Small Victories: My Performing and Teaching Life
by Steve Houghton
In May of 2020, I retired from teaching at Indiana University after twenty wonderful years. With newfound time on my hands, I decided to take a good look at my performing and teaching over the last 45 years, examining why I taught, what I chose to teach, and how I got there.
I have enjoyed a varied and exciting performing career, playing all types of music while traveling the globe and working with amazing musicians. All the while, it seemed that my playing career meshed comfortably alongside my teaching activities—first in Dallas, then Los Angeles, and finally in Bloomington, Indiana. It became obvious that bringing workplace situations into the teaching studio, such as big band or studio charts, jazz recording projects, gig music, etc., really served to inspire the students, providing them with a glimpse of the “real world.” However, even with the luxury of a four-year collegiate jazz program, it hardly seemed like enough time to cover the necessary material and create the experiences I found vital. I’ve attempted to share the influences and concepts that shaped my playing and, consequently, my teaching. I sincerely hope that my journey can assist and inspire in some way.
While the “small victories” concept was a main component of my teaching, it also reflected impactful moments in my life as well. My small victories started all the way back to joining the 6th grade band, playing in my first concert, winning my first award, attending North Texas and making the 1:00 Lab Band, playing with Woody Herman and Freddie Hubbard, working with John Williams, becoming a college professor, and even surviving the pandemic and playing music again. These moments were the building blocks of my musical life.
My musical fundamentals and early focus on total percussion, including drum set, can be traced back to my first music teacher, Manny Mitka. His concentration on reading and total percussion has served me well throughout my entire career. Then in high school, I took a series of memorable vibe lessons with Dave Samuels, which left a lasting impact on my life. And before entering college, I met Ed Soph at a jazz camp, where he became a strong role model, heavily influencing my technique and a modern-sounding jazz style.
Over time, my big band influences continued to evolve. Early on in high school, I enjoyed Woody Herman recordings with Ed Soph, Joe LaBarbera, and of course Jake Hanna in the 1960s. I certainly appreciated Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, and the Basie band with Harold Jones and Sonny Payne. John Von Ohlen and Peter Erskine’s work with Stan Kenton were also inspiring. Then, while studying at North Texas, I finally heard Mel Lewis. Upon discovering Lewis, my whole approach to big band was transformed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.
After touring with Herman’s band, I moved to Dallas to start the next chapter of my career. Phil Kelly, a great arranger and producer, gave me a shot and showed me the studio ropes. He was a former drummer and taught me a great deal about functioning in the studio, from selecting proper drum sounds to playing with click tracks and devising effective parts. He knew it all.
Moving to Los Angeles four years later, two individuals helped further my knowledge and experience. Peter Matz, a wonderful arranger/musical director, really guided me with respect to playing live shows, Broadway shows, and recording sessions. Les Hooper, a busy Hollywood composer/arranger made it possible for me to record TV shows and jingles. Through his writing, I learned what would be appropriate to play.
Later, I became familiar with Sol Gubin who had a wonderful career with Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and The Carol Burnett Show. Gubin was one of the most respected guys in town, along with Nick Ceroli who played with the Bob Florence Big Band. There was also the great Shelly Manne—I emulated Manne for a variety of reasons, including his versatility and ability to sound great with a trio, quintet, big band, or studio orchestra. He was a total percussionist, composed for TV, and was a first call studio player in Hollywood—my kind of guy!
I would be remiss not to mention my dear friend, the legendary percussionist Emil Richards, who took me under his wing as soon as I moved to Los Angeles. He made me feel so welcome and supported as a young professional trying to make it in LA, inviting me to sessions, dinners, and gigs; he even loaned me gear whenever I needed it. Eventually, I played jazz gigs with Emil around town, PAS conventions, clinics around the country, and percussion festivals in Germany and Taiwan. What a true joy and lots of laughs!
The ‘80s was an exciting time in Los Angeles, with a thriving studio and gigging scene, as well as lots of great musicians. During my time on the West Coast, I was very fortunate to have played with the great big bands of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ray Brown, Frank Mantooth, Bob Florence, Bill Holman, Les Hooper, Phil Kelly, Gordon Goodwin, and John Williams, adding depth and variety to my ensemble concepts.
It seemed that in every small group there was an unstated, yet automatic, musical synergy between piano and drums that controlled and guided the musical intensity. For me, this awareness started at North Texas with Lyle Mays, continuing with Billy Childs in Hubbard’s band, and then Steve Allee in Indianapolis. I grew to admire the almost telepathic “hookups” between Billy/Cedar, Chick/Roy, Chick/Gadd, Elvin/ McCoy, Jimmy/Wynton, Tony/Herbie and Keith/Jack, to name a few. Each one creates a different energy and intensity level that results in a perfect chemistry for the music.
Bass players have taught me lots about time, groove, and style. A few that come to mind are:
- Bob Bowman
- Marc Johnson
- Tom Warrington
- Chuck Berghoffer
- Jimmy Johnson
- Lou Fischer
Piano players have helped shape my “comping” concepts and phrasing ideas. A small sampling includes:
- Lyle Mays
- Steve Allee
- Billy Childs
- Fred Crane
- Lee Musiker
- Shelly Berg
My drumming influences didn’t appear in any kind of chronological order. Frankly, in the beginning I jumped over some of the great early drummers I have since studied and come to admire, helping me to become a better musician and teacher. In general, I’ve always observed drummers who played in bands that I enjoyed. I chased the sound, touch, vocabulary, and musical concepts from drummers who played the same repertoire as I was asked to play.
I’ve been fortunate to spend time with my students exploring and doing “deep dives” on a wide variety of jazz, big band, ECM, studio, fusion, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban drummers. After exploring hundreds of drummers over the years, I have determined that the following list of drummers found their way into my playing, and I thank each and every one of them for their ongoing influence:
- Jimmy Cobb
- Billy Higgins
- Roy Haynes
- Elvin Jones
- Tony Williams
- Shelly Manne
- Sol Gubin
- Jon Christensen
- Jack DeJohnette
- Terry Clark
- Mike Clark
- Harvey Mason
- John Guerin
- Stix Hooper
- Paulo Braga
- Mel Lewis
- Ed Soph
- Bill Stewart
- Marty Morell
- Joe LaBarbera
- Steve Gadd
- Ignacio Berroa
My teaching has always focused on being a working drummer, as well as being able to play authentic jazz, rock, and Latin, while feeling comfortable in the studio or reading charts with large ensembles. While I focused heavily on jazz drumming over the years, my curriculum grew stylistically broader with the goal of becoming a versatile musician who could thrive in any musical format, live or in the studio.
To inspire, challenge, and mentor my students by example, providing a path to becoming a high-level, creative, versatile musician with great ears, while encouraging them to find their own musical voice and follow their passion, whatever that may be.
Strengths and Weaknesses
I feel that the very first lesson must begin with a player’s honest self-analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. The goal of this exercise was to provide a roadmap for designing an individualized curriculum. Student responses to this exercise were often quite interesting—some simply could not determine this for themselves, and others would come up with a completely different set of problems than what I had identified.
This was a concept I developed back with my first clinic while playing with Woody’s Band. The idea was to try and get a single student, a rhythm section, or an entire big band to sound better quickly. Everybody goes home happy—a winner. Again, I look back at my past and see clearly the positive effect of my own “victories.” As I started teaching, these moments arrived for my students in many forms—an exercise, chart, solo transcription, great lesson, audition, concert, recording, and/or live gig. The idea is to stack these achievements, resulting in greater confidence and a better understanding of the music (i.e., how they can effectively function as a performer in school or in the greater music business).
- Success demands singleness of purpose.
- Confidence is contagious; so is lack of confidence.
- Perfection is not attainable; but, if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.
The weekly lessons were designed to include the following areas, each and every week: technique, styles, reading, soloing, and listening. Inevitably there was not enough time to cover everything. I usually assigned a lot of material as one area supported several others, and the results were most often very impressive. At the end of the semester, the students were always surprised at the amount of material we covered.
No Nonsense Teaching
Through my years of clinic and lesson work, I was able to develop an efficient approach to solving specific drumming problems, always trying to be clear and to the point, getting to the heart of the matter. Modeling was an invaluable tool. If the student could clearly hear the difference, it made all the difference. My favorite statement was: “What did I do differently?”
- Ask the student to accurately define the problem or challenge.
- Identify the problem and provide clear explanation.
- Diagnose the solution with a demonstration.
- Remedy the issue quickly!
A technical foundation must be maintained, much like a daily vitamin or going to the gym to work out regularly. Serious drummers must dedicate themselves to a daily technical routine (starting with the hands) as that lays the foundation on our instrument, with specific attention paid to each of the following:
- Snare drum
- Bass drum
- Hi Hat
- Ride cymbal
I have based some of my teaching on my valuable time learning from Ed Soph. I also embraced Gary Chaffee’s technique exercises for hands and feet, as well as his linear concepts. Syncopation (Ted Reed) can be an effective piece of a daily hands routine, doing the pages with various stickings and soloing concepts. Those pages, if done correctly and creatively, can be used as a valuable tool in your drumming. The Rudimental Ritual by Alan Dawson has found its way into my teaching; however, my student Rocky Martin shrunk it down from its original form of 400 rudiment variations to a lean 30, which has made it more manageable and easier for students to memorize.
Bring Music into the Practice Room
- Play exercises to tracks
- Styles to tracks
- Charts to tracks
- Solo transcriptions to originals
Know that practicing technical exercises for hands and feet can and should be done to music, if played at the appropriate tempo and style. For example, Stick Control or the Rudimental Ritual can be played to a samba. Playing Chaffee’s linear exercises to funk tracks, Wilcoxon’s exercises to 2nd line tracks, or Syncopation exercises to McCoy/Elvin, brings them to life and unearths solid phrasing and feel possibilities. The player might even strengthen a style without knowing it.
I believe that this is perhaps the most important aspect of becoming a successful working drummer. Developing a broad knowledge of styles allows one to play in a variety of musical settings. However, this takes in-depth study of each style, understanding that each one will resonate differently with each player. Suffice it to say, whatever style you explore, do your homework and dig deep. Extensive listening and analysis are necessary. At the end of the day, each player will most likely have a passion for a certain style of music. The thing about styles is that they’re constantly changing and morphing into hybrid styles, or combinations of many styles and influences. Great players are constantly coming up with completely new takes on grooves, so pay attention and experiment.
- Essential Styles for the Drummer and Bassist (Alfred) 1990 – Houghton/Warrington
- Essential Styles II for the Drummer and Bassist (Alfred) 1992 –Houghton/Warrington
NOTE: I was very fortunate to teach alongside Michael Spiro at Indiana University, one of the greatest scholars/educators/performers of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music in the world. To have that knowledge “next door” was great for me and my drum set students, providing us with a broad and very authentic concept for those important musical cultures.
A comprehensive study of chart reading is necessary if the player wants to compete in the area of big bands, live shows, pops orchestras, and studio work. The ability to read also opens up the world of drum set books, which speeds up and expands the learning process. An entire menu of musicality can be unleashed through chart reading, including styles, comping, sectionalizing, setups, dynamics, phrasing, shaping, interaction, blend, and intensity levels.
As I like to say: Reading is not seasonal! (I haven’t read in months) It demands constant maintenance and upkeep. I stress reading something every day, even if for just 15 minutes. Keeping the eyes and brain active is vital. The player must keep their chart reading sensibilities on high alert.
Mantra: Any figure/any style/any tempo
- Catalog of setups
- Make good musical decisions
- Can’t sing-can’t play
- Chart management
Studio and Big Band Drumming (C. L. Barnhouse) 1985 – Houghton
The Ultimate Drumset Chart Reading Anthology (Alfred) 1998 – Houghton
A thorough exploration of soloing concepts, including trading (all styles and tempos), playing over vamps, playing over kicks, melodic soloing, playing over the form or the harmonic rhythm, will lead to a broad solo concept. This process should include transcriptions (all styles) and analysis of a wide variety of old and new drummers. Becoming an effective soloist is an ongoing and never-ending process. The current trend of playing over loops and ostinatos should be a part of the study. This would include loops in all styles, tempos, and odd time signatures.
The Drumset Soloist (Warner Bros.) 1996 – Houghton
It is extremely important to understand how actual performance works on the bandstand or in the studio and to be aware of how you are impacting the performance. Being totally in the moment and conscious of all essential elements of the music is what I call the “W’s” (who, what, when, where, why). Being aware of all the different aspects of performance will help hone musical decision-making and better shape the performance. Also, the complete understanding of bandstand mechanics such as synergy between players, intensity levels, dynamics, song development, intros and endings, soloist support, song forms, harmonic rhythm, pedals, stylistic subtleties and adjustments, band time, and the band eighth note, are just a few of the musical items that one must be aware of at all times. Finally, inventing hybrid styles “in the heat of battle” and executing arranging concepts “on the fly” is very commonplace.
Studio work and live shows have been a valuable part of my career, as they demand consistency, good drum sounds, reading, simplicity, stylistic diversity and awareness, flexibility, solid time, listening, and excellent ears. Therefore, it is an important part of my teaching curriculum. As they say, “the tape doesn’t lie.” I find that listening back to your performance or even reviewing a recorded lesson or rehearsal is the most efficient way to make quick adjustments.
For a drummer to really embrace and understand some of the pivotal drumming figures of the past as well as the new heroes, there needs to be some in-depth research and analysis. This would include extensive listening, transcribing of time keeping and soloing, and, of course, actual playing “in the style” of any particular drummer. Over time, this type of focused work results in developing a much more versatile skill set in terms of time keeping, soloing, sound, style, and tune learning. During a semester of collegiate study, I would have my students select a drummer on which to do a “deep dive” and prepare a “drummer report” to be presented to the studio.
In my teaching, I had a number of vital topics, artists, and styles that I would cover with each student in an order that was appropriate to that student. The topic areas included:
- Jazz triplets
- Mel Lewis
- Tony Williams/Elvin Jones
- Philly Joe Jones/Max Roach
- Steve Gadd/David Garibaldi
- ECM/ Broken Swing
A critical part of becoming a competent and complete musician is to have the ability to listen to music and hear harmony, melody, form, interaction, bass lines, blend, dynamics, intensity levels, rhythm section strategies, and player synergy. In other words, listening far beyond just the drum part—hearing and understanding the big picture. I’ve always felt that a player’s ears must be their best assets. A solid listening strategy must be developed to learn tunes, forms, styles, and important bands and artists. Hearing the music from top to bottom is imperative.
Over the years, my tune knowledge has come primarily from singers performing the music of the great songwriters such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and the Great American Songbook.
However, learning the vast and continually changing jazz repertoire is an area of jazz education that can feel impossible to conquer. I have approached this by dividing our huge and varied collection of music by composers and/or bandleaders. Sorting in that way can make the job feel more manageable. It seems essential to identify the “top ten tunes” (most well-known or popular) from a variety of artists. This can be an effective way of building a musical foundation and learning the jazz repertoire, which, again, is always evolving and growing. A very small sampling of such artists includes:
- Bill Evans
- Chick Corea
- John Coltrane
- Miles Davis
- Herbie Hancock
- Joe Henderson
- Wayne Shorter
- Thelonius Monk
- Charlie Parker
- Antonio Carlos Jobim
- Freddie Hubbard
- Pat Metheny
Another approach to tune learning would be to address specific styles and/or tempos (e.g., ballads, medium swing, up-tempo swing, Bossa, Samba).
Effective practice does play a key role in your development and, indeed, your future. Discipline is one of the keys to practice. The biggest hurdles to overcome are burnout and staying inspired to practice every day, to continue attacking your weaknesses; not just playing for fun.
- Create daily, weekly, and semester goals.
- Develop your own exercises and experiment.
- Play the music you really love, both live and through recordings.
- Identify a goal and accomplish it by creating relevant musical projects.
- Small victories should be a regular occurrence.
Over the past 10 years, music has been a centerpiece on the Internet and social media. Ideally, having the ability to create your own songs and videos in a home studio is a true asset, if not a necessity.
The simple fact is that a drummer who writes their own music has more of a stake in the musical content/direction of the group. Even being an active collaborator makes you more than just a sideman drummer. In addition, composing forces the player to think about much more than just the drum part,
leading to a better sense of form, melody, rhythm, harmony, style, flow, and song writing. These elements are all essential aspects of becoming a quality musician.
I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of several communities during my time in music, including North Texas, Disney, PAS, Jazz Educators Network (JEN), and Los Angeles studio players and jazz community. I worked hard to create a supportive and collegial Indiana University jazz/percussion community with everyone rooting for one another, both in good times and in difficult times. “Drumming Happy Hour” was our weekly masterclass; it was a wonderful way for me to present topics and also feature the students. To prepare students as future clinicians, I insisted that each student cover a topic where they would play, teach, and prepare a “handout.” In addition, bi-weekly studio breakfast gatherings, morning hands workouts, house concerts or jams, or even a movie and trivia game hang were common occurrences. It indeed “takes a village.”
This is an activity that took place at the end of the semester of my collegiate teaching. The student was asked to document everything that was discussed in lessons during the semester with a detailed analysis of the progress made in each area. In addition, I asked for a summary of activities in combo, big band, and outside gigs. Finally, a “to do” list for goals for next semester. The result was a very positive, comprehensive, and somewhat surprising document that inevitably showed tremendous growth and progress, complete with a roadmap for the future.
In closing, I hope that these thoughts, insights, and ideas may help you as a player or teacher. Start to stack up those “small victories” and be open to everything. Don’t forget to enjoy life along the way.
NOTE: I would like to sincerely thank my companies, Yamaha, Zildjian, Vic Firth, and Remo, for their continued support and dedication to percussion education and performance around the globe. I’m also grateful to have worked with some very special friends throughout the last 45 years.
Armand Zildjian, Vic Firth, Remo Belli, Lennie DiMuzio, John Wittmann, Craigie Zildjian, Neil Larrivee, Mark Wessels, Joe Testa, Carol Calato, Jim Coffin, Johnny Lee Lane, Sandy Feldstein and Dave Black.
- Different Paths
- The Dallas Sessions
- Inside the Teaching Studio
- Steve Houghton: Percussion Artist, Pedagogue, and Leader By James Robert Pendell, BM, MM
- Tanner Guss podcast… The Happy Musicians: 025 Steve Houghton – Measuring Progress, Finding Your Niche, and Improving College Music Programs
- Discussions in Percussion Damon Grant