Enter The Master’s Cellar…
As mentioned in my biography pages, I connected with the near-legendary Dave Hassell at a time in my life when it was unclear whether or not there would be a future for me playing drums. After Tendonitis in my right hand made its unwelcome presence felt, every gig was played with the fear that it would show itself again at the most inopportune of moments. Thanks to a chance moment in October 1995, on a coach back from the Birmingham hosted ‘Zildjian Day’, my future drumming prospects were about to get a lot better – as long I was prepared to put the work in. It was London drummer Andy Willis (resident in Liverpool at the time), who suggested that my problems could almost certainly be cured by Royal Northern College of Music percussion tutor, Dave Hassell, infamous for not suffering fools or idle students. Drinking in the last chance saloon, the prospect of taking instruction from an ogre was the least of my worries so I didn’t hesitate in seeking a rendezvous.
Entering the cellar of Dave Hassell for the first, an aura of mysterious bohemia hit me; unaccustomed as I was to being surrounded by vintage drum and percussion equipment, flanked by a perimeter of wall-to-wall books and hours of vinyl. Within 10 minutes, Dave deduced that my Tendonitis problems stemmed from 14 years of poor hand technique, focusing specifically on my grip. Whereas I was able to draw the sticks from his hands at any point whilst he was playing on a practice pad, he practically had to wrench them from my hands, as though they were joined to me in a desperate act of life-support. The truth was, all those years of superglue grip had done nothing more than to serve me a slow meal of death-by-tension. It was time to change things; but this was to be a personal journey comparable to no other I had taken.
Healing my hands would necessitate a process of throwing away everything previously learned about physically playing the drums and then reprogramming me. Thus started my fortnightly visits where I would be shown the methods of Sanford Moeller, Henry Adler and George Lawrence Stone. My homework involved a lot of sitting in front of a large mirror with sticks and practice pad, slowly performing unfamiliar, exaggerated hand and arm exercises, so my brain rewired itself to the new movements. Most importantly, my hands would learn a seemingly unfeasible method of holding drum sticks without involving any grip. The combination of taking on Dave’s physical and mental concepts would tear my head apart, exacerbated by the necessity to keep playing my instrument in a professional capacity whilst trying to implement drastic changes.
After many frustrating months of homework practice sessions (“little and often”), my next goal was to concentrate on achieving dynamics within performance. The concept of ‘bandwidth’ in music was introduced, analogous to the natural act of talking. If we use our voice in everyday situations to whisper, speak and shout, then why should we approach playing music differently? A simple but obvious concept; yet overlooked by so many (including myself) who limit themselves to speaking with only one voice on a musical instrument. The hardest part of using the ‘bandwidth’ theory within real-world musical situations is having the facility to execute it. Before studying with Dave, my ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach had confined me to playing drums at a singular dynamic. Once I had crossed the line and started playing as ‘new me’, the door opened to a reality where it was possible to play at a ‘normal’ level, whilst retaining the ability to turn up the volume – or take it right down, as the music required. Not only was my Tendonitis history, I had gained the ability to respond dynamically to music, no matter how loud or quiet the situation. For want of a better word, it was a feeling of ‘rebirth’; emerging from a dark tunnel at the end of which, Dave Hassell stood with a lantern.
Stories and myths have proliferated over the years regarding Dave’s teaching techniques; yes, he’s a hard task master; but for the student who wants to make the change, who wants to put the gruelling work in, he will reward them as he puts it, by “opening doors into dark rooms and switching the lights on.” Although it’s been quite a few years since I visited his teaching cellar, the fact remains; without his tutelage and life-changing remedy, there would be no ‘me’ playing drums today. If you don’t believe a teacher can be that influential, just ask anyone who’s studied under him and come out the other end a better musician. The list is impressive.
In conclusion, my favourite piece of advice that Dave passes on to students goes something like:
Learning is like crossing the Sahara desert. If you look at it and say, ‘Right, I’m going to cross that desert’, you’re really going to be thinking, ‘No I’m not’. But if you say, ‘No, we’ll just go a hundred yards today and make camp, we’ll enjoy the scenery; then a hundred yards the next day…’ then you’ll make it.