When I was a hard-core competition drummer, an up-and-coming serious competitor who was building a cadre of drummers who could do amazing things, I was a jerk. At least as far as some people were concerned.

I was busy with band practices on Sundays, for 5 hours, and two weeknights – one for my band and one for the student band. Then another night each week, I taught private lessons. Another night every other week, I taught group or sectional lessons. The other night I did yard work, house work, and whatever else needed to be done that I had time to do. Because when weekends rolled around during the “competition season” I was leaving town Friday afternoon for a Games or Festival on Saturday.

All that work paid off. We won a lot of contests, I collected a stack of trophies and, in time, prize money from professional solo contests. People in other bands looked at us and shook their heads in amazement how we could win so consistently. We talked of the hours of practice we put in – individually and as sections and as a band.

As time went on, people wanted lessons from me. If they were not interested in getting up to competition standard then the answer was flat-out “no.” I did not have time. My very limited resources were being put into getting people to play very well, very quickly – and maintain my own level of play as well. I demanded much from my students and from myself.

The people who were turned down walked away not understanding why I was not interested in helping people who wanted to play drums, particularly in pipe bands, for fun.  A fair number decided I was not a nice person and rather a jerk. There were other words spoken of and to me, but this is the “G-Rated” version of the story.

As time went on, the workshops blended together. The years and contests and games blended one into another. I made many friends – became acquainted with a fair number of good folk and scoundrels. There were some memorable times – and evenings. Bottles passing around the circle, stories being told. Some of them were true, I suspect.

Some of these good people I still stay in contact with.

When the time came that I hang up my competitive kilt and drum sticks, I found I had time for other things. I took to teaching a broader variety of drumming styles. Jazz, blues, interesting mixes of styles and techniques for people who wanted to learn. I found myself teaching drums at a music shop in town, in addition to the “day job” of software.

Some people were not impressed and moved on. That is normal. Some stayed and took lessons for many years and got very good indeed. I found myself digging into the archives of my memory, finding notes and ideas from my teachers many years before. I passed on techniques to those who could learn and then master them. I did my best to honor the memory of my teachers by sharing their lessons with students born years after my teachers had died.

I did less and less with competitive pipe bands. Time moved on. For several years,  my contact with pipe bands was limited to phone calls or emails from former students calling to share their success at some major contest or other. Part of me missed the comradely good-fellowship. I know my lady-wife missed a fair number of our friends made over the years whom we’d see every weekend – or more often. I did as well.

A funny thing happened.

I found I could work in the garden and enjoy it – without the pressure of getting it done TODAY because tomorrow I was leaving for… somewhere. I found there was a life beyond competition pipe bands.

My lady-wife and I began going to some of the contests and festivals and games just to socialize and see old friends. I rather jokingly became a member of what I termed the “pith helmet highlanders” – the folks sitting around the beer tent at festivals wearing bits of band kit pontificating on how easy bandsmen had it these days… and regaling any and all and sundry with “Back in MY day…” stories.

At one of these local festivals, the lady-wife looked around and asked “Where are all the elders?” We had become the elders. I was now one of the people that young drummers approached with a mix of depredation and awe offering a beer in exchange for a tidbit of advice on how they could get better. I recognized them because I had done the same thing myself many years before.

My students now had students – and they were the ones who came up and asked – “Excuse me, are you Mr. Walen?” “Hi, I’m Pete, who do you play with? I’m very pleased to meet you…”

Now, it has been over a year since I’ve even been to a festival. And another funny thing has happened. I have people from local community pipe bands asking if I can teach their drummers. Instead of sending them packing, as I would have 15 or 20 years ago, we talk about how many drummers they have and when does the band meet for practices.

It has been several years since I taught at a music store. And I’m back to teaching private lessons one night a week in my kitchen – a classic location for pipe band lessons: the kitchen table.

Except, I’m not working on the fine points of some technique question. I’m not working with students struggling with a phrase in the 4th part of Alex Duthart’s score for “Lord Alexander Kennedy.” I’m working with people who want to learn the basics of playing with a pipe band so they can play parades and the occasional “Celtic Festival.” No competition stress. No emphasizing the need to play scores of a given difficulty.

Instead, I’m helping them reach the goals they have for their drumming – play at a reasonable level of competence and not embarrass themselves in front of other pipe bands. I’m helping them reach the goals they need to reach to be successful in the measures that matter to them and their bands.

Are they ever going to compete at the highest levels of competition for the World Championship title as some of my former band mates and students do? Almost certainly not.

But, they can play at functions for the Legion or FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) and have people thank them for playing and complement them for sounding so good.

In doing so, I am giving them a foundation to grow on – if they choose to. I am giving them the technique and the vocabulary they need to continue their education and development in a manner that makes sense to them.

Along the way, I can gently guide people from “this is how we did it in marching band” (either school or university) to “this is how pipe bands do it and here is how they developed differently, and why.”

I give them the context for the differences. I teach them the reasons for the differences in technique and approach – and the history behind how the differences developed. These are not “good” or “bad” approaches. They are different.

A couple of police officers I am teaching drums – part of the fledgling local police pipe band – pushed back at one point. Both had played drums in high school marching band, one with a local university marching band. We talked about the differences and I demonstrated what the differences actually were – One was amazed. He mentioned his instructor and said he had simply said “Do it this way, because this is the right way to do it.”

I smiled and said “He was a student of mine several years ago.” His jaw dropped. I did not say how sad I was that this student had learned so little from me.

When we do not take the time to explain why we do things the way we do, can we really expect people to take us seriously? Are we not like the people spreading some “teachings” about “This is right and everyone else is an idiot, block-headed, dim-witted and wrong” whether it is drumming, religion or testing?

No matter if it is the 57,356th time we explain something to someone – it is likely the first time they have heard the explanation. Do we not owe it to them to educate and no
t brow-beat them?

The drumming instructor I am today is more patient than the drumming instructor I was 20 years ago. That drumming instructor self really was a jerk. And a bit of an ass-hat.

I don’t need to be that way when it comes to explaining software testing, either.