Drummer Travels to China to Export Technique

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Sam Ruttenberg with Justin Faulkner
Sam Ruttenberg with Justin Faulkner, one of the hottest young jazz drummer’s on today’s scene. (Courtesy of Sam Ruttenberg)

“The grass is always greener on the other side,” said drummer and music educator Sam Ruttenberg about classical musicians who yearn to play jazz and vice versa.

Ruttenberg is about to find out if the grass is greener on the other side of the world, too.

Named one of the top drum teachers in the world by Modern Drummer magazine, Ruttenberg has many students who have gone on to acclaim as both jazz and classical music professionals.

Justin Faulkner, considered one of the best young drummers on today’s jazz scene, started studying at 12 with Ruttenberg at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School. And though Faulkner’s since gone on to Berklee College of Music and now plays and tours with Branford Marsalis, whenever anyone asks him where he learned to play drums, Faulkner’s answer is Sam Ruttenberg.

Now, the Nine Beats Education Institution for Modern Music in China is hoping Ruttenberg, 64, can be as successful teaching their students as he’s been with Faulkner and so many others in the Philadelphia area. With more than 1,000 campuses in 565 cities throughout the world’s largest country (by population), Nine Beats’ schools enroll more than 230,000 student musicians.

And they’re ambitious.

“They want to learn jazz, they want to learn classical, they want to learn everything,” said Ruttenberg, who studied for years with Dave Brubeck’s most well-known drummer, Joe Morello. “They have a thirst for knowledge. They want to learn the Western styles that they don’t have a lot of access to — funk and jazz and rock ’n’ roll.”

Ruttenberg’s itinerary and intended program will be similarly ambitious. Beginning in late November, Ruttenberg will start at the main branch in Beijing and hit several of the Nine Beats campuses over two-and-a-half weeks.

“We’re going to be doing performances, workshops, master classes and private lessons,” Ruttenberg said.

Traveling to China will also allow Ruttenberg to introduce an invention of his to the world’s largest consumer market.

Ruttenberg noticed for years that students often gripped their drumsticks too tightly. Not only did this result in drumming that sounded “very tense and very tight,” students would frequently complain of pain in their hands and arms that would sometimes lead to conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Ruttenberg knew the solution was to get his students to hold the sticks more loosely.

“The looser you hold the sticks, the faster you can play, the more smoothly you can play and the more facility you can have,” Ruttenberg said. This has become his gospel.

But how to reinforce proper technique?

If the hands weren’t going to properly manipulate the sticks, perhaps the sticks could manipulate the hands.

Enter HingeStix.

In creating HingeStix, Ruttenberg considered what the drummer’s hands should be doing and created that action inside the drumsticks. Put simply, he built a hinge inside the stick, “so when you throw it down, you can really see how it bounces back on its own.”

He built the prototypes and before too long the awards came, most notably first prize at the National Association of Musical Merchandising’s trade show and, with it, a sponsorship from drumstick giant Vic Firth.

Ruttenberg’s invention is now threatening to make a global brand out of Ruttenberg’s drumming pedagogy.

Ukranian drummer and educator Maksym Deomin, whose drumming school teaches more than 700 students in Kiev, has been one of the more vocal champions of HingeStix. When Ruttenberg heard about Deomin’s teaching philosophy of “letting gravity do the work,” he realized that, though separated by thousands of miles, their drumming philosophies were perfectly simpatico; they were like a couple of long-lost brothers finding each other, bound not by blood but by sound technique and musicianship.

A few years back, Deomin hosted Ruttenberg in Kiev, where the latter taught a series of workshops, making sure to tote his HingeStix along.

Now, one of Deomin’s former students is teaching at the Nine Beats schools in China and has invited the two of them to present to the legions of young drummers who study at campuses all over the country — or at least as many as they can get to in a couple weeks.

“Maksym and I have this idea, and this is really important, to impart to the young kids today the proper drumming education like I had when I was coming up.”

“Lessons off of YouTube — that’s all fine and everything, but having a proper teacher that’s there with you is really the key to a proper foundation and proper growth … that’s what I gave to Justin.”

For a musician who’s been educated by some of the best, the chance to export a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to this kind of audience presents an opportunity too big to pass up. Will the Chinese students and musical establishment take to Ruttenberg’s methodology? Confidence is high.

“I’m going to bring a bunch of HingeStix over there, and I know they’re going to see the benefits of using a loose grip and using gravity to your advantage instead of muscling the stick.”

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