It’s a long trip up the fourth floor percussion studio at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch. Allow more time to get up there than you think, even if you take the elevator. If you’re like percussion faculty Sam Ruttenberg, get there early.
Why does he arrive early? To practice, of course. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of teaching,” he says. “I like seeing everyone get better – including myself.”
He encourages his students to practice four times each week between lessons; otherwise, he says, “you won’t get the muscle memory for playing.” This applies to all students, and Sam’s have run the gamut in age from as young as 4 to adults in their 80’s.
Generally, each lesson starts with rudiments. “Half of each lesson is on the pad,” he says. After working on rolls, flams, paradiddles and other percussion building-blocks, students move on to rock beats, jazz breaks, solos and other exercises are better suited for the drum set – the arrangement of snare, bass drum, tom-toms and cymbals found in bands of all kinds, and Ruttenberg’s primary instrument for freelancing these days.
There are other musicians in Ruttenberg’s family, mainly oboists and pianists. “I was that one that rebelled,” he says with a laugh, before adding that he started out on piano himself at age 7 and played for three years.
When he comes across a student who has played another instrument – especially piano – before starting on percussion, he says, “it’s such an advantage.”
In addition to introducing students to reading music, piano offers another benefit: awareness of physical form, with the alignment of fingers, hands, arms and the rest of the body. This carries over readily to percussion.
From there, technique comes into play: gripping the sticks correctly, striking the instrument, allowing the force of the strike to rebound and prepare you for the next one. Proper technique is a non-negotiable for Ruttenberg, and years of fixing technical mistakes led him to develop a teaching tool.
His invention, HingeStix, are modified drumsticks that force correct technique – hold them incorrectly, and you can’t play. A swivel pad is inserted into holes drilled into the stick, and the pad lines up the student’s hands to promote correct grip. This invention has been picked up for national distribution by famed stick maker Vic Firth, and it has brought Ruttenberg and his teaching widespread acclaim.
Fame aside, the appeal of percussion goes beyond having the satisfaction of making a lot of noise and getting to hit things with sticks. It’s a powerful instrument, and musicians of all ideas are drawn to the idea of having power and being easily heard. “You control the pulse,” he says. “If you’re in a band, you’re the heartbeat. Take any band, and look at the drummer – a lot of the time, they’re the only ones smiling.”