It was a language of sound. It had sequence, logic, and it moves. There was body language in perfect relation to every sound. There was absolutely no doubt of that in my mind.

It was the same as kids playing ball in the street. It was so we could play together. Only we didn’t play ball. We played on fenders of cars or whatever. I found myself continuing to do that.

Then as I grew a little bit, I found myself around persons who were more formally trained in these areas. And I’d ask questions.

Now, the process of communicating this to my students is a kind of learning process for the teacher himself. You learn from your students. They provoke and teach you to teach, because they ask questions and make you look into yourself for answers.

It doesn’t mean that when you come up with an answer it’s always gonna work. But, if you find that you’re coming up with an answer and it’s working, before you know it, a sequence evolves.

It’s not a mechanical thing. It’s a creative process, I think. You find yourself able to answer questions more readily as the years go on. You find that you’re in a position to solve problems faster than you formerly could. As you teach you continually learn. It’s endless and it’s a true joy.

As far as hearing goes, that’s God given. And if that gift is present – for melody, a player should listen a lot. For harmony he should study a lot. And for rhythm, he should sing spontaneously everything he plays. Say what you play. Play what you say.

SKF: What do you do about a student who has an excellent concept of rhythm, and he has his four-way independence down, but his knowledge of melody and harmony falls just short of being tragic?

FG: It’s a question that covers so much. I mean, “He has four-way independence down.” I understand what you’re saying. The word “down.” Who has anything down? The growth process is forever. You want to find out if this four-way independence of his is developed along mechanical lines. How can we make this function in a way where it produces music?

I’d try to find out if he’s built some kind of cage for himself with all these goodies, these mechanical things.

SKF: Might you back off drum set teaching and work with him on song form and song interpretation?

FG: No, because every song writes it’s own form. And the only place where form comes before song is in music school – which is what I would recommend.

As to interpretation, it’s really down to hearing and feeling. It isn’t technical. It’s in a gray area. You really have to deal with the individual on that one.

As far as backing off drum set teaching – why? That’s what I do. I teach an approach to the drums which is based on natural principles. To break those principles creates stress. That means the person is going to be forever trying. And trying is never doing.

You’ve got to get the person to the point where, when others watch him, they say, “Wow, this guy is doing it.”

There’s a vast difference between trying and doing.


[SKF NOTE: On the back side of the last page of this transcript is this handwritten paragraph:

Hearing means being able to play back, sing back – or both – and retain, what you’ve listened to . That can be enlarged upon and developed because the gift is there. Exposing yourself to all kinds of music.

While these words are well within the spirit of Fred Gruber, as of this writing, I can’t say for sure if they are Fred’s words. I may have written them as a summation or clarification of something Fred said.

If or when I find out who said these words I will post that info here.]

About Scott K Fish
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