Teacher Feature: Forrest Padgett

Forrest Padgett is something of an institution at Centre Music House. He has been a constant presence in the store since he was a student working towards an English degree at Framingham State University. He started out on the sales floor and, when the drum instructor unexpectedly left, Forrest found himself a new job as a full-time instructor with a full slate of students. With many years of experience, Forrest has much wisdom he is happy to share with others. The following interview provides fascinating insights into Forrest’s road to becoming a musician, his experiences with his  instructors as a youth, and his philosophy on drumming and teaching. Enjoy!

What was your path to becoming a musician?

I have wanted to play music for as long as I can remember. It’s hard to pinpoint any first moment of attraction. Music was just always there. My parents both sang around my house, and I can remember their great enthusiasm whenever music came on the television. I wanted to play the violin sometime around the age of three, but I was given a toy violin and no lessons. I’m sure I annoyed anyone within earshot, and after a year, when my family moved from Cleveland to northern New York, my violin “disappeared.” There are no recordings, but plenty of pictorial evidence. Eventually, I started bugging my parents to let me play the drums. After three years of “mandatory” piano lessons (to test my commitment to drums — how cruel! the waiting!), I started playing drums in the 4th grade band.

At my elementary school, I was tested and drafted into a “special chorus” that performed at Rotary Club luncheons and all that sort of thing. The teacher, Mrs. Hardy, was one of those gifted, driven, force-of-nature whirling dervishes of energy that movies get made about. She could, at times, be merciless, but to sing in her ensemble under her meticulous direction gave me an early experience of musical beauty and satisfaction, if that makes any sense — the joy and elation of making music in a well-rehearsed group.

I remember seeing live music played all around, in parades, in public parks, at relative’s weddings — wherever it was, it always excited me. When I finally got an actual drum set in the 6th grade, I joined a band. My parents were mystified by that, but I had been thinking about how to play for so long, watching and anticipating what to do, I don’t ever remember not being able to play it.

There were no places to take drum set lessons in my town, but after years of playing in bands, in my junior year of high school I started traveling to a college twenty miles away, Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, to study with James Peterscak. Between my junior and senior years, I came to Boston for a Berklee College of Music summer program for seven weeks and experienced music on a whole new level. I also learned some important ways to develop the coordination to play jazz. After high school, I attended Crane, and later transferred to Berklee, where I studied with a series of great teachers, Joe Hunt, Gary Chaffee, Alan Dawson, Bob Gullotti, and Bernard Purdie in New York.

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Who are some of your favorite artists?

I have many favorite artists. The drummer Tony Williams was a huge influence early on, and I was fortunate to later meet him and see him play many times. He was from Boston and began recording with Miles Davis at the age of seventeen. In my mind he solidified the concept of drummer as artist, though I later came to realize that he was just following in the footsteps of so many other great innovators.

I like almost every genre of music, and I enjoy efforts like Herbie Hancock’s *Imagine Project* where he combines musicians from diverse cultures and styles from all over the globe to make music that defies the limits of genre. The Newton Public Library is my go-to resource to keep expanding my awareness of what’s being produced throughout the world. It’s a bit sad to me when people limit themselves to the music of the past, the soundtrack of their youth maybe, or when music stops being vital after a certain age. There’s still so much great new music to love. It’s out there and it renews my belief in the power of music every time I make a new discovery.

What were some important lessons imparted on you from your instructors?

Alan Dawson was an amazing jazz drummer who had played with some of the greatest giants of jazz, but he was also an important innovator in the teaching of jazz drums. He was quite serious about what you were there to accomplish and he was very firm about you, as the student, fulfilling your part, doing the work, showing up prepared. Alan stressed the capacity for drumming to be “musical,” and he developed a pedagogy to develop that.

His example still pushes me to continually think of ways to connect drumming to music, ways to expand the vocabulary of playing and teaching. The way Alan treated me with respect on occasions when I saw him outside the lessons was another very lasting impression. He once spotted me in at an Art Blakey show and sent someone over to get me so he could introduce me to the legendary Art Blakey. I have some wonderful indelible memories of Alan, but the words integrity and dignity always come to mind.

In terms of playing your instrument, what was difficult for you as a young musician? How did you overcome that difficulty?

It took me awhile, years, in fact, to understand that the first responsibility of the drummer is not just to express your excitement, but to function as a good timekeeper, to play with a consistent, good feeling — “good time” — that allows the other musicians to play comfortably and at their best. Drummers do have other functions, including adding excitement to the music, but if you can’t get that most important job done first, you won’t get as many opportunities to do the other things, like solos and big features and movies about your struggles with sadistic music teachers, etc. [Not a *Whiplash *fan.]

A lesson for novice drummers with Forrest. 

How much time a day did you practice each day when you started? How much time a day do you practice now?

The rule, when I started, was 30 minutes a day. That was the minimum. I didn’t always get it done, I resisted, but that was the expectation in my house. Later, I expanded that to an hour or to many hours, depending on how inspired I was at any given time. And it took other less recognizable forms, picking up sticks while watching TV, working on a rudiment between homework assignments, tapping on things in inappropriate places, etc. I also spent hours and hours practicing in bands, learning songs, arranging them, singing and working out harmonies, and putting together our “shows.” I even went through a phase of practicing eight to twelve hours a day. I don’t recommend it. It burned me out pretty fast.

For young musicians who are leaning towards music as a college major, I try to get them to think about balance. Having a social life and being able to enjoy the company of people is important! Too much time in the practice room can be a lonely, isolating, self-defeating experience. I’ve seen it, professionally speaking, and it can lead to unhappiness. Efficient, goal-oriented practice is the key, and that takes organization. And practice at the art of practicing. But when it works it can be very gratifying, the experience of working through a process and being lifted up by the results.

There is a substantial reason young people who study music tend to do better in school but it’s not an automatic magic formula. When they learn to manage their time and to work toward small goals, I believe it seeps into the other parts of their lives. That’s the most important thing I’m hoping to stimulate and reinforce in young people, how to enrich your life through focused efforts directed at a series of small goals. Does that make sense? I’m always looking for a better way to say that…

Why should aspiring musicians take lessons in place of learning from internet resources?

An actual teacher working one on one with a student can focus on what is working and what isn’t. A good teacher is flexible and perceptive, able to communicate the solutions to the problems you encounter while trying to learn to play. I’ve always felt that knowing how and what to practice is critically important, an idea that is crystalized in a beautiful essay published in the New Yorker by the famous classical pianist Jeremy Denk (read here) in which he reflects upon all the teachers who helped him develop his musicianship. If I recall correctly, Jeremy Denk studied music, science, and writing at Oberlin, and reading his work reinforced my own feeling that my ostensibly “useless” English degree actually turns out to be quite useful in helping me articulate musical concepts and feelings. [And I am kidding about ostensibly useless — no hate mail please — the English degree process was one of the most enjoyable, challenging, gratifying things I’ve ever done.]

Forrest providing instruction to one of his young students. 

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What are your specialties in instruction?  

I have studied with some very famous jazz drummers and performed and toured quite a bit in a variety of styles of music, but the thing I stress most often is the need to make music, to be a part of the music on the drums with others. Playing drums, despite what I hear too often, is not just about *hitting things*. You do get to do that, but it’s so much more. If all you want to do is hit things, do you really need lessons? Though I would recommend earplugs.

You’ve been at Centre Music House for many years. How long have you been teaching here?

I crossed over from working behind the counter one day to teaching when the drum teacher left somewhat unexpectedly. I was studying English at Framingham State, working part time at Centre, and playing music professionally at night. I’m fortunate that Corbit [the owner of Centre Music] was so patient while I figured out the very important differences between performing and teaching, and I’ve continued to be absolutely fascinated — on a quest — to understand how and to improve my ability to “teach” people to learn with the least amount of misdirection and pain. I was very fortunate when I was 19 or 20 to have studied the piano for a year with the legendary Charlie Banacos. Charlie is known throughout the jazz world for his brilliantly distilled and focused teaching, tailored to each student’s needs. His approach and his positive personality still reverberate through my thinking.

Why do you like teaching at Centre Music House?

I love the variety of interests that the students have. All ages, all styles, and a huge diversity of goals. I get to know and spend time with so many interesting people. There’s a sense of loss, oftentimes, when they leave to go to college or to pursue other interests, but I’ve come to recognize that as an inevitable part of the process. I focus on the hope that their lesson experience in some small way added to their purview of life. I refuse to let my wife throw out the notebooks I keep of student’s lessons. It’s (mostly) a pleasant walk back down memory lane. You get to know so many great kids and adults one-on-one. Kind of like being a therapist, but without the responsibility to solve their problems. Actually, they help solve some of mine… It’s a constant reminder of how beautiful people can be.

What do you expect of your students?

I encourage students to set their own goals. After some initial basics, we try to establish some short- and long-term goals and then work to achieve them. It’s not always so explicit with younger people, but I am constantly checking with them about how school band is going or if they have any new songs or musical experiences that we can expand on.

And simply wanting to learn to play drums for the fun of doing it is a perfectly satisfying pursuit. Having a drum set in the house and playing by yourself or along to music is an enjoyable avocation for untold thousands (millions?) of people. Johnny Carson kept a drum set in his office and played along to recordings every day at lunch. Baseball players Mike Piazza and Randy Johnson reportedly kept sets in remote rooms inside their stadiums where they retreated to play for relaxation and to escape the stress of their “jobs” (playing baseball!).

I have to keep a very open mind about the many reasons people want to play the drums and I respect them all. Also, the “curriculum” with drums is not as clear as, say, the piano or the violin. Percussion covers a wide range of specialties. So, it’s all about the students and what inspires them, though if a young person starts leaning towards music beyond high school as a college major or minor, I will do my best to talk about the options and the challenges involved and there’s a shift from study for “fun” towards studying things they will need to know.

Forrest performing with blues guitar legend Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters at the former B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York City. 

Here’s your chance to promote yourself!  Are you currently performing?

I perform with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters around New England and beyond. I also “freelance” with all kinds of groups. Performing keeps me in touch with what is most essential to playing the instrument, and it keeps me mindful about anxiety and learning to manage nerves, all the things you shouldn’t take for granted that are part of being a musician.

Where can people see you perform?

Ronnie Earl is playing at the Natick Arts Center in December. His tour dates are always posted on his web site, www.ronnieearl.com.

For more information about lessons at Centre Music House, visit here.

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