Even before Eric Derr knew he wanted to pursue music, he was improvising.
Before he owned his first drum set, and even before taking his first private lesson, he was putting together household objects – he cites soda cans and lids from popcorn canisters as especially promising sound sources – and setting them up to play as though they were drums and cymbals.
“I figured out what it would be like at the drum set,” he says. “If you learn the coordination” – the use of both hands and feet that playing drum set requires – “that can go a long way.”
After showing his dedication and commitment throughout middle school, his parents presented him with his first snare drum, and not long after that – starting in high school – Derr first began teaching music.
“I loved taking what my teachers had taught me and then passing that along to younger students,” he says. “As I started to go through my undergrad and master's degrees, I would coach some of the younger students or give them tips on pieces they were working on.”
Many of his current students already have some familiarity with playing drums, including playing in bands through schools or churches. For these young musicians, Derr finds the most important thing in instruction them is “not getting in the way of their curiosity.”
He commonly uses call-and-response techniques to get them to think in musical terms, or he comes up with a pattern and having the student repeat it back to him.
More than reinforcing the basics, Derr finds value in instilling practice habits in his youngest students – the motivation to improve their skills and the exercises they need to do between lessons in order to do it. “Things like that are as important as the content” of his lessons, he says.
When it comes to moving from practice to performance, Derr has a wealth of experience from which to draw. In addition to his teaching, he continues to both write and perform new works for percussion, including a series of commissions for solo drum set.
Solo percussion music is a young field; though he’s in his early 30’s, Derr says he’s older than a lot of the music he plays. Since his playing often involves deciphering new forms of notation and adapting to complex pieces of music, he says, “that helps me come up with different creative teaching methods for my students and creative, flexible ways for helping them deal with challenging materials or concepts.”
“I get so much joy and fulfillment out of that.”