Monday, May 16, 2011
Interview: drum author Joel Rothman
Joel Rothman is one of the more mysterious figures in the drumming world; he is an extremely prolific and widely-known author of of well over 100 drum books, over 70 of which are still in print, titles including the popular Mini Monster Book of Rock Drumming, and "the pink book", Basic Drumming (read my review), as well as the massive c. 2500 page "compleat" series of hard bound books. He has sold well over a million books through his publishing house, JR Publications. For other publishers he has also written approximately 35 humor books for both children and adults, a dozen or so hardcover children's books, as well as several crossword puzzle and quiz books. He has nevertheless remained largely unknown personally, keeping a very low profile into the Internet age, with virtually no personal information available on line.
Though published over a period of five decades or more, his books continue to be absolutely relevant, and are an important contribution to the literature of drumming. I'm not going to attempt to summarize such a large body of work, or analyze its appeal- I have several new reviews coming in the near future that will delve into that- but I'll say he investigates areas of drumming unexplored by others even today, dedicating entire books to very particular drumming problems- slow tempos, hi-hat splashes and endings, for example. Over the course of many volumes he has expanded upon the world Stone's Stick Control in ways not found in that book or in its other successors. He deals with more familiar material with a unique player's logic I believe is very well adapted to the practical needs of drummers. It is not difficult to fill many volumes with variations on familiar materials ("now play the accent on the LOW tom"), or by mindlessly reeling off mathematical/logical permutations, as many have done; so creating such a large volume of work of continuing value, with minimal redundancy, is a major writing feat. Writing even one good book is beyond the capability of most authors.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I contacted Mr. Rothman- I thought he might be very protective of his privacy- but he has turned out to be a very affable person with a fine sense of humor. Here he has very generously agreed to share the story of his life and business:
I'm 73 years young, but if there were 24 months in a year I'd only be 36 1/2. And in dog years I'm just over 10.
I was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1938. My mother understood me to be a musical prodigy, but she was wrong. I was much more than that- I was probably a total pain-in-the-a--.
Continue to the complete interview:
My folks were divorced, and I hardly saw my father who worked as a bellhop in resort areas. Although we were were quite poor, I spent summers with my dad in these resort hotels in the Catskill Mountain area where I got a chance to know the musicians. I even sang with some of them as a kid. Like most people who sing in the shower, I thought I could sing until I recorded myself on a tape recorder. After playing it back I decided never again to subject anyone to have to listen to me- I even gave up singing in the shower.
As a kid, my mother worked to support me and my brother, while my father was absent from the home and never sent anything for support. I always wanted to play an instrument- any instrument, but my mother couldn't afford to send me for lessons. I tried learning the uke and guitar on my own when I was 8 or 9. I took to them like a fish takes to air- they weren't for me. I listened for hours to my older brother's 78 rpm recordings, which consisted mostly of those great swing bands from the 30's and 40's with Krupa, Rich, and all the other great drummers.
When I was 10, I got a job before and after school delivering newspapers, then groceries and fruits. They say if you save a little money every week, by the end of the year you will have saved very little money. Well, by the end of the year I had saved very little money, but it was enough to buy a used drum set which was in the window of a local music shop- simply a bass and snare with some cymbals- it was terrible, but cheap. In any case I had no idea of what to look for or what represented good from bad. It was my first set and I was really happy to sit behind it and bang away. The neighbors weren't as happy. It was in the days when drumheads were made of skins. I tightened them a little too much, and when it turned cold and dry during the night the snare head split. You might say that was my first drum lesson. I did this without telling my mother, and when she came home and saw it sitting in the middle of the living room I almost had to pick her up from the floor and administer artificial respiration-- I couldn't afford the real thing.
Anyway, she knew I was musical and wanted to learn an instrument, so she gave in and didn't throw the set out the window, along with me. But if I wanted to learn it I would have to get a teacher and pay for the lessons myself since she could barely make ends meet in taking care of the bills for our apartment.
I continued to work so I had a little of my own money each week. I returned to the local music shop where they had a drum teacher named Billy Mochetto. The lessons were $3, and I took one every week for two years- thankfully he was a terrific teacher, and though he never knew it he was somewhat of a father figure since my own dad was never at home.
I must admit I became completely engrossed in the instrument, somewhat to the detriment of my school work. I went to school from 9-3, then worked until 6. I practiced 3-5 hours a night, and 6-8 hours each day on the weekends. My schoolwork suffered, but I got through. By the time I was thirteen I was playing with bands, and in the school orchestra. By 15 I started teaching privately and playing professionally almost every weekend, doing parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. As time went on I was subbing in some shows. All the while I was studying drums from the various teachers around town such as Jim Chapin, Sonny Igoe, Joe Morello, Ed Shaughnessey, Sam Ulano, Saul Goodman and others. Each was terrific in their own way, although I only took a few lessons from some.
There were many "aha" moments. The first that sticks in my mind was when I finally captured the bounce for double strokes. My first teacher didn't let me bounce the sticks for six months. He wanted me to have total control over wrist strokes without a bounce, making it impossible to achieve a closed roll. When he finally showed me the technique for bouncing I worked hours at it, but I couldn't seem to quite gain the control necessary to execute doubles with any speed. After about two months of frustration I woke up one morning, had breakfast, then went to my practice pad and started playing double strokes. All of a sudden it was like finally reaching the summit of a tall mountain after a long climb. The open double-stroke roll just flowed into my hands and I was able to achieve that machine gun effect with clarity and evenness- I had reached another plateau in the development of my technique.
That first teacher only used one basic book- the Buddy Rich book- he wrote out basic beats and things in a separate notebook. I must admit, I felt I was missing out on things, but I didn't know what- I was hungry to learn more, and more quickly. By chance I happened to meet Sam Ulano. He asked me if I could read. Since I understood the breakdown of rhythm, and could read through the Buddy Rich book at speed, I said, "Sure, of course I can read." He opened a drum book I had never before seen, counted off a tempo and said, "Read." It wasn't winter, but I froze. I had only read music from one book. Notes are notes, but I fell apart completely. That was another "aha" moment- I realized that although I understood the breakdown of rhythm, and could rapidly read the exercises from one book, I wasn't a fluent reader in any way.
For the next year I bought practically every drum book on the market and made sure I was able to read everything written. It was then that I understood in order to be a fluent reader you had to read loads of different material- not just the exercises from one book. I realized that developing true sight-reading skill was impossible with just one book. I also decided that to override any nervousness I would have to learn to read with much more speed than was required for a piece of music--that would give me some extra "breathing space" in case I had to sight- read something unfamiliar.
The next teacher I went to for just a couple of lessons was Ed Shaughnessy. I was just a kid, and I'm sure he would not recall the lessons. Anyway, he's a great player and teacher, and in the first lesson he played a recording with Peggy Lee. There was a very fast passage with syncopated rhythm, and I was unfamiliar with actual chart reading, having done all my previous practice from exercises in books. So that was another "aha" moment. There wasn't all that much around dealing with syncopation, and I was told that if there was not a drum part to try and read off the trumpet sheet since the drum often cut the figures together with the trumpet. With that I purchased a whole slew of trumpet books featuring syncopated rhythms, and practiced them over and over until I was able to play any kind of syncopation with speed and ease. Obviously, I made sure I had control over dynamics as I read.
Saul Goodman introduced me to more classical reading, and in time I got to the point where I could finally read charts with a band as well as the classical snare repertoire with an orchestra. Morello introduced me to the finger technique, and Chapin showed me the Moeller method( which didn't suit me). All the teachers were great, each in their own way, and I tried to take the aspects of their teaching I felt I needed and might incorporate. I also went to some teachers who were not as renowned, but played around town for a living. I studied piano, vibes and timps as well.
After studying drums for only a year I started to teach private students in my area after I finished my own job delivering fruits and vegetables for a grocery store. Naturally I used the exact material that was being used by my first teacher with me, but I soon discovered that each student had their owns particular difficulty, not covered in a book. So like any teacher, I started writing out exercises from my head that would help the student with their individual problem. In time I gathered a whole book of my own exercises and began formulating ideas for a series of books covering topics not covered in existing books. Remember, at the time there were only a handful of drum books on the market compared to today, so there may have been more of a chance for a new book to be seen and used.
At 16 I wrote my first book entitled PHRASING DRUM SOLOS. I was advised to publish it myself, which I did. I followed that up with SWINGING IN 3/4 TIME, then READING CAN BE ODD. Those books are no longer in print. I spent hours in the NY library looking through the yellow pages of every city in the US. I was able to get the names and phone numbers of various teachers who advertised, then I phoned them and sent free sample copies of my books. They were able to recommend other teachers, and I followed those teachers up with a phone call, then sent free samples. In time I graduated from university and began teaching in the NYC school system. Over the next 20 years I built up a mailing list of over 2000 teachers across the US. At the same time I visited all the music stores and distributors in NYC- most were very nice to me and bought my publications.
I wrote the initial books by hand, then went to a music typesetter. I also contacted a graphic artist named Bob Blansky, and he did most of my covers in the 60's and 70's. After editing all the words and music, I took the manuscript and art work for the cover to a printer. It was as simple as that- I was saving every cent possible until I had enough to print my first book. After that I took every music gig and private student that came my way- I also continued to work after school in a book shop. Every cent I made went into publishing new books.
For the first five years I was lucky if I broke even. Self-publishing is not easy- it's time-consuming and costly, but I fervently believed in what I was doing- that my books had a place in the market, and that they were either totally original or an improvement on what was around. I had faith in myself, and through time-consuming hard work in writing and promoting the books they gradually seeped into the market- more and more teachers began using individual titles. I must say it was pretty thrilling to attack my mailbox every morning to find a handful of orders from all across the US. It had nothing at all to do with making money, which didn't happen for a long time-- it was the fact that my work was being recognized and used by professionals thousands of miles away that I never even met. Everything I made was poured back into publishing and promoting new books.
BASIC DRUMMING and THE MINI MONSTER BOOK OF ROCK DRUMMING are my two most successful books, but some of my slower-selling books, to my mind, represent some of my best and most original writing. In time other authors started sending their manuscripts to me, and I published books for them that I felt I would never write, and would help to extend and round off my catalog. Several times I published books knowing they wouldn't sell simply because I felt they were a contribution to the literature and should be out there for the handful of drummers who might want and need them. I'd like to believe that part of my legacy has been to produce work that has been a significant contribution to the percussion community.
I think that one of my strengths is an organizational skill, and I hope that comes across in the way I organize the material in my books. I try to move from simple to complex in a clear and logical manner, with little in the way of word explanation. I prefer to make the exercises so clear that they speak for themselves, without the need of me being too wordy. I've also tried to produce books that are practical and applicable. Obviously some exercises will be more practical than others, but on the whole I think I have met my objective.
In the beginning (and I don't mean to sound likes it's in the biblical sense), I wasn't making any money because I underpriced my books in order to help get them into the market, which was a big mistake. In the intervening years the cost of production jumped sky high and I had to restructure my pricing, especially since I have to pay a big chunk to my distributor for holding all stock and keeping records of all sales- and that's on top of the discount schedule that's offered. Setup charges for just typing the manuscript can now be as high as $20-50 per page depending on the complexity of the music and the time it takes to do the page. Then there's the actual cost of printing. Postage charges for sending out a couple of thousand free sample copies runs into thousands, and all this is before I sell one book. My break even point may not be for years, and maybe never, especially for those books that I put out with the full knowledge that they are not commercially viable. But I do it anyway to make sure I have a body of work that covers mostly everything.
For instance, any jazz book is almost doomed to failure before it gets off the ground- there is very little call for a jazz book in this world of rock. Even with the high retail price of the books today, my actual profit may be no more than 10%, and I'm talking about the books that actually make money, because there are books that have never paid me back my basic cost to put them out. I never went into this because of any financial reward I thought might come of it- like most writers of any kind of book, they get an idea they feel is worthwhile, spend time cultivating the idea into a book, and have hope that their work will be recognized. Naturally, they might hope their work will bring income, but that is not the initial impetus for producing the work. I do believe this to be absolutely true for most creative writers in any genre.
Between the ages of 13 and 39 I was working 25 hours a day, eight days a week- going to school, practicing three instruments, teaching privately, playing gigs, writing, editing, publishing and promoting my books. During that time I was married at 22, had two kids, then divorced at 29 (not unlike many other young men and women at the time). My wife and I have remained good friends until this day. I remarried at 35, and my second wife died. My first wife was Venezuelan, and decided to return to her home in Caracas, so my two children lived between us for a year at a time during which I was awarded the bachelor father of the year- just kidding. At the age of 39 I decided to leave my post teaching in school- I had taught for 15 years so my pension was vested. I traveled to London with the idea of promoting my publications throughout Europe. EMI, one of the large English music companies took over the promotion and distribution of the books in the UK and the rest of Europe, so there was no need for me to have to travel and meet drum teachers in other countries. To make a long story short, and by this time I'm sure you'll be grateful for that, I wound up marrying an English woman and making my home in London where I now reside.
I have a large teaching practice, mostly of advanced students and professional players who come to me from all over Europe. Although I no longer gig, aside from teaching and writing books, believe it or not I did a stint as a standup comic- it was the hardest thing I ever undertook. Trying to make someone laugh is not easy. I gave that up after a year. Without going into a lengthy explanation, I also became involved in selling antiques. So my life is now teaching, writing, publishing, buying and selling antiques and thinking of jokes to make my wife laugh. I travel to California to see my son who's a lawyer in SF, and see my two granddaughters 16 and 18. I also travel to NY to visit my daughter who was previously a research scientist, but is now a very talented novelist and a stay-at-home mom for my twin grandkids six years old- a boy and a girl.
Joel asked me to include his contact information, so feel free to contact him with any questions, or to set up a teacher account, or (especially) to express your appreciation for his work and contribution to the literature of drumming.
Contact Joel Rothman.
Joel Rothman's books are distributed by Charles Dumont & Son, Inc.
Browse Joel Rothman titles at Steve Weiss Music.