Drum school: ‘The drums kept me out of trouble’

So says Robert ‘Sput’ Searight, one of three hot-shot drumming teachers at a week-long school in Westmeath

‘As beautiful as they are, drums are just an inanimate object. It takes people to bring them to life. We are all here in this room because of a man-made object, but it is us who bring them to life; we have a sense of camaraderie with it. Many of my friends are musicians, as is my wife. It was through music I met so many people.”

The true believer is New Jersey-born Mark Guiliana, considered one of the world's top drummers, and you could be forgiven for thinking this all sounds a little cultish. But if drumming is a cult, it's a largely benign one.

Guiliana is at Grouse Lodge Recording Studios in Co Westmeath for 21 Drums. The event, organised by the Dublin instrument shop Music Maker, brings together 21 percussionists of all levels from across the world for a week-long intensive drum camp under the tuition of Guiliana and two other world-class players.

"The drums gave me a place where I could belong as a young person," says Mike Johnston, an American. "I wasn't strong at sports, but when I started to play drums I gained respect from the people around me at school. School programmes such as orchestra and marching bands bound people together. It gave me something to strive for, a healthy competition where we learned many positive traits."


Johnston runs Mikeslessons.com, the world's largest educational website for drummers, and has a teaching facility in Folsom, California that specialises in week-long drum camps.

The third teacher here is Robert "Sput" Searight, a drummer of prodigious ability from Dallas, Texas, who is currently on tour with fusion act Snarky Puppy. "With the background I come from, if I didn't have music I might not even be around today," he says matter-of-factly. "The drums kept me out of trouble; this was my outlet. Music pretty much saved my life and continues to help my family. I am now able to inspire and encourage them. It has a domino effect. It has allowed me to connect with so many people, make new friends and travel the world."

Twenty-one cheques?

Before heading to a drum camp, I was sceptical: maybe it would be three ace drummers stuck babysitting for a week while waiting for 21 cheques to clear. How wrong I was.

At Grouse Lodge, there is no competition. Everyone understands that the individual is on a personal journey, and the players who are further along in their careers almost feel an onus to help and encourage those who are not as well-travelled. After all, we were all beginners once. After that, you just need the hunger, and most of the students here have it in spades.

This isn’t the first time, for example, that Andrew McEnaney has taken lessons with Guiliana.

“I live in Toronto, so because he’s in New York I actually drove 10 hours to do a lesson with him because I’m floored by his approach and take on drumming. I spoke to Mike at the NAMM [an LA music convention], and I was sold. I’ve actually been touring for the past few years but never had a teaching experience like this. When I heard it was the three guys, it was an easy decision to come.”

"I'm a woodworker and love creating," says Ben Bell. "Drums were the first art form that I discovered. I'm here to remember what it was like from when I started playing. I'd lost my hunger along the way and came here to find my musical soul again."

Rosie Flynn’s approach is more personal. “I work full time in a different profession but have always played,” she says. After moving to London, she didn’t have the space for a kit, but got back into it during the summer. “I haven’t felt happier, I can’t remember, since the last time I played drums actually; it’s a happiness thing they bring.”

Top class costs

Tuition isn’t cheap, at more than €2,300 for the week, including all expenses. For those on tighter budgets, the three followed up the week-long programme with a gig at Dublin’s Button Factory.

For John-Paul Prior from Music Maker, the social aspect of playing is as important as the technique.

“Music is meant for everyone,” he says. “It is a social outlet. For instance, in Germany they currently sell a phenomenal amount of djembes [a type of hand drum]. They use them as a tool for social gatherings, where people come for relaxation and expression.

“With day-to-day stress, people can search for an outlet like yoga and meditation. Drumming can be that outlet also. Drumming has a tribal core to it and can be meditational.”

During the sessions, the tutors are surprisingly open about their experiences and learning from their mistakes. For professionals, getting to a calmer place while playing is essential.

“I always try to be free of burden. Mentally I want to be having a good time,” says Searight. “If something is holding you down, you quickly find that you cannot communicate. I use the music to heal any problem holding me down. You got to just have fun, try not to be too serious. After the gig, I just want to be positive. Life is beautiful, and music makes you appreciate it.”

He says his aim is to help students have a better understanding on how best to align their current and future paths.

“We want to help you. If we are not inspiring, then we are not doing a good job. Our job is to share what we have and make others feel motivated and empowered. The idea that we are superstars is just crazy. It’s not like that for us.”

  • Next year's 21 Drums takes place at Grouse Lodge Studios on August 9th-14th. Tuition will again be with Mark Guiliana, Robert "Sput" Searight and Mike Johnston. Tickets, including accommodation, transport, food and evening activities, cost €2,385. Email 21drums@musicmaker.ie or see facebook. com/MusicMakerEire